How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the song that stormed the world by Simon Grigg (Awa Press, 2015), 255 pp., $38; In Love with These Times: My life with Flying Nun Records by Roger Shepherd (Harper Collins, 2016), 295 pp., $36.99
Two fine new books from insiders at the heart of two important chapters in the history of New Zealand popular music that will grace the bookshelves of lovers of home-grown musical talent. It would be only too easy to make facile comparisons between the works, and indeed there are many parallels. Both Simon Grigg and Roger Shepherd had their hands – albeit only nominally at times – on the helm of New Zealand music gold. In both cases, mistakes were made, lessons were learned, and the authors made it out alive, albeit barely, after changing the face of the local music industry and running headlong into the grey bureaucracy of corporate music. Both books tell the story of taking a provincial scene and propelling it to world status. Most importantly, both stories are compelling reads, and both are among the best books on the inside story of the New Zealand music scene ever written. But these parallels only tell a small part of the largely unconnected episodes which lie at the heart of the books, and indeed it shows the strength of New Zealand music that these two tales can co-exist largely without interacting with each other in as small a musical sphere as ours.
The word career has two meanings. As a noun it means a vocation or profession; as a verb it means to run out of control at a high speed. Both meanings are highly appropriate when referring to the career of OMC.
It was too much of a temptation for Simon Grigg to resist when he titled his history of THAT Pauly Fuemana song How Bizarre. Yet, however cliched and obvious the choice of title might be, it is an effective and accurate description of the parabolic path of OMC. If anything, the phrase could easily have been peppered throughout the book and would not have been out of place.
The rise and fall of OMC and Fuemana, its charismatic frontman, is a fascinating, frightening take of how the energy of a few individuals, the inner workings of the record industry, and the often delusional self-belief of many of those involved propelled the song to the top and continued to propel Fuemana beyond his ability to keep up.
Simon Grigg was a key figure in the OMC story, as record-company owner, friend and advisor to Fuemana and the person w
ho first linked him with recording and songwriting maestro Alan Jansson, so few are better placed to tell the tale. How did a young boy from the dirty, depressed streets of the heart of urban south Auckland, with more ambition and style than genuine musical talent, create one of New Zealand’s biggest-ever worldwide hits? The story is (yes, I’ll say it) a bizarre one, but in Grigg’s hands it is a excellent read. Grigg is an effective and passionate storyteller, so much so that the book is compelling even if the reader has little interest in the song or the South Auckland music scene from which it came. In the introductory passage, which sees Grigg reminiscing at Pauly’s funeral (an event which bookends the volume), you can almost hear the voice shaking with feelings of sadness, bitterness and perhaps just a hint of guilt that everything had got so out of hand. At other stages in the book you strongly feel the writer’s initial enthusiasm and eventual utter exhaustion with the song’s progress.
Grigg makes it clear from the start that this book is not a biography of Fuemana. It would be difficult to construct such a book, even if the writer wanted to. There is very little of Pauly’s early life detailed in the book – the reason being that little is known, other than what came out of the mouth of serial confabulator Fuemana himself. For Pauly, the line between fact and fantasy was something to be manipulated – as were those around him. If he hadn’t been so loveable (and backed by a formidable family clan), he would no doubt have been punched out on many occasions. But loveable he was, like an overgrown puppy that didn’t know its own strength. In many ways, his story reminded me of that of Sid Vicious: a genuinely nice kid who acted too tough, and who wanted fame in the music business – fame which he achieved at great cost despite a lack of traditional musical skills, mainly through personality, lack of inhibition, and a complete ignorance of his own limitations.
A second reason why a standard biography would not have been appropriate is that, while Fuemana was the public face of OMC and ‘How Bizarre’, the song was the result of a magical symbiosis of Pauly’s face and street cred with the musical talents of Alan Jansson, who clearly emerges in Grigg’s book as the undercredited force behind the song.
The book is – in the writer’s own words – a kind of a road trip, from street scene to recording to worldwide hit, and then on through mismanagement and decline. The tale circles around slowly to its main subject. With the exception of the bookending of the funeral, How Bizarre runs chronologically, starting with Grigg’s first meeting with Jansson in 1980. The first part of the book sets the scene throughly, presenting the social and musical background of the nascent Urban Pasifika genre and how it manifested itself in Otara and the surrounding suburbs. Grigg was a key player as a club owner; he was heavily involved in the South Auckland music scene and had more than a little nous and connection when it came to the recording side of the business. The Fuemanas were a big influence in the local community, with Phil Fuemana being a major figure in local youth culture. Where Phil had the talent and the business sense, it was brother Pauly whose ambition and looks made him a focal point.
The story, of course, is a New Zealand music legend. A kid from the suburbs makes a song that is so infectious it gets to number one worldwide, and then fails to produce a follow-up. The story behind the story, though, is what this book delivers: the critical role played by Jansson, Pauly’s extreme behaviour, machinations of international companies looking for the quick buck and of others who had no idea how to cope with a quirky New Zealand song or artist. The tale might sound cliched and predictable even as fiction, but its veracity and Grigg’s strengths as a writer make How Bizarre an impressive rollercoaster of a story.
If there are problems with the tale they are largely from its necessary structure. Grigg ostensibly is talking about a specific song, yet to tell that story in isolation is impossible. The book’s first section is a fascinating, but lengthy setting of the scene: call it ‘In the neighbourhood’, perhaps, to use a title from an influential earlier song with Jansson credits. For a book about the South Auckland music scene overall, it would be a great read, but for a book about one specific – albeit very important – song, it slows the book’s progress a little. Although Grigg emphasises that this is not a biography of Fuemana, it is surprising that he hardly enters the narrative until the book’s second section (dealing with the single ‘How Bizarre’ itself and the breakneck whirlwind of publicity, touring and excess).
By that stage, we are swept up in the tale, and have little opportunity to examine the man’s complex character – we never truly get under his skin. What was the reason for his continual self-destructive behaviour? Was it just hype-stoked ego, or drink and drugs, or an underlying metal state? The book makes no attempt to answer these questions, though in fairness this is no doubt partly to spare the feelings of those left behind. We are left, however, with a largely unexplained hair-trigger personality as a central figure in the tale.
In some ways, Grigg is perhaps too close to the story. There has clearly been a lot of ill-feeling between the Fuemana family and those involved in the creation of the music. Some of those animosities are made clear in the scenes around Pauly’s funeral, in which threats are made and grievances aired. Grigg’s writing is honest and frank about such matters, and about the personalities of those involved – he will not make friends with some former record company people as a result – but whether necessary or not, there is a slight feeling of attempted justification. Grigg is, however, honest about his own mistakes, and there is a definite sense of regret at having been unable to remain a mentor for Pauly once overseas record companies began to get involved.
Insights from others involved in the ‘How Bizarre’ saga would have been a revelation, but we would have been left with a profoundly different book. As it is, the volume has a strong air of truth about it, and is probably as near as we will get to the full story. Credit is given to those to whom credit is due, both within and outside the music industry. And for all his many faults, Fuemana is treated kindly and lovingly by the author as someone who was simply out of his depth, a young man lost in a world of sharks, but whose mere presence could light up a room
How Bizarre is an excellent read, compellingly written, and full of humour, joy, and sadness. It is lushly illustrated with two sections of colour plates – although jarringly with captions in the third person, despite the rest of the book being in first person narration. Fully indexed and with a timeline as an appendix, it is hard to find much fault in the work which has gone into the book’s presentation, which makes up for some of the questions left hanging by the text.
Above all, How Bizarre is an eye-opening glimpse into the manipulations and deceptions behind the scenes when naive small-timers hit the rock machinery. As Hunter S. Thompson once famously wrote, ‘The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.’ This book shows a considerable amount of that business.
All in all, this is as fine an addition to any New Zealand music fan’s library as the single for which it is named is to their music collection, and nigh on a compulsory read for anyone interested in either New Zealand music or how the international music business actually works.
Roger Shepherd’s book takes a different tack and is far more autobiographical. Whereas the story of How Bizarre is largely fuelled by nervous adrenalin and the unpredictable one-person whirlwind of Pauly Fuemana, Shepherd’s tale of the ebb and flow of Flying Nun Records and his role as the company’s owner and director is largely fuelled by the music itself, often clouded in a haze of whisky fumes.
And whereas Grigg’s book is linear, and concentrates on a small cast of characters, In Love With These Times has more of an epic sweep, with a cast of thousands, and is presented largely by subject rather than in a chronological flow (ironically, where Grigg’s book has an interesting if slightly redundant timeline, Shepherd’s book – which could do with such an appendix – has none). Unfortunately, while Shepherd is a good writer, this slightly dilutes the strength of the narrative. The telling of the story becomes more anecdotal as a result, but it is delivered in a calm, clear and often wryly humorous fashion. Part of the reason for this calmness may be the revelation towards the end of the book of the underlying health issues which dogged Shepherd’s journey (medication for bipolar disorder is not conducive to wildly fevered writing). As Shepherd himself pointed out in an interview with Russell Baillie in the New Zealand Herald, it’s very likely that Flying Nun would never have existed (and certainly never travelled the path it did) if it had not been for his slightly skewed mental state.
Yet for all that the book seems the gentler read of the two, it has one strength as a tale that Simon Grigg’s does not: this is a bildungsroman. Whereas Pauly Fuemana’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story was an important period in the life of those involved, with Roger Shepherd we see the development of the man while we see the development of the label: it is as much an autobiography as it is the tale of the ‘little label that could’. Shepherd pulls no punches about his shortcomings: his total naivety about how to run a record label, the ‘she’ll-be-right’ attitude which almost led to serious litigation, and above all the unhealthy lifestyle which saw him relying on more than a handful of liquid lunches as an anti-stress medication. By the end of the book, however, his life is largely on the right track, and the label, which he had sold to keep it alive, is back in his ownership, albeit as a smaller, more compact company than the 1980s legend.
Shepherd is in an interesting predicament in writing this story. He comes across as a fan who knows when a great sound is great, but also as someone undemonstrative, understated, and down-to-earth. He’s not the sort of character to boast about his achievements, yet the remarkable rise of Flying Nun is a story that deserves a boast or two, and in writing a book like this, it becomes a necessity. Thestory of Flying Nun is one of the most important in the history of New Zealand indie music; there have been other small labels concentrating on either the lo-fi music scene or on other genres (notably the important reggae and hip-hop scenes), but Flying Nun’s roster of impressive bands reads like a who’s who of the quirkier, earthier side of New Zealand pop, and it made its mark on campus radios and alternative music stations throughout the world. That bands of the calibre of The Clean, The Chills, Straitjacket Fits, The Bats, Tall Dwarfs, and The Verlaines (to name just a handful) should have developed via a shoestring-budget label run part-time by a record shop manager out of unfashionable cities like Christchurch and Dunedin is, frankly, remarkable.
Many of the characters who helped form the label are excellently observed in the text, and Shepherd is not afraid to give his opinions of those who should have made it big but didn’t, those who did make it big who probably shouldn’t have, and both the positive and negative sides of some of the larger-than-life characters working on or for the label. Chris Knox, for example, a pivotal figure in the label’s early days, is painted in both shadow and light: a lo-fi genius, a recording maestro, and someone who would metaphorically kick someone when they were down or pick a fight for the fun of it.
Yet the pen portraits are largely made with genuine wistful affection. Dunedin musician Matthew Bannister’s book on his time amongst the highs and lows of Flying Nun, Positively George Street, is mentioned by Shepherd as an important source (and certainly Shepherd’s book is one which draws comparisons with it), even though that book was scathing of certain aspects of the label and its personnel. Shepherd appears to hold no grudges and, while he is frank about several of the people he worked with, there is a sense that there is no rancour. As with Grigg’s book, there are times when it feels like Shepherd is too close to his story – that input from others would have rounded out some of its aspects – but this is a one-man, one-sided take and should be accepted as such.
It is the character descriptions and biographical anecdotes which supply much of the book’s interest. The heartbreaking story of Peter Gutteridge is one such, as is the (retrospectively) hilarious story of Flying Nun’s less-than-helpful London promotions manager. The various cities that play important parts in the story are also channeled into words in a way which gives them a perfect context for their place in the story.
Shepherd’s insider’s account seems almost too amazing to be real; nevertheless it all rings true. Many of the incidents mentioned are known to fans, and to those peripherally connected with the Nun scene (this reviewer included), but Shepherd’s manner of telling them brings them effectively to life. The book is an eminently readable and enjoyable tome, and while the tale wanes somewhat towards the end of the book, this is simply in keeping with the label itself: as the twentieth century reached its close Flying Nun was a shadow of its former self. Despite this, there is still gold in the tale’s closing chapters, and rounded out with potential hope for the label’s future.
Unlike Grigg’s book, the illustrations in Shepherd’s book are stark black-and-white photographs and drawings, but this is somehow fitting for the ethos of Flying Nun. It was never a lavish, flash operation – it got things done in its own quiet, quirky way and worked magic in the process.
JAMES DIGNAN has been a member of the Dunedin music and art scene for many years as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, poet, artist and writer. His reviews, mainly of art exhibitions, are regularly published in the Otago Daily Times. He presents a regular radio show on Radio One 91 FM.