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June/July 2015

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Rob Aickin

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Rob Aickin

The musical journey that The Clevedonaires took, from the small rural community of Clevedon in the mid-1960s to Australia and later London in the early 1970s, is a story that has re-surfaced with the release of their Record Store Day retrospective album ‘’Cleves –– The Musical Adventures of The Clevedonaires, Cleves & Bitch’’. Bass player and record producer Rob Aickin was a part of that journey, before returning to the southern hemisphere to produce a cluster of seminal Kiwi albums including Th’’ Dudes and Hello Sailor at Stebbing Studios, as well as pass on his wealth of experience dealing with the machinations of the music business. 

Can you remember who took this photo and what it was intended for?

I don’’t have a clue who the photographer was but that was the ‘‘new look Bitch’’ part of a promo shoot done in London and arranged by our newly appointed manager Bill Harman for WEA Records. Prior to that we were your typical cool denim jeans wearers. Bill decided to glam us up visually so as to fit the Bitch image and our new sound. These were the days of Slade and Gary Glitter and visual image was everything, especially if you wanted to make an impact. After all, this was our shot at the big time.

Tell us about your point of entry into the music business leading up to the time that you joined The Clevedonaires in 1967.

It all started for me when I joined a newly formed band in Papakura called The Four Quarters. They were experiencing difficulties with their rhythm guitarist and I was invited to audition for them by the drummer Dave Brown, who I worked with as a trainee draftsman for the Post and Telegraph in Papakura. Their lead guitarist was Murray Partridge who later forged his own successful career on the NZ music scene.

Anyway I got the gig and was immediately promoted to lead vocals as well, not that I was a great singer –– I just happened to be better than the rest of them. We were your typical covers band. The Animals were one of our favourites.

We did our first gig, which I think may have been our only gig as support band to the Clevedonaires, and it went off really well. This was the first time that I met them. I had seen them play before at a Manurewa church dance and I thought they were amazing, especially Ron. He was a natural maestro on the guitar. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would soon become a member. But as it turned out Milton, the rhythm guitarist was about to leave the group to pursue a life of farming and they were on the hunt for a replacement.

In due course I was invited to audition in the old farm shed on the family property out at Clevedon. It all started from there. We all hit it off well and apart from having a compatible nature and competent guitar skills, the fact that I could sing and harmonise was the clinching point – that was one of the group’s strongest assets. Although still a covers band they could copy The Beach Boys, Hollies, Beatles etc well. Close harmonies were a feature of the group and with Gaye’’s classical piano background she was able to structure our vocal parts to suit. She was the bass player at this point in time.

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

Dad never had a musical bone in his body, it all came from my mother’’s side of the family. My late uncle Bob Ewing was one of Auckland’’s finest jazz double bass players, my oldest brother Pete used to play drums, and Mum had me learn the piano at a young age, so I was surrounded by music and instruments from as young as I can remember. A musical career came as no surprise, not for me anyway!

What’ was the Clevedonaires’’ creative process and musical motivation?

I think one of the most important things we did was to rehearse a lot as a band, at least once or twice a week. This is how you really get to know your bandmates and develop into a unit, and it boosts confidence, because we all knew our parts. Naturally the three of them being siblings, living together, with a dedicated place to practice, really made it a lot easier. And unlike many groups, we never had to worry about the business side of life as Bill Brown – that’’s Graham, Ron and Gaye’’s father – together with Benny Levin, our agent/manager/promoter, did a great job steering us in the right direction. We all had the same goal – to be hugely successful!

When Gaye switched to keyboards (thanks to the invention of the portable Vox Continental electronic organ) and I took over bass duties, I started with Gaye’’s Epiphone semi acoustic, short scale/neck bass before eventually buying a Fender Precision bass. Our sound and repertoire changed and we took on a harder, heavier sound – no more Seekers!

The hippy era had arrived and we just moved right along with it. You had to give your audience what they wanted in order to keep the momentum up, and back then, all they wanted to hear was the radio and TV hits of the day. We performed at venues like Surfside in Takapuna, and a variety of local town and church halls in the South Auckland region. These dance gigs were well patronised – it’s where all the young people met. Benny Levin Promotions would have posters stuck-up all over the place. You always knew who was playing where. The Clevedonaires became very popular.

Who else was playing around the venues in that era?

There were lots of bands around then as there are now, but in that era we often shared billing with Larry’’s Rebels, another of Benny’’s bands. Then there were the La De Da’s, The Underdogs, Ray Woolf, The Gremlins, Jimmie Sloggett, Mr Lee Grant, The Chicks. It’’s a very long list, and better than my memory!

We never really had a permanent residency in NZ like many bands did. We moved around a lot and therefore gained more exposure, but of course the best exposure and the only actual residency we had was a weekly television slot on The We Three Show. That made us a household name in NZ. Coupled with some C’’mon appearances it gave us nationwide exposure and the drawing power that Benny just lapped up.

How did the Clevedonaires’ early singles contribute towards the popularity of the band?

Recording on Benny’’s Impact Label was a disadvantage in some respects as there was always a very tight budget and therefore time frame. We had to be fully rehearsed then go to the studio and lay down the tracks as quickly as possible – no time for experimentation here. But never-the-less radio exposure was also very powerful, especially if you could crack the top 20. There is nothing like hearing a band on the radio or TV then going out to see them perform live.

My first recording session with the band was at the NZBC’’s Shortland St Studio in Auckland, and the second at Stebbing’’s home studio in Herne Bay. I had never been inside a recording studio before. I love electronic stuff and technology, so I thought it was fantastic. All tape and vinyl, no computers, no digital, no internet, but they had some of the best available equipment in the ’’60s.

Relocating to Australia in those days was a huge undertaking – what were your expectations and what was the reality there?

We virtually had no choice other than relocate to Australia after our tour to Vietnam to entertain the troops got literally ‘bombed out’. We had already tidied up all our engagements in NZ and were ready to travel, so Benny got busy and got us a gig at the Cooma Hotel in the Snowy Mountain region, south of Sydney. It was a tough gig. They had us playing all sorts of hours, but it was a starting point. It was also the start of our time as fully professional musos. Our residency in Cooma was followed by a residency in Sydney at the Yagoona pub.

From there we made some great connections that led to our eventual success in Australia. Dinah Lee, whom we backed at the pub one night, was instrumental in our joining the Cordon Bleu agency and under their guidance we never looked back. We changed our name to The Cleves, slowly changed our repertoire and all dressed in jeans. It was completely different to what we were used to. Times were changing and we also needed to become more original, particularly with our music.

We began writing songs as a group and were able to do that because we all got along so well. In the end we became very experimental and developed our own form of progressive rock. Some if it was and still is quite bizarre! Those actual recordings have become available again today and are well worth checking out. We became a very popular group on the local scene –– again TV appearances and radio exposure from our recordings were instrumental in our rise from obscurity to popularity, and once again great management proved to be a vital component for success.

What sort of reaction did The Cleves get coming back to NZ? Had the scene changed while you were away?

I don’’t think the NZ scene had changed at all in that time, but we had. In fact we had changed dramatically, visually and sound-wise. Gaye now had an M100 Hammond organ complete with Leslie speaker so we could replicate the sounds of Steppenwolf and Procol Harum etc. You just could not buy these instruments in NZ back then so it was a jaw-dropper for our fans when they heard and saw us. We had also ditched our uniforms and stage dress for long hair and jeans, and finally we were a fully professional band now called The Cleves. That was an extremely successful tour for us, but we were keen to get back to Sydney to start recording.

How was it for you breaking into the mainstream Australian music business?

Well like always, it involves hard work. It was not uncommon to do up to four gigs in one day, especially on the Melbourne tours. We would make good money but they worked us hard for it. It was the quality gigs that really made a big difference and as we gained momentum we landed some classics –– the Here Disco and Checkers Nightclub, Harry M Miller’’s Hair after-party, Sydney Uni to name just a few. This led to a recording contract with Festival Records Australia.

One of the biggest changes within the band was that we had started to write our own material and this led on to jingle and soundtrack writing. We were now a completely different band from the Clevedonaires –– we had to be. The level of competition if you like from other bands made it so. There was the Billy Thorpe band, Doug Parkinson, Max Merritt, The La De Da’s, The Chain, Daddy Cool. That is what we were up against and they were all bloody good. Well, we took up the challenge and managed to pull it off.

In late 1970 you started work on your first album with debut producer Richard Batchens –– who later engineered Split Enz’s’ debut ‘’Mental Notes’’.

Our first Festival single, You & Me, was produced by Pat Aulton, and the debut album was produced by Richard Batchens. I’’ve always been interested in the recording process, and although the Festival studio back then was pretty dated it was still a cut or two above what we had experienced in NZ. This was my first real insight into professional sound recording and how it was done. We had a producer and an engineer this time so I could see how it all fitted together. I always had a good tape recorder in those days, and I would record all our rehearsals, so the more I saw, the more I learned about recording. In fact I’m still recording today.

You later moved on to the UK, renaming the band Bitch. How did you manage to get your foot in the door over there so quickly and land a major label deal?

We decided that the UK market would be a little easier to crack. Even some American artists were going there for the same reason, but it was do or die, a huge risk. So many before had failed but it was something we all wanted to do, well three of us anyway. Graham our drummer was now newly married and chose to return to NZ for a life of wedded bliss. For Ron, Gaye and me it was all go. We just needed a new drummer, and we found a ripper in Ace (Adrian) Follington.

We dumped the old name in favour of Bitch in order to grab some attention. We had a new line up, new material and a new look. We managed to arrange a gig at the famous London venue The Speakeasy, and invited the top record company A&R people to come and check out this hot new Aussie band. They were all impressed and we ended up with a dream contract with WEA Records London. That resulted in Good Time Coming, our first UK single release. It hit the charts high in most European countries but not in the UK. That was strange. But not as strange as to why it was never even released in Australia or NZ. Maybe it was our name?

moments bitch nzm161Your booking agent in the UK only had a small handful of acts including The Rolling Stones. There is a story of how your vocalist Gaye secured a gig that she told the client the Stones couldn’’t perform?

Well it was more like, “The Stones aren’’t available but we do have this new band called Bitch and they will soon be the next big thing!”” We got the gig. It was for a private royal family with this huge castle-like estate. It was a ‘coming out’ celebration for the daughter. The rest is a blur!

How did the recording experience differ in the UK for the newly named Bitch?

There are three sides to the recording process: the business side, the production side and the creative side. If one fails they all fail. Bitch got caught up in a corporate shake up. The album had been completed so it was the business side that had let us down. Good Time Coming would have been a classic. It was and still is a great sounding track today. In fact British musical outfit UNKLE sampled the riff for their hit Restless. It’’s a great track and worth a listen if you haven’’t already heard it. It’’s also great to see Bitch/Cleves’ material now available on vinyl and CD.

The music industry can be a harsh place especially in such a huge and competitive market like the UK and Europe, but before the bubble burst we met and played with some great artists. Playing with Alan Price (ex-Animals) in Nice and at the Cannes Film Festival would have to have been the highlights of our time over there. That was an amazing week. Working with Muff Winwood after the band fell apart was where I really saw how a studio works. I spent more time in the control room than in the studio. When you get to see the pommy recording system, it is no wonder how they get that great music out. It is big business.

You returned to NZ in 1977, becoming an in-house producer at Stebbing Recording Centre in Auckland?

I had just returned from the UK with my wife Val and I needed a job. One guy owned everything here – which was a big difference. It’s not corporate. Eldred Stebbing needed some success from his studio and experience and knowledge are the best tools to make that happen. I had them both. It was the beginning of a new career for me so a perfect fit for both of us. In England Ron and I had no choice but to call it quits. We had gone the full distance and then some. I chose NZ because of my family. It was time for a change, but it had to be music. I wanted to have a shot at producing, so I put my heart and soul into it.

You worked with the late Ian Morris on albums that included Murray Grindlay, Th’’ Dudes, Hello Sailor, Golden Harvest and commercial jingles. What you were able to contribute to these sessions?

Apart from Murray Grindlay, hardly any of these artists had been inside a recording studio. Ian Morris was Eldred’s protégé so he knew his way around the studio and he was young and clever. We hit it off like magic. We had a great respect and understanding for each other, so together we made a great production team. All we needed were some great artists, and once we found them we began to make gold!

Some of the songs we were presented with were quite average to start with but Ian and I managed to make then sound fantastic. Some artists like Dave Dobbyn for example were just naturals from the start. With every artist or band we worked with we became a part of them while recording, creating in harmony if you like. I think that is the secret. Everyone has their part to play in the big picture.

The drum sound on Hello Sailor’s Gutter Black was considered quite unique –– how did that came to be recorded?

The recording part was standard procedure. It’’s what happened afterwards that created that sound. Whenever we recorded, the separation of the drum components was great, and people like Ian and me, well we live the music. It’’s like an obsession if you like. Anyway the next day I arrived at the studio and Ian asked me to check something out. He had fed the snare drum track out through these huge Altec Lansing studio monitors at full blast, placed a mic at the other end of the church-like main studio, and that great sound was the result. Very ingenious. It sounded just perfect with the rest of the track so I pushed it right up front.

What different types of producers are there and what makes for a good producer?

Good producers make hit records. Period. The skill involved is the ability to put the whole project together. You need great people skills, musical and technical ability plus an understanding of what the artist wants. On top of all of that a producer has to deal with budgets, time frames, deadlines, expectations and the powers that be. It’’s a tough game and it’’s all about money –– no sales, no income.

What led you to relocate to Australia?

Family again was the main motivation. My wife had been away for almost 20 years and I was also frustrated and somewhat disappointed with the NZ music industry. I guess we were looking for a new challenge and change of scene. The period of time since moving back to Aussie is another story and I cover all of that in my new e-book The Undertow.

The Cleves actually made a significant impact in Australia. Living there, have you noticed over the years something of a legacy develop?

Definitely in NZ but I live in tropical North Qld, Townsville. It’’s not far from Mars here and memories seem to stop at AC/DC. I have yet to meet someone who remembers the Cleves up this way. But I do know that an original copy of the Cleves’ album is one of the most sought after collectors’’ albums in Australia. At last report there’’s one available in Sydney for $995! And remember that was recorded in the late ’’60s, the days of tape and vinyl and now we are all in our 60s!

Among the artists you’ve worked with who would you consider made the biggest impression on you?

Jim Ryan was definitely one of those people. He was appointed to produce the Bitch album and our first single Good Time Coming. This was his debut as a producer but Jim was one of America’’s best session guitarists –– that’’s him playing lead guitar on Carly Simon’’s album and hit single You’’re So Vain. He came out to the country manor where we lived in Crowborough, East Sussex for pre-recording rehearsals and when he got out his guitar and joined in on one of our songs, he blew us all away! He just lifted everything to a whole new level. We had never played with one of the world’s best before. It was just an incredible experience.

Guy Stevens was another producer we got to know later on. He was just crazy, brilliant or insane – it was a fine line. He was involved with Procol Harum and Mott The Hoople and is the guy who came up with all those cool names back then. After Bitch broke up he helped form a band called Raw Glory with Ron and me, but he was a real handful.

Muff Winwood as I mentioned earlier, ex-Spencer Davis Group and brother of Stevie Winwood was chief producer at Island Records in London, and he helped Ron and me with some experimental tracks after the Bitch experience, and as I mentioned earlier, that is where I learned in more detail how the studio engineers and producers worked.

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

Believe in your own ability, practice hard and don’’t let setbacks stop you from achieving your goals. Just keep working away at it. It’’s a tough industry.

What are your personal five favourite records that never fail to brighten your day?

The tracks I’’m currently working on, that’’s all I ever listen to.

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

The Undertow by Rob Aickin (https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/the-undertow/id989734757?mt=11)

The best advice you ever got was…?

Always be nice to your mother.

 

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