December/January 2011

by Johnny Kempt

Expat Files: Max Merritt

by Johnny Kempt

Expat Files: Max Merritt

Now closing in on 70, Max Merritt was a genuine pioneer of rock in Australasia who scaled numerous previously unknown peaks and continued a successful stage career across four decades and as many territories. John Dix, in his encyclopaedic history of Godzone rock’n’roll, rightfully identified Max Merritt as being ‘Australia’s undisputed King of Soul’ at the end of the 1960s. Merritt first features on page 27 of Stranded In Paradise, in a section entitled ‘The Devil’s Music Rocks Godzone’. He was right at the forefront. Fellow LA-based Kiwi musician Johnny Kempt talked with Max about his health, his role in Kiwi rock’s history and that song…

Growing up in Manurewa in the late ’70s it seemed like there would be a hangi every Saturday somewhere along my street. Well worn acoustic guitars would be passed around the fire all day, and when the serious Maori singers came out around midnight, I can clearly remember them choosing to join their voices on one song – Slipping Away – a great simple melody with a call and response by Max Merritt and the Meteors. Of all the songs they chose to sing that one. High praise.

Resident in the USA since 1977, Max lives in San Fernando Valley. A short trip from Los Angeles, the valley is where you find many veterans of the entertainment industry making an escape from the pretensions of Hollywood. Also working musicians and actors that still do the job, but who want a home to raise kids or remind them of their humble beginnings.

Max, of course, lives within walking distance of the best British pub in LA, The White Harte in Woodland Hills. It is there we meet to talk and by strange coincidence, Max reveals that the video for Slipping Away was filmed at The White Hart in Harlesdon in London. As we sit down to talk he introduces me at the bar to Alan White, the drummer who infamously played on Love Me Do. Max Merritt is still an active artist and people magnet – a good down-home Kiwi bloke. In recent years he has battled a rare autoimmune disorder, so I’m glad, and taken slightly off guard, to find him looking amazingly healthy and full of laughter.

Max, you look well, how are you feeling?

I’m feeling great. I wake up every morning feeling good. I’m writing a lot, still interested in music. My mother said, years ago, to one of my first girlfriends actually, she said: “He’ll never marry you, he loves music.” Ha ha ha! She was pretty right!

You were a rock’n’roll star in NZ at 17, from the South Island no less! I liken that to pedalling to the moon on a tricycle. How did it happen?

In the old days in Christchurch, I’d go to bed on a Saturday night and tune my little radio into Australia, which was coming through loud and clear at that time of night. I’d get to hear all the records they were playing that were never going to be released in NZ and I’d record them. We’d practice them with the band on the Monday night and play them at the dance on Wednesday night!
When I was 14 or 15 I hooked up with Rolli Jeffries who was interested in starting up a teen club to keep the kids off the street.

This was about the time that Rock Around The Clock came out and there was a lot of rioting going on. When they played Rock Around The Clock and Blackboard Jungle in the theatres, kids ripped up the seats and rioted, you know? They rioted in the Square in Christchurch – it was an incredibly exciting time. We’d gone from How Much Is That Doggy In the Window to ‘Awop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom’ – a big cultural change, from Guy Mitchell to Little Richard – and it excited me incredibly.

That’s how the Christchurch Teenage Club got started. Rolli Jeffries ended up getting kicked out and my parents took over. My dad was on the door, my mother was making cakes and sandwiches and serving soft drinks – and I had the band. We had the Christchurch Teenage Club on the Sunday and I had a dance on the Wednesday night at the Hibernian Hall which was legendary.

You had supportive parents – that’s rare in rock’n’roll.

I never appreciated at the time, as we rarely do, but we’d rehearse on Monday nights at my house, in the living room. Mum and dad would go and read the paper in their bedroom. We’d rehearse until about 11 and then mum would come and turn the lights off and say, “It’s time to go home”.

Was there a particular moment when you realised you could sing well enough to make a living out of it?

Yeah, well. I lost several players in the band over a period of time because they wanted to go to Australia and I said we weren’t ready. We were a good local band. But by a year or two later I felt we were a big fish in a small pond and needed to get out of Christchurch. So Billy Christian, who was the bass player, he gave up a mechanic apprenticeship halfway through. Pete Williams, the guitar player, gave up his advertising job. Peter Sowden who was the drummer stayed on at NAC, and he only just retired from a good career with Air NZ a while ago.

We left home together and picked up Johnny Dick, who we’d seen playing in New Plymouth, on the way through in my XK150 Jaguar. With a little trailer on the back with ‘Max Merritt and the Meteors, the band with the built-in floor show’ painted on the side of it. Ha ha ha! Jaguar red it was!

We went up to Auckland and we opened up a club called the Top Twenty that was still being built the day we arrived there. On opening day, Friday [Jan 1963], they were still hammering and sawing. We used to play there seven days a week and lunchtimes. We used to get all the girls from the shops in there bopping around at lunchtime – it was fantastic!

Did you see any money?

From the gigs yeah, but from recordings? God no! We got involved with Graham Dent, who handled us and Dinah Lee and Bill and Boyd and people like that. We used to record for Ron Dalton at Viking. Ron was a lovable hoodlum, you know? He was great to work with, everything went down in one whack – there was no overdubbing. It was exciting to do, but I never saw a penny from it.

I found out many, many years later – somebody showed me a print out of Chess Records in the early ’60s – and Tommy Adderley (who we recorded with), Dinah and myself all had things on Chess Records – and we never saw a bean of it. We were up there with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and all those people, on the same roster.

You crossed paths with American servicemen in Christchurch in the ’50s and again in Australia during the Vietnam war. How did that contact affect your music?

The US servicemen used to come to our dances in Christchurch, they were there to go down to Antarctica. At the end of the month they’d run short of money and used to sell their blue jeans, their guitars (I’ve still got a nice guitar I bought back then for $20), and they’d take the records off the jukebox and bring them down to me at the club. That was the first time I heard Ray Charles, BB King, Freddie King… a lot of blues records. And I used to do them, but I did them in a white boy’s way. I didn’t totally understand them until many years later when I heard Otis Redding and it all came into focus.

We played through all these pieces of shit, it was really hard to get a decent guitar in those days. We had to play through hi-fi amps. We ordered a bunch of Fender guitars, two Strats and a Jazz bass for Billy, from a Christchurch shop, E.A. Moodys, but they didn’t arrive until we had actually moved up to Auckland.

Has it been persistence as well as your ability that has helped you achieve success?

Oh yes, definitely! I never thought I was incredibly talented. I had a certain little thing I could do but… that’s what the business is all about, persistence. You’ve gotta hang in there. As long as I can remember there was always people around that were better than me, but they gave up… and ended up being accountants or doing something else. They couldn’t stand the fact that you’ve gotta starve a little, ride in the backs of Transit vans, sleep with questionable people…!

I always thought that I was out of step with everything that was going on. I always felt I was a couple of years too old for whatever was going on at the time. But you can’t go on thinking that, you have to battle on doing what you do and hope that someday somebody recognises it.

You had The Meteors from when you were a teen, including having Bruno Lawrence on drums for a time. Did you two stay friends?

Bruno was great to have in the band because he was crazy you know? In his playing as well. With Bruno he would play a fill and you’d hold your breath, praying that he’d come back in time! And he would come back in time all the time, but it always felt like you could have an enormous train wreck!

We didn’t see each other for many years but we were kindred spirits. I enjoyed him and I enjoyed his playing and it was unique experience and something that you treasure for the rest of your life. Every day was an adventure, you never knew what was going to happen! When I first saw Smash Palace I thought, ‘That son of a bitch is just being himself!’ That was a great movie.

You had success in NZ, Australia and England – but was America always going to be your rock’n’roll heartland?

Oh yeah! I would have and I should’ve come here in the first place, instead of going to England – but at the time it was so hard to get into the States. Some bands went to Canada then tried to sneak through, but it was virtually impossible to get a work permit. We took the easy way out and went to England and that was hard as well!

They didn’t know what box to put us in. Consequently, we got great reviews about the intensity of the playing, the crowd response and that, but not about the music itself. They didn’t know how to pigeonhole us and consequently, we had a lot of trouble.

Slipping Away is such a great song. What was the situation behind it?

I wrote Slipping Away at the time I had that band but I knew it wouldn’t suit the band. When I was writing that song I was trying to write Phil Spector song, something like Be My Baby. I wrote the thing in about five minutes, I really did. I played some drums on a pillow and all that sort of shit. I’m of the belief that if you write a song and you can’t remember it, then it ain’t worth keeping. That’s my working rule.

I borrowed Dave’s bass and Stewie’s drums and went into Command Studios, a little studio in London and did a demo of Slipping Away, with me playing drums and bass, as well as guitar and singing it. But it wasn’t until the band had actually broken up. Dave [Russell] picked up his bass from the studio, after I’d finished doing the demo, and went to the airport and back to NZ!

I approached Arista, Andrew Bailey, who was at that time editor of Rolling Stone, he then became the A&R guy for Arista. Took that demo to him and Slipping Away was the basis of getting that deal with Arista.
It’s been covered maybe 20 or 30 times, but they all fuck up, by trying to make it more than it is. It’s a nursery rhyme! We went in to mix it and I said we couldn’t cos we didn’t have a return phrase. Richard Dodd was the engineer and he took just the last words of the line and bounced them to another track to echo the line.

Where is rock’n’roll going?

I think it’s kind of a natural process. Rock’n’roll destroys itself and then it’s like the phoenix, it rises out of the ashes again. Nothing is new, it all goes around, and somebody will come back with a new twist on what we’ve done. I’m looking forward to getting some energy back. There’s no ‘up yer kilt’ sort of stuff, rock’n’roll’s gotta be rude crude and ugly.

Oh boy, I’ve had so many run-ins with my manager about using bad language on stage! Fuckin’ hell! If you do it with a smile on your face you’re fine. Ha ha.

I heard you were making some great pies for a time in LA?

I did think we needed some culture around here and I started making and selling pies around the pubs and whatever in the area. And it was pretty popular for a while. But ‘pie’ to an American means sweet pie, a meat pie is foreign to them. We made meat pies, potato tops and vegetarian pies, the English people loved them but largely the Americans hated it.

Me, Dinah Lee and Johnny Cooper did a video for Pie Cart Boogie outside the White Lady in Auckland one time – when I went back to do that thing for John Dix’s book. I always remember that curry they did there – whenever you ate it you got indigestion!