I wangled my way into being a music writer back at the end of the 1960s, which turned out to be the greatest musical decade of all time. At something of a handicap to the revolution, I was in Invercargill and a cadet reporter on the Southland Times, a daily newspaper at the outer edge of the civilised world.
It was a long way from Carnaby Street and San Francisco. It was also a long way from Auckland but I had to work with what was available. There was page devoted to local music each week in my newspaper’s Saturday evening sports edition I set my sights on.
And, after a certain amount of persistence, there I was, aged about 18, filling a page each week with stories about the glories of rock and roll, local, national and international.
I reviewed records as if I knew what was what. I arrived just in time to pass judgement on the last Beatles album and hail several Invercargill bands as the next great thing. Some of them had great names. One was called Judas Embrace, another A Gentle Feeling and yet another the Unknown Blues, who played only songs by England’s Pretty Things, who had played a memorable show in Invercargill.
But generally, not many major bands ever made it all the way down to us. Though I did also see the La De Das at a sweaty Centennial Hall and I’d seen the Rolling Stones play the Civic Theatre when I was 14 and heard them call us a bunch of “sheep shearers” when the crowd kept shouting for Roy Orbison, who’d been on before them to come back and do Only the Lonely again.
Once I had my hands on that music page, I enthusiastically attempted to interview any New Zealand bands who made it to town, poor devils. They may have been surprised by such attention. I vaguely recall The Fourmyula, The Chicks and Shane and a band called The Challenge. I attempted to interview all five of The Challenge (including a young Ricky Ball, later of Hello Sailor) at once in the house bar at the city’s top hotel of the time, the Don Lodge.
And I took the local bands pretty seriously too. Here’s something from May, 1969:
“There was a disappointing attendance last Friday when A Gentle Feeling played at the first showing in Invercargill of The Beatles’ full-length cartoon ‘Yellow Submarine’.
“Although the group was not up to its usual standard on a few of their songs, they put up a pretty solid performance and managed to fill the theatre with sound.
“A Gentle Feeling are improving all the time and their original and polished performances make them one of the outstanding local groups.”
And I reviewed records too. The record companies in Auckland and Wellington mainly sent me the records no-one else wanted and I took the new Lothar and the Hand People album as seriously as I took the debut solo by Neil Young. There weren’t many New Zealand records to review in those days.
When I left Invercargill for a job with the NZ Herald in far-off Auckland, I had to leave the music writing behind. Despite my cunning persuasions, the Herald wasn’t about to let me review rock records in their hallowed columns.
And, anyway, newspapers in those days weren’t very interested in pop bands and such. Tickets for shows by the big visiting bands were often up for grabs in exchange for a review, banged out back at the office afterwards. Just a few hundred words. Rarely a photo and never a mention of the local band playing support.
But by the late ‘70s, I was in the right place at the write time after I slipped moorings from the Herald and boarded the Auckland Star, though the Star’s golden days were past by then. Being the zesty afternoon opposition to the stuffy, unstoppable NZ Herald wasn’t working out too well.
Circulation was falling and advertising departing, but instead of causing gloom and even more drinking than usual, the paper’s editorial department was a gleeful place wide open to ideas, in fact almost anything that might help keep those readers reading.
They even started a daily entertainment section they insisted on calling Scene and, despite my misgivings about the name, I joined the merry band running it. We were a little unstoppable and we made up our own rules as we went along.
We started taking local bands as seriously as we did the visiting ones. I started a singles review column, mixing up local releases with foreign and often getting quite overheated about things. Here’s something from June, 1979, a review of “Give It A Whirl” by Split Enz:
“Love this one. This band has so much going for it, the fact that mindless riff re-runners like Foreigner are huge and Enz ain’t makes me want to spit tacks. IS THERE NO JUSTICE? From the pens of the Finn brothers and the voice of Neil, a wondrous amalgam of 80-foot power chords and single-minded melody”
Rip It Up was taking local music seriously too of course – and had been since 1977, but the Auckland Star had the circulation, we could get reviews in the day after the show, interview Iggy Pop, The Clash, Ian Dury, whoever came to town and put that in the paper alongside a review of Street Talk at the Gluepot or Toy Love at the Windsor Castle.
Soon there were so many bands advertising their gigs we ran them all altogether and called it the “Gig Guide”.
The advertising manager liked us, while the editor, bless him, never did understand what we were up to, but he knew a popular thing when he saw it and left us alone to get on with whatever it was we were getting on with.
(to be continued)