Our homegrown and American legends.
Hopefully the release of the documentary Songs of Freedom will revive interest in their music, which still sounds as vibrant as it did during the eight years from 1981, a period in which the band produced only four studio albums and what used to be called an extended play record, with six tracks, What’s Be Happen?
Their early music was heavily influenced by the political turmoil of the late 70s and early 80s, when Pasifika people in Auckland were subjected to the obscenity of dawn immigration raids and passport checks in the street; the French were testing atom bombs in the Pacific; Māori were occupying Bastion Point; and Prime Minister Rob Muldoon could ask a massive audience at a South Auckland wool store, “What’s a mile long, brown and dangerous? The Māori land march!” and have them roaring with delight.
So little wonder a band of socially aware Māori and Pacific Island musicians, when they first wrote their own songs, would look to what was happening in their local neighbourhoods for inspiration.
“The majority of Herbs’ tracks,” founding member Dilworth Karaka told interviewer Scott Kara in 2008, “were written in the backyard, with a slab of grog, a bag of inspiration and a couple of acoustic guitars.”
The mainstream break-through came in 1982 with “French Letter”, the pointed lyrics written by Toni Fonoti in response to France’s nuclear tests. Asked to find an accordion player, producer Phil Yule brought in Marcus Jones, a virtuoso from Auckland’s North Shore whose jaunty Gallic solo sprang from radios all over the country.
A commercial peak came in 1987 with one of the great New Zealand releases, Sensitive to a Smile, the most successful local album of the year, staying in the charts here for a remarkable six months.
There was a professional sheen to Sensitive, produced by one of the country’s premier musicians, Billy Kristian. It perfectly suited the buoyancy of then-lead vocalist Willie Hona, his craft polished in show bands, and the musicianship of bass player and singer Charlie Tumahai, back home from a stint in Britain, where he played for four years in Be-Bop Deluxe, a progressive rock band adored by critics and successful enough to tour as an arena act in the United States.
There’d be just one more Herbs album, Homegrown, recorded in Auckland, produced and heavily influenced by – of all unlikely musical bedfellows – Joe Walsh of the Eagles. Walsh, healthy for many years now, was then almost a caricature of a rock stoner. He was friends with Radio Hauraki announcer Kevin Black, who I was then working with on the breakfast show, and Walsh was often a sweet, mumbling, giggly, if slightly suspicious, presence at the station. His motives always felt pure, but Homegrown had too much California and not enough Ponsonby backyard to be the success Sensitive to a Smile had been.
Now, if you’ve never owned a Herbs CD, you can’t go wrong with Listen: The Very Best of Herbs, 19 wonderful tracks that range all over the catalogue, with a warmth and feeling never bettered in New Zealand music.
And, as the years have passed by, I’ve become increasingly convinced the Aces’ lead singer, Russell Smith, belongs in a song-writing pantheon along with Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Lennon-McCartney and Dylan. So the recent news of Smith’s death from cancer in Franklin, Tennessee at the age of 70 felt very close to home.
Like Smith, the Aces were all from the American South and could play like the Allman brothers. Smith had a voice to easily match great blue-eyed soul singers like Joe Cocker or Boz Scaggs, and their songbook ranged from straight country to greasy, late-night rhythm and blues.
They originally recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, the first musical home of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and had a worldwide hit in 1975 with “Third Rate Romance”, a song so cynical about stolen love (“I’ve never really done this kind of thing before, have you?/Yes I have, but only a time or two”) it’s remarkable that not only pop but also country fans ate it up.
His lyrical style, Smith told me when we first met in 1980, was heavily influenced by novelist Ernest Hemingway. “I want to tell a real story. What appeals to me about Hemingway is that he has the ability to make you see a picture in your mind with very tightly constructed sentences. It’s very much to the bone.”
As the decades rolled by, great songs kept appearing, but none became hits. The band split up in 1981, then reformed in the late 90s, still making wonderful music, loved by a group here (including people like former Blackcaps cricket captain John Wright and Coast to Coast race originator Robin Judkins). It was so tiny we were virtually a secret society.
Through it all, Smith never changed. He could be by turns amusing, caustic, insightful and heartfelt. There was a self-awareness that ran against the usual grain of American country musicians. Once, while telling me how he had a large collection of guns and always carried a revolver after dark in Memphis, he sniggered at my slightly shocked look, and said, “Hey, it’s not a penis substitute; we hang in some pretty rough parts of town.”
Life didn’t always treat him kindly. There was a 15-year court battle with the original manager of the band, so the Aces largely missed out on the cash boost that others received when their back catalogue was transferred from vinyl to CDs. Smith left music altogether in 1981 and spent two years on a farm he’d bought outside Nashville, raising beef cattle. “In those first couple of years after the Aces broke up,” he said in 1989, “I had a lot of creditors turning up looking for money they said was owed by the band.”
Smith’s wife left him for another woman, who was a country music star, and a Nashville music publisher swears that for a time Smith tried unsuccessfully to sell a bitter song he’d written naming that female musician.
That weirdness aside, Smith’s musical output, expressed in six Aces’ albums from 1975 to 1981 and then five more studio albums from 1999 to 2007, as well as four solo albums, is never less than engaging and frequently spellbinding.
Most is on Spotify, and for a first-time listener I’d recommend three Aces’ songs: “Third Rate Romance”, “The End Is Not in Sight” (southern rock at its best) and “Burning the Ballroom Down”, in which the agony of lost love is evoked in minimalist lyrical strokes, cushioned by a soaring, beautiful melody (“You whispered in my ear and I could hear the angels sing/And now you’re smiling in my eyes, trying to deny all these things/They’re just memories to me now/Everything has changed somehow/But that don’t break my vow”).
And for a sensational cover version of a Smith song, seek out Etta James singing “The Rock”, a stunning meeting of southern soul from both sides of the racial tracks.
Sadly for Russell Smith, he would never enjoy the acclaim and rewards his prodigious talent deserved. For some of us though, a true legend has passed.