April/May 2014

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Kevin Borich

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Kevin Borich

Guitarist, singer, songwriter Kevin Borich is the founding member of Auckland band The La De Das who in the ‘’60s carved out a formidable reputation as one of most exciting live bands on the local circuit. A plethora of amazing singles (and albums) on the Zodiac label that still sound relevant and original today, raised the benchmark in local recording and even broke through to the charts. The La De Das not only had the musical chops, taste and great songs – they were ‘cool’. Still are! Borich’’s career since, much of it under the banner of The Kevin Borich Express, has seen him weather his fair share of any self-respecting journeyman’s highs and lows. Charisma and musical prowess have been the passport that has allowed him to become of one of Australia’’s most respected and enduring rock’’n’’rollers – he has just released a new double album called ‘Totem‘’.

What can you remember about when this photo was taken?

It was taken circa 1973 for the ‘‘Rock’n’Roll Sandwich’’ LP. That’’s me (guitar, vocals, try hard flute and piano) at left, then Keith Barber (drums, percussion, blues harp, great ideas) and at right Ronnie (Rockwell T James) Peel (bass, vocals, co-driver and teen appeal).

I had a great creative relationship with Keith and Ronnie, both having had success in past ventures. Keith played in the Famed Wild Cherries, Ronnie in The [Australian] Pleasers. That’’s how I first met him at The Sherrilie/ Galaxy venue in downtown Auckland.

We were in Keith’’s flat, downstairs under my flat in Bondi. The shot concept was Keith’’s, the idea being to have a feast and over-indulge to the greatest of heights, which we accomplished with flying colours. Can’’t remember who took it sorry – my internal hard drive’s been wiped due to radiation and chemo, (it’’s better than Jenny Craig for weight loss).

Did your family encourage your musical endeavours back in your formative years?

I was very lucky, yes they did. I was the only son of a Dalmatian couple who started with only 10 pounds and worked so hard, seven days a week, to create a wonderful high productive orchard in Huapai, later called Kenza Lodge. As was the usual, I was to take it over with my sister Zorina, but I got swept away by music. Thankfully they understood my passion, and despite some worry, were gracious in wishing me well and were always supportive.

How did the La De Das get together and go on to establish such a massive audience in such a short time?

It started at Rutherford High School in Te Atatu. I found two great players – Brett Neilson on drums and Trevor Wilson on bass. We were all at a similar stage of ability on our instruments so off we took. Later we enlisted Phil Key on rhythm guitar and later, when we scored the Platterack residency thanks to Red McKelvie, found Bruce Howard for keyboards and vocals. Phil only started singing when the song Gimme Some Lovin’ sung by Steve Winwood came out. It got him interested; we heard him and all said, “You’’re the lead singer now.””

We’’d start at 8pm or so downstairs, then after midnight, we’d lug the gear upstairs and play till 3.30 or 4.30am, depending on how many creatures of the night were still willing. We played what we thought were the hippest popular songs on the radio, later we started doing original material. We worked incredibly hard at it, got noticed and recorded on Eldred Stebbing’’s Zodiac label.

The La De Das were considered one of the country’s most hard working ‘live’ bands. What’s your recollection of some of the other bands and the venues you played in that era?

Before the La De Das started playing in AuckIand, I used to go in to see Max Merritt and the Meteors and Ray Columbus’’s Invaders, who included Dave Russell and Wally Scott (my fave guitarists), Bill Kristian on bass and Jimmy Hill on drums – it was an inspirational lesson each time, setting a very high bench mark for me! Along with Mick Leyton at the Beatle Inn, Tommy Adderley in numerous late night clubs, The Kiel Isles, Howard Morrison (before he became ‘Sir’) were all in my inspirational soup.

Bands more our own age like Larry’’s Rebels and The Underdogs were our friendly competition that kept us on the ball because they also had the goods. Lots of Maori musicians played a huge part in my musical education with their seemingly easy natural abilities.

What are your memories of the La De Das’ recording sessions back in the ’60s?

It must have been 1966 when we recorded at Eldred’’s studio, via A&R man John McCready with John Hawkins‘’ wonderful talent of producing and engineering on two Telefunken (love that word) ¼” recording machines – bouncing between them, building the multi-tracks of instruments, as was the way at that time. This studio was in Eldred’’s garage under his house. There was no such thing as multi-track recorders then, so a primitive state of the art set up was big time for us.

We did a song called How Is The Air Up There – I was presented with probably the first fuzz box built in NZ by Eldred’’s son, which sounded great on the key riff the song had. Bruce sang it because it suited his voice and boom! It went to number one.

Songs were chosen for us and by us. We had to like them to put our hearts into it. We only ever gave in once when, well before the sessions above, we were offered to play a shit song to get on TV – it was very hard cause we were supposed to be ‘so very cool’.

Did the La De Das have a business structure at that time?

No not really. Eldred helped for a while and got us help in Australia for our first trip over – we had a procession of good-willed people who had a go at it, but no one stuck for the long haul. We were five pretty strong-minded dudes, so handling us would have been, shall I say, challenging, and looking back as I do to write that book, it was an hilariously dangerous journey – my guardian angel is a super hero with many medals.

Did you ever consider that music was going to be a career, or was it more of a case of just riding the wave for as long as you could make it last?

No, I did’t think of it as a profession at all, it was a love affair. Rock music really was’t classed as a profession at the very beginning. When the B/W movie Rock Around The Clock stirred my teenage loins in 1956, I was, even though at the time I did’t know it, being seduced by its wonderful energy and figured that Id go back to the orchard when I was old, at 30. So yes, I rode that wave as you suggest, and to this very day and beyond, will continue to do so.

It must have been a big move to relocate to Australia then – what were the expectations?

Yes it was a big move, and many moves at that. From Auckland to Kings Cross was an eye opener. In those days the world was a huge place – jets were quite new and Australia was the closest place – if The La De Das’’ same situation was in now time, we would have gone straight to the USA – but in 1967 Australia was that big logical step. Like Max Merritt and Ray & the Invaders we went to find a bigger market, knowing that as much as we loved NZ, it was just too small to make a full time living playing music. I don’’t remember how many farewells and welcome back concerts we did before securing a foothold in Oz, but there was quite a few and we were very grateful to have such loyal fans that made it possible.

The La De Das made significant progress in Australia after a second visit. How did the band build an Australian audience?

Our live performances were how we did it. We became the ‘in band’. We were writing and it was in the midst of the psychedelic era, so experimentation, pushing musical boundaries, was very exciting. Bruce and Trevor had the idea and had written a lot of ‘’The Happy Prince’’ in NZ, so it had to be finished and recorded in Australia, which we did with David Woodley Page producing. Brett Neilsen had left after the first Oz visit and Brian Harris spent some time with us, soon to be replaced by Keith Barber (who we had befriended before on our previous visits) became our drummer and played on ‘’The Happy Prince’’.

It was released in 1969 and we didn’’t seem to have the enthusiasm to play it live – a bit too theatrical to take on the road, plus it was now an old idea to us and we were itching to go to England, which we did a few days after the album was released. It didn’’t sell well mainly because we weren’’t there to promote it, but it was a first in the concept arena, so for that, it has merit. Listening to it now I still think it could be a great sound track for an animated version of Oscar Wilde story. The vinyl sells for hundreds on eBay these days.

You later went on to the UK which sounds like it was a trip that really tested the band’’s motivation in it’s own belief.

We saved $3000 spending money and got on a plane with Swampy our roadie. The only meticulous pre-planning done was that the plane was heading for England. It is a very long and humorous tragic tale, the highlight being recording in Abbey Road. EMI had us come in to play our original material to them which got them thinking that we were a very good band, so they offered us the chance to record – BUT it had to be a Beatles’’ song we had to choose off their yet to be released new album, ‘’Abbey Road’’.

We recorded with Norman Smith (former Beatles engineer and Pink Floyd producer) choosing the song Come Together. We did a great version complete with the muted tom fills etc. we were happy about the outcome but would have much preferred to play an original song. It got regular play on BBC1 and Radio Luxembourg, but we chose the wrong song because the Beatles released it so – kaput! Didn’’t bother us because we thought it was a stupid idea anyway, but we couldn’’t pass up the Abbey Road opportunity. We only did a few gigs and an ill-fated French tour, which is another story. What did we learn – you need to have a very good business manager to pre-set up a tour, with it all locked down.

Returning to Australia, how much had changed for the band and how much had the band changed?

The band had changed. Trevor who had an English passport stayed in England so we got in Reno Tehei, a friend who wanted to play bass. Reno was then a fantastic guitarist, so I couldn’’t understand why he wanted to play the bass – I wanted to hear him to play the guitar. Anyway it didn’’t last long and things got fragmented with Bruce leaving to join Billy Thorpe’’s band so, with Peter Roberts on bass we went to be a very rocky four-piece guitar attack – Phil, Keith, Peter and me – and it worked a treat.

How difficult was it for you and the band to attract suitable industry backing in Australia?

Agencies came and went – we always had work. Then a big break came when Michael Chugg started to manage us.  He gave us direction and got us heaps of shows. We recorded a song I wrote called Gonna See My Baby Tonight, which made it up the charts, so all was good.

In 1972 the La De Das hit a wall and imploded. What led to that version of the La De Das calling it a day? How did you confront your next phase as a musician?

Well the five-piece era ended in England really. Trevor made a brief re-appearance but it wasn’’t gonna happen. By then the four-piece line up was really successful as I mentioned, but that ended after a few busy years when we recorded Morning Good Morning, which Phil and I wrote. People loved it but radio didn’’t give it a chance so it didn’’t do quite as well as Gonna See My Baby Tonight.

Phil and I decided to split quite amicably without too much drama. We were both writing by then and felt if we were going to both reach our individual potential we needed the space. He started The Band Of Light. The La De Das crew were now me and Keith, so we got our great friend Ronnie Peel on bass and gorged ourselves in that photo – recorded a song Chuck Berry did called Too Pooped To Pop, which made it to number 4, then a Hank Williams’’ song, Honky Tonkin’’.

Despite playing with some of Australia’’s biggest names and a massive live presence it took some manipulation to record and release the ‘’Rock’’n’’Roll Sandwich’’ album – how come?

Gee, I guess it was the fact that we never had a smash hit single – Gonna See My Baby got very close and these days is a ‘golden oldie’ in the history of Oz music. Nonetheless, ‘‘Rock’’n’’Roll Sandwich’’ became my first three-piece album, with creative input from Keith and Ronnie of course.

Music historian Glenn Baker said: “…what killed the La De Das: the bludgeoning effect of realising that, after 10 hard years, nothing tangible had really been achieved and the only thing that lay ahead was more of the same.”” Do you agree?

Gee that sounds so negative Glenn… But I guess he’’s referring to the length of time for one combination of people which can have its ‘use-by’ date . I still think we did pretty well with 10 years of good music. We’’d started at school – we all grew up together and respected each other without too much drama, and as you grow your musical ideas develop so change is inevitable. ‘…bludgeoning effect’? Well Glenn, we feel no pain – our music is our healer!

With the La De Das and later The Kevin Borich Express, you’’ve played and supported a huge number of international artists. Who among them made the biggest impression on you?

That’’s a very hard question – all the great people I’’ve had the honour to be on stage with have their individual qualities that you can learn from. This is in no order of preference or rank. Bo Diddley: we jammed at the Bombay Rock. I mean, hey he invented a rhythm – a real gentleman and we had fun, fun, fun.

Joe Walsh: he slept on my couch – once in Bondi then 15 years later in our guest room up here in Maleny, to play Luke Everingham’’s private farm festival to 500 people in a cowshed four hours north of Sydney. A great man, with great humour, great musicianship and lyrics, able to rock socks off with grace and humility – ‘I left a message maybe he’’ll call,’” (Life’’s Been Good).

Carlos Santana: he got me up to play a song with him in front of 60,000 people at The Rock Arena show in Melbourne, November 1977. We’d played the set before him. He also had me up to play with him a few years later in the Sydney Entertainment Centre when he had Buddy Miles singing – that’’s as close as I got to Jimi Hendrix – Buddy’’s big bum. He bought the exciting Latin music rhythms to us via Woodstock and his musicianship and ability to have incredible musicians around him is truly fascinating.

Ritchie Blackmore: we played a set on the same night before Deep Purple at the Sunbury Festival. His roadie asked if we were playing in Melbourne the next night, I said, “Yeah bring Ritchie down for a blow.” I forgot all about it. Next night there’’s the white Strat held high, comin’’ towards the stage. We jammed full tilt – he made sparks fly and we connected, having a lot of fun with the audience stunned at such a surprise. He was quite shy but clearly looked like he’’d enjoyed himself. He was a distinctive stylist, you knew it was Ritchie on those strings – a quality that we all strive for – individuality!
There’’s more but I’’ll save ’em for the book.

You worst professional experience?

I guess it was when we turned up to play and there was about 20 people to play to. Bugger, I tried to forget that – thanks!

You have a new double album called ‘‘Totem’’ only just out. How much has the creative and the commercial process changed for you?

It’’s changed immensely. Commercially there are less live venues these days. Here in Australia the state governments get lots of money from poker machines – they class that as entertainment, which has affected musicians, plus they cause a lot of misery when people get addicted.

The internet is a great tool for us. I sell my works to people on my and connect directly to those supporters who love my music and come to shows where I also sell my CDs, DVDs, T-shirts etc.

I record at my (Vibrating House) studio thanks to all the new state of the art equipment that you can buy and get great results with, instead of having to go to a commercial studio as we did in the old days usually via a record company.

How crucial is ‘serendipity’ to one’’s musical career?

You’’ve got to have the goods but also have some lucky spots to get noticed and heard. Sometimes you see or hear some artist/ band that you think – “How in the hell are they able to play that !!!???!?!?!?# on TV” – so yeah they’’ve had some luck or bucks behind them. I’’m way past getting upset by that ’cause I love what I do.

Is it harder now to be original in the world of rock and pop music than it was 30 or 40 years ago – even with the sophisticated advances in technology?

I suppose if you’’re going to think like that then give up. Yes, a lot has already been done but hell no – do it – if you love it. It feels great – give it a twist – bend it a little – see if it sticks while you’’re having all that fun it could catch some ears hearts ‘’n souls. That’’s what I’’m after at my age – virgin ears!

What’’s the most important thing you can pass on to a young musician intent on a career as a professional musician?

I always say that starting off you’’ll need a job, preferably to do with music, to pay the bills. Teaching, work in a music shop where you can keep up with technologies, know what’’s going down musically in your town. Be ready for opportunity – finding players to work with and of course, if you have the passion you’’ll work hard at it and find a way to play. Get really, really, good and then you’’re ready for it. Success!

What are your personal favourite records – what songs still never fail to brighten your day?

All the ones that turned me on back when – I have a musical Olympic flame in my living room – it’’s a 1960’s AMI Continental Jukebox that I have filled with my own 7 inch vinyls – it looks like R2D2 with glass dome where you can see the record-changing process happening – magical in a ‘’60’s way. It needs a Fonzy kick now and again but it’’s got all the greats on it from Sinatra – Elvis – Hank Williams – The Small Faces – Jimi Hendrix – Howlin Wolf – Muddy Waters – Prince – little Richard – Mink DeVille – Stevie Ray Vaughan – Jeff Beck – Freddy n Albert King – James Brown – Grace Jones – Booker T – Ray Charles – John Lee Hooker – Tina Turner – The Police – Led Zeppelin – Traffic – Joe Walsh – Carlos Santana – Sam The Sham – Peggy Lee’s Fever – Canned Heat – Ian Dury – The Staple Singers – Renee Geyer – Marc Hunter – Joe Tex – Jerry Lee Lewis – Elmore James – Santo & Johnny’s Sleep Walk – Stevie Wonder – Smokey Robinson – The Temptations – Bo Diddley – The Yardbirds with E.Clapton – Bob Dylan – PJ Proby’s Somewhere – Van Morrison –Steve Windwood –Jimmy Reed – Roger Millar – The Rolling Stones – ZZ Top – Otis Redding – Dr John – The Young Rascals – Marilyn Monroe and The La De Das.

What’’s the best book about music that you’ve read?

Raisin’’ Cain – The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter by Mary Lou Sullivan and Johnny Winter.

The best advice you ever got was…?

‘Make sure you play to the people – they came to see you,  they paid their money – even the ones way up the back’ – Normie Rowe.

How do you define ‘success’?

As I walk off stage and there’’s an encore being demanded. Personally, being in love and happy.