Smoke gets in our eyes, Colin Morris

Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964
Chris Bourke
Auckland University Press, $59.99,
ISBN 9781869404550


To anybody under the age of 25, it might come as a shock to read Chris Bourke’s book and discover that once upon a time records were not manufactured in New Zealand, and that the fragile imported 78 rpms were chosen, on your behalf, from a catalogue, to be delivered some months later. It might also shock anybody over the age of 35 to know there are no longer any record stores, discounting the Red Sheds or a slight detour into Palmerston North, between the Wellington CBD and Whanganui. Of course, we are now living in an age of such technological advance that it’s possible to envisage an industry where we might, in future, dial a telephone service and order music to be piped into our homes at our convenience.

It pays to keep these facts in mind as you plough through what is arguably the last great book on the subject of the formation and players of the first wave of New Zealand music; such is the breadth and scope of Bourke’s book, it would seem unlikely this subject and period will ever be researched as thoroughly again.

Blue Smoke is an extraordinary body of work, lovingly curated over a couple of years, chock-full of anecdotes, facts and figures, stunning photos from both private collections and those of the National Library, and, most of all, insights into how New Zealanders lived and worked. It interweaves the politics of the day and the notable events that shaped the country – from the Napier earthquake, WWII, the 1951 waterfront lockout and beyond.

It is also a voyage of discovery, each chapter covering a specific decade. It’s a common fallacy among hacks and historians that popular music can be corralled into single decades. They label the 50s as rock ’n’ roll, the 60s as the Beatles and psychedelia, the 70s as disco and punk, and so on. But a musical style doesn’t just stop at the decade’s end: it evolves all the time. Dance music turns slowly into jazz, country and western moves towards Americana. In fact Bourke, who has a degree in musical history from Victoria University, goes to great lengths to debunk this myth.

Starting with the 1920s, each chapter chronicles a decade as it slowly morphs into the next, and the music and technology evolve against the history of the day. The best of these cover WWII’s Maori battalion, the “invasion” of American troops (along with nylons and candy bars, they brought plenty of new sounds with their collections of 78s and the exclusive armed forces V-Discs), and then the introduction of television. The latter effectively killed off the dance bands but opened the door to a more visual brand of entertainment.

And radio, yes the dear old New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, was moulded on auntie BBC. The wearing of ties while broadcasting was compulsory; the banning of even the most innocuous tracks for fear of a public backlash or the influence of the moral campaigners: these are mirror images of what occurred in Old Blighty.

At the heart of this book, of course, is the story of the song “Blue Smoke”, its composer Ruru Karaitiana and singer Pixie Williams. Like much in life, “Blue Smoke” had a magical and fraught birth. Karaitiana sailed with the 28th Maori Battalion on the Aquitania from Wellington Harbour in 1940. A sergeant remarked on the smoke from the ship’s funnel going right back to New Zealand, and in that instant Karaitiana, a dance band pianist from Dannevirke, heard the song in his head and wrote the lyrics in half an hour.

It’s to Bourke’s credit that he doesn’t jump ahead to the recording of “Blue Smoke”. There are many chapters in between, but all the time he is sowing the seeds of anticipation for that historic day.

When the time comes, it seems the song will never be recorded. Technical problems and the absence of singer Pixie Williams on one particular day look likely to scupper the project. But a small team of dedicated people, and as always the infectious Karaitiana, pursued the dream, and on 26 June 1949 “Blue Smoke”, along with The Bill Crowe Orchestra and Ken Avery singing his own composition “Paekakariki”, became the first two recordings wholly pressed in New Zealand’s fledgling industry and issued on the TANZA label. The acronym stood for To Assist New Zealand Artists.

But was it the first to be recorded here? To find out, you will have to read between the lines. Certainly I’m not going to spoil the party.

In June 2011, a complete album by Pixie Williams was released in New Zealand by Ode Records. Regrettably, Bourke was unable to include a CD with the book because of time and copyright constraints. But that release, and another later in 2011 of a CD collection of recordings by Auckland’s famous Stebbing Recording Centre of music from the same period, will go a long way to completing the jigsaw pieces that form the history of this country’s musical heritage.

I recommend listening to the music while you read the book. You can also catch podcasts of Bourke’s radio programmes on the subject, starting Sunday 28th August 7pm on Radio New Zealand.

Do I have favourite parts of the book? Yes. One chapter might have been titled “Sex! Infidelity! Murder! Music!”Seems that one Eric Mareo, a conductor of grand opera, pantomime and West End shows in England, arrived in 1933 to major newspaper headlines and fanfare. Within a week he had hired some 45 musicians to play in his orchestra. On stage he was a showman, with tinsel-covered baton, and his name emblazoned in flowers. And he could be seen strutting down Auckland’s Queen Street flamboyantly dressed, with cane, white gloves and a long cigarette holder. But he also brought much needed work to some of the country’s biggest and brightest.

Sadly, Mareo caught his wife Thelma in bed with the exotic New Zealand dancer Freda Stark, herself infamous for dancing in nothing more than gold glitter and balloons. Thelma then took an overdose, Mareo was charged with murder, found guilty in  two trials and sentenced to hang. After an appeal, he served 12 years in Mt Eden Prison and on his release left with 500 pounds, royalties earned while he was incarcerated. A lurid New Zealand Herald headline ran: “Homophobia has no place in the tale of fatal love triangle.”

I’m particularly indebted to Bourke for reintroducing me to many of the characters I’ve been lucky enough to meet in the years I have been employed in the music industry. Ken Avery, who worked at Radio New Zealand on The Terrace, was a regular at my music shop. I had to call Douglas Lilburn and apologise after a friend alerted me to the fact that he was not dead, as I’d stated in a review. Then there was Ray Harris, doyen of Radio New Zealand jazz programmes for 40 years and a dear friend, and Arthur Pearce, some of whose books I still have, and who was a fount of all knowledge when I worked for Polygram Records. His weekly visit to elicit the latest 45s and LPs for his radio shows invariably resulted in my acquiring more knowledge. Murdoch Riley and Tony Vercoe at Viking Records, and HMV’s producer Frank Douglas, suddenly become people again on these pages.

Future historians and scholars alike will look back on this book with gratitude; libraries will see it as an essential tool in educating a newer generation; and plain old-fashioned fans like myself will forever be indebted to Bourke for making such a complex and wide-ranging subject so easy on the eye – just about every page has some kind of illustration.

Looking at the photos of, say, Edgar Randall’s Collegian Band is akin to looking at an old picture of Louis and Lil Armstrong – the tuxedos and bow-ties, the framing of the characters with an eye to the symmetry of their instruments are as much about the photographer’s eye as they are a nod to the greats of the jazz era. So too is the introduction of stories about visiting musical “royalty”: Noel Coward, Artie Shaw and Cole Porter among others. Such anecdotes prevent the book from being merely New Zealand-centric. At the end of the day, music is a world-wide experience and an art form that daily breaks down barriers.


Colin Morris is a Wellington reviewer.

Blue Smoke won New Zealand Post Book of the Year and the People’s Choice Award in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. 

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Posted in History, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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