MUSIC = 3/5
SOUND = 3/5
It’s Gazza’s Big Ketchup, wherein GARY STEEL chips away at the massive review pile that accrued during 2016. Today, NZ’s ‘most acerbic music writer’ assesses a compilation tracing both the peaks and the lows of Ray Columbus in the ’60s, as well as the obscurities of our chameleon-like entertainer.
IT FEELS BITTERSWEET reviewing Now You Shake so soon after the death of Ray Columbus, a seminal figure both to NZ pop music and the NZ entertainment industry. It feels to me as though we never got to the bottom of what this guy represented. He was confusing to many (including this reviewer) because he straddled so many different strands of popular music and general entertainment, and so many eras.
Now You Shake (subtitled The Definitive Beat-R’N’B Pop Psych Recordings 1963 – 1969) feels like a pretty apt exposition of this problem. Even during the 1960s, Columbus was chameleon-like, moving through so many styles that fans would have been confronted over and over again with abrupt changes to his sound and presentation. And even though the album has a generous 29 tracks, it has to stop short of later developments into light entertainment and country music – small mercies for that!
Clearly developed for an international audience to provide both a snapshot of his ‘60s work and a taste of both the big hits and the noble failures, there’s a bit of everything here, and few are going to like all of it.
The problem for New Zealand music fans is that most of us never need to hear ‘She’s A Mod’ again, despite its deservedly iconic status. It’s just that we’ve heard it too many times, and it’s always there to remind us that, had Ray taken his Invaders to Australia or England or America, then this might have been a very different story, and we may have seen a longer career with more hits and a more consistent sound. The first 11 songs are all Ray and the Invaders, and along with lesser-known tracks, there’s the gritty blues of ‘Yo Yo’ and that yearning big ballad, ‘Till We Kissed’. Even here though, there are some dungers, like the silly dance craze song ‘C’mon And Swim’.
After that, there’s a clutch of five solo Columbus efforts, and he suddenly sounds all “swinging” London and horn-laden and trying on different vocal hats. This segment culminates (if that’s the right word) with a misguided attempt to update his big hit, ‘She’s A Mod ‘66’.
Then it gets interesting. The next two songs are from his American phase, and he’s accompanied by the Art Collection, a bunch of musos who eventually left him to become Sonny & Cher’s backing band. Suddenly, it’s all astringent guitar and psych tropes, with lyrics that seem to be mimicking the most bandwagon-jumping of the American garage-psych bands. ‘Kick Me’, for instance (“Kick me/I think I’m dreaming”) clearly alludes to LSD, although Columbus is on record as saying that he never took anything stronger than alcohol. ‘Snap Crackle & Pop’ is corny flake psych that is only a whisker away from Love’s baroque sound, with a sliver of Byrds thrown in for good measure. Neither is great, and he sounds like a fish out of water, but as psych curiosities they’re most entertaining.
After this, it gets plain odd, with songs like ‘Polka Dot Resistance’, where Ray puts on an American accent. Sadly, it’s like a car crash that you just have to ogle. ‘East Pinkerton St’ seems to pick up on the vibe of Nancy Sinatra’s Lee Hazlewood productions and it features some nice organ, but again, it sounds like a mis-match. The same is true of ‘In Memory Of Today’ (“Today I feel like the man who never was”), while ‘Happy In A Sad Kind Of Way’ reverts to balladeer-pop (’68 style) territory with its flute, trumpets and bass groove. ‘Los Angeles’ yet another oddity, a frankly terrible song that sounds like it’s trying to aspire to be the theme tune for some TV turkey.
‘Hold Me’ is equally dire. Like your worst nightmare of C’mon ’68, this is the return of the singing/dancing man, the family entertainer. Nice wah-wah though! ‘Traveling Singing Man’, on the other hand, is just strange, a kind of memoir of his excursions that’s excruciating but memorable, with it’s chorus of “Ka mate! Ka mate! A challenge is worth my while!”
That’s pretty much it, apart from a few oddball extras, making this an album that is more musical autobiography than a great or consistent listen in its own right. Perhaps the legacy of Ray Columbus won’t be as one of our truly great pop artists, but that doesn’t lessen his importance. You can almost smell the ambition in a lot of these songs, and that’s the thing about Ray. It’s ambition but not craven ambition. This is a guy who had the courage and pluck to go for it, and never stopped, whether he was making music or coaching and mentoring others or working to make our fledgling industry more successful. His big hits were in an era where albums still weren’t the way fans consumed pop music, and nobody expected the kind of longevity we’ve subsequently experienced.
For all the musical and geographical missteps documented on Now You Shake, it’s a worthwhile listen, and it’s perfectly indicative of the baby steps our music industry was taking, and the growing pains it was suffering, as well as its small successes.
While the CD comes with a fairly thick and colourful booklet, I’ll make the same plea that I’ve made about other historic NZ compilations: please, either make the font size larger, or the type face easier to read against the backgrounds! And the thing I would really have thought useful is an easy-to-read list of songs/composers, as well as information about sources. While some tracks sound dynamic and have a really decent dynamic range, a few sound like they’re taken straight off worn-out vinyl. GARY STEEL
[Note: Gary Steel reserves the right to reappraise and alter his star ratings up or down at any time].