Shona Laing (1/2)

At the risk of sounding like a dippy hippy, it is cosmic, it comes upon me.

Shona Laing on songwriting, 30 May 2008

Orbitalive Interview

It’s hard to say which song is the worst on The Very Best of the Girls: Kiwi Music – The 60’s and 70’s.  I feel that the top three contenders are Pinnochio by Maria Dallas, I Have Loved Me a Man by Allison Durban, and Every Day is Sunday by Rangi Parker.  Maria and Allison took their songs to number one.  I can’t find anything about Rangi’s number except the lyrics which speak for themselves:

 Everyday is Sunday if you’re Sun-daily inclined / Any day is Sunday coz it’s all a state of mind

 Sunday, Sunday, think like Sunday / Pink instead of grey

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday / Try it any day

Sun-daily inclined?  However, nothing beats I Have Loved Me a Man for making you feel queasy.

I have loved me a man – like my mamma did

Tall and tender, his hands like my daddy’s were

And a mind that understands

And the arms that held me when I was crying

The lips that kissed away the tears

They’re a part of the man that my mamma loved

And I have loved me a man

Ok, I know what she’s singing about, and I know it’s not about marrying your dad, but it’s definitely buried there as a subtext in the lyrics so that when we reach the natural conclusion in verse three:

I will bear him a child – like my mamma did

You just want to turn the song off, take the CD out of the player and quietly place it in the rubbish bin never to be spoken of again.


On Wednesday 22 November, 1972 the final heat of the variety competition New Faces screened in New Zealand.  In this episode of the competition there were five acts: Kount 5 Plus 2 of Stratford (five blokes with droopy moustaches and two lovely ladies); Steve Gilpin of Lower Hutt; Destiny of Palmerston North (a vocal group from college doing religious numbers); The Royal Nites of Christchurch (a five piece who had been working 18 months at a Christchurch hotel); and Shona Laing, of Eastbourne, who was then seventeen.

The first show in this season of New Faces had featured the Dargaville Yugoslav Tamburica Orchestra (they had all their tamburicas specially imported from Yugoslavia).  The judges had noted the difficulty of applying judging criteria to such diverse acts.  Two of the judges were Ray Columbus, and Alec Wishart (of Hogsnort Rupert).  The four judges reviewed the thirty acts over six heats, the public voted and then the judges decided the winner in the final.  How they assessed tamburica music against acoustic guitar ballads was not disclosed although I suspect they applied the judges’ rule of: “A tamburica?  What the f**k is a tamburica?  Get rid of them for Christ’s sake.”

The 1972 final of New Faces featured Steve Gilpin, Destiny and Shona Laing.  In addition there were The Lamplighters from Wellington (a barber shop quartet), Andy Waretini, Lindsay Marks, and the duo of Tony Kaye and Ted Taptiklis.  Denis Wederell, reviewing the show in The Listener, noted that “while the standards set were demanding they were not unduly high.”

John Dix covers the period in a chapter called The Age of Banality in his book Stranded in Paradise.  I have the feeling that John Dix didn’t enjoy watching Studio One or New Faces.

Family groups.  They came bouncing out every year, wide-eyed and breathless.  Little Jimmy and cutesy Carol out front – dimpled cheeks, missing teeth and smiles to break concrete hearts; behind them stood Mum and Dad, she banging a tambourine out of time, he exhausting his two-chord knowledge of the guitar; the whole gathering wailing through a stirring rendition of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”.

In The Evening Post on Thursday 30 November, in the Women’s News section, we learn that Shona performed 1905 and You Are the One during the competition, and placed second overall; “Shona now has a contract with a recording company, but as she is still at school a possible singing career is taking second place to her studies.  Next year she will be in the seventh form, taking a science course.”

I’m not sure if Shona started her seventh form year but by February 1973 Shona Laing’s 1905 had climbed into the top ten eventually reaching number four.  Ray Columbus in his column Sound-Round in The Listener reported: “Shona Laing is making good time with her first 45, “1905”.  The second place-getter in New Faces is currently at the top of some provincial pop charts.  It is getting loads of airtime elsewhere – only Auckland seems to have overlooked this beautiful song and singer.  (The Fonda family, Jane and Henry in particular, inspired Shona to write the song.)”

Even though 1905 doesn’t quite work as a song I think it might be the first New Zealand song that I really like.  In fact, I think it’s the first pop song by a New Zealander that sounds original.  Up to that point, I would argue, even the good New Zealand songs sound derivative.  Some of these songs are good of course, but whereas something like Nature by Formulya sounds like a Byrds song, 1905 sounds like a song by… well, by Shona Laing.

If you listen to her sing this song it is hard to believe she is seventeen.  Her voice is deep and strong, and it is not a song about things you might (sexistly) expect a school girl to write about.  Earlier in the year she had sent a school demo tape of a song she had written called You Are The One to the New Faces show and the producer asked to hear more.  Laing played him a whole heap of her own songs but not 1905 – until the end.  “It was quite personal and fresh and new and I was withholding it because it was close to me.  It was also what he was looking for.” (Counting the Beat, Gordon Spittle)

The only thing you can find out about this song is that it is somehow inspired by Henry Fonda.  Unfortunately it is in the lyrics that I think the song stumbles.  Shona had this to say about her early lyric writing: “I try to be less infallible in terms of my lyrics than when I was 18.  I don’t think it’s important that the original or basic theme be made obvious lyrically.”  In relation to 1905 she definitely doesn’t make the basic theme obvious:

I could light a cigarette / and take time / to find the words to write / but time costs time / and I haven’t really got / the time to spend today / so I’ll gaze at the blue envelope / wondering if I should send it away…  1905, you won your battle with life / the turn was mine 50 years later…

Henry Fonda was born in 1905.  Fifty years later Shona was born.  Ok.  Good.  I suppose that Shona was thinking about how people get older, and the passing of time, and all that.  Or something else.  Who knows.

If Shona Laing hadn’t mentioned that thing about Henry Fonda, and had called the song something like Passing Time, I think the song would have been straightforward.  But she didn’t name it that, and she did mention the thing about Henry Fonda, and this makes the whole thing very confusing.  On the other hand, if you looked at what New Zealand female artists were getting to the top of the charts Shona may have been pitching her songs too high (“I will bear him a child – like my mamma did”).

Shona 2

Her second single that year was Show Me Love which is also very good (and also got to number four), and along more straightforward lyrical lines.  She twice represented New Zealand at the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo.  This was a festival that ran from 1970 to 1989 sponsored by Yamaha in order to promote (yawn) world peace through the universal language of music.  For a while each year had a theme.  In 1973 the theme was “Mother, It’s a Song” and Shona’s entry was Masquerade.    (I suppose the tone of the theme all hinges on how you say the word “Mother”.)  Masquerade received an Outstanding Song Award and placed fourth (although there was a four way tie for first place so this really makes it eighth place).  In 1974 her entry for New Zealand was Rainbow and the theme that year was “We’re Sun-Lovers” (the 1976 theme was “Clap Your Hands Tap Your Hearts”.  After this they dropped themes.  Possibly because songs that were heart-tappers proved dangerous).  It was at the 1974 show that she met Roberto Donova an Italian based in London who encouraged her to head to London.

I kind of ran away in lots of ways. In that time I wrote songs…. I did a lot of travelling, met a lot of people, fell in love a lot. The big thing… was the travelling. I did London to Kathmandu in 1976 and that’s just huge now. With the time in between, I can remember it all. We were still very much a novelty in those days. I loved Afghanistan. It was a huge education in respect. Wonderful people.

Times Interview, 9 November 2006

This interview is a bit like her lyrics for 1905; she’s saying something but I’m not sure what.  Anyway it sounds like fun.

The first New Zealand song to win an award at the Tokyo World Popular Song Festival had been the dreaded Pinnochio which was number one in New Zealand for six weeks in 1970.  Shona would have been fifteen and in the fourth form at Hutt High.  Somehow she wandered out of this musical wasteland and said something fresh and original.  In 1972 she was a school girl living in Eastbourne, by 1976 she had recorded two albums, had two top ten hits, travelled to Tokyo twice, moved to London and travelled through Europe and Asia.

Some might say she had won her battle with life.

Part Two

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

9 thoughts on “Shona Laing (1/2)”

  1. Fair enough. Although I do think Joni reached greater heights that Shona. On the other hand Shona’s first albums are great and, yep, in almost any other country she’d have been a way bigger star. I’ve always felt sorry for NZ artists in that respect. Mind you, they must have been doing it for love and kicks which is probably the best reason to be in it. Still, I do wish 1905 was a more developed idea.

  2. Like all of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics work? Let’s not be unduly harsh on Ms. Laing. It’s a brilliant song, and she’s a vastly original singer and songwriter. If she were in the States or the UK, and had been discovered by say a Geffen, she’d have been huge. She’s the complete package, singer, writer, attractive, can perform well … keeps innovating … I have nothing but praise for her.

  3. albert einstein published his theory of relativity (battle with LIGHT ) in 1905. He died in 1955 (the year Shona Laing was born )

  4. I met Shona some time around 2001 when she came to a school I was at inTauranga – nice lady.
    By the way, John-Paul, “It SO works” is such a gender bending phrase!

  5. Nice! It SO works as a gender bending song. What do you think they are grinding with that big stone roller? Grain into flour? Tack into hilarity? Mika into….

    Thanks for reminding me of Mika… I am reading Carmen’s autobiography at the moment. A very curious affair.

  6. I confess a fondness for Mika’s 1990 version of “I Have Loved Me a Man”, with its bending of gender and video in which so many gay themes and aspirations (not to mention displays of male bodies) have their day.

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