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How Was the Air

September 11, 2012


Devlin first LPIn the late 1980s New Zealand’s pop music treasure was leaving these shores faster than carpenters heading for Brizzie. Nearly 25 years on, there have been many pivotal compilations. EMI’s quickie double-disc best-ofs in the early 1990s re-issued many (poorly remastered) obvious 1960s and 1970s pop hits early in the CD boom, while John Baker’s Wild Things compilations showed how rare garage rock could be presented, with notes putting his obscurities into context. Jayrem’s six-CD compilation – mooted below – never eventuated (there was a one-CD disc Get the Picture 1964-1972, that included Bruno Lawrence’s great “Bruno Do That Thing”). Mid 1960s R&B material such as the Breakaways, the Librettos and the early Underdogs have been re-issued well by EMI and Zodiac. In the 2000s, Grant Gillanders produced exemplary compilations for EMI and others, and John Baker has given Johnny Devlin the full treatment. Recently came word that Viking, following its re-release of the Jay Epae LP, is looking to emulate Stebbing-Zodiac with some download re-issues of  material from the Tumbleweeds and Daphne Walker. Ode led the way with its timely CD re-issue of the 1950 Jazz Concert.

While the overseas collectors’ poozling through stores for then-neglected New Zealand rarities has meant much hip stuff never appears now, much of the early rock’n’roll was compiled and re-issued by the Dutch label Collector Records in their seven-volume series of double CDs, Early Rock’n’Roll from New Zealand (distributed locally by EMI NZ). While these discs give a blinkered, rock’n’roll-biased picture of New Zealand pop from the late 1950s and early 1960s, their liner notes are unreliable, the design is diabolical, the jewel cases fall apart immediately, and it appears much ephemera and rare tapes are now offshore, at least the series has made much material available again, whereas a local anthologist could probably not do something on that scale. So the music can be heard again, even if the artefacts have disappeared.

Rock Booty

by Chris Bourke – NZ Listener, 10 December 1988

Overseas collectors are plundering New Zealand’s rock music heritage. That’s the belief of John Pilley, a Wellington second-hand record dealer. In the past few months his shop has been visited by Europeans, Americans and Australians, all searching for classic local rock records that were abandoned to bargain bins here, but now reach high prices overseas. “They’re all after the same 12 or so records, and they’re prepared to pay any price for them,” says Pilley.

breakwayThe records in demand go as far back as our 1950s rock pioneer Johnny Devlin, but most highly sought after are albums by the 1960s bands Human Instinct, the Underdogs, and Barri and the Breakaways. In Europe, these albums are worth as much as $150 to collectors. Says Auckland dealer Neville Lynch, “I’ve been offered $50 for the Underdogs’ EP, so it must be worth about $100.” [1988 prices]

“The prices are astonishing – it’s a worry,” says Dunedin dealer Roy Colbert, who admits he has “mixed feelings” about the records leaving the country. Pilley is more vehement. “The records should stay here – it’s our musical heritage we’re exporting. It’s not like literature, or art, where you can go to a library or museum to study the past.”

“But, as both Colbert and Wellington dealer Dennis O’Brien point out, the sales figures were originally low for the records, and when they put a rare New Zealand album out in their bins, it can often sit there for months until an overseas collector comes along.

“I didn’t sell my Breakaways album, but stuff like Schtüng that has sat around for years I was pleased to sell.”

Earlier this year, Sydney store Phantom Records came here to buy up New Zealand classics. They visited the second-hand stores in each town and placed large advertisements in the major papers. “I didn’t sell my Breakaways album, but stuff like Schtüng that has sat around for years I was pleased to sell to Phantom,” says Colbert.

Stranded in Paradise, the long-anticipated history of New Zealand rock’n’roll, is finally close to publication. The book’s enthusiastic championing of local music will undoubtedly add to the demand for classic records, but there will be spinoffs for contemporary musicians, says author John Dix. “You can get super-patriotic about the records leaving the country, but greater interest in New Zealand rock’n’roll will benefit everybody.”

Underdogs wastingDix comments on the perversity of the collecting, where the music isn’t as important as the colour of the record label. “Time creates a demand, and often for the wrong reasons: the content can be irrelevant,” he says. “Some people are going to be disappointed – a lot of the music is disposable.” Of lasting value, he says is the original psychedelic blues of the Human Instinct and the Underdogs. Colbert mentions the fascination American collectors have with cover versions of R&B hits, as performed by groups such as the La De Das, Breakaways and Pleazers.

Historical compilations are the answer – but once again the irony is, it’s the interest overseas that makes them viable. Rhys Walker’s superb 1980 collection of 1960s beat bands How Was the Air Up There? was quickly deleted – and now fetches high prices itself. Australia’s Raven Records has re-issued collections by Larry’s Rebels, Ray Columbus and the Invaders, and Max Merritt and the Meteors. Ironically, they are imported into New Zealand by Petone label Jayrem.

The good news – for those who want the music, not the Zodiac label completists – is that Jayrem plan a six-volume CD collection of New Zealand music for the new year.

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