Sharon O’Neill, the husky-voiced songbird of the 80s gets a gong
Along the coastal highway in Nelson, perched on high wooden piles, there sits a renovated boat house that’s now a venue for weddings, wakes, 21st birthdays and music gigs.
It juts out over the surf like a ship, a wide deck at the front and a lighthouse standing sentinel on the Boulder Bank beyond.
At high tide on very windy days, the Tasman Sea slaps against the underside of these floorboards with a worrying “boom!”
But today, electric guitar, saxophone and drums echo off the thick wooden walls. A sound guy twiddles with faders while a cheerful American, who spent 15 years playing with Dragon, pounds at an electric piano.
A rehearsal is under way. “Can you get Alan out of my monitors, please?” says a rail-thin woman in bright, paint-splattered tights and pink Dr Martens.
“Ah,” says the keyboard guy, who’s the singer’s longterm partner. “Sharon doesn’t want to hear me any more. We’ve clearly been together way too long.” The rest of the band cracks up.
Sharon! Or as the NZ Woman’s Weekly used to call her during the 1980s: “Our Sharon.” It’s Sharon O’Neill, back for two hometown gigs after nearly 40 years living in Sydney.
“Let’s go out the back for a quick chat,” she says, and when she climbs down off the stage, I notice how tiny she is.
Now 64, O’Neill only comes up to my chin, and I’m not a tall man. Each of her legs is as skinny as my forearm. She’s seriously petite, but casts a big shadow over New Zealand music.
O’Neill was one of our first female pop singers to write their own songs, front their own bands, break through the barricades of a local music scene dominated by men.
Luck’s at Your Table. Words. Asian Paradise. Maybe. Maxine. Her singles were thrashed on local radio, and the film clips were on high-rotate on TV. These were songs, reckoned former Rip It Up editor Murray Cammick, that “our baby-boomer generation will never forget”.
O’Neill had shaggy bleached blonde hair and a “hot bogan vibe”, as one of my mates puts it. There was a touch of the Stevie Nicks about her.
She was the object of great desire among teenage boys. I say this as a former teenage boy.
“Oh, God… really?” she says, folding herself into a black vinyl couch backstage. “That’s hilarious. I guess you’re right, though. I played one showcase for all these big guns from the States and they said, ‘Look, she’s gotta get out from behind that damn piano so people can see her body better!’ They wanted me to do the rock chick thing, but I wasn’t super comfortable with that, ’cause I’m no dancer. I just loved to sing.”
It all started, well… just over there. If you went out on the deck and fired a leftover Guy Fawkes skyrocket across the bay towards Tahunanui Beach, you could just about hit the house in Moana Ave where O’Neill grew up.
“I loved growing up in Nelson. I was at that beach every weekend, we’d go up the Maitai [river] for swims. All that good stuff. We’d drive up Aniseed Valley to those swimming holes, too”.
At night, after dinner, they would plait their voices together in the kitchen.
“Yeah, we called ourselves the Moana Nightingales as kids. Every night after tea – only flash people called it dinner – me, my mum and my two sisters would sing together. Mum would wash, we would dry, and we’d rattle through all these old songs.”
She starts to sing in a wavering, mock-Victorian voice. “Now remember, dear, our love will never be the same…”
O’Neill laughs and slaps her teensy leg. “We’d do all these three-part harmonies around Mum and it was lovely, to sing with each other.”
The family was “a bit musical”, she says. “My sister June played the bagpipes, and button accordion. And my other sister Pam could whistle any tune you could name. Mum and Dad have passed now, but both my sisters will be at tomorrow night’s show.”
“They wanted me to do the rock chick thing, but I wasn’t super comfortable with that, ’cause I’m no dancer. I just loved to sing.”
O’Neill taught herself guitar and piano, picking out simple melodies to accompany poems she was writing. She played at local folk clubs as a teenager, followed by a long apprenticeship in pop groups with goofy 70s names: Chapta, The Rumour, Jessica, Suitewater, Libra, Shiner. They were years of “mostly living on the road”, learning to move a crowd. Then she decided to go solo.
“There were very few female singer/songwriters in New Zealand at that time. Shona Laing was one of the first, and we often have a good laugh about the old days. Her song 1905 really impressed me when I heard it on the radio. I thought, ‘Wow, here’s a woman who’s cut through the crap and got her own song out there. Maybe I can do that, too.”’
O’Neill’s breakthrough came in 1978 when she sang Luck’s on Your Table on TV talent show The Entertainers, wearing a teensy waistcoat with a risqué plunging neckline and a big fake flower in her hair.
She became the first local signing to CBS Records, and it’s easy to see why; the song manages to be simultaneously sexy and regretful, to the point that you can almost forgive her rhyming “young and lusty” with “her steed was trusty”. Shazza sings the hell out of it, too. She sounds like Linda Ronstadt.
“Oh, I’m a big fan of Linda, Emmylou Harris, The Eagles. You know, I was recording my fourth album [ Foreign Affairs] in LA and we needed another harmony, so John Boylan the producer disappeared into the other studio and came back with Don Henley! Don sings on my song Hearts on The Run, which was a big thrill for me.”
One of O’Neill’s best early songs is Words, an up-tempo country-rock belter that’s quite literally mad as a meat-axe. The opening line always makes me picture big blokes at the freezing works, their white gumboots stained red with blood.
“Let me out, like new blood at the slaughter,” hollers Shaz in the intro. What a gloriously graphic way to start a pop song.
“Yeah, I guess it is pretty full-on and gory. It’s about song writing, how the words get really pent up inside unless you find a release for them. I wrote poetry ever since I was a kid, so that really rings true for me.”
After a steady trickle of hits in New Zealand, O’Neill moved to Australia in 1981 and has lived there ever since. “I first went over to play support on a Boz Scaggs tour. Dave Dobbyn was in that band, back when he was just a mad little rager, skinny as a stick with a big mop of curly hair.”
O’Neill’s biggest hit came a few years later. An unlikely feminist fable involving sex, suicide, a sax solo and a singalong chorus, 1983’s Maxine was inspired by the drugged-up sex workers who clustered around the band’s hotel in Sydney’s King’s Cross, which was still “extremely seedy” at the time.
“We’d get back from a gig late at night and this poor working girl was always there, so I tried to imagine her story. We shot the video in the Cross, and the girls we had playing prostitutes looked so convincing, the pimps started to threaten us, like, you’re taking business away from our girls. But we had protection. We were getting changed at the local police station, so screw them, right?”
Australia turned into a bit of a bummer. A contractual dispute with CBS left O’Neill unable to record for many years. She ended up writing and singing back-up for other artists (Leo Sayer, Robert Palmer, Jimmy Barnes, Dragon) while her solo career lost momentum. It still burns.
“It made me very angry. At one point I thought, the hell with it, and became a fitness instructor. Don’t ask me to do that now! But it kept me healthy during those weird years where all that crap was going on.”
Somewhere along the way, love blossomed. O’Neill split with her first husband, former bandmate Brent Thomas, after falling for Dragon keyboard player Alan Mansfield, who was also married at the time.
“We’d get back from a gig late at night and this poor working girl was always there, so I tried to imagine her story.” – Sharon O’Neill on her 1983 hit Maxine
She met him while supporting Dragon’s Body and The Beat tour in 1984. She was the body, she reckons, and they were the beat.
“Alan arrived in Australia around 1979 as Bette Midler’s keyboard player, then hooked up with the Dragon guys. They were very wild with drugs and so on when they were younger, and there were tragedies along the way, but they’d toned down by the time Alan joined.
“He stayed with them until Marc Hunter passed away, then toured with Robert Palmer, who died recently as well. It’s lead singer syndrome – they’re dropping like flies. I better not be next!”
These days, O’Neill mainly performs in 80s nostalgia shows, alongside “great old bands like Dragon, Eurogliders, The Choirboys, The Church, Rose Tattoo”. This sometimes involves little more than “going out there and doing Maxine while everyone sings along”.
Occasionally, she whips back across the Tasman to tour with old mates – Hammond Gamble, Shona Laing, When the Cat’s Away.
There have been six studio albums, a handful of hit singles, tours to the US and Japan. She hosted her own TV specials, composed the soundtrack to New Zealand feature film Smash Palace, won a host of awards.
Before things turned sour, her record company coughed up for flash American producers and big marketing campaigns, hoping she might “break Australia”.
It wasn’t to be. O’Neill’s last album was way back in 1990, but there’s no shortage of loyal fans, and a “Best Of” collection got to No.6 on the New Zealand album charts just three years ago, in 2014.
And she’s just found out that she’ll receive the Legacy Award at next month’s Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, and be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. There’ll be a tribute performance on awards night, with the artists yet to be confirmed.
“I was blown away, to be honest. When I heard the organisers were trying to get hold of me, I assumed they wanted me to present a trophy to some other female singer. I was amazed when they told me it was for me.”
The event organisers have issued a press release singing O’Neill’s praises. In my best po-faced radio announcer voice, I read her out a few glowing lines: “Sharon’s songs are an iconic part of an era when New Zealand music really started to come of age... Sharon blazed a trail for women in rock, and it’s only right we take the time to celebrate her career and the impact she had on Kiwi music.”
She cracks up. “That’s great, isn’t it? But I didn’t feel like a trailblazer at the time. I just loved singing, and I’d been hanging around with bands ever since I left Nelson. People would look at me like I was a groupie, until I got up to sing.”
And she needs to get up and sing right now. Her band’s getting restless. It’s time for O’Neill to get back to her rehearsal.
Later that night, I swing by the venue to catch her show. A cab pulls up as I arrive and two women get out with constricted vowels and bulging carry-on suitcases. They’ve come straight from Nelson airport.
“We flew over from Melbourne for this!” one tells me. “It’ll be so great to see her play in her home town. Last time we saw Sharon, she was singing with Leo Sayer!”
Inside, the Boat House is packed, with most punters in their 50s and 60s, and a scattering of younger faces. Sharon sweeps onstage in black leather pants and a dark shirt with a skull on the back.
“It’s so good to be home,” she says, and launches into a song about a no-good cheating man getting his comeuppance.
She plays all her hits, the volume overly polite at first but cranking up in the second half. There’s a new song, too, inspired by her Nelson childhood, and she introduces it with a lovely tale about her dad getting his pilot’s licence late in life. “He’d fly along the beach and over the house, and Mum would be out on the veranda, waving a tea towel.”
When O’Neill plays Maxine, I spy the two incoming Australian fans dancing over by the deck, beaming with joy.
“Last time I heard this, I was smoking weed behind the bike sheds at Waimea College,” says the woman sitting beside me. She gives a conspiratorial wink and takes a mighty slug of her pinot.
“Maxine…” sings Sharon, a great big voice rising up from her tiny frame. “You’re not the only one… to take the whole world on…” Everyone sings along, word-perfect. “Who’s that walking, walking behind you? Who’s that talking, talking about you? Who’s that walking, walking with you, Maxine?” Sharon O’Neill will be inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame at the 2017 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards at Auckland’s Spark Arena on November 16. The event will be broadcast live from 8.30 pm on Three.
“When I heard the organisers were trying to get hold of me, I assumed they wanted me to present a trophy…”
In the early days of her career, Sharon O’Neill, now 64, says: “People would look at me like I was a groupie, until I got up to sing.”
Sharon O’Neill has fond memories of her childhood in Nelson (top right). Later, in the 70s and 80s, she had hits in New Zealand but her career didn’t take off in Australia.