Shona Laing (2/2)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was something called the Loxene Golden Disc Award for the best song in New Zealand.  Loxene were a shampoo company, and first place was determined by public vote.  In 1972 here were the nominees:

  1. Can’t Get Sunday Out of My Mind – Chapta
  2. Carolina – Creation
  3. Dalhi Mohammed – Timberjack
  4. Dance All Around the World – Blerta
  5. Every Day is Sunday – Rangi Parker
  6. Good Morning Mr. Rock’n’Roll – Headband
  7. Holy Morning – Rumour
  8. Lazy River – Kal-Q-lated Risk
  9. Life on Mars? – Steve Allen
  10. Roundhouse – Quincy Conserve
  11. Sunshine Through a Prism – Suzanne
  12. Take the Money and Run – Bunny Walters

I draw your attention to number 5 on this list.


Out of hundreds of entries this song was selected as one of the twelve best songs in New Zealand in 1972.  The music was written by a New Zealander, and the lyrics – bizarrely – by a New Yorker.  The New Zealander and the American never met.

On 16 April 1973 an interview with Shona Laing appeared in The Listener: Shona Laing – sick of the same old songs, by Robert Keyzer.  By this time Shona had been discovered on the New Faces show, and her song 1905 had gone to number four on the national chart.

Despite the publicity, Shona’s life remains unaffected.  She wears jeans and a T-shirt whenever possible – “It bugged me to be put into a long dress, but I accepted it.  I hate having all the make-up shoved on my face, but I suppose that’s necessary for television.  She’s the youngest of five brothers and sisters, and is a prefect in the seventh form at Hutt High School.  She has spent all her 17 years in or around Eastbourne, in a comfortable 70-year-old house set in a half-acre of bush.

I suppose this is an example of being put in a long dress and having make-up shoved on your face.  At the end the applause is deafening.  It’s the sound of gratitude; of a mainstream New Zealand audience seeing someone mainstream and actually good.

Shona’s first break as an entertainer was being accepted for Studio One last year.  “I did a tape with some teachers at school.  It was accepted and then I auditioned.  Producer Christopher Bourn remembers not knowing what to think when confronted with a straggly-haired,  barefooted, jeaned and T-shirted Shona come straight off the beach, sitting down and singing “You Are The One”.  “The first thing I said,” says Chris, “was where did you get that song?  When she said very quietly that she’d written it herself I just flipped.”

She’s unsure of her future, though a social science course at university is a possibility.  Teaching is her second choice and she has also considered studying music at university.  Shona is largely self-taught.  The only other musical adept in the family was her grandmother who played piano and sang at silent film screenings in the Wellington district.  Shona has been playing guitar since she was seven or eight years old, and experimenting naturally since then.  “I wrote my first song in standard four, which was the most ridiculous thing you ever heard in your life,” she says, “but I suppose the others started coming about the third form.  I got sick of playing the same old songs so I made up my own.  Then I was trying to be really “gun” – writing protest songs.  I write about things I feel.  In the fifth form I wrote ten songs about bomb tests.  And people like ‘1905’.”


“That song is about Henry Fonda.  He was born in that year, and it started being about him because I was rapt with him.  Was, underlined,  I thought he was a terrific actor and it seemed he could be a nice guy.  My imagination ran wild.  But it could be about anybody.  A lot of kids around my age do get rapt in people too old for them.  I’m a classic case I suppose.”

She is a dreamer.  She dreams of going to California, of swimming with the herrings in the clear coast waters up north… of toasting marshmallows… or of leapfrog on the beach.  “I’d like to take off sometimes, which I can’t do.  I’ve got an absolute adoration for jets.  I went through a stage where every song I wrote had something about jets in it….  Last year when we had to put our expected profession on a form at school I jokingly put to be the first female commercial jet pilot.”

“Daydreaming is incredible….  My stereo doorbells are a classic example.  My dream room is really big and has bear skins on the floor – or maybe synthetic rugs.  There’s a raised floor in one corner, and whopping great stereo speakers on both sides that I’d have up so loud that if anyone came to the door I wouldn’t hear them.  So I’d wire up the doorbell to the speakers so that I could hear it.”

“Writing songs is like a dream too.  I can never remember how I do it.  I suppose the music and some words come together.  A couple of times I’ve written a poem and put it to music but it hasn’t worked out properly.  I just write for guitar.”

She mentions that her voice range is not large, and that it used to be better before she started smoking.  “Sometimes I can sing really high, sometimes really low.  At the school where we have a choir I end up singing bass, or tenor anyway.”  Two of her songs are being used in the end-of-year musical history of New Zealand being staged at school.  One is about rugby, censored because of two “naughty words – one at the end of a line has been changed to a word that doesn’t rhyme.  The song is about a Lions match I went to when we lost; the only match I’ve been to and the most disappointing  one I’ve heard of.”

I like to reread that last quote and imagine how much trouble Hutt High School would get into now if one of their female students announced in the national press that she sings bass in the school choir because she smokes so much.  Which actually leads me nicely to my favourite advertisement from The Listener in 1973:


There was a lot of very bad music being made in New Zealand in the early 1970s.  This is perhaps not very surprising.  The most surprising thing I have found listening to these old Studio One and Loxene Golden Disc albums is how much AWESOME music was being made.  It strikes me that there are dozens of stories behind an album cover like this (Shona Laing appears in the top left corner):


Indeed, one of these long-haired turkeys (was everyone ashamed of their ears in the 1970s?) was going to have a mercifully brief number one in 1973 and then go on to “greater” things in 1974.

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