Sounds like the sixties

C’mon back to a decade that rocked the status quo long before Madonna reinvented road cones. In Auckland Central Research Centre’s 'Sounds like the sixties' display we look at the 1960s pop music revolution through a local lens. A wave of bands and artists with names like Invaders, Typhoons, Tornados and Meteors would help permanently reshape the entertainment landscape. The climate was about to change and the radio dial was turned right up to cool.

Ref: Murray Freer. Mayfield Primary School music festival Otara. 1968.
Stuff Limited / Footprints, Auckland Libraries 02781

The 1960s were a transitional time for New Zealand society. World War Two was still relatively recent history and a generation who had lived through the horrors of that conflict were invested in maintaining economic stability and enjoying relative post-war prosperity. Before long however this sense of security was about to be shattered.

The arrival of a shaggy haired band from Britain, while an innocent enough event in itself, was something of a portent of things to come. Rock ‘n’ roll was soon to become the soundtrack to a decade which would again be in part defined by war, both at home and abroad. By the decade’s end and going into the 1970s people were no longer standing for the Queen when they went to the movies and, as if to reinforce the decline in familial affection, Britain would soon drastically reduce its consumption of our dairy exports.

Auckland became the local centre of the new music scene, particularly with the commissioning of a large television studio in the NZBC building on Shortland Street. It was from here that super smooth Peter Sinclair would soothe over troubled waters like a Rawleigh’s balm. The radio broadcaster turned slick TV frontman hosted a slew of popular music programs throughout the decade. He is possibly most well-known for ‘C’mon’: a variety show propelled by local talent mixing the latest international hits with old favourites presumably to satisfy the musical tastes of almost anyone who chose to tune in to the country’s fledgling television offering.

Ref: Alton Francis. Two guitarists waiting backstage at NZBC studios, Shortland Street. 1964.
Stuff Limited / Footprints 02518

Sinclair can be seen here hard at work on the set of 'C’mon’s' predecessor 'Let’s Go'. 'C’mon' would effectively provide a national showcase for some of the decade’s top acts including Lee 'Boggers' Grant. It was decided that his given name; Bogdan Charis Kominowski, was an insufficiently catchy moniker for the Polish Palmerston North-based teacher trainee turned pop star. A ‘Mr.’ was added to avoid confusion with an actor. Despite achieving nationwide fame on 'C’mon', New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley was not long out of Studio One’s bright lights when his star quickly faded. Failing to make it on the international stage, Grant reverted to his original name and pursued acting.

Ref: Portrait of Lee Grant taken from C'mon souvenir programme.
Ephemera Collection. Heritage Collections, Auckland Libraries

Also rocking the charts were Ray Columbus’s Beatles look-a-like band the Invaders. From humble beginnings as an ice-cream boy at Christchurch’s Avon cinema, where he perhaps got a feel for public attention, Columbus was spotted by Howard Morrison and whisked away to Auckland. Blazing a trail through New Zealand’s Big Smoke, the Invaders claimed to be the first band in possession of Fender Stratocaster guitars and amps, made in America and seen as the best quality at the time and able to produce the right sound. That the “real” thing needed to be imported gives a second-hand feel to the local rock scene. It is perhaps then not entirely surprising that the Invaders short reign ended not long after that other shaggy-haired band arrived on our sunny shores in 1964.
Invader’s frontman Ray Columbus did however manage to survive the demise of his band and when producer Phil Warren was scouting a line-up for the 1968 relaunch of C’mon, Columbus had successfully carved out a niche for himself in the American market. According to promotional material for the stage tour “A telephone call to ‘Frisco, some correspondence, and it was on – Ray would return to New Zealand.”

If anyone could work magic with his fingers it was Phil Warren. From an early age he appears to have had an instinct for business – he saw his first opportunity to enter the music recording scene while working as an errand boy at Queen Street’s Begg’s music store. Warren’s dynamism evokes an earlier era in entertainment when New Zealand’s number-eight-wire mentality still prevailed. But people in his position also arguably had greater power in a pre-digital world; they were the gate-keepers of their product and could control who got how much exposure and where.
Ref: Unknown photographer. Oriental Ballroom, Symonds Street, Auckland. 1960s.
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 488-22 

Warren shuffled between the recording business and artist promotion. He saw a need, as the 1960s dawned, for venues that could accommodate the new scene. Old Auckland social spots from the big band era such as Mt. Eden’s Crystal Palace and the Oriental Ballroom were re-purposed as dance clubs serving ‘American coffee’ – coffee laced with alcohol – and providing a place where the youth of the day could jive their nights away.

Not one to shy away from dregs, Warren took on a wide variety of artists. Amongst these were Auckland based group 'The House of Nimrod'. Essentially a one-hit-wonder, they were nonetheless bread and butter for Mr. Warren as he put in place the building blocks of a successful career in the fickle entertainment industry. When 'C’mon' had hit it’s stride there were signs that mercury of the local scene was on the rise. Ian Frykberg reviewing the stage tour of 'C’mon' for the Auckland Star said: "And there were even screams – usually reserved for overseas pop shows."

Ref: Phil Warren was able to organise distribution of some of his artists through Australian owned Festival Records. Festival Records letter. Phillip Reece Warren papers, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries NZMS 1214

So we invite you to come back and remind yourself that it grooved, it shook, it shimmied – that it was real and that it sounded good, it sounded like change: it sounded like the sixties. No one understood the ephemeral nature of entertainment better than consummate performer Peter Sinclair, master of smoke and mirrors who for a bright flickering moment gave form to our innermost desires. He told the Woman’s Weekly in 1978: "In show business, the image is often completely different from the person behind it...in my private life I certainly wasn’t raving around in tight pants and glitter jackets." But you have our permission.

Ref: Pete Sinclair returns to his roots on radio for New Year’s Eve 1965, NZ Listener, Dec 24 1965
References:
Serials
Auckland Star 9 September 1967
New Zealand Listener 24 December 1965
New Zealand Woman’s Weekly 14 August 1978
Ephemera
C’mon 68 stage tour programme – September 1968
Phillip Reece Warren papers, Auckland Libraries NZMS 1214
Books
Hostage to the beat: the Auckland scene, 1955-1970 by Roger Watkins
Stranded in paradise: New Zealand rock and roll, 1955 to the Modern Era by John Dix
Websites
Audio Culture – The noisy library of New Zealand music
NZ On Screen
https://www.nzonscreen.com/

The 'Sounds like the sixties' display is currently on in the level two atrium space at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero (Central City Library).

Author: Mark, Research and Information

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