(c) Chris Bourke 1994
NZ Listener December 3 1994
Reprinted with permission
Dave Dobbyn looked set for the big time, then fate intervened. Now he's back on track to the top.
BY CHRIS BOURKE
Eleven years ago, the outlook for Dave Dobbyn looked fine indeed. Cool Bananas, the debut album of his band DD Smash I (the pub rock version) had entered the New Zealand charts at No 1, an historic first. DD Smash II (the showband) had stormed the beach resorts over summer. The single "Outlook for Thursday" was a hit, and the band monopolised the annual record awards for the second year in a row. Radio with Pictures devoted a live TV special to DD Smash, and the Listener put Dobbyn on its cover. He finished 1983 by getting married.
Dobbyn and his band moved to Sydney that year, and world domination seemed imminent. On a brief trip home to Auckland, he made a cameo appearance at an all-comers night at the Gluepot, and stole the show with a passionate rendition of "Sitting in Limbo". I remember thinking, here is our finest soul singer - and this is the last time I'll see him in a small room. Next time, it will be the Logan Campbell Centre. But a decade of sitting in limbo was to follow, despite "Slice of Heaven", a No 1 hit on both sides of the Tasman.
November 1994, and Dobbyn is back in a small room, but big things once again seem possible. He is rehearsing for another TV special - an historic occasion in itself these days, but Dobbyn's guests for this "unplugged" show are Neil and Tim Finn. Dobbyn's new album, Twist, has been produced by Neil Finn, and many other old friends and believers are working hard to make sure that only bad luck can be blamed if it doesn't happen this time. The director of the TV special is Kerry Brown, who, as a teenager, set up lights for the DD Smash showband. Representing Sony, Dobbyn's new record company, is Paul Ellis, who was a fan (and rock journalist for the Auckland Star) before putting on a suit to work for a musical multi-national. And from New Zealand on Air, which has put up $99,000 for the TV special, is Brendan Smyth. He proudly says that, way back in the late 70s, he appeared in a crowd shot in a video of Dobbyn's band Th' Dudes - although Smyth says it is only since 1988, and the release of Dobbyn's solo album Loyal, that he realised the depth of Dobbyn's talent.
The TV special is being recorded at Revolver
studios, in the very room that Twist was put together. In rehearsal, Dobbyn runs through
the songs for the show with his threepiece band. He plays a small Gibson acoustic, a
replica of a turn-of-the-century model, bought earlier in the week to replace a guitar
stolen at a party last Christmas. The new guitar suits the delicacy of many of the new
songs, though the "unplugged" description doesn't mean hearing aids will be
necessary. "Neil will want to play electric guitar on 'Rain on Fire', but I'll
quietly dissuade him," says Dobbyn. "Maybe we need a mandolin on 'Whaling' - or
would that be to folky, too Lindisfarne?
Back in the rehearsal room, the band eat Big Macs and listen to Dobbyn's stories. The TV special will be broadcast on the 10th Anniversary of the Aotea Square riot. After Dobbyn's years in limbo, this programme is almost a welcome back - rather like Elvis Presley's '68 comeback special, the first "unplugged" TV show. As a roadie comes in to measure the drum kit to see if it can fit through the door, Dobbyn says, "Elvis had to lose weight to fit into his leathers for that special. I better leave before my second beer."
But thanks to the gym - and "running after the wee one", his daughter Grace - Dobbyn is looking fitter than ever. Preparing for this story, two questions always came up. "Why isn't he a big star?" they'd ask. Then, "Has he still got that white hair?" Fortunately, the answer to the latter is no: last year's peroxide look for Lament for the Numb has reverted to a natural, faded red.
As always, image is a big part of the star making machinery. Hearing about this cover shoot, Dobbyn groans about a recent newspaper snap, in which he stands beside Neil Finn, only a head shorter, "looking like Mickey Rooney's uncle".
The morning of the TV special, Dobbyn calls by the Listener for the photo. Despite the new four-button Edwardian suit, and the mobile phone, he looks rumpled; maybe the shirt hanging out. The phone goes - it's Neil Finn, wanting to know which guitars to bring to the TV filming. Dobbyn outlines programme over the next few days: tonight, filming; Friday, a Sony dinner; Saturday a concert in Manukau with Finn and Emma Paki; Sunday, filming for 60 Minutes. Dobbyn performs for the camera, transforming with each flash from deadpan Buster Keaton to suave Tony Bennett to duck-walking Chuck Berry. "Just watch out for me chins with those low angles," he asks.
Neil Finn, I am warned, wants to take a back seat with the release of Twist. It's Dobbyn's record, and he doesn't want to take away any of his limelight. Fair enough, but he is part of the story. So what about a photo? For history's sake? Even Dobbyn is tentative about asking, but it's agreed: Finn may let us take his photo, if he is in the background - during a five-minute break in the afternoon rehearsal.
We set up in a corridor at the recording studio, compose a shot - Dobbyn sitting in front, Finn standing behind - and I take the Polaroid to Finn. "I was told I'd be in the background," he says, decisively. "I don't actually want to be in the photo at all." Not so much uncooperative, as unable to be manipulated.
But a few minutes later the pair arrive for the re-designed shot. Things look a little absurd with the tentative fellow in the background, but then Tim Finn stumbles upon us and it can't help but get animated. All three have recently returned from Rarotongan festival, where a senior government kept introducing Neil as Tim. "Who's this photo for?" asks Tim. "Aaaah, the Listener," he says, probably remembering that review in the 1970s, which described Split Enz as "hysterical spinsters".
Two days later, I bump into Neil after the Entertainer of the Year Awards. "I got more involved than I intended," he says with a grin. The shoot probably seems quite painless after dealing with television.
He agrees to a make a few quick comments, and rings a few days later. "Dave and I have similar aesthetics in sounds and music though our songs are very different in character," he says. "All his songs are strong. Dave is very energised on the record, frayed around the edges. He's prone to emotional outbursts, which keeps the energy up. There were only two days of angst the whole time.
"My job was to slash and burn: more of that, drop that. Dave's problem was helping me edit and slice, but he didn't want to let go his favourite lines. It's very useful to have another voice."
Dobbyn describes Finn as "hilarious, a very funny man with a perverse sense of humour. He's intensely busy, very easily bored, but he doesn't wallow in it, just finds another path. has so much energy - and a lateral abandon that he uses in the studio. He helped me to get rid of the shackles, stopped me being precious about my songs. With the rapport we have, we knew instantly what worked and what didn't, so there were no political or diplomatic conflicts. No egos in the way. He just immersed himself in it."
They first worked together on the 1985 Party Boys tour, a loose "all stars play the covers" band that doesn't have happy memories; for Dobbyn it was post-Aotea, for Finn, post-Enz. "But we always thought we'd do something together," says Dobbyn. "Neil was always busy, real busy - every year, for the last eight years, he's spent six to eight months on the road. I'm surprised he can still talk. That strength of character he's fought for, not acquired.
"I've got so much respect for Neil, it's not funny. I still see him through rose-tinted glasses in some ways, but we've become firm friends.
"When Tim came and worked with us, it was the same again, this camaraderie, sibling thing, it became really physical. We'd work hard on a song, have a lot of fun, work up a sweat. but go home happy. Every day was an event: we really found some magic. Neil kept quoting that Spinal Tap line: I envy us!"
"Jesus Christ, can this be true hanging out with the chosen few. Catholic boys, singing out of tune" - song by Lez White, the (Jewish) bass player of Th' Dudes.
The Finn brothers, the Chunn brothers, the front-line of Th' Dudes (Dobbyn, Ian Morris and Peter Urlich) - all have made a lasting impact on New Zealand Music, and all went to the same college, Auckland's Sacred Heart, as the 60s turned into the 70s. "There was only one time that could have happened," says Dobbyn. "I don't know why it did. I was aware of the others. There was always this kind of club of people who didn't fit in. We weren't sporty, we were underachievers who would hang out and play records most of the time. And the music that was happening, there were some pivotal things. I remember waiting for the minute the bell rang so we could go down and buy Abbey Road. That was monumental.
"But there were some things I wouldn't do. I wouldn't perform at school. There was a music competition there called the Walter Kirby that was like the zenith: if you won something in that, you acquired this respect from the whole school.
"As soon as we realised that playing music meant you could play at parties, and there were girls at parties, and you'd have all this fun, it was so exciting. It's a cycle everyone goes through. It was the most exotic thing to be a pop musician."
In Th' Dudes, Dobbyn and his classmates could live out their popstar fantasies. "I have very fond memories of the band, though I can't remember 1979. Because of Th' Dudes I became more outgoing. I was doomed to be a shy bankteller."
Please, no requests
(hit songs Dave Dobbyn likes to avoid):
"Bliss"; "Be Mine Tonight"; "Slice of Heaven"
It's a powerful thing, the popular song. Last July, a small notice went up outside Auckland's Gluepot, announcing a show by "Dave Dobbyn and Band". With very little advertising, they filled the pub, but instead of Ponsonby has-beens reliving their 1970s heyday, the crowd were in their early twenties. And, surprisingly, they could sing along to most of the songs - even those on last year's album, Lament for the Numb. Dobbyn's first album for five years, Lament was cathartic, critically acclaimed, but bleak. It sold 4000 copies - Dobbyn jokes that one person bought a CD and everyone else taped it - whereas a slapdash greatest hits collection, also released last year, sold 10,000 copies in less than a month.
Dobbyn, newly resettled in the area, entered with "Hello, neighbours!" - and, from that moment, a community atmosphere prevailed. Early on, the 10-year-old sea shanty "Whaling" became rock'n'roll karaoke, as Dobbyn traded lines ("Sing bravo, bravo!") with the crowd, until its enthusiasm threatened to overwhelm him. The only way for Dobbyn to take control was to reach deep into his lungs and belt out an epic 15-second "Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaling" - and, as the audience gasped for breath, it burst into applause. (The performance is captured on "Language", the first single from Twist.)
When it came time to demand an encore, the crowd didn't just clap and whistle - it spontaneously started to sing "Slice of Heaven". "Da da da-dum-dum, da da da-dum-dum ..." on and on, for quarter of an hour, passing through joy to annoyance. Little did they know that the vocal PA had blown up and, when Dobbyn returned, he could only accompany the audience on guitar as they sang "Be Mine Tonight", his first hit for Th' Dudes: "Asian cigarettes, a long talk, a few cans if you can ..."
Thanks to classic hits radio and the nationalistic Lemon & Paeroa ads, they knew every word, although most would have been about 10 when it was written. It didn't worry them that Neil Finn was backstage, his guest appearance abandoned.
Three months later, the very last Gluepot gig was strangely anti-climactic, despite the spirited presence of Finn, treading the venerated stage for the very first time ("I'm making a late run," he said). But the only way to get the audience to go home was to bombard them with Th' Dudes' "Bliss", the parody that backfired. Written as an angry gesture to drunken hoons, it became a hit (and, of course, a beer ad).
"I don't think of 'Bliss' as my song anymore," says Dobbyn. There are a few albatrosses, and he tries to avoid playing them although in some parts of the country it's impossible. "It really pisses people off. But, if I just did a greatest hits tour, it would feel like a treadmill."
The exception, however, is "Whaling": it feels like an anthem. "Every time we play it, something-magic happens. It stands out as a proud piece of writing, a poetic analogy and a metaphor that worked. I think: 'How did I write that back then? That was 11 years ago, why did I do all this other crap?' "
"Whaling" is also the Dobbyn song that Neil Finn occasionally performs with Crowded House. "We just do it off the cuff," says Finn. "Some songs seem easy to appropriate. We played it to [US producer] Mitchell Froom and he was really taken by it. It was the seed of his relationship with Dave."
While recording Twist, Dobbyn and Finn fantasised about writing a new national anthem ("It'd be a nice challenge," says Finn. "The one we've got is pretty lame."), or even a simple chant that would be taken up by sports fans. "The crowd might like something more than, 'black, black, black'," says Finn. "And imagine the incredible satisfaction of hearing 30,000 people sing it. To me, that's music in its highest form: popular, and providing a service in an Everyman kind of way, a mass outpouring of sentiment."
Dobbyn says he can feel it when a song is a winner. "I get really excited, there's this adrenalin buzz, knowing that I've laboured and I've got it - this is gonna get 'em!"
Sometimes it takes a while, and it's not the song's fault. Radio wouldn't touch "Slice of Heaven" at first, with its quirky conch hook: it was "under-produced". People heard the song in cinemas as a trailer to Footrot Flats, took the single to No 1, and demanded it got on radio. The lush, satirical follow-up, "You Oughta Be in Love", was "over produced". It reached No 2 and is now a standard.
But the dark ages of New Zealand radio are passing. No longer do stations interview Dobbyn, but refuse to play his music (or, as one South Island station did, interview Gary McCormick by mistake - "I've got all your albums," said the DJ). "I used to get quite angry about it, but don't so much now." With its mix of melody and adventure, almost anything off the new album could be playlisted on National Radio or the student stations. But those tightly formatted Auckland commercial stations are far more likely to play a classic hit such as "Be Mine Tonight" than something fresh like "Language"
Slices of Heaven, memories of hell
The "fluffy dog song" wiped away New Zealand's misconceptions about the Aotea Square incident. A celebration of the beginning of the 1984 summer, it turned into mayhem - thanks to the combination of the crowd drinking all afternoon in the hot sun, and over-enthusiastic riot police. Dobbyn tried to calm things down from the stage, but the words he used were badly chosen: "I wish those riot squad guys would stop wanking and put their little batons away."
Dobbyn found himself charged with inciting a riot. "I was quite bewildered by what happened. It was really frightening, especially when I learnt that the prosecutor had put Arthur Allan Thomas away three times.
"It was a hellish time. I'd only just recovered from a bad, gangrenous appendix thing, I was in hospital for six weeks and almost died. The same year Mushroom Records bought up a roster of Australian acts and we were relegated. That knocked the stuffing out of me. And I felt musically I'd turned into this vaudevillian act. I was in danger of becoming the Billy Joel of New Zealand music. So I was a bit betwixt - which remained for a few years, really."
There was no point touring to support an album called The Optimist. Dobbyn laughs now, but then, after two years as the most popular musician in the country, there was a sense of betrayal. "For years, I felt this weird feeling each time I came back to Auckland. But then it just vanished. At the time of the trial I was staying in the De Bretts Hotel - completely drunk all the time, it was the only way to handle it. And my mother-in-law gave me a bit of advice: 'If you plant the seeds of bitterness, they will consume you.' And that stuck with me. I'd met a lot of bitter and twisted people and that was the last thing I wanted."
But as big as "Slice of Heaven" was on both sides of the Tasman (No 1 here for eight weeks. No 1 in Australia for four), Dobbyn was unable to capitalise on it in Australia. He toured as part of a package bill with Crowded House and the Black Sorrows. They were all fledgling acts then; Dobbyn had the No 1 hit, but it was the others who became big stars.
It was 18 months before Loyal came out; in the meantime the only offers he had received were for things such as the soundtrack for a cartoon film "in which a kangaroo plays a guitar". He was dropped by his new record label, CBS.
"I was getting quite punch-drunk. The Australians didn't really want to know, I was always on the back foot as a New Zealander. And I was looking for success in all the wrong places. It really only came right a couple of years ago.
"It was a mixture of things. My best friend, [bass player] Ian Belton, got diagnosed with cancer. That was tough, and it was happening when I went over to LA to do Lament with Mitchell Froom. I was doing the best work I'd ever done, and all these other things were occurring. My wife Anneliesje was having a miscarriage 10,000 miles away, the earth was shaking in LA after the big 7.4 quake, and the riots had just finished. So I was out on a wire, all these things were happening in Sydney that were the most important in my life, but I reconciled those emotions, flushed out the guilt and fear, and finished the record."
Says Roger King, manager and close friend of Dobbyn for over 10 years, "We were all wildly enthusiastic about Lament. Mitchell was pulling all sorts of people into the studio to hear it. Then I phoned the record company in Australia and they said it was unreleasable. That was a crushing moment. Then the rot set in between me and Dave. No one said anything, but we couldn't help blaming each other. After 10 years, it was time for someone else to give it a go."
Now Dobbyn is managed by Grant Thomas, the New Zealander who also manages Neil Finn and Crowded House. Says Thomas, "People in the Australian music industry know of Dave's talent as a songwriter, but, to the public, he's not that well known. Although 'Slice of Heaven' was No 1, they never made the connection between that and his wealth of great songs."
The work has been done in New Zealand for Twist. On the Saturday after the unplugged TV special has been broadcast, Dobbyn will be singing, with Neil Finn, in front of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at a Christmas in the Park concert; that will reach a million people on television. Internationally, Thomas plans to use small showcase gigs to introduce Dobbyn, the same way Crowded House did, "chipping off the territories, one at a time. Dave is so good live, the plan is to get him in front of people overseas. Then it'll start to work.
"But breaking in an act is like a scientist with a new theory. No one believes it until it's earned some validity. Then, when you've got believers, people say, 'Why didn't we think of it sooner?' The music business is an inexact science - there's no formula."
Neil Finn says Dobbyn has always written great songs. "When you consistently do good work, goodwill gathers. Talent will win out, as long as they don't get disillusioned. Dave may get disillusioned with the business, but never with music: it's so much a part of him."
(c) Chris Bourke 1994 NZ Listener December 3 1994
Reprinted with permission
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