Chris Bourke interview

by Guy Somerset / 02 October, 2010
Chris Bourke's book Blue Smoke has just won the New Zealand Post Book Awards' top prize. Here is our interview with Bourke from last year.

When Chris Bourke says his attitude towards hip-hop is "exactly what my mother said about a year ago - she said, 'You know, I don't mind hip-hop when it's local because it's Polynesian and it makes some sense'", you realise expansive musical tastes are something of a family trait.

Bourke - author of Crowded House biography Something So Strong, former editor of music magazines Rip It Up and Real Groove, one-time writer and arts and books editor at the Listener, erstwhile producer of Radio New Zealand National's Saturday Morning with Kim Hill - is 50; his mother, Claire, is 90.

"Her big thing in the last 20 years has been Otis Redding," says Bourke. "She's a total Otis Redding buff. She loves Otis Redding and Al Green and Dave Dobbyn."

Bourke took her to see Dobbyn - and she came away raving about support act Little Bushman with their 10-minute Jimi Hendrix-like wig-out.

Bourke's mother was one of the early inspirations for his new book, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964.

The spur, however, was the music she didn't talk about, rather than the music she did: the occasional hints she would drop as Bourke was growing up about New Zealand's rich home-front dance-band scene during World War II, but which she seldom elaborated on, because such conversation prompted sad memories of her jazz-fan brother, who died in the war.

She wasn't the only one not to talk about the music, Bourke later discovered. "I just couldn't believe how all this period had been ignored," he says. "You know, there were all those official histories done after the war, those green volumes. Well, there's a brilliant two-volume book on the home front and there are 15 pages on music and it's all about string quartets, chamber orchestras and light classics. The only mention of actually popular music is a couple of lines about swing fans. And yet thousands of people were going to dance bands every single night of the week."

Dance bands get the book they deserve with Blue Smoke, but Bourke wasn't long researching it before he realised the story he had to tell was a much bigger one, reaching back to the first stirrings of jazz in New Zealand in 1918 and forward to 1964 and the arrival of the Beatles and the changes they wrought.

It's a story that encompasses not only jazz in all its manifestations - at a time when it still had mass appeal as dance music and hadn't evolved into art music for the cognoscenti - but also other popular forms such as Hawaiian, country and western, middle-of-the-road pop, rock'n'roll and the Maori showbands, most notably the Howard Morrison Quartet.

Bourke describes the book as a prequel to John Dix's 1988 landmark Stranded in Paradise: New Zealand Rock and Roll - 1955 to the Modern Era.

"I wanted to find out what happened before rock'n'roll," he says - although there is some crossover, because he also wanted to show what happened to the old guard after rock'n'roll arrived.

At the same time, the book is something akin to the history of Maori music Dix told Bourke he was going to write when he interviewed him in 1988. "This became that by accident. Because Maori were so dominant, they punched above their weight right through the century."

Musicians and their stories are at the heart of the book - "That's why I always wanted to write about music, apart from loving it and wanting to get to know more about music: musicians have got the best stories."

And they were thrilled to be asked for them, says Bourke.

Did they feel neglected?

"Without saying so, they did. They are a bit bemused by what's happening to music. They kind of roll their eyes. Seeing how skilled they are, you can see their point. But it's got to keep moving on!"

Bourke interviewed 50 or so musicians for the book, and archive interviews he drew on included tapes of those conducted by Jim Sutton for his Newstalk ZB radio show Nostalgia, Sutton being the man Bourke credits as "the only guy who has really kept this era, particularly the 40s and 50s, in front of the public".

Another essential source was the "staggering" array of clippings, acetates and other recordings collected by archivist Dennis Huggard - described by Bourke as "the researchers' saviour".

'There are these guys I just wish I'd seen," Bourke says of the musicians he's brought to life. "There are so many of them that I missed out on."

It's a wish the reader comes to share, thanks not only to Bourke's evocation of the various musical scenes, but also to the many archive pictures he tracked down for the book, from Walter Smith's Jazz Band in 1927 to Ans Westra's 1962 photographs of dancers at Auckland's Maori Community Centre ("If I had a Tardis, I'd go to the Maori Community Centre," says Bourke).

Smith, Epi Shalfoon, Crombie Murdoch, Mavis Rivers, Tex Morton, Johnny Cooper, Johnny Devlin, Ricky May and the Howard Morrison Quartet are merely some of the best known (but nonetheless often now forgotten) among the hundreds of musicians threaded through the book, many cropping up again and again in different combinations, in different eras, playing different genres of music. "As always in popular music," writes Bourke of a 1950s smooth vocal combo starting to include Rock Around the Clock in their repertoire, "for the musicians it was a case of adapt or stay home."

Versatility extended beyond the music, too - with novelty songs and comedy often a staple element and many live bills being virtually variety shows. Even Rivers - who would go on to an American career that included recording with Nelson Riddle and being lauded by Frank Sinatra - sang Aba Daba Honeymoon, which features a chimpanzee falling in love with a monkey.

Wardrobe versatility - and ingenuity - didn't hurt, either: 1950s country and western group the Tumbleweeds had a cobbler "build up the heels of gumboots, cut the uppers into shape, braid them with rubber and then paint the boots white", in lieu of cowboy boots, which were almost impossible to buy at the time.

Rivers wasn't the only act to attract big-name overseas admirers. Ruru Karaitiana, composer of Blue Smoke, the first song to be locally written, recorded and released, saw it covered by such artists as Dean Martin, who even phoned Karaitiana at home in Dannevirke to ask if he had any more material.

Dino dialling Dannevirke. As incongruous as the book's sentence: "Cole Porter walked into the lounge of Wellington's Hotel St George just as Night and Day was playing on the radio."

Visiting musicians were often surprised by just how up-to-the-minute the local music scene was when it came to overseas trends.

"Things were mirrored here and so quickly," says Bourke - in no small part because of the word (and records and sheet music) brought back by musicians working the passenger liners, and the ability to pick up shortwave signals from West Coast American radio stations.

Which was just as well, given the heel-dragging of the state-run local radio stations and the overseas record companies operating here, paternalistic and protectionist respectively, and as clueless as each other when it came to what could be done to advance and take advantage of a hit song.

The record companies' strangle­hold was broken with the emergence from the late 1940s of local labels such as Tanza, Zodiac and Stebbing.

For the slow loosening up of radio, with its horror at each new form of popular music that presented itself, we can thank such pioneering figures as the National Broadcasting Service's Bob Bothamley - "the Mr Dance of radio, and the musician's friend". And there was the remarkable Arthur Pearce - or "Turn­table", as he nattily styled himself - whose career ran from 1937 to 1977 and saw him play every­thing from Dixieland jazz to swing to fusion, from honky tonk to R&B to rock'n'roll, and onward to shows that might find Wayne Newton alongside Captain Beefheart and Earth, Wind & Fire. He was, Gene Pitney said of him, "the oldest teenager in the world".

Subterfuge could be the key. In the 1940s, after "domineering cultural snob" Professor James Shelley took the helm of not only the NBS but the newly amalgamated National Commercial Broadcasting Service, with its more popularly orientated shows, records would be marked with the codes "BPWU" and "APWU" - "Before Prof Wakes Up" and "After Prof Wakes Up" - with swingier numbers played in the early morning.

A similar technique used at 1ZB in the late 1950s meant Elvis Presley records were played between 5.00pm and 6.00pm - while station manager Dudley Wrathall was on his bus home. After Wrathall retired, the floor beneath his office carpet was found to be covered with local 45s he had dumped there - New Zealand pop literally brushed under the carpet.

Thank heavens, throughout it all, for the live venues. And there were so many of them - "just how incredibly active it was" being one of the big surprises for Bourke.

"It's the arrogance of the baby-boomer generation that they invented fun," he says. "I'm quietly confident people will pick up this book and think, 'This is amazing. Wow, I can't believe this all happened here.'"

Some of the dance halls could be so glamorous, too.

Bourke writes of Wellington's long-lived Majestic Cabaret, with its original dance floor made of glass bricks lit from below (ruined during the war by the heavy boots of American marines), and Auckland's short-lived Dixieland Cabaret by the sea at Point Chevalier (opened in 1925, destroyed by fire in 1935): "It was hailed as the finest and most modern dance venue in Australasia. The 3600-square-foot dance floor could accommodate 600 people, with lighting concealed inside the scarlet walls, and spotlights illuminating the tables and cubicles along the sides. Underneath the cabaret were bathing sheds to enable night-time, flood-lit swimming."

The Point Chevalier Dixieland was a sister venue for the Dixieland in Queen St opened in 1922 and the place for Auckland's smart set to be seen.

"I wanted to get all these locations in the book to make it feel like we've got this culture surrounding us," says Bourke.

The Queen St Dixieland site, he adds, is now home to Real Groovy.

To quote Mott the Hoople (who, had he lived to hear them, would have been very much a Before Prof Wakes Up kind of band), it's a mighty long way down rock'n'roll.

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