Tuesday, October 12, 2010


The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964
Chris Bourke,
Auckland University Press - $60

Chris Bourke is a busy man right now scooting around the country fulfilling media commitments for his new book. I caught up with him in Auckland yesterday, he is here in his former hometown for the local launch of his book tonight, and put some questions to him about the very impressive Blue Smoke.

Why did you choose the years 1918-1964?
The opening and closing years needed to be meaningful as “game changers”. I chose 1918 because that’s when the soldiers came home from World War I. They had seen the world, dance rhythms and styles were changing, and the first jazz records were being produced and were soon to arrive. The term “jazz” was beginning to be used in newspaper reports. 1964 because that’s when the Beatles toured New Zealand and “popular music” – especially live gigs – became so identified with the beat bands, with the guitar the most prominent instrument. From then on, pop in New Zealand has been well covered by books such as John Dix’s Stranded in Paradise. But I needed some crossover after rock’n’roll began, to show what happened to the old guard: the jazzers kept on playing but – like Spinal Tap – were more selective about their audience. Also, 1964 was the year our biggest popular music act, the Howard Morrison Quartet, decided to call it quits. They reflected their musical influences from earlier eras, and helped set up the modern pop industry.

How do you define the term popular music as in the subtitle of your book?
The popular music I cover mostly includes the “ka-ching” of the cash register, in which songs, records or live performances were the medium. Genres such as brass bands, bagpipes and community choirs were popular but not “pop music”. They were sanctioned by the establishment, rather than being a constantly shifting market-oriented art form that unsettled society. All three of those examples are important – the brass players and pipe drummers who joined dance bands, for example – but only contributed to the creation of a New Zealand pop music industry tangentially.

How long ago did you plan to write such a history and how long did it take you?
Nearly 30 years ago I got interested in the period, but I only had the idea five years ago. I thought it would take 18 months, but it took four years: two to research, two to write. I had thought the research material would have been easier to find (it will be soon, not just because of the book, but because Papers Past http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast – the National Library’s newspaper digitisation scheme – is edging towards the middle of the 20th century).

I have heard biographers talk of the “cost” of writing biographies and how usually they cannot undertake them without a grant or residency of some kind, or a substantial advance from a publisher. How did you keep yourself in pocket will researching and writing Blue Smoke? Reading your book it is clear you have travelled significantly around New Zealand tracking down and interviewing musicians and all this must have been expensive?
It would have been impossible without financial support. I was fortunate to be awarded two fellowships during the four years. The National Library’s research fellowship for 2006 started the whole thing rolling, and then two years later the University of Waikato offered me their writer-in-residence position. That was a life saver, as I had so much work ahead of me (I had just completed the research and now had to write the book: this would have been impossible with a steady job). I put everything in storage, knowing I’d have to live cheaply for a long time.
I knew almost nobody in Hamilton, and petrol was well over $2 so there were few trips to Auckland. But I managed to save a good amount from the year’s salary, which enabled me to get through the next nine months without being distracted by chasing employment. Last year I house sat a bach in Otaki, and I also house sat in Waikanae, Coromandel, Foxton and Eastbourne for shorter stints. As far as travel went I did a month-long road trip in the South Island, a week in Melbourne and Sydney, and made several forays in the North Island, always staying as cheaply as possible or with friends. I was down to about $300 when Radio New Zealand offered me six weeks’ work producing a summer programme. I was only a few weeks away from finishing the MS, and then went on an intense month-long trip collecting the images.

Did you get a publisher before you started your research?
No – I needed to get a handle on what the book would be like first. I wanted the book to look good, but not be a “coffee table book”. That’s not why the National Library awarded the fellowship. Any publisher’s advance would be minimal, and just add to the stress. Once you are signed up, you’re then writing to the publisher’s marketing schedule rather than to your own. Sam Elworthy at AUP showed interest almost before I’d written a word, came to see me at Waikato and patiently heard me explain the concept. Other publishers were interested, and because I knew them personally through my previous jobs, I didn’t want to play games. So I submitted a sample to four of them simultaneously. Sam responded most decisively and with the clearest idea of what should be done.

One of the features of Blue Smoke are the hundreds of fascinating photographs you have gathered up some of them I suspect being seen in published form for the first time. Can you tell us something of your photo research, how you went about it, any particularly rich sources?
Because of my past work, I had an idea of the possibilities. But some photo archives have either priced themselves off the market or make research too difficult – or both. Luckily, I was given access to a good stash at Radio New Zealand Sound Archives in Christchurch. And there were two excellent, virtually untapped collections at the Alexander Turnbull Library, which has a well-oiled system and only charges a realistic $20 per image. Otherwise, it was mostly private collections. Having heard horror stories of others borrowing scrapbooks and photo albums and never returning them, I decided to have a quick look when interviewing people, then return later when the writing was over, with my portable scanner and laptop. You couldn’t do this all on the one visit: after putting them through the draining process of an interview, you can’t then plunder their treasure.

You have described your book as elegant and inviting, which I warmly endorse and also I would add that it is an important recording of a specific aspect of our social history presented in an appealing and accessible manner, and that it is a particularly fine piece of publishing. You must be delighted with the finished book and it is clear you have enjoyed an excellent relationship with your publisher?
The book is everything I hoped it would be. I showed Sam the beautiful book that accompanied Ken Burns’s television series on jazz. It makes generous use of photos, while also conveying the history in an unrushed, scholarly but narrative style. But that came out in the US, with its huge population and backing from television and sponsors. So I feel very lucky it looks so good, at an affordable price. After working alone for so long, the last few months of intense teamwork with AUP were exhilarating. AUP’s in-house designer Katrina Duncan was a delight to work with: open to suggestions and quick with great ideas of her own. Spencer Levine put many extra hours into the cover.
Of course we wanted a CD with it, but although I was offered access to the actual recordings from their owners, either gratis or at an affordable rate, the songs were a different story. In this era New Zealand musicians mostly played and recorded standards by overseas composers – and most of those songs are still in copyright. Even though you would be giving away the CD with the book, you still need to pay for the songs – and the complications of doing that seemed insurmountable. There is no mechanism to pay royalties, unlike the CD compilations that sell through music stores. I was given advice from a very knowledgeable person in retail that the number of potential sales of a sell-through CD concentrating on the 1940s and 1950s would be minimal, compared to the book – and it wouldn’t reward the considerable effort and heartache to pull it off. But that might happen in the future. The huge sales of the TV-advertised DVDs of Prince Tui Teka and Billy T James give some idea of the possibilities, with the right people on board.

Of course almost 50 years have passed since the period covered in Blue Smoke. Might we expect to see a sequel at some stage bringing our popular music history right up-to-date?
I feel the sequel has already been written by John Dix in Stranded in Paradise and other works since. Roger Watkins’s two books on early beat bands (When Rock Got Rolling and Hostage to the Beat) cover the 1960s, and there are writers – for example Andrew Schmidt at his Mysterex blog http://mysterex.blogspot.com/search/label/New%20Zealand%201960s%20groups – who are doing excellent work covering the 1960s to the days of punk and beyond. Is there room for another general book of this scale about the more recent period? Not right now, I feel. But I have some ideas.

About the author:
Bourke is the author of a Crowded House biography, Something So Strong, has been a writer & arts & books editor at The Listener, and for North & South, was a producer for Radio New Zealand's Saturday Morning with Kim Hill, and he is a former editor of Rip it Up and Real Groove.
He has a blog which concentrates aon popular music subjects -

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