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.

Shona

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

Elton John

Below is a review of some of Elton John’s album covers.  I am using the little known Powley-Prowse Face Pain Scale Reviewing System.  This system was invented in 2008 the week I broke my collar bone and went to an Ornette Coleman concert.  When I was in the ambulance the paramedic showed me a face pain scale chart and asked me to pick which face best represented my pain scale.  I’m pretty sure that this is a flawed system in a country famous for understatement.  Anyway, I obviously picked too low on the scale because instead of rushing me to hospital they decided to go and pick someone else up as well.

Later in the week I went to see Ornette Coleman in concert.  I thought it was a great concert, but my friend Richard who is a very talented musician didn’t.  In fact I think parts of the concert brought him a lot of physical pain.  It was then I devised the Powley-Prowse Face Pain Scale.  It may seem complicated at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of it.

Album One: Honky Chateau

Honky Chateau

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He looks pretty cool here.  Almost uniquely in the Elton John album cover oeuvre he actually looks like the kind of guy I could imagine would write good songs.

Album Two: Jump Up!

200px-Jump_Up_EJ_Album

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I think the photographer should have told Elton he had the wrong hat on.  Otherwise he sort of looks cool.  How come designers thought those neon triangles, lines and squiggles looked neat in the 80s?

Album Three: Victim of Love

Album_Victim_of_Love

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Victim of Love?  Did his lover make him dress like this at gun point, or was Victim of Fashion too obvious as a title?  My main complaint is that I don’t even like the idea of Elton John being dressed up to look sexy and distant.  What if I were accidentally attracted to him?

Album Four: The One

The_one_album

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Please.  Stop.  One last time: you are NOT  the Queen Mother.

Album Five: Rock of the Westies

Elton_John_-_Rock_of_the_Westies

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What was the look they were going for here?  That loveable rogue Sherlock Holmes?  Hand model for a jewellery catalogue?  Before and after shot for a shaving commercial?  Very hard to say.  His smile makes me feel slightly uneasy – like he is watching me brush my teeth but he knows something terrible about the toothbrush.

Album Six: Caribou

Elton_John_-_Caribou

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This is actually quite a cool album cover, but unfortunately Elton John has walked right into the middle of it and spoilt everything.  I am not going to say anything about the outfit.  The outfit is saying quite enough by itself.  How would I describe my feeling about this?  It might be the same as my feeling if I opened my front door and I saw that my friend had decided to dress like this on the day I was going to introduce him or her to my grandmother; a kind of dismayed disgust.

Looking through all of these album covers I feel that the essential problem has always been that Elton John doesn’t look very cool, and that people who design album covers are obsessed with selling something that is supposed to be cool.  As a result the designers probably either: (a) resent Elton’s lack of coolness and deliberately try to make him look like a tit as a form of revenge, or (b) ignore his lack of coolness, and try and make him look like he’s selling something else such as a photo album for the Queen Mum, or a new book about Miami Vice.

My god I love these covers!

This post is part of a series about the number one songs of 1973 in New Zealand.  The series can be found here.

Crocodile Rock

Crocodile Rock – Elton John

Number one in New Zealand 13 April – 27 April, 1973

Yes, Dwight – I can see him now with his blazer buttoned across his chest and his bum sticking out.  He had… an odd little walk, special to him.  I remember him being far more grown-up, more civilised.  He wasn’t a sychophant, he didn’t creep, but as a fourth-former he was someone a prefect or a sixth-former could talk to on equal terms.

from Elton – Philip Norman

This school yard reminscience about Elton John comes to us care of a woman called Gay Search.  This woman’s name almost strains credulity to breaking point, but the Elton John story is sort of like that.  If you were picking people out of a line-up in 1960 based on who you thought had a shot at becoming a rock’n’roll icon Dwight would not have been first cab off the rank. 

When I first encountered Elton John’s music in the 1980s he was enjoying one of his many post-1970s flourishes of popularity.  One of the first three records I ever bought was Elton John’s Too Low For Zero featuring the singles I’m Still Standing and I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.  Although I liked the album at the time I soon began to dislike Elton John and came to regard him as seriously uncool.  I was only 12 or 13 when I bought this album, and I had no idea that Elton was a pop musician who had an impressive back catalogue, so I judged him purely on what he did from Too Low For Zero onwards.  This meant that I spent my teens and twenties detesting Elton John.  This dislike reached its nadir in 1994 care of the Lion King soundtrack and Can You Feel the Love Tonight?  However, right at this horrible, sappy, barrel-scrapping low point Elton John began to intrigue me again.  I happened to see him on TV performing some horrible Lion King-era song at an MTV awards show and the audience, who were all probably about twenty, quite clearly didn’t give a toss about the pudgy old guy banging away on the piano up on the stage.  Elton got so annoyed with the audience he abruptly wrapped up the song, made a snippy comment and stomped off.  Suddenly I rather liked him.

Crocodile Rock comes from the album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973).  The second single off this album was DanielDon’t Shoot Me… was the second of three consecutive albums Elton John was to record at Chateau d’Herouville in France with a core group of musicians and his lyricist Taupin (a team he would put on hold in 1976, and then return to again for… Too Low For Zero).  The first of this trilogy was Honky Chateau (1972), and the third Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973).  Taken together they represent Elton John’s golden period when he turned into a completely improbable superstar.  To prove the point, the singles off these three albums are: Honky Cat, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock, Daniel, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets, and Candle in the Wind.  As an aside, this period also probably features the only Elton John album cover where he actually manages to look cool.

Honky Chateau

I wanted it to be a record about all the things I grew up with.  Of course it’s a rip-off.  It’s derivative in every sense of the word.

Elton John on Crocodile Rock

Reginald Kenneth Dwight growing up in 1950s England cuts an endearingly, chaste  figure.  He seems to have been a portly sort of fellow with a gentleman’s manners who kept to himself and excelled at the piano.  He began accumulating records early, filing them in his room with great care and building up an impressive collection.  His parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and they eventually divorced 1962 when Reginald was 15 years old.  Happily, Reg and his new Dad got on very well, but he seems to have maintained a residual bitterness against his biological father, a man who appeared to view Reginald and Reginald’s mother with disdain.

The future Elton John was nine years old when rock’n’roll broke like a wave across the western world, and he developed two early heroes of the piano: Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richards.

He had all of Little Richard’s records… stentorian shrieks of joyous gibberish accompanied by manic pounding on innocent keys.  As well as the madness, he loved the theatricality of the tiny dervish figure with its lounge-lizard moustache and wobbling drape suit.  He managed to see it live just once….  As Little Richard jumped over his piano, the virtuous fat boy had a spellbinding thought: “I wish that was me.”

 The rather nice thing about Reg is that he seems to have been so polite, and earnest, and middle class when he was growing up.  It’s rather tiresome hearing how other rock stars were rebels at school, and told their parents to get stuffed.  Generally this is probably a pack of lies.  Just as a biography of a saint paints everything in his or her holiness’ life as leading towards a glorious apogee, so it is de rigueur to look for signs of wild, reckless youth in the arthritic rocker’s background.  Reginald’s biographer is having none of this.  Could there be a more prosaic scene for the future Elton John to make his performing debut than this:

The sprawling old bar, still more full of echoes than people, with its dingy panelled walls and faded lampshades, its brown lino worn by generations of feet and supine dogs….  A few incurious eyes turn to the piano, where a bespectacled boy in a ginger tweed sports jacket is setting up some kind of microphone and loudspeaker, helped by a man and a petite, vociferous woman, plainly his mother.  Man and woman retire to a side table, leaving boy alone.  Dogged bespecatcled face nerves itself for plunge into cold swimming bath.

from Elton – Philip Norman

This is the raw material Elton John and Taupin magic Crocodile Rock out of.  The song sounds sexy, and American and nostalgic, so when Elton says he was thinking about all of the things he grew up with when he wrote this song I suppose he must have in mind all the places his records took him in his imagination when he was a kid rather than the creaky old British pubs that smelled of warm beer and stale cigarettes where he played, or the lonely bedroom of his teenage years filled with posters and LPs.  Either that or Elton’s biographer has left a lot of Chevy’s, jeans and stone skipping out of his account of Reggie’s early years.  Not to mention a girl called Suzie.

This post is part of a series about the number one songs of 1973 in New Zealand.  The series can be found here.