Steve Brau­nias meets a leg­end of New Zealand mu­sic who got rich by sell­ing vast amounts of records he cheer­fully de­scribes as “crap”

Weekend Herald - - Review - THE HITS NEW ZEALAND

His name is leg­endary in the New Zealand mu­sic in­dus­try. It in­spires awe, laugh­ter, fury. He called him­self The Hustler and by that he meant he could sell just about any­thing. His first busi­ness card read: “From pop to folk, see Hoght The Bloke.”

Hoghton Hughes, Hoght for short, a re­laxed, mon­eyed 71- year- old liv­ing the good life in By­ron Bay, New South Wales, got where he is by pro­duc­ing what I think might just be the worst mu­sic ever made in this coun­try.

Our con­ver­sa­tion was a rare in­ter­view. He has al­ways kept out of the pub­lic eye. I called him at his home and we bathed in the warm glow of nos­tal­gia for a time when New Zealan­ders paid small change for ter­ri­ble al­bums.

I’d long wanted to talk with Hughes; I ad­mired him as some­one who main­tained un­beat­ably low stan­dards for four amaz­ing decades. His pres­ence in New Zealand life re­mains con­stant: his cat­a­logue of LPs fill the boxes of LPs in ev­ery church junk shop in the land.

Hughes grew up in Christchurch, and stayed put in the city when he cre­ated an independent record com­pany in 1967. Fly­ing Nun be­gan op­er­a­tions there nearly 15 years later and was never as suc­cess­ful or as crazy.

Then, as now, the mu­sic busi­ness was cen­tred in Welling­ton and Auck­land. “I think part of my suc­cess is that I lived in Christchurch,” he said, in a slow, cheer­ful voice.

“No one knew what I was up to. I was an out­sider. The other thing is that ev­ery­one un­der­es­ti­mated me. But I knew the busi­ness.”

He knew what peo­ple wanted. Hughes had worked as a sales rep for a mu­sic store, and formed an in­ti­mate un­der­stand­ing of the kinds of records that sold. He signed Max McCauley, a yo­deller from Gore, and 15- year- old Bren­dan Du­gan, who went on to be­come one of New Zealand’s most en­dur­ing coun­try singers.

They made al­bums for Hughes’ first record com­pany, Mas­ter, which was named in hon­our of his friend, In­ver­cargill mu­sic pro­moter Frank Stapp, who de­vel­oped the ec­cen­tric habit of ad­dress­ing ab­so­lutely ev­ery­one as “mas­ter”, as in, “How’re you go­ing, mas­ter?”

The sheer willpower it took to for­ever call friends and strangers “mas­ter” can scarcely be imag­ined. But that was a mea­sure of the world Hughes moved in; he re­calls pick­ing up Stapp on vis­its to In­ver­cargill, and meet­ing the city’s fa­mous piano player, Jack Thomp­son, for drinks at the Grand Ho­tel.

Their ses­sions went for long hours (“We al­ways got very drunk in the process”) as Hughes tried en­tic­ing Thomp­son to leave EMI, where he was a pro­lific, best- sell­ing solo artist, and sign with him. Thomp­son would have made an ideal Mu­sic World act. His EMI re­leases — Party Time, Party Pops, Here Comes Jack Thomp­son, etc — were un­lis­ten­able piano med­leys. But Thomp­son re­fused to budge.

“Win some, lose some,” said Hughes, and the re­gret in his sigh was gen­uinely felt.

In 1970, Hughes came up with the name for the record com­pany that lives in in­famy, and made him mil­lions of dol­lars — Mu­sic World.

The con­cept was sim­ple and dev­as­tat­ing: “Low- price, mass mar­ket mu­sic.” He ad­ver­tised, heav­ily and in­ge­niously, on TV. “I wrote them my­self, and al­ways wrote as though I was sell­ing to one per­son: ‘ Get your copy to­mor­row!”’

He put his an­nual TV spend at about $ 600,000; he threw good money at bad mu­sic, and made even bet­ter money. Mu­sic World was a kind of $ 2 Shop of sound. He sold in more than 2000 petrol sta­tions across New Zealand. He es­ti­mated 80 per cent of pur­chases of bud­get mu­sic were im­pulse pur­chases.

“They were buy­ing by price,” he said. Cas­settes cost $ 1.99, vinyl was low as $ 3.99.

I asked, “How would you de­scribe the kind of records you made at Mu­sic World?” He said, “I didn’t care if it was a Chi­na­man play­ing the bag­pipes in the bath. If peo­ple wanted it, I’d give it to them. I came up with a slo­gan: ‘ Mu­sic you can af­ford to en­joy’.”

I asked, “Would you con­cede that a fair amount of Mu­sic World records were . . . Do you mind if I use the word ‘ crap’?”

“Oh cer­tainly,” he said. “There was a lot of crap in there. Among the good stuff, like the New Zealand Army Band, and Suzanne Pren­tice, and Wil­liam Boyd the bag­pipe player, there was heaps of crap. Heaps of it. I’m not ashamed. Peo­ple wanted it!

“Take Ivy’s old- time dance band

I didn’t care if it was a Chi­na­man play­ing the bag­pipes in the bath. If peo­ple wanted it, I’d give it to them. I came up with a slo­gan: ‘ Mu­sic you can af­ford to en­joy’. Hoghton Hughes

al­bums. She sold heaps and heaps of records. I just couldn’t sur­vive more than a few bars. Ter­ri­ble! But her record Ivy’s 40 Favourite Waltzes sold 40,000 copies.”

It was a time when New Zealan­ders were gripped with an in­ex­pli­ca­ble yearn­ing for in­stru­men­tal trash.

Bid Butcher, a nice old dear who played the ac­cor­dion, sold 20,000 copies of her merry junk.

There were sim­i­lar kinds of al­bums by Ti­maru’s Terry Kennedy at the key­board ( 24 Piano Pops), blind or­gan­ist Richard Hore ( 22 Yamaha Or­gan Favourites), and the in­cred­i­ble

Golden Sax­o­phones: 22 All- Time Favourites, which re­mains the big­gest- sell­ing New Zealand LP of all time. Fea­tur­ing well- re­garded jazz sax­o­phon­ist Stu Buchanan, it was recorded at Tan­dem in Christchurch — a gold record of the 1978 al­bum i s dis­played on the walls at the Sy­den­ham stu­dio — and sold an es­ti­mated 600,000 copies world­wide. Only Lorde’s Pure Hero­ine, on mul­ti­ple for­mats, has out­sold it.

All that black vinyl, and all those lit­tle cas­sette cases. Hoght The Bloke said, “I used to tell my sales­men, ‘ We’re not in the mu­sic busi­ness. We’re in the plas­tics busi­ness.”’

just kept com­ing. Mu­sic World’s most suc­cess­ful year was in 1992, when sales topped $ 15m. By then, Hughes had left New Zealand for the Gold Coast. Yes, he said, he’s done well for him­self. “I’d be ly­ing if I said I hadn’t. I’m well- heeled. I sup­pose ‘ a man of means’ is the way to de­scribe it.”

But what about the mu­si­cians who recorded for Hughes, and made him rich? Bren­dan Du­gan’s 1967 LP Coun­try’s Great­est was the very first al­bum Hughes re­leased. “It re­ally put me on my feet. It sold about 20,000 copies, and of course there were no roy­al­ties to pay out.”

I said, “What do you mean, ‘ of course’?”

Hughes claimed that the con­tract was bro­ken, and Du­gan left Mas­ter Records to sign for EMI. “My so­lic­i­tor said, ‘ What­ever you do, Hoghton,’ he said, ‘ don’t pay him one cent of roy­al­ties.’

“And I said, ‘ Well, no, he’s earned it.’ ‘ No,’ he said, ‘ he’s say­ing to you he doesn’t recog­nise the con­tract,’ he said. ‘ Don’t be a fool,’ he said. And so he [ Du­gan] was the mak­ing of me. It was a won­der­ful thing. He did me a favour by break­ing the con­tract, a kind of back­handed favour, I guess. He came to me years later and had the au­dac­ity to ask me for a gold record.”

Woah, there, said Du­gan, who I called at home in Pa­pamoa in the Bay of Plenty. “There was never a con­tract. We would never have bro­ken a con­tract. So that would be a lie for a start.”

A minute or t wo later, he said, “There might have been a ver­bal con­tract. Put it this way. I would like to see the con­tract if there was one . . . I think he’s telling a lit­tle lie there.”

Du­gan agreed with Hughes that he wanted to ad­vance his ca­reer, and EMI of­fered bet­ter terms. We left be­cause he didn’t have the power to do what they could do for me.”

Hughes said, “It broke my heart. It to­tally broke my heart. I was in tears. My whole am­bi­tion was cen­tred on Bren­dan Du­gan. I was go­ing to make him into the next John Hore.”

Hore was signed to Joe Brown, an­other South Is­land mu­sic en­tre­pre­neur, who re­leased stacks of Hore’s smooth coun­try mu­sic LPs.

Told of Hughes’ bro­ken heart, Du­gan laughed, and said, “Oh re­ally? Aww. I’m so up­set.”

These days, Du­gan col­lects tourists from the cruise ships twice a week at Mt Maun­ganui, and drives the coach to Ro­torua, Hob­biton, and other spots. “I pick them up off the boat and away we go,” he said. He’s 65 now.

Yes, he said, he re­mem­bered the first time he met Hughes. Du­gan was

13. His fam­ily farmed sheep and crops in Can­ter­bury. He won a tal­ent quest in Caro­line Bay in Ti­maru.

“He [ Hughes] came to us and of­fered us a con­tract. Or a record deal,” he added quickly. “I was go­ing to be a star.”

Suzanne Pren­tice sold more than

100,000 coun­try mu­sic al­bums dur­ing her long part­ner­ship with Hughes, but they also parted on bad terms.

I got hold of Pren­tice at her In­ver­cargill home. Her first words were the ex­act same as Du­gan’s when I said I was call­ing about Hoghton Hughes: “Oh, God.”

That was pretty much her only un­guarded com­ment. Af­ter two con­ver­sa­tions and an exchange over email, she de­cided she wouldn’t talk about Hughes on the record.

coun­try mu­sic, though, i s in Hughes’ debt. He re­leased stacks of it and much of it was good and raw and un­pol­ished, by acts such as Cole Wil­son, Danny McGirr, Garner Wayne, Les Thomas, and Max McCauley the yo­deller.

They all made solid al­bums for Hughes. But the busi­ness terms were . . . well, said McCauley, from his home in Gore, it was what it was.

“You get an op­por­tu­nity, and you take it,” he said. “I was pretty green I guess and I should have been a lot smarter. My al­bum 50 Golden Yodels sold 50,000 copies and I was paid $ 150. That was all that was of­fered. The mes­sage was ei­ther you do it, or they’d get some­one else to do it.”

I said, “You got paid $ 150 for an al­bum that sold 50,000 copies — how does that make you feel about Hoghton Hughes?”

McCauley is 81 now. He has worked as a tim­ber grader, pa­per mill ma­chin­ist, and jan­i­tor at a freez­ing works.

He said, “Well, I wouldn’t say he was very giv­ing. But I don’t like to talk badly about peo­ple. I just don’t.

“I’d rather pat a fel­low on the back than kick them in the back­side.”

McCauley gave me a num­ber for Pedal steel player Les Thomas, 82, in Blen­heim. He’d lived most of his life in In­ver­cargill and worked as a printer. He played back- up on the highly rated Peter Posa LP My Kind of Pickin’ and had a modest hit with his own Mu­sic World al­bum Steel Gui­tar Coun­try: 24 Golden Hits. We talked about Hughes for a bit. “He was a pretty lively sort of a guy,” he said. “Al­ways good fun. Some peo­ple thought he was a bit

tight and mis­er­able with his money. They griz­zled that he got them to make a record for noth­ing or next to noth­ing. But the im­por­tant thing is he gave them a chance to make an al­bum. So I’ve no hard feel­ings.” Mostly, we talked about mu­sic.

Though they recorded on the cheap for Mu­sic World, many of the mu­si­cians prided them­selves on their craft; they loved coun­try mu­sic and fash­ioned a unique New Zealand sound. They played to a high stan­dard, were dis­ci­plined, mas­terly.

Les Thomas’ in­stru­ment of choice was some­thing that haunted him when he first heard it. It was in the 1950s that he started li sten­ing to pedal steel gui­tar on records by Hank Wil­liams and Hank Snow. “It used to amaze me just how the hell these guys could make that sound. One day I saw a pedal steel in a mu­sic cat­a­logue. I didn’t ex­actly know what it was but I fig­ured it’s got to be the se­cret noise­mak­ing ma­chine.”

He mas­tered it, formed The Coun­try­men with his brother Colin and gui­tarist Maaki Good­willie. I told him I had a copy of their Steel Gui­tar Coun­try LP. He said, “One of my favourites on that is Plead­ing.”

I said, “Why is that?” He said, “It was the first time I got it to sound like the mys­tery sound I heard on all the old records.”

I played it on my Na­tional turntable af­ter the in­ter­view. It’s a slow num­ber, and Thomas’ pedal steel picks out lan­guid, liq­uid notes. I lis­tened while look­ing at the Steel Gui­tar al­bum cover of Les and the band wear­ing fancy cow­boy duds bought from a trip to Nashville, and thought how it was all made pos­si­ble by Hughes.

He doc­u­mented an era. He brought New Zealand mu­sic to New Zealand homes.

“The mass mar­ket marvel,” said by his friend Ste­wart Aber­nethy, a sheep farmer from Gore who alerted Hughes to Suzanne Pren­tice when she was 13. “You could hear a pin drop when she sang in In­ver­cargill.”

I reached Aber­nethy in Queen­stown. He’d done well for him­self with a Ford deal­er­ship. “Hoght was a flam­boy­ant char­ac­ter,” he re­mem­bered. “He turned up at the farm one day in a pow­der- blue jump­suit. Well, you just don’t dress like that in South­land.”

The strangest record com­pany mogul in New Zealand mu­sic his­tory had pro­vided un­told hours of li sten­ing plea­sure. Golden Flutes, Disco Su­per­stars: 20 Sounda­like Hits, Moog Plays Abba . . .

I asked him what he thought was the very worst LP in the Mu­sic World cat­a­logue. “Punk Nurs­ery Rhymes has to take the cake,” he said. Not even The Hustler could sell that. It bombed. It was, he ad­mit­ted, a waste of plas­tic.

Hoghton Hughes is en­joy­ing the good life in By­ron Bay. In­set, Hughes in his Mu­sic World hey­day.

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