Sharon O’Neill, the husky-voiced song­bird of the 80s gets a gong

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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.

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