Dave McArtney died peacefully at his home on April 16, 2013, aged a youthful 62. Way too early in a life that had been well-lived, yet still offered plenty more.
As a musican, songwriter, educator, friend and essentially fine Kiwi bloke, Dave was very widely and genuinely admired, respected and loved. He was a special man who contributed some real classics to our nation’s pop history and was principal in a band that has lingered proudly, leaving a legacy very few other local acts will ever match.
For the last decade Dave had been working on a biography of the mighty Hello Sailor, his rock’n’roll band that all-but touched the sky of international success. NZ Musician is proud and grateful to be able to mark Dave’s passing with this excerpt from his (as yet un-named) book, which is expected to be published within the coming months.
The year is 1975 and the band who have adopted the collective name Hello Sailor are organising their own gigs, establishing their personas, discovering a way to blend their art with commerce, experimenting with opiates and inventing Ponsonby reggae.
Thanks for the memories Dave, RIP.
By Dave McArtney
The legacy of Mandrax Mansion was an inescapable feeling that we must form a band. The old house couldn’t delay us anymore, unorthodox and unconventional as we were. The electric guitar was finding new sounds, with invented chord structures and song arrangements. That was truly exhilarating – well, we hadn’t heard anything like us before. If we could add a little bit of the conventional, just to please the ears of those who might hire us, then we’d be in business.
And, in the parlance of those already cruising the damsel and decibel highway, we needed gear, man. We still needed a PA system and amps. I had my Les Paul gold top, for which I’d swapped a beautiful D45 Martin acoustic – pearl inlays, the works – and needed only the amplification. At Harry’s insistence I bought a locally made Gunn Classic, an all-in-one unit which meant you didn’t have to lug around a speaker cabinet as well.
For a PA we got hold of a Jansen mixer with a 400 watt amp built in. We each bought a Shure microphone and stand. The speakers were JBLs. I was learning fast. JBL, K140, SM57, SM58, SMC… life was becoming defined by codes and abbreviations.
Next we needed a van. Once again, Harry supervised the purchase, on hire purchase, of a 1972 yellow Bedford. It was quite new, and we all got to drive it eventually – even Graham one night, when the rest of us were too pissed to drive, which we really must have been, because in those days you drove, no matter what. He even drove over the Harbour Bridge, a remarkable feat given that you could count the number of times he’s driven in the past 25 years on a butcher’s left hand. For him, not driving was a matter of choice from an early age, which only underlines how remarkable it was that he took the wheel of the Bedford.
Anyway, the van was our key to the highway, a yellow Sailor submarine, three in the front seat, one in the back, with the Duke (Lisle Kinney, our bass player) later bringing up the rear in his Twin Spinner or his 57 Chevy. We even had McDougall paint our logo on the side in black. It was a little shaky on the edges of the circle round the heads of the seaman and the parrot, possibly due to Dougs having a couple of mandies on board when he did it.
We practised and talked, refined songs, rehearsed swinging oddities. Somewhere amidst it all a kind of professionalism seeped in. Indeed, the developing seriousness about these latent talents as rock musicians was becoming more like obsession. I began to feel like a football rookie, oblivious to other daily concerns, just lurking, kicking a ball, waiting for the big call. In the music business, though, no-one’s going to do shit for you! You go out and do it yourself. Most of us have had to go knocking on doors at some time or another during our careers, trudging the streets, eeking out cab and bus fares, demo tape and bio in hand.
We organised our own gigs. Our first venue was Dunlop’s Gym, a training hangout run by local boxing identity, Bobby Dunlop. Though a bit cold and dank, it will be remembered fondly by all involved – the Sailor circle shall we say – as a colourful and lively evening. We suddenly realised we had an audience. We were doing stuff that no-one else was doing. No-one else could possibly be as odd a band as we were. I was the guitar that wouldn’t obey musicality and restraint. Harry was darkly cool, a sort of dapper pirate, snaking in and out of my flailing chords. Graham, with the body of an athlete and mysterious occidental charm, impeccably dressed in white MGM-period suit, with brown leather brogues, no socks, Jaggeresque mouth, big snapping lips in a perpetual heart-shaped kiss, aggressing and gesticulating, charisma at a finger-click… this was Ponsonby rock.
The guts of it was style, with a kind of stuck-up arrogance. They loved it. They also loved the songs. That was really what the band was all about, songs. The songs were cryptic, lyrically unusual, long and chordal, melodic at best, still unconventional, but tapping into a common psychological source. Graham invented bizarre characters for us to inhabit. If we could have written like Blood, Sweat & Tears, or Supertramp, we would have. But the fact was, we couldn’t. What flowed, though, we were enthusiastic about. It felt comfortable. It felt credible. It felt worthwhile pursuing.
Next came the Deca-dance, which was 10 times the fun. The venue was above the old cinema in Queen Street, well known today as The Classic Comedy and Bar, and the gig was organised by Robert Kemp. Some friends in the gay community were on board and helping plot our crazy course through subterranean Auckland, through word of mouth, as entertainers to the queers, hookers, junkies and small-time crooks.
We did everything, including running the bar, selling beers, wines and spirits. Maggie was the bar-person, Robert was on the door taking 50 cents per colourful customer. And number one pirate impersonator Roger Wilde took care of lighting and atmospheric mood. Across town, the Enz were doing it a bit larger, a tad more professionally, playing either the university or the Mercury Theatre. They had a bigger production, necessary for the wildly original and eccentric show they were presenting. They were soon to take their brand of performance rock to Sydney, where they were to have a more-or-less instant impact.
Our next step was the Double-Deca-dance – 20 times the fun! Same venue, maybe not 20 times the people, but at least twice the attendance of the first one. Roger Wilde tried his hand at this new alternative DIY promotional game, and put on an event at the Maori Community Centre on Fanshawe Street, opposite Victoria Park. This was a raging success, no doubt due to the fact Roger was a journalist by trade, and wrote for the local City News. He built the band’s profile, exploiting the South Seas image. A balance of refreshing originality and a new cultural identity for the youth of Ponsonby. It had a sort of testosterone swagger, with gay abandon, couched in the ironic detachment of white boys in a post-colonial world – well, north of the Bombays anyway – in the biggest Polynesian city in the Southern hemisphere.
At the risk of sounding a trifle arrogant or pretentious, we played with reverence for the congregation in the church of the apostle Keith – as in Richards – whose guitar style was my own benchmark. A pagan, loose, boisterous, acoustic style, transferred to raunchy electric. There was no holding back. What we sacrificed in technique, we gained in innovative style. The slickness came later, as we came under self-imposed pressure to adapt to the more musical presentation required by the club venues.
We were re-inventing ourselves. Now the music was taking form – South Pacific blues, Ponsonby reggae, whatever it was, or could have been called, was chugging its groove out into the street, from tumbling down old bungalows in Ardmore Road to Picton Street. The Topp Twins were there, so were Trudy Green and Sam Ford, who formed the nucleus of The Neighbours, with their happy country-reggae, and many more electrified the long summer nights. There was nowhere to play. The Gluepot was still the reserve of Maori show bands like the Maori Volcanics and The Radars. There were no other pubs or cafes on Ponsonby Road, only Ivan’s restaurant, which was OK for steak and chips, but you’d never find Jimmy Cliff on the jukebox. So we played in people’s houses and at parties.
Here is a good place to be reminded of another, softer side of the band. It featured two friends who were left behind in the transition to rock band status. We still loved our acoustic roots, and continued to jam at our various houses around the city, playing earlier versions of the songs which would morph into rock n’roll, Ponsonby style. Cushla Foley and Richard McArley, both contributed strongly to that sound of early Sailor. Cushla had the high, sweet voice that sang the female parts in Black Jack Mack – the song we had at the time with a mean riff that sort of pre-empted Blue Lady.
Richard came from Dunedin and a band called Stash, beginning a long line of Sailor affiliations with Dunedin musicians. He played mandolin, harmonica, and slide guitar, and was very empathetic in his approach, colouring and embellishing the angular rhythms set up by the rest of us. We had a regular residency on Monday nights at The Kiwi Tavern, over the road from Auckland University. This five piece was essentially a sit-down, un-plugged, folksy living room version of the actual original Sailor sound. It was the original line-up, just not destined to be the one that became the band.
Nonetheless, the Kiwi days deserve a mention, because as the years have flown by, the acoustic format has been perhaps the most enduring aspect of the Sailor sound – at least in terms of audience appreciation and viability in an increasingly marketing obsessed world.
It all began in the words of a nursery rhyme or two
Then on and on, the fairy-tale madness did work itself in.
After dark I slip into my lamé and snakeskin dress
I float over town
I’m a madam on this street and a butcher on that …. – Dave McArtney, A Madam On This Street
In the words of Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, ‘Smell the mendacity in this room!’ In the Kiwi Tavern in 1975, the room smelled of lies only half the time. And therien lies the myth – the myth we were to elaborately spin over the next three decades.