Phil Gifford revisits a solo sailor, and the Finns pay homage to Otis Redding.
HARRY LYON, a founding member of Hello Sailor, didn’t know Delaney Davidson was going to sing “Billy Bold” as a tribute to Graham Brazier at the 2015 Silver Scroll awards. It was only 13 days after Brazier died. “I was pretty raw,” says Lyon, “and it was quite emotional.”
Backstage at Auckland’s Vector Arena, Lyon and Davidson came face to face. “It was the first time I’d met Delaney, and I literally fell into his arms, weeping. We became instant friends.”
Four decades after Lyon first recorded with Sailor, it feels like perfect musical karma that his debut solo album, To the Sea, was produced by Davidson.
Lyon always presented as the most grounded of Sailor’s three gifted singer-songwriters. If Dave Mcartney was the mystic and Brazier was Keith Richards – if Richards had gym-rat muscles – Lyon was practical. He was the one in the 1990s who, in a radio breakfast show studio when the trio was asked to sing live, produced a reel-to-reel tape with an acoustic version of “Blue Lady”. It even had a deliberate false start to make it sound as if they really were performing at what was (for them) a scarily early hour.
Lyon’s solo album sprang from a group of his songs, some dating back more than 30 years, which he had never previously recorded. Rather than pressing to make his own album, he had planned to
register the songs with a music publisher, possibly opening the way for others to record them. But as publisher Paul Mclaney sat in Lyon’s home listening to the demos, it quickly dawned on him that what he was hearing should become an album. Who would Lyon like as producer? “If I had a wish,” he said, “it’d be Delaney [Davidson].”
Davidson’s outsider music, which has been fairly described as country noir, and Lyon’s warm, older- school rock and blues, fit together on To the Sea in an act of nearperfect musical serendipity.
“Most of what I write,” says Lyon, “is quite personal.” So on the rocking “One for the Road”, his lyrics feature a planned meeting at the Rising Sun hotel on Auckland’s K’ Rd . “Baby Don’t Stop”, with its “magic night, June 67” and 16- year- olds dancing the night away, surely has to be about Maguerite, who would become, and still is, his wife.
And while we’re talking heartfelt sentiments, the lovely ballad “Christmas in Dublin” is basically poetic reportage. Daughter Roxy had married a Dubliner and lived in Ireland for many years. On Christmas Day, 2012, she rang to say there was bad news: there’d be no trip to New Zealand the following year. But the good news was that in a year’s time, the whole family would be coming back to live in New Zealand. On Boxing Day, Lyon grabbed his acoustic guitar and “Christmas in Dublin” poured out.
In a bittersweet coda, when Mcartney was told about the song, he swore to Lyon it was prophetic. “You’ve got to go to Dublin, mate. I’ve got a sister in London. I’ll go to see her. You call in to London on the way, and we can tie up for a bit of mischief.”
The Lyons booked for Dublin. But the London catch-up wasn’t to be. Mcartney was diagnosed with aggressive liver cancer, dying in April 2013. “Two days before he died,” says Lyon, “he was at home, and there was a ukulele sitting there, so I picked it up and just before I left, I sang it [“Christmas in Dublin”] for him. Even though the song itself isn’t about Dave, it’s taken on a huge emotional meaning for me.”
As the best albums do, To the Sea appeals at first listening, only to reveal more and more charms the further you immerse yourself in it. FAMILY’S ALWAYS loomed large in Neil Finn’s life. Growing up in the Waikato, as primary school kids, Neil and older brother Tim were always wheeled out to sing when the Finns’ relatives and friends gathered. The crowd favourite was “Terry”, a maudlin pop ballad written and sung by a posh 16-yearold English girl, Lynn Ripley, who called herself Twinkle. ( She went to school with Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla.)
The lyrics, in which a young woman confesses she was cheating on her boyfriend the night he died in a motorbike crash (“Please wait at the gate of heaven for me, Terry”), are beyond kitsch.
But the Finns’ mother Mary, a keen amateur piano player, recognised the power of the song’s melody. After another night of thunderous applause for the wee boys’ rendition of “Terry”, she told them sincerely that a good tune should be cherished. It was advice they’ve largely heeded for the rest of their lives.
Neil, especially, has been the master of the hook, a moment in a song that embeds itself in your heart and memory. I’d consider him a musical legend if all he’d done was unleash “I Got You”, his biggest hit with Split Enz. The effect the song, especially the iconic chorus, had on audiences in the early 1980s was Beatlesque. Says Enz’s bassist in 81, Nigel Griggs, “I’d often look down, and see teenage girls in the front row, looking at Neil, and all with their arms stretched out towards him.”
Catchy hooks aren’t at the heart of the new album Lightsleeper by Neil and son Liam. Neil told interviewer Grant Smithies that while jamming with Liam, a “strange sort of humid, dreamy sound started to emerge, so we just went with it”. If you love Brian Eno’s ambient music, you’ll love this. Neil and Liam are both gifted with beautiful voices, so there’s effortless harmonising, and nuanced playing. If your taste runs more to the pop magic of Crowded House, Neil’s virtual solo on “Anger Plays a Part”, and the charming lullaby “Hold Her Close”, will prove the most rewarding.
AT THE other end of the spectrum to the studio intricacies of the Finns comes the weird but wonderful Dock of the Bay Sessions by Otis Redding, which basically presents as an album soulman Redding might have released if he hadn’t died – down to sleeve notes that suggest it’s “the first indication of a new Otis Redding”.
In fact Redding died in 1967, at the age of 26, along with seven others, including four members of his touring band the Bar- Kays, when the Beechcraft plane he owned crashed into freezing Lake Monona in Wisconsin.
Just three days before the fatal crash, he’d recorded what would become his biggest hit, “Dock of the Bay”. The gentle, reflective tone of the song was, co-writer Steve Cropper would later say, influenced by the folk- rock sounds Redding heard at the 67 Monterey Pop Festival.
There’s sledgehammer soul on Sessions too (this is the man who wrote what became Aretha Franklin’s anthem, “Respect”), but the real genius of Redding is revealed when he slows the tempo; tracks like “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” feel as stark and intimate as the 1936 San Antonio hotel room recordings that made Robert Johnson a blues legend.
By the mid-70s, disco music had delivered a near fatal blow to deep soul. The Dock of the Bay Sessions is a reminder of how much was lost when the dance floor took control. +
Above: Hello Sailor at the Gluepot in 1977. From left: Graham Brazier, Dave Mcartney, Ricky Ball, Harry Lyon and Lisle Kinney.
Otis Redding onstage the year he died – 1967.