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The Camel’s Back

April 3, 2014

Camels coverKen Avery’s memoir Where Are the Camels? is now available as a PDF that can be downloaded for free. It’s a fascinating memoir, the best available by a New Zealand musician of the 1940s to 1960s, full of wonderful stories and insights. Avery is now best known for writing ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ and other novelty songs that evoke New Zealand’s suburban 1950s as effectively as a Neville Lodge cartoon. He wrote a swag of tunes, including ‘Paekakariki’ and ‘The Gumboot Tango’, but he was also a dedicated member of Wellington’s jazz fraternity, playing saxophone and clarinet in dance and jazz bands, organising Clare and Kencountless gigs and playing countless balls. He also performed on New Zealand’s first rock’n’roll record, the unfairly maligned version of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ recorded by Johnny Cooper.

Avery’s book Where Are the Camels? – A New Zealand Dance Band Diary is a local equivalent of George Melly’s classic muso-memoir, Owning Up. He wrote it in the early 1980s, just before his untimely death in 1983. For years photo-copies of Avery’s manuscript have been passed around local musicians, like a zamizdat novel in an oppressed society. In 2011 his daughter Clare turned the manuscript into a handsome book, that is full of terrific anecdotes, photos and memorabilia. (Clare is pictured at right with her father.)

In it are stories of gigs that went wrong, bad pianos, dodgy club owners, unreliable musicians – and magic nights when the music flowed like mercury. Avery describes his encounters with visiting musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Buddy De Franco, Ralph Pena and Pete Jolly, as well as locals including Bill Hoffmeister, Terry Crayford, Jack Claridge and the notorious Bill Crowe. When the Beatles came to Wellington, Ken Avery songbookAvery secured the loan of an acoustic guitar for Paul McCartney, but his NZBC manager stonewalled his chance of delivering it in person.

All this and more – including his thoughts on bad pianos, dodgy reeds and the effect of the Beatles on songwriting – is featured in Where Are the Camels? PDF copies of this 146 page book can be downloaded free at the website Clare has set up. Most generously, the website also features a downloadable PDF of The Ken Avery Songbook, which includes the sheet music of many songs, observations about their writing, and fascinating memorabilia. On the cover is a picture of Avery with one of his heroes, Spike Milligan.

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