How Bizarre 25 years on
Garth Cartwright remembers how Polynesian soul took over the world
New Zealand in 1996: what do you remember about that year? Sports fans likely mention how the All Blacks, recently having turned professional, won their first test series in South Africa. Politics junkies will recall the introduction of MMP and an election that saw Jim Bolger hold on to the Prime Minister’s mantle by forming a coalition with NZ First. And music nuts will celebrate 96 as the year a New Zealand-based artist first topped charts all around the world. That the artist was OMC (O¯ tara Millionaires Club), an outfit that mixed rap, pop, Latin and Polynesian flavours into a unique whole on How Bizarre, makes this achievement even more remarkable.
Released in late-December 1995, How Bizarre quickly became the soundtrack to New Zealand’s summer, reaching No 1 for several weeks and shifting such huge quantities it soon ranked among our biggest-ever sellers. Crossing the Tasman, it repeated the feat there — No 1 for five weeks, then No 2 for another two, sticking around their charts for five months — before becoming a huge summer hit in the UK and quickly replicating this success across many European nations. Japan, Singapore,
Malaysia all loved this quirky Kiwi song and Canadians went ballistic for How Bizarre.
Finally, the biggest and toughest market in the world embraced OMC: How Bizarre
topped the US charts, getting millions of spins on radio and in clubs while the OMC album — called How Bizarre — sold millions of CDs. The mid-1990s were the height of the CD era. Vinyl had been relegated to the basement, cassettes were on their way out and downloading or streaming music hadn’t yet been invented.
How Bizarre was a first on many fronts: the biggest international hit ever by a New Zealander and first to be recorded in New Zealand — from John Rowles to Crowded House, all our prior international hitmakers recorded in the UK, US or Australia. And the only time a Kiwi record label, Huh! Records, has scored a worldwide hit in some 70 years of local music being released here. Lorde’s worldwide smash Royals is the only record to replicate OMC’s vast success.
Fittingly, having reached a quartercentury, How Bizarre, the album, has now been remastered and reissued for the very first time on vinyl: loaded with classic tunes, superbly arranged and produced, I can’t think of another home-grown album that so brilliantly blends the essence of a Ma¯ori singalong — strummed guitar, big chorus, huge sense of fun — with a sonic soundscape encompassing mariachi trumpets, Hawaiian steel guitar, French horns, hip-hop beats and scratching, mewling synthesisers, strings, handclaps, sweetened choruses and more. Actually, thinking about it, I’m willing to go out on a limb: How Bizarre’s the best Kiwi album ever.
Such an assertion is likely to generate plenty of disagreement. Esteemed broadcaster Nick Bollinger’s book 100 Essential New Zealand Albums includes plenty of Kiwi rock, pop, soul, disco and blues albums, but not OMC. Radio New Zealand regularly hosts blokes chatting about LPs by The Verlaines or Chills. And anything involving the Finn brothers tends to be treated with reverence. But for the past quarter-century, OMC have received little love from the nation’s cultural gatekeepers. Discussing why this might be with Simon Grigg, who signed OMC to Huh! Records, we settled on the following.
Partly its tall poppy syndrome: OMC were just too successful. How Bizarre was such a huge hit there’s a tendency to consider that’s all OMC had. This is incorrect: their next three hits — Right On (No 11 and sold platinum), On the Run (No 30) and the lovely Land of Plenty (No 4) — are all included on the album. Others dismiss OMC as a “studio confection” because they were a partnership of singer Pauly Fuemana and producer Alan Jansson. Such Luddite thinking would dismiss Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley for their close relationships with their respective producers, Nelson Riddle and Sam Phillips. And Fuemana co-wrote the songs with Jansson, the duo spending long nights experimenting in Jansson’s Uptown Studios in Auckland, constructing OMC’s sound.
OF MAORI-NIUEAN ¯ heritage, Fuemana’s hardscrabble O¯ tara upbringing marked him as an outsider and ensured he rarely gelled with a predominantly middle-class, Pa¯keha¯ media. This and OMC’s refusal to follow the grind of playing pubs, student unions and festivals was held against the band. How Bizarre’s phenomenal international success was so rapid that Polygram Entertainment, which financed Huh!, demanded Fuemana work across the world. Jansson stayed at Uptown Studios while Fuemana, having spent 1996 doing promotional and TV work, took a band on the road for much of 1997 — when I saw them in London.
Resettling in Auckland, Fuemana was weary and wanted to enjoy being an O¯ tara millionaire. And so he did, engaging in excessive partying and spending while creating no new music, effectively burning his bridges with Jansson and Grigg. By 2005, the How Bizarre royalties had reduced to a dribble but Fuemana’s largesse continued until he was evicted from his North Shore house and declared bankrupt. He was crippled by addictions and ill health and his rapid decline and 2010 death at age 40, from chronic degenerative disease, stands as Kiwi music’s saddest story.
A tall poppy had truly been felled: Fuemana gained the world then lost everything, ensuring some dismiss him for squandering such good fortune. A one-hit wonder? Hey, that’s better than no hits. And the How Bizarre album is a testimony to a unique talent.
No matter how troubled his life was — and Grigg’s memoir How Bizarre paints a portrait of Pauly Fuemana as unstable and volatile — there’s no denying the music’s endearing charm. Indeed, listening to How Bizarre on vinyl I’m reminded of the first time I heard OMC: having cycled to my Spanish girlfriend’s flat in Stockwell, South London, late summer 1996, I requested she put “Charlie on”. Charlie being Charlie Gillett, the now-late UK writer, broadcaster and label owner who, in his time, launched (among others) Ian Dury and Dire Straits, helped popularise Cajun and World music, and hosted a Saturday evening show on BBC Radio London. She switched the radio on and the sound that leapt out — Hawaiian steel guitar, a solidly strummed acoustic guitar, a female chorus singing, “Ohhh, do you remember/ when we were young/ we just had fun?” and a singer possessed of the broadest Kiwi accent I’d ever heard — stunned me.
“This is a New Zealand record!” I shouted. She listened then did a little hula dance to this gorgeous tune. When it finished Gillett announced that was Right On by OMC. Admittedly, I was aware a Kiwi band currently had a UK hit called How Bizarre but I’d not heard it. I quickly rectified that, purchasing the How Bizarre CD and it was love at first listen. A week or two later I bumped into Charlie Gillett and mentioned how we called the likes of Right On “Polynesian soul” back home. From then on whenever Charlie introduced Right On he’d call it “Polynesian soul”. The How Bizarre album is a great slice of such.
In 1996 the UK was obsessed with Britpop so a Kiwi pop band fronted by a heavily tattooed Ma¯ori badass were never going to get much media attention, but in the US, OMC won far greater media attention. Leading critic Chuck Eddy praised OMC’s album in the pages of Spin and The Village Voice: like Gillett, he picked up on the music’s mestizo tinge, catchy anthems and huge sense of fun. I contacted Eddy, wondering if he still felt affection for the album. “Wow! Has it already been 25 years? We are old,” he says. He always wondered why there was never a follow-up album, and asks whatever happened to Fuemana. I fill in the details and Eddy says “sounds tragic” then asks whether a wave of Ma¯ori pop followed in his footsteps. Yes, I reply, I believe a surge in Ma¯ori /Polynesian musicmaking followed OMC: the hugely successful O¯ tara rap label Dawn Raid, Tiki Taane, Nesian Mystik, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Six60 all owe a debt to OMC for taking the sound of South Auckland into the charts. Even the Kiwi Roy Orbison — Marlon Williams — is a descendant of sorts of Fuemana’s Polynesian Elvis. Eddy’s happy to hear this: “I do think the album still holds up well.”
Roger Kash, a US music industry veteran, is also a fan. “I believe the OMC album was the first time I became aware of any pop music coming from New Zealand,” says Kash. “When I first heard How Bizarre I was blown away and ran out and bought the album. I loved the whole thing and was fascinated with Pauly Fuemana’s back story and the idea behind the O¯ tara Millionaires Club. I thought Pauly had a lot of promise, being that his highly original music seemed to spring from disparate influences, and, learning of his death, was really disappointed we wouldn’t hear more. I’m psyched it’s finally coming out as an LP — I’ll be the first person in Louisiana standing in line to buy it.”
ALAN JANSSON chuckles when I relay this to him. Jansson was OMC’s invisible member, a multi-instrumentalist who cowrote every song and produced their entire output. After touring Australia with a fledgling OMC when they were still primarily rappers he chose a backroom role, focusing on developing the songs and sound. “It was a great collaborative process,” says Jansson. “When we played Big Day Out in Sydney, OMC were on early, around 11am with only a small audience, but after we finished a guy came up to us, said he loved our music ‘especially the Lou Reed-sounding track’. I worked out he meant one we had called Big Top and this later became How Bizarre. So even early on, people were digging it. And then Australian
Rolling Stone called Pauly ‘a Polynesian Marvin Gaye’ — I knew we had something.”
Jansson and Fuemana were one of pop’s great odd couples — the Pa¯keha¯ studio boffin and the Nieuan-Ma¯ori rapper/singer — and it was through their sharing of ideas and enthusiasms that OMC’s sound took shape.
“I’d worked on building sites,” says Jansson, “so had come to learn that Ma¯ori guitar style — Ten Guitars, Girl from Ipanema, they were staples of the fellas I worked with — and Pauly loved how I’d play over the beats. He’d come around to the studio, listen to what I was working on, throw in some ideas — he suggested French horn on Land Of Plenty. That’s how the OMC sound took shape.”
Finally having How Bizarre on vinyl is, says Jansson, “A milestone. To see How Bizarre in Te Papa — wow! — that really meant something and now, for it to be an LP, it just feels right.
“I always loved what we did, always believed we would have a worldwide No 1 with How Bizarre. The absolute high point for me was listening to Casey Kasem count down the American Top 40 — when he announced we were No 1 . . . it’s a sensation I’ll never forget.” Jansson laughs at the memory then says, “Casey explained on air that OMC did not stand for Outlaw Motorcycle Club but O¯ tara Millionaires Club and how O¯ tara was in New Zealand. That was a buzz!”
Twenty-five years on from when the world embraced How Bizarre, the song has found a huge new audience. “Some ‘influencer’ on TikTok made a short clip with
How Bizarre late last year and it went mad,” says Grigg. “Literally billions of hits on the tag he created and hundreds of thousands of people made new vids. It was — and is — massive and all to a new generation who had no idea who OMC was. At one stage, it was top of whatever charts they have. It transferred to YouTube and to Spotify, where we got millions of plays.” Appropriately, a biopic is in the works. Pauly Fuemana may no longer be with us but the sound of a South Auckland youth singing his heart out lives on.
How Bizarre is reissued on vinyl on April 23.
Released in late-December 1995, How Bizarre quickly became the soundtrack to New Zealand’s summer.
The absolute high point for me was listening to Casey Kasem count down the American Top 40 — when he announced we were No 1 . . . it’s a sensation I’ll never forget.
Alan Jansson, producer