The idea? Every day in May, to mark NZ Music Month and 38 years of his own rancid opining and reportage, Gary Steel will present something from his considerable behind. Personal archive, that is. The following is a transcription of a never-before-published interview I conducted with Kiwi music biz legend Simon Grigg way back on 28 January, 1986.
Gary Steel – How long were you away for?
Simon Grigg – Two years.
G – What prompted you to go overseas?
S – First of all the Meemees and the Blams, the bands that I was mainly concerned with at the time, dissolved. Propeller was going nowhere. I was getting bored with the whole thing. Frustrated. The financial thing got a bit out of hand. I had a girlfriend in London, which… helped. Basically, I thought, I’m going to London in two weeks and two weeks later I got sued! So I didn’t. It stopped me going for another three weeks. I had to get to England before I turned 28 or I couldn’t get a working visa. I arrived two weeks before my 28th birthday, stayed for two years, then got tossed out.
G – What did you do over there?
S – A lot of very degrading jobs, such as market research. I was involved in a nightclub with Stefan Morris who used to be in Penknife Glides, and a couple of English guys. That was called The Gym. We used to play at the Wag Club, then we set up at a place in Stockwell, called Slummings, which is an old pub which is open until 2 in the morning, run by these old Jamaican guys. It was a bit of a disaster – no one goes out in Stockwell. I was involved in managing a band for a little while, who I think are about to sign to Island, Fat Tuesday. I think they’ve changed their name. The girl singer was the original singer with Working Week. I looked around and learned a lot. I would say most of my time was spent learning. I ended up hating the music business in England more than I did when I arrived. It’s revolting. The whole thing is based on who you sleep with and what you look like. I know of a case where a guy got a contract with Virgin without them hearing a note of music because he looked fantastic!
G – Why did you come back?
S – My visa ran out. I was incredibly homesick. I thought that I’d learned as much as I could learn. I love NZ basically. It’s a fantastic country.
G – You don’t find it limiting?
S – Oh I got totally frustrated all the time, just little things like wanting to buy a particular record and you just can’t buy the bloody thing anywhere. I think NZers as a whole are a pretty good bunch of people. It’s a bit of a wild west place, but still. It’s growing up. I was also encouraged to come back by the change of government. I agree incredibly strongly with some of their policies, hated Muldoon.
G – As an ex-record retailer, does the duty taken off records mean imports will be more readily available?
S – The licensing hasn’t come off. It’s just gonna make them cheaper. And also the record co’s here are very funny about imports.
G – Back to Propeller days, obviously you thought it all worthwhile at the time…
S – I sort of fell into Propeller basically. Propeller started with me… I was flatting with James Pinker from The Features, and they’d recorded a demo and I thought it was fantastic and no one would release it. They went round all the record co’s and people laughed at them. Said there was no commercial potential, etc. So, we borrowed $1,500 and set up a record co to release the single. And the day I decided to release it, the Spelling Mistakes won Battle Of The Bands, and got a day’s free recording time, so we thought ‘well, we’ll do another single as well’. All of a sudden we had a catalogue, and it just carried on from there. Things like royalties and all that sort of stuff didn’t even occur to me until six months later. Propeller was an accident more than anything else.
G – That was 1980?
S – Mmm. May, I think.
G – So it would have been the first indie co in NZ?
S – Ripper had released Ak79 before that, but they hadn’t released any singles. It was the first NZ indie singles label anyway.
G – Was it affiliated to Festival then?
S – Originally it was totally indie. The original distribution was through the Ode/Kiwi network, but it was really frustrating because you couldn’t get records anywhere other than the main centres, basically. And Festival came along with an offer I just couldn’t refuse. They made me an unbelievable offer. Ray Porter who was the managing director at the time was leaving and he didn’t really care, he was happy just to make me an offer. And they were stuck with his incredibly high royalty rate, the whole terms of the thing which they weren’t very happy about. And also the records could be got into places like Otorohanga and stuff like that! You make a NZ record you’ve gotta have them all over the country. At the time if there’d been an indie distribution network we would have gone with it. People accused me of selling out and going with a major. It was the only thing I could do at the time I think.
G – Did Festival give you finance?
S – Festival didn’t finance anything. It was still completely indie. All Festival did was put a bit of marketing muscle behind it when it was needed, and provide the distribution. It also meant we didn’t have to have money upfront for every record as well, which was a real bonus. One of Flying Nun’s biggest problems is having the money upfront to press the records. The huge bills they end up with at Polygram.
G – Who paid for the recording costs of the Meemees and Blams albums?
S – The Meemees and Blams albums were done on a percentage deal with Harlequin. They said ‘okay, you go and record the albums and we’ll take it out of the royalties.’ And they got a cut of every album sold as well. The Meemees and Blams albums didn’t cost anything upfront, we’re very lucky with that. I can’t go into some of the financial details because that’s gonna get me sued again (voice tremor).
G – Who sued you?
S – Doug Rogers from Harlequin. But he was basically forced into a position of suing me because his creditors, he owed a lot of money at the same time, his creditors were about to close him down. He had to make some sort of show. It was very complicated and very messy, and there’s no hard feelings coz I didn’t end up any worse off, and he didn’t end up any worse off, or any better off.
G – What was the outcome?
S – Well, I really can’t go into that either. Basically, everyone ended up very happy, and everyone had money, nobody was bankrupt, and we’re all friends still.
G – Was it an out of court settlement?
S – Yeah.
G – Why did Propeller end? Tied up with all that business?
S – Partially. And partially I lost interest. There was nobody around I wanted to record at the time, in Auckland anyway. It was directionless. Propeller got too involved with two or three bands, and tied up with the fortunes of those bands. When those bands dissolved it was very difficult to know what to do next. We carried on for a little while. I regard Propeller as two stages. There was the original stage with the Features and the Spelling Mistakes and all the indie stuff, then there was the Screaming/Blamatic stage, which basically consisted of those three bands. The middle part between the two halves was the Class Of ’81 album, which had a half of each period on it. Propeller dissolved because I’d lost interest.
G – You saw it in the end as a stage for just those bands?
S – Well, it wasn’t supposed to be. At the time I didn’t see it as such. But because I was also managing the Meemees I got so wound up in the whole business that it got really top heavy with those two bands, and there wasn’t that much room for anything else to happen.
G – Does that mean in a sense you lost interest in NZ music?
S – I’ve never lost interest in NZ music. I don’t like very much NZ music at the moment. I’m still interested to know what’s happening.
G – Did you think it was a peak at that time?
S – Yeah, definitely. I look back to a concert at His Majesty’s Theatre. The bands were Meemees, Blams, Newmatics, Danse Macabre, Penknife Glides and three or four other bands. They were all fantastically hot bands at the time, they all had records in the charts, they all had huge followings, most of them were making reasonably good music. It was a very, very exciting time, I think. A very important time for NZ music. When those bands dissolved, there was a real lull in NZ music. There was no one to replace them. After that the venues started closing down, because the crowds stopped going to see the bands. Those bands all had a charisma that I don’t think Auckland bands have had since then – none that I’ve seen, anyway.
G – So you don’t find NZ music at all stimulating at the moment?
S – No, not at all. Bits and pieces I like. But my tastes have changed too. I basically listen to black music – reggae, soul, jazz, these days. I find something deeper in the music.
G – Given that your tastes have changed, how do you feel about those bands back then?
S – Very affectionate towards the Blams, the Meemees and the Newmatics, especially. I think the Newmatics were a great white soul band; they could have been fantastic. That’s one of the things I always regret, is never having recorded an album with the Newmatics. I love the bands, basically, still have good feelings about them. But it is history now. Nothing but history.
G – But does the music have lasting merit?
S – Well, hmmm – very little pop music does have lasting merit. I don’t think the Meemees ever made a good record. Maybe the first and last singles were okay. The Blams album I think has lasted… it’s a great record. And all the Newmatics singles I really like.
G – Did Propeller represent any indie ethic?
S – I was very idealistic at the start, but the ideals crumbled a little bit when I was confronted with the realities of trying to run a record company. As I said, Propeller originally existed because no one would release The Features. There was no indie ideal. Any indie ideal I had was pretty much shattered when I was in England too, because they’re no different than CBS or EMI. Rough Trade is just a hippie version of CBS, basically. The attitude towards promotion is no different when it comes down to it. They’re all making a heck of a lot of money out of it – a lot of people in the indie thing in Britain are making a fortune. Ivo, who owns 4AD Records, drives around in a BMW. He’s making a lot of money. He’s not ashamed of it. The Fall have got a fairly big cult following in this country, and the bands that follow the Fall have got this anti-establishment ethic. And they tend to sneer at the things like stage production. Yet the Fall have got a great stage production, they really go in for the professional approach. They’ve got it wrong in this country. You don’t have to insult your audience to be indie.
G – When did you first get into black music?
S – Flatting with Murray Cammick. Here was me trying to play my Birthday Party albums and Murray was pushing Luther Vandross down my throat, and eventually he won me round.
G – Does that mean you’ve gone off the Birthday Party?
S – No, not at all. I love the band, they’re great fun. I think black music’s got some sense of fun that white music seems to have lost, and a sense of style that white music’s lost as well. White music is all content and no style, and you’ve gotta have half and half. What would the Sex Pistols have been without style? There’s something very special about black voices, too. I find black music very uplifting, generally. Popular music does come from black music, no matter which way you look at it. Black music hasn’t lost the verve that it had. I don’t think there’s a better singer in the world than Luther Vandross, either.
G – Why do English indies go ‘urgh’ to black music?
S – Closed minds. They’re willing to take the derivative but not willing to look at the root. I used to be like that. It’s also a carry-on of this bullshit thing that happened around the time of punk rock – kill disco, ugly disco, etc. That was the sort of thing that filtered down to the fans. Meantime John Lydon was going out and listening to heavy, heavy dub music and lots and lots of funk. Public Image were about as close as you ever came to a white funk group. If the vast majority of fans knew what their idols listened to…
G – How did the current label come about?
S – It was a bottle of Glenfiddich on a Tuesday night in Kohimarama when Mark Philips and I were doing the Rip It Up singles reviews, and it led to Mark being fired from the singles reviews and us deciding to release a record. I bought the Princess single in England the day before I left, came back here and thought ‘this is a pleasant enough little pop song’, and I rang the guy in England and said ‘can I do it?’ and he said ‘fine, go for it’. It’s a foot in the door – we want to try and get more black music into NZ because whites are getting more educated into black music, and definitely the black people in NZ have been into it for a long, long time. In Auckland there’s far more of a multi-racial crossover. The club that I work at, the Brat, Peter Urlich’s place – it’s 50/50 in terms of racial. For a long time NZ’s had music scenes that have been white or black and there’s no crossover. Even a band like Herbs who are fairly pop with white people – they play to their white audiences and their black audiences. Which is really bad and something you don’t get in England, it’s 50/50 always. There isn’t the same racial tension. And the bullshit you hear about NZ being a multi-racial society.
G – Do you have any trouble there?
S – No, we’ve never had one fight.
G – Wouldn’t the clientele be upwardly mobile?
S – I suppose you could say that. Not so much… the upwardly mobile ones go to Mirage and places like that. They’re certainly potentially upwardly mobile. They’re fairly trendy, but then in 1978 the audience that used to go and see Toy Love at the Windsor was trendy.
G – Why that single?
S – It was easy to get hold of. We needed a single that was definitely going to be a hit, to try and get enough money to set the label up. You start a label up with $100 you’ve got to get some money from somewhere along the line. CBS were on my back to do something, ever since I got back into the country. Once again, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
G – Who at CBS has been enthusiastic?
S – Gilbert. He’s fantastic. He doesn’t know much about black music but he’s got an open mind to the whole thing. Obviously they want to sell records, coz they’re in the business of selling records. We’ve only had one record so far – it got to number 2 nationally and number 1 in Auckland for five weeks. Sold a lot of copies, it’s just short of Gold I think. It’s been played on Radio B and Radio I at the same time – a real crossover!
G – Is it indicative of what’s to come?
S – It’s a bit softer, a bit more souly than some of the stuff, I’d like to do a bit more harder stuff.
G – Is it all going to be dance orientated?
S – No, not necessarily. I really don’t like differentiating between NZ music and international music. I think that’s a real problem NZ’s always had. You don’t get someone in the States saying ‘this is a local record, let’s push it’. It’s a record. If it’s a good record, it’s a good record. Especially in the ‘80s where we’re living in an international community, we’ve got to treat everything as another record. The Chills’ new single has to stand up next to the new Fall single, or whatever it’s competing against, as a record, not a NZ record. That said, we’re definitely going to get into some NZ music in the near future. One of them is very Princessish. The other one will be hard funk type stuff. We’ve had a lot of press, with Propeller especially, people saying ‘this is a great record, and it’s NZ, support it’. And people saying ‘this isn’t bad, but it IS a NZ record, support it’. I don’t agree. It’s got to stand up on its own.
G – What about a conceptual continuity for the label?
S – What did the Blams and Newmatics have in common? One was a soul band one was an art rock band.
G – Don’t you think they had a NZ flavour?
S – Perhaps. It’s a pretty indefinable thing. English soul records are topping the American charts these days. I don’t see why we shouldn’t try. We’re capable of making soul records as good as anything that’s come out of Europe.
G – So, the main objective is to license overseas stuff.
S – Yeah.
G – Mainly 12-inch dance singles?
S – Yeah, but a lot of them will be appearing on compilation albums. We’re going to branch into other things. We’re doing an album of ‘50s jazz, Blue Note type stuff. I love ‘50s jazz. You just can’t buy it. Along the lines of Paul Murphy’s Jazz Club LPs. He’s a DJ in London, he plays at the Way Club on Monday nights – he’s managed to influence a whole younger group of people. He’s basically responsible for Working Week and all those bands, Annie Whitehead… they go along and they’ve heard him play this stuff and thought ‘this is fantastic’. And started trying to do their own stuff… and they’re coming up with reasonably good records. They’ve only just begun, they’re only young. That’s the other thing I like about black music – there’s no ‘right, you’re 30 now, you’re finished’. Dennis Edwards made one of the best singles of 1984, ‘Don’t Look Any Further’. The guy’s 48! Nobody cares, it’s a great record.
G – What, personally, are your main objectives?
S – The club works on income, I’m a DJ three nights a week. I don’t know! I really want to make some more records. To be able to provide the stuff to people is something I really enjoy doing. Mark Philips and Peter Urlich and I enjoy doing it – we’re all partners in the label. I know a fair amount of how to run a record label. Mark knows a reasonable amount about music and he’s got a fair amount of suss, and Pete’s a great graphic designer. We all make musical decisions together. CBS have been very good to us. CBS US have basically turned around and said to CBS NZ ‘it’s about time we had some artists coming from your territory. Australia’s given us xxx, Britain’s given us so and so, you haven’t given us anything.’ Which is why they’re putting all that money into Peking Man and supporting Hello Sailor. I think they’re wasting their money on some of those people. CBS seem to have some sort of misguided faith in me. They had a couple of Propeller things with the Newmatics on Furtive. The Newmatics were originally on Ripper, and they’d made some verbal agreement to go with CBS, and they came to us and said they’d sign with us, and decided to live up to the verbal agreement.
G – Did you see the Woodentops? [Featuring former Newmatic Benny Staples]
S – Great band, fantastic. One of the best bands I’ve ever seen. They had the same sort of energy Toy Love used to have. They didn’t sound anything like them. Within 30 seconds of hearing them the whole dancefloor was packed – this joyous music.
G – What about other NZ people over there?
S – My ex-girlfriend was number 2 on the English indie charts recently. I don’t even know what the band’s called. She used to play with Dead Can Dance, so maybe it was the DCD record.
G – Have you seen Dead Can Dance?
S – Yeah, once. They were a cacophony. My ex goes out with James Pinker who’s in the band.
Notes – I thought this an apt moment to dig out a long but interesting interview with Simon Grigg that I did in 1986, a few years after his stint with his pre-Flying Nun indie label, Propeller. With Roger Shepherd’s autobiography just hitting the stands (in it, he admits that Propeller was a huge influence on his decision to start a label) and Simon recently having published a book about his time managing Pauly Fuemana (How Bizarre), I thought it would be interesting to see where Simon’s head was at in ’86! These days, Simon lives in Bangkok (see his loveletter to his current place of residence here but regularly flies back to manage his incredible NZ archive of digital music, AudioCulture. A full list of Simon’s achievements can be found here.