Tag Archives: New Zealand

Rocks In The Attic #723: Billy T. James – ‘Billy T. Live At ‘Pips’’ (1985)

RITA#723Billy T. James is one of the original national treasures of New Zealand, a club comedian from the cabaret circuit who became a household name for his long-running TV sketch comedy.

This live LP from 1985 finds him in fine form. Recorded at ‘Pips’ in Whangarei and backed by a live band, his act shows how much of an all-round entertainer he is. Opening with a performance of Lionel Ritchie’s Running With The Night, the audience seem reserved at first before he starts to win them over with his stand-up.

Being half-Maori and half-Scottish (“I’m half Maori and half Scots. Half of me wants to go to the pub and get pissed, and the other half doesn’t want to pay for it”) most of his material revolves around being from a racial minority, and all other minorities – Chinese, Japanese, gays (“poofs”), immigrants – are fair game. Different times, and all that.

I first laughed out loud at a routine in which he did an note-perfect impression of Bunny Wailer singing She’s A Lady for a TV commercial, with the lyrics changed to:

Well she’s all you’d ever want / She’s the kind they’d like to flaunt and take to dinner / She’s got style, she’s got grace / She’s got herpes on her face…

In 1988, Billy T. suffered a heart attack and underwent a quadruple bypass, followed by one of the first heart transplants in New Zealand. While the operation was initially a success – leading to a return to the stage in 1990 – his health deteriorated and died from heart failure in 1991.

Since arriving in New Zealand over ten years ago, I’ve found much of the art and culture here is a watered-down version of what I knew from the UK (and in some cases, the USA). Billy T. is a different prospect though – he’s naturally funny, and the equal of the great British comedians of the 1970s and 1980s.

Hit: Running With The Night

Hidden Gem: The Band

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Rocks In The Attic #703: Split Enz – ‘True Colours’ (1980)

RITA#703Every country has their local heroes, the ones who are winners back home but never even compete overseas. A third of the WTF With Marc Maron podcast is frequented by American comedians nobody has heard of outside the United States. There are bands in London that don’t translate well outside the capital, let alone across its country’s borders.

It’s the Wakanda Curse. Some artists just struggle to get noticed through the cultural cloaking device that prevents other countries from taking them seriously. Black Panther could have been kicking arse for decades, but nobody noticed. His solo material just wasn’t up to snuff.

New Zealand has its fair share of parochial examples. There are comedians, such as the 7 Days crew, who don’t dare gig internationally. Better to roll out the same tired jokes on TV, week in, week out, than be faced with the fact that, compared to international comics, they’re just not very good. They must really shit themselves when the International Comedy Festival hits the country. But hang on, half of the ‘international’ comedians that come over here are just as unwanted in their native countries, like a really shit student-exchange programme where your homestay parents don’t understand any of your cultural references.

And New Zealand music? The most successful band on a global stage seems to be Crowded House, and even they seem to have been appropriated by the Australians. First pavlova, then our middle-of-the-road rock bands!

The problem is that most Kiwis don’t ever leave our shores, so they don’t know any different. They probably think Dave Dobbyn is a mainstay of British and American singles charts. The Nature’s Best collection is a great retrospective of New Zealand anthems, but nobody’s singing these songs past our passport control point.

And shame on you if you do succeed internationally. Lorde? Aldous Harding? How dare you play overseas festivals! How dare you play Later With Jools Holland. This isn’t good old fashioned Kiwi music. It doesn’t sound anything like that one song by Dragon, or Hello Sailor’s horrific cod-reggae song.

Split Enz are a great band though, and deserve way more worldwide recognition than they got. This, their fifth studio album, is widely regarded as their first commercial success. File next to the Police, Blondie and Talking Heads.

Hit: I Got You

Hidden Gem: The Choral Sea

Rocks In The Attic #545: Tony Hancock – ‘The Blood Donor / The Radio Ham’ (1961)

RITA#545.jpgIt’s blood donation season in New Zealand at the moment, but again I’m not allowed to donate. Having lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996, I’m considered Moo Positive, at risk of contracting Mad Cow Disease.

And Tony Hancock thought he had a problem. At least he could donate, not that he really wanted to…

Hit: The Blood Donor

Hidden Gem: The Radio Ham

Rocks In The Attic #479: Jack Roberts – ‘Piano At Waitangi’ (1974)

RITA#479There must have been a bit of artistic drought in the mid-70s in provincial New Zealand. It’s the only way I can understand how an aging pianist at a resort hotel in the Bay Of Islands could have landed a record deal, with Pye Records no less.

It sounds like something out of a film. Mild-mannered Jack Roberts, sat there playing piano schmaltz to honeymooning couples on a wet Tuesday night in June, looks up to see a record company executive waiting to shake his hand. He’s there on a holiday with his estranged wife, making one last bid at saving their marriage. Mr. Bigwig introduces himself, and in an attempt to show-off to his wife, he asks the night’s entertainment what he thinks about making a record.

RITA#479aOr something like that.

Good on Jack though.

The thing I like the best about this record is the cover photos of the Waitangi Resort Hotel and its environs. Alongside the obligatory photos of Jack next to the piano, there are seven photos of a young couple enjoying the hotel and its facilities. It’s the same couple in each photo, which makes it feel like they’re the hotel’s only residents. Only a distant barman in one of the shots gives the impression that they’re not completely alone in this Overlook Hotel nightmare. I wonder who they are. Maybe it’s the guy from Pye records and his wife?

Hit: Alfie

Hidden Gem: Lara’s Theme

Rocks In The Attic #443: Johnny Cash – ‘At San Quentin’ (1969)

RITA#443Good old Granada Television. When I was growing up, ITV and its regional satellite broadcaters like Granada TV, were always viewed as the poor cousin of the BBC. The Beeb was high-brow where ITV was very much low-brow; all adverts and poor-quality viewing.

Since living in New Zealand for the last seven years, I’ve really changed my opinion of ITV and especially Granada. You think you’ve seen bad television? Come and watch New Zealand programming for an evening or two. I always say that this country only gets its culture from the dairy industry; they definitely don’t get it from the television networks.

No ITV, no Seven Up. No Granada, no Sex Pistols performing Anarchy In The UK on Tony Wilson’s So It Goes.

Cash’s San Quentin concert was filmed by Granada too. So, no Granada, no infamous image of Johnny Cash flipping the bird to the camera.

RITA#443aI’d give my right arm to sit for an evening and watch the ITV news, followed by the local news presented by Gordon Burns. Then, while I’m thinking of Gordon Burns, maybe an episode of The Krypton Factor, followed by Coronation Street, and then who knows what.

It’s funny the things you miss.

Hit: I Walk The Line

Hidden Gem: Wanted Man

Rocks In The Attic #442: Darcy Clay – ‘Jesus I Was Evil’ (1997)

RITA#442Darcy Clay’s star had burnt out long before I arrived in New Zealand. Like most immigrants who arrived here in the twenty first century, I know Jesus I Was Evil from its token inclusion on the Nature’s Best collection. I missed the bus (and the buzz) when he was alive.

I therefore know very little about Clay. There isn’t much to know anyway – six songs on this 1997 EP (recently re-released to celebrate bFM’s 45th birthday), a slot supporting Blur in the same year, and a bullet to the head shortly after (the night before he was due to play at a suicide awareness concert).

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Darcy Clay

I really didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the EP. Would it be as lo-fi and catchy as Jesus I Was Evil? The answer is a resounding yes – even Clay’s cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene manages to sound like it was recorded on the fly. He might have his detractors for not being able to play a barre chord on the guitar, but man he can play a groove on the bass.

If anything, he’s like New Zealand’s Beck Hansen; maybe not as musically talented, but with just as much ‘fuck you’ attitude as the Sex Pistols.

Hit: Jesus I Was Evil

Hidden Gem: Jolene

Rocks In The Attic #349 Bob Dylan – ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ (1964)

RITA#349I like this stage of Dylan’s back catalogue: completely solo, pre-electric, and just before his fame got in the way. But Another Side is probably my least favourite of his first four albums. To me, it’s his Beatles For Sale – he sounds stuck in a rut with nothing particularly innovative on offer. A change of direction is on the horizon, but not just yet. Well, at least he didn’t resort to rewriting children’s nursery rhymes like Lennon and McCartney did in their desperation to get an album together in time for Christmas 1964.

I’ve just watched the latest Coen brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis – about a struggling folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s. As well as a perfect of the time novelty song – Please Mr. Kennedy – which I laughed at more than anything else I’ve seen in a long time, I really enjoyed the ending of the film where (SPOILER ALERT!) Dylan is glanced at, just as the film’s titular protagonist is about to give it all up and missing out while folk explodes into mainstream America.

There’s an element of openness to the ending that I liked. You don’t get to fully find out whether Davis calls it a day. In the final scene, he gets a beating for heckling a performer the night before, and that might be enough for some people to think twice about their options. But Davis’ character was loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Dylan’s, who did go on to have a career in the folk boom of the mid- to late-‘60s, although nowhere nearly as successful.

I like to think that Davis didn’t quit – but maybe that’s the muso optimist in me. In the past I’ve had to quit a few things as a guitarist – some bands, some partnerships. Sometimes you just have to. The regretful thing is that I feel by moving to New Zealand, I’ve quit being a musician completely. I looked into joining / starting a band when I first moved here, but I could never find any other like-minded people. Everybody just wanted to play New Zealand music. Musicians here are blinded by a parochial mindset that I’ve never encountered anywhere else.

There is good Kiwi music out there, but it’s few and far between. That’s why nobody outside of New Zealand has ever heard of Dave Dobbyn or Anika Moa. Even Shihad are at best a whisper of a memory in the minds of overseas rock fans. World famous in New Zealand is just that – it’s mean to be an amusing way of embracing the country’s size and limitations, but it ends up being Kiwi music’s epitaph. And why would that ever change? The most successful musical export of this country was Crowded House – a band so to blame for putting New Zealand into the artistic middle-of-the-road, that it’s not surprising that foreign drivers have so much difficulty remembering to drive on the left when they get here. Even tall poppies like Lorde are derided by Kiwi music critics, because her music is so typically un-Kiwi, and how dare she achieve worldwide fame without playing barbeque reggae or singing about Dominion Road.

Still…Slice Of Heaven, what a tune!

Hit: It Ain’t Me Babe

Hidden Gem: I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)