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I Spy

October 25, 2011

Blue Smoke Tanza label 1Until recently, I had only ever seen an excerpt of the National Film Unit’s newsreel devoted to the manufacture and release of ‘Blue Smoke’ in 1949. At the recent launch party celebrating the release of the Pixie Williams anthology For the Record, the full length clip was screened. It was very moving to see once again the Ruru Karaitiana Quintette re-creating the recording, conducted by the songwriter himself. (Pixie, while present at the CD launch, was absent from the 1949 film shoot, having followed her heart to the South Island after the October, 1948 sessions).

It was fascinating to see the complete clip show the primitive production process that engineer Stan Dallas had developed at Tanza Records in Wellington. Visible in the clip is John Shears, the young man in a white coat brushing the highly flammable “swarf” away as the disc is cut. Meeting John and hearing the story of the creation of Tanza and its famous first recording was one of the many pleasures of researching Blue Smoke.


On the label of ‘Blue Smoke’ are the immortal words:

Souvenir note of first record wholly processed in New Zealand.

Recorded 3/10/48. Processed 23/2/49.

But finding the on-line database of the NFU’s weekly newsreels enabled me to establish that the actual disc wasn’t released until 26 June 1949. On the same day, Ken Avery’s ‘Paekakariki’ was also released as Tanza #2.

Lilburn NFU 1The label didn’t just release pop, jazz and country discs. Douglas Lilburn’s soundtrack to the NFU film Journey For Three was released on Tanza CL3, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra. Images of Lilburn (right) conversing with the musicians, and conducting, are also featured at the NFU section of the Archives NZ website.  It is a reminder that the musical “long-hairs” mingled with the popular musicians more than we may think; for example, illustrious NZSO first violinist Alex Lindsay also played fiddle on country sessions for Tanza. One of the many Tanza curiosities is #203, ‘Misty Moon’, recorded by John Hoskins with the George Fraser Orchestra. After hours, Fraser had aspirations not just as a composer but also as a Cold War spook: as a mole for Special Branch, he mingled among Wellington Communists and reported on their activities. According to Fraser’s rather tragic memoir, Seeing Red: Undercover in 1950s New Zealand (Dunmore Press, 1995), he was told by his exasperated spymaster to quit his musical moonlighting. “It’s too petit-bourgeois for the role you’re playing …. Folk songs are okay because they are into that, but not that sentimental American stuff.”

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