Various Artists - How Is The Air Up There? - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Various Artists - How Is The Air Up There?

by Jeff Penczak Rating:8 Release Date:2018-01-26
Various Artists - How Is The Air Up There?
Various Artists - How Is The Air Up There?

Despite the misleading title (collectors should note this is limited to New Zealand acts) and the absence of perhaps the best (or at least best-known) Kiwi act of the period 1965-69 (The Dave Miller Set), this 3-CD box does unearth a cross section of the Kiwi beat scene. The predominance of selections from the HMV, Zodiac, and Allied International labels suggests licensing issues are the culprit, and also calls in to question the breadth of the compiler’s claim that he (Frenzy Music’s Grant Gillanders) has compiled recordings of “our more well known acts…between 1965-1969.” But nitpicking aside (and cards on the table), the Kiwi scene has been underrepresented on these catch all box sets, and it fills the whole in the Nuggets series by settling in alongside Festival’s Down Under Nuggets: Original Australian Artyfacts. Again, some legal mumbo jumbo probably prevents RPM from calling it NZ Nuggets!

Kicking off with the La De Da’s’ snarling fuzz monster of a title track, the March ’66 track owes much to the Stones and Pretties, but holds its own quite nicely, as does The Blue Stars’ ‘Social End Product.’ Lyrics like ‘Get some kicks/And take a trip’ namecheck Paul Revere and the Raiders recent Stateside hit. Larry’s Rebels tear through Creation’s classic ‘Painter Man’ with reckless abandon and razor-sharp soloing that can hold its head up high alongside the original, while the demented RnB of Chants R&B’s ‘I’m Your Witchdoctor’ echoes similar insanity from Eric Burden & The Animals. Then there’s The Rayders’ ‘Working Man’, which even they admit is a blatant Who-inflected Mod ripoff, but it’s a gas, nonetheless.

While it’s not that memorable a track, The Four Fours’ ‘Go Go’ may be of interest to British beat collectors, as this was their Kiwi incarnation before changing their name to The Human Instinct and briefly relocating to the UK to record a few singles. Guitars are well to the fore on Breakaways’ ‘Woman’ and The Smoke’s ‘No More Now’, both featuring some of the hottest soloing in the set. La De Da’s return with the fuzz-petal-to-the-metal, brutish garage blaster ‘Hurtin’ All Over’, which has a ferocious, Them-like bluesy crunch.

Sandy Edmondes is one of the few female artists to surface during this Beat era, and the 15-year old soulful screamer belts out ‘Come See Me’ with the reckless abandon of vintage Suzi Quatro and her siblings in The Pleasure Seekers. The Pleazers provide the fuzzy backing and the Stones liked her enough to invite her to open for them on their ’66 New Zealand tour. The Roadrunners are better-than-average garage rockers, ripping through the previously-unreleased ‘Get Outta My Life Woman’, and the harmony pop of The Crescendos’ ‘Now She’s Mine’ almost feels out of place amidst all the fuzz bombs, but is memorable for its catchy melody and occasional slick guitar intrusion. The first disc ends on a high note with the wild arrangement of The Smoke’s ‘Control Your Love’, which feels like two songs strung together – an insane, Who-like instrumental break that feels like it’s about to self-destruct any minute – and a rather pleasant pop rocker with a great hook. Whew!

La De Da’s also kick off Disk Two with John Mayall’s ‘On Top Of The World’, a full three years before Mayall got around to recording it in 1969. Swirling organ and a gruff, bluesy vocal carry the day. Tom Thumb screech and wail their way through another organ-dominated, Them-style blues stomper, ‘Got Love’, that was released at the height of New Zealand’s Summer of Love. The Selected Few deliver a storming version of The Pretty Things’ ‘Get The Picture’ that’s pure freakbeat heaven, and the unreleased Cossacks track ‘Ugly Thing’ wears its fratboy, party vibe proudly on its sleeve.

The Roadrunners return to run roughshod through The Kinks ‘’A House In The Country’ that sounds like The Beatles in their sweaty Hamburg daze (the shoddy demo recording is its only detraction), and no garage/beat/RnB comp would be complete without someone ravaging ‘Hey Joe’ and while Sebastian’s Floral Array give it the ol’ college try, their name suggests they had their heads in the contemporary Summer of Love scene. No matter…they disbanded before their demos like this proceeded to the final stage of release. The Smoke’s ‘Never Trust Another Woman’ however does dip its toes into psychedelic waters – surprisingly, one of the few tracks to demonstrate how Psychedelia impacted the Kiwi music scene. From the evidence on hand, one would suspect that the garage/freakbeat scene dominated throughout the late 60s on review here.

Sadly, the sameness of the tracks wears thin about halfway through the disc, although Larry’s Rebels continue to impress with their rough house soloing and punky beat on ‘She’s Mine’ that’s rather forward-looking for its 1964 recording date. The Secrets’ harmonic popper ‘It’s You’ belies bassist Gary Thain’s future home in Uriah Heep, and Tommy Adderley’s ‘Mr. Jinx’ reworks the down-on-his-luck tale of Fred Neil’s ‘Bag I’m In’ into a snappy little guitar rocker.

Moving on to the final disc, the compiler/sequencer’s aversion to chronological order (a general problem throughout all three discs) reaches the height of frustration for the listener trying to trace the trajectory of New Zealand’s late ‘60s music scene, with tracks leapfrogging from ’65 to ’69 and all points in between. Nevertheless, short of doing his job for him and resequencing your CD players, we’ll just concentrate on the tunes, starting with The Newsounds’ ‘All Night Worker’ and ‘Over You’, wherein screamer Ray Woolf turns in the best Elvis imitation in the set (not a bad thing). The sounds here are softer and poppier, with draft dodger Gene Pierson’s late ’67 ‘Love Love Love’ bridging a Four Seasons/Association vibe for what surely should have been a Christmas hit. Ozzie ex-pats Peter Nelson & The Castaways illustrate the straightforward radio-friendly side of the Kiwi sound with ‘A Little Lovin’ Somethin’’, which, along with The Action’s ‘Somethin’ Fresh’ suggest that American AM radio hits from the likes of The Grass Roots, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, American Breed, Turtles, were warmly received down under.

Mr. Lee Grant was apparently a huge star in the mid-60s, with multiple chart toppers, several LPs and eight singles in a little over a year. But the compilers may have chosen the wrong tracks to represent his career, as ‘Love’ and the earlier commercial bomb ‘As Long As I Have You’ are more worthy of a Golden Throats comp, especially considering Grant’s future film and TV career after he relocated to London in 1968 and resorted to his birth name, Bogdan Kominowski, starring in the Bond film A View To A Kill and becoming a mainstay of British telly on shows like Reilly Ace of Spies, The Bill, Brush Strokes, To The Manor Born, Benny Hill, and many more.

Gene Pierson’s second selection, ‘You Got To Me’ sounds like something left off a Partridge Family album (show of hands for guilty pleasures!), and The Challenge’s ‘Things Get Better’ sound like their answer to the era’s popular Coke adverts (“Things go better with Coke”), although it’s actually a cover of Eddie Floyd’s ’66 Stax scorcher, and the Brits and Yanks can’t hold a candle to the bouncy, cheerio, white bread rendition of the old Motown chestnut ‘Turn To Stone’ from The Concrete Lamb, a psychedelic ‘60s’ band name if ever I heard one and completely unindicative of their frothy style. The band also has a long, convoluted history (a brief explanation of which lasts longer than their lone single, of which this was the B-side). The aforementioned Newsounds broke up and bassist Billy Belton formed The Avengers. Soon thereafter, Newsounds Elvis imitator Ray Woolf joined and they changed their name to Ray Woolf and The Avengers to avoid confusion with the lot from Wellington. Ray quit and they renamed themselves The New Avengers before settling on Concrete Lamb. It was under this name that their lone single was released, although by the time it came out, Ray, who sang the B-side cover of the Four Tops classic had already left the band.) Whew! By the way, Ray’s Elvis is better than his Levi Stubbs!

Other tracks of note include the Foundations/Equals-inflected poppy soul struttin’ permeates The Quincy Conserves’ ’You’ve Got That Lovin’ Look’, The Chants R&B whip out the fuzzboxes on their Animal-istic ‘Neighbour Neighbour’, which encapsulates the treasures to be found on many a hidden B-side, and The Who-styled mod stomp of The Pleazers‘ fuzz-drenched Otis Redding cover, ‘Security’. But the strangest and most confusing recording of all is The Action’s note-perfect rendition of The Action’s ‘Never Ever’! That’s New Zealand’s Action covering the original UK Action’s penultimate single. Odder still, Parlophone simultaneously released The (UK) Action’s final single, ‘Shadows and Reflections’ in New Zealand. No wonder the kids were confused and none of the records sold. In yet another unlikely coincidence, UK Action guitarist Alan "Bam" King would eventually relocate to...New Zealand!

Overall, this is one of Cherry Red’s finer efforts, well worth the investment to hear what these (mostly) obscure bands were doing on the other side of the planet with their credible refashioning of the aggressive styles of The Who, Pretties, Kinks, They’re also not that different from Britain’s unheralded freakbeaters who were simultaneously toiling away creating the sort of tunes that also languished in obscurity until resurrected on many a Rubble, Perfumed Garden, and Chocolate Soup collection. Fuzz boxes are flowing, throats are shredding, and the dancefloors are throbbing throughout. And the liners are worth the price of admission alone for their Joynson-like attention to detail in unearthing the history of the bands included.

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Working my way through the first disc, really good. You have to take your time with these Cherry Red boxsets, so much stuff. I don't know how they dig them up. La De Da's are a great discovery.

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