GARY STEEL writes about one of the strangest tribute albums ever made about one of the strangest – and most loved – music obsessives he ever met.
It’s a crazy idea, really: a tribute album for someone nobody’s ever heard of. The Record Man is a project that brings together a really oddball array of contributors from around the world, all of them drawn to participate, having been touched by the incredible enthusiasm and knowledge and intelligence of Ron Kane.
It started coming together last year. Concerned that his friend and sometime musical mentor Ron Kane was dealing with an increasing burden of health issues, long-time friend and New York-based musician Bob Gaulke had an idea: he would collaborate with some of Ron’s favourite New Zealand and Dutch musicians and forge a tribute to buck up his friend’s spirits.
Ron never got to hear his tribute, which quickly bloomed to a full-scale album, with some of the musicians he had championed over the years keen to participate, and sound files flying around the world.
You can read my AudioCulture piece on Ron here, where I explain his significance to NZ’s burgeoning 1980s music scene as one of the first Americans to become an advocate of our music. Amongst many others, Ron was a huge fan of Fane Flaws and his accomplices in The Crocodiles, Tony Backhouse and Peter Dasent, and one of his personal all-time favourite albums was the obscure mid-‘80s Fane Flaws masterpiece, I Am Joe’s Music.
It makes sense, then, that Flaws, Backhouse and Dasent have a rich role to play on The Record Man, as does Paul Scott from one of Ron’s other favourite NZ bands of the ‘80s, Pop Mechanix.
Ron’s enthusiasm for NZ music faded in the ‘90s as he became more and more infatuated with his other great love, Japanese music, but in the ‘80s, he more or less rejected the UK and American scenes – with notable exceptions – in favour of a complete immersion in the music of two different countries: New Zealand, and Holland.
He loved the smart pop that bands like Blam Blam Blam were creating in NZ, and felt similarly about Dutch groups like The Nits and MAM, and The Record Man includes a sizable contribution from that group’s Pieter Bon, and a cameo by one of his favourite Dutch songstresses, Fay Lovsky.
Kane was in a band himself, of course. The Decayes released a bunch of incredibly small run albums in the late ‘70s to mid-‘80s, all of which sell for vast sums on Discogs today. There’s not a band in the world that sounds anything like them, and hopefully imminent CD reissues will make people more aware of this fascinating ensemble.
But that’s another story. Ron Kane is mostly known as a tastemaker and record collector, and towards the latter part of his life the record collector really took dominance. Ron amassed a collection of reputedly more than 30,000 albums and had to have his house re-piled to stop it sinking. He knew everything: could remember the serial numbers of records, how many territories the record was released in, and all those other details that completely escape the likes of me.
What became glaringly obvious when the tears started flowing at his unexpected death was that Ron had an extended network of friends for whom life would have been completely different had he not existed. Personally, I’ve got maybe 100 cassette compilations he sent me over the years starting when we met in 1981, and which formed the basis of much musical exploration. Ron’s specific musical aesthetic blew all our minds and showed us that there were alternatives to whatever it was the industry was trying to sell us back then.
So really, it’s not so surprising that someone came up with the idea of recording a musical tribute like The Record Man. Bob Gaulke has a long history of music-making and was one of Ron’s dearest friends.
What’s it like? Well, I’m far too close to it all to provide any objective assessment. Kane’s taste in music ran to extremities (he loved Zappa, Faust, Basil Kirchin and John Cage, for instance) but the music on The Record Man captures something of the smart pop styles he enjoyed – a little bit of satire here, something intentionally irrelevant there, and over there, something way too jolly and peppy to be hip with the alt-rock crowd.
“I’m going to play unpopular music/Don’t try and sing along”, got the lyrics of ‘Unpopular Music’ as sung by Paul Scott, and it’s a deft observation: Ron Kane did, in fact, like unpopular pop. ‘Francophonies’ – sung by Yamée Couture and Petite Celine – also alludes to the act of finding and understanding foreign pop in a foreign language.
Gaulke brings a few of his own discoveries to play, including the object of his Brazilian passion, Suely Mesquita, on ‘Greatest Cheeseburger’.
Warren Bowman was a close friend of Ron’s for many years and a bandmate in The Decayes, and he contributes to ‘Better’, a will-to-health song that’s heartrending considering subsequent events. Ron would have liked its slightly Euro-pop groove.
Hank Hofstede of The Nits sings ‘White Car, Blue Ocean’ to a burbling piece of light funk, and other cameos on the album include former Pop Mechanics vocalist Andrew MacLennan, and Owlflies member Peri Mason.
Predictably, my favourite is ‘Ron Kane’, on which Fane Flaws does his madcap routine. It’s funny and kind of psychedelic and recounts the story of how he met Ron in 1984.
I don’t really know what to make of The Record Man, but it’s a loving tribute to an incredible music obsessive, and it’s certainly something to hold onto and fill a gap now that Ron’s not around. Will it, too, be unpopular pop music? Time will tell, but at least – unlike Ron’s own rare recordings – it’s easy to sample on streaming services like Spotify and Tidal. Meanwhile, if any local distributor wants to handle physical sales, get in touch and I’ll pass you on to the man Ron affectionately called “Young Bob”.
Bob Gaulke – The Record Man
Download it at Bandcamp.
And here’s another piece about the project with a dense array of information at Post Punk Monk.