December/January 2020

by Richard Thorne

Wired For Sound: The Stebbing History of New Zealand Music

by Richard Thorne

Wired For Sound: The Stebbing History of New Zealand Music

Setting out to document and pay tribute to the contribution Eldred Stebbing made to the NZ music scene over seven hard-working decades of the 20th century, the team writing this book discovered that their story was as much one of history and social change as it was of one man’s giant legacy. Thus the scale of their challenge grew and grew, and compiling Wired For Sound itself became a decade-long task for its co-authors.

Grant Gillanders is well known as an active local music historian, compilation and re-issue specialist. Freelance writer Robyn Welsh is part of the Stebbing family, making the two a good tag team in terms of covering both the industry and more personal histories.

The 350+ page hardback result is a wonderfully detailed addition to the recorded history of NZ music from a unique viewpoint – that of the nation’s longest enduring recording, marketing and manufacturing provider – involving artist development, industry politics, nightclubs, harsh economics and ever-advancing technologies.

Eldred Stebbing (1921 – 2009) did it all, and this generously illustrated book surely leaves little of his business enterprise untold.

The nine chapters are largely chronological, with references going back as far as Eldred’s great-grandfather who emigrated from Germany in the mid-1800s. The separate but intersecting sound business paths of Eldred and his brother Phil are intriguing, as are the local and early international business politics that include names like Mercury Records, HMV, Benny Levin, RCA, Phil Warren and Harry Miller.

By about page 100 we are getting into the 1960s and artists who are part of many current musicians’ awareness – like Split Ends, Larry’s Rebels and The Underdogs. From here on certain artists are given their own brief section, Ray Columbus and the Invaders leading the pack with nine pages. 

Before his own death in 2016 Columbus also provided a very nicely composed foreword.

Coverage of things like the Stebbing-owned Galaxie venue, record charts and the Loxene Golden Disc Awards, are tied in via artists who had passed through the family home recording facility or Zodiac record label.

The 1970s saw the shift to a purpose-built studio and label HQ on Jervois Rd in Ponsonby, where it almost remarkably still operates today – and fittingly is used as the book’s cover photograph. Hit songs, jingles and awards flowed and it seems more of the country’s top acts recorded there than didn’t through that productive decade. Some of the artists recall Eldred taking an active interest in their recording sessions right into his 80s.

The final chapter looks at the historically important manufacturing part of the business that covered cassettes, VHS, CDs and DVDs. Throughout the pages are graphically well designed, with press photos, covers, sheet music, singles, advertisements, tickets, posters and more providing plenty of visual interest.

For all that there is no escaping that this is the story of Eldred Stebbing, a clearly remarkable man who continually pushed NZ music forward and created new boundaries all through his long life. In that context it’s frustrating just how little of his own voice is included, and correspondingly how little the reader really gets to know of his personality.

At times the continuous editorial narrative seems to filter out the possible impact of some intriguing anecdotes. As a (hefty) coffee table reader the book would have benefitted from visually highlighting some of the direct testimonies, letting casual readers more easily dip in easily for a quick taste of the personalities, stars and music covered. That said, it is a wonderfully interesting and valuable record of New Zealand’s music history.

Publisher: Bateman Books, rrp $90

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