BOOK EXTRACT: How Bizarre

Simon Grigg talks about his book

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Exclusive extract from How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World by Simon Grigg (Awa Press, $40. Available at bookstores and online at awapress.com).

Even as Pauly Fuemana's "How Bizarre" takes off, the singer is starting to show dangerous signs as a party on the boat of the (then) publisher of NBR and Rip it Up turns violent.

Chapter 12

We were running out of time. The record was being released to radio on the last week of November and we still had no video. In an age when New Zealand radio stations were utterly cold to almost all New Zealand music, a video was a vital marketing tool. 

Victor insisted we wait and see where we found ourselves after the V-8 [multimedia studio] re-edit. I explained this was pointless unless he wanted an artist and producer on strike or on the warpath. I also felt there was little in the raw footage that could be used to rescue the video. 

At issue, too, was the funding. We had been given a grant of $5,000 and PolyGram had kicked in another $7,000. All of this had gone on the V-8 video. The cupboard was now bare. 

After, in due course, we rejected V-8’s re-edit, Victor somehow found another $7,000. Just happy the money was available I didn’t ask where it had come from, although I know he had argued the studio owners Marcus Ringrose and Gideon Keith down a few thousand on the firm understanding their work would never be used.

A new video was shot by filmmaker Lee Baker and his team. Pre-production began in the third week of November, this time under the strict eye of Alan. In the first two weeks of December we dragged in all the High Street cool kids we could find, plus two professional dancers and a couple of my staff, and shot the indoor scenes on a soundstage in Ponsonby, followed by outdoor shots in the lush subtropical grounds of the Ellerslie Racecourse.

Sina Saipaia featured heavily as Sister Zina. DJ Soane Filitonga – Brother Pele in the lyrics – didn’t make the shoot and we substituted a Filipino man named Hill as the guy grinning and grooving in the back seat of the Chevy in the opening shots. Hill had arrived at Alan’s door a few days earlier asking for help on some recordings he’d been working on. He then came to the OMC shoot asking if he could assist in any way. Alan took off the Island shirt he was wearing, gave it to him and told him to jump in the car. Some years later, when Hill asked Alan if he could help him with his ultimately successful immigration application for New Zealand, he told him that when he went back to the Philippines he had been interviewed by the local MTV channel and treated like a big star because of the video.

The material was edited at a production suite in Grafton, with the final shot – a policeman tapping his shades in amazement at seeing the Chevy – taking place in January. The Christmas shutdown meant slow progress. Mark Phillips pulled in a favour for a final edit in Australia. The finished clip was finally delivered and approved in the middle of January.

Opinions were mixed, especially at PolyGram, but the rest of us loved it, as did Adam Holt, whose views I respected. The video spoke to the song perfectly, and to me it strongly said Auckland and New Zealand. Most importantly, like the song, it was strikingly different from anything else. I’ve seen it countless times since and have never tired of its uncomplicated charm. Over the next two years it would get more than 15,000 plays on US music channels alone.

In a strange postscript, somebody, I suspect in Australia, heavily re-edited the clip without our knowledge or approval – and not once but twice. With hack-like cutting and pasting, shots were moved, removed and added. Record companies, often with the best of intentions, will often feel a need to interfere with a record, artwork or video, usually with disastrous results. We were to suffer from this over and over again as the project progressed. We learned that the re-edited version was being used in Australia and parts of Europe and were given VHS copies. It also made it on to YouTube. Happily, though, when the video aired in America and the UK the original was used.

 

By late November we had a finished single and were at last heading towards a final video. It was time to take the record to commercial radio. Alan sat up all night with Pauly and me, burning fifty CDs of the record and auditioning each of them all the way through. I dropped Pauly home about nine in the morning just as his partner Kirstine was leaving for work.

We presented the record first to Mai FM, a fledgling urban station owned by an Auckland iwi, Ngāti Whātua. Mai targeted young Māori and Polynesian listeners, especially those in South and West Auckland. Its programme director Ross Goodwin was a successful radio veteran, known as much for his long lunches at the brasseries of Ponsonby as for his radio talents, which were considerable. His history as an innovator and renegade went back to the original New Zealand pirate station Radio Hauraki in the 1960s.

Mai FM was still regarded as an outsider in the Auckland radio hierarchy. Its ratings were slowly nibbling into those of the established big boys but its ability to break records was limited to the hip hop and funk beloved of its listeners, and these listeners were regarded by advertisers as essentially penniless and not worth a big advertising spend, aside from for junk food such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds. These kids were the reason CD stores had started removing even the printed sleeves from cassettes and CDs on the shelves to prevent the cases being nicked. 

Mai needed to notch up a huge crossover hit to give the station the extra credibility and kudos that would lift it beyond its urban niche. Victor assumed, correctly as it turned out, that Ross would be keen to jump on a record like this, especially if he wanted to grow the station out of its initial target demographic.

On Tuesday, November 22 we brought Ross into the PolyGram boardroom, and after the normal polite industry chit-chat, followed by a brief well-targeted burst of hype from Victor, we played him the record.

He listened to it and then asked to hear it again. He looked at us and said he liked it. Radio people are given to ecstatic hyperbole and overstatement with everyone except record company people.

We asked the critical question: ‘So, will you add it?’

‘It needs more bottom end,’ Ross replied.

Radio programmers, like some other sectors of the industry, are fond of thinking they are recording artists – or, worse, music producers. Some are very good at their jobs, as Ross was, but none I’ve met have had the chops to make it as a successful recording artist, aside from with the odd radio jock novelty disc. However, they love to boast about the input they’ve had into the creation of a local record they are about to add to their playlist. It’s one of the few creative things they get to do as their playlists are mainly determined by what is being played on American, British and Australian radio.

Naturally we were happy to play the game. I took the record back to Alan and explained that Ross Goodwin said the bottom end needed boosting. ‘Bullshit!’ was Alan’s response. The next day we took the record, absolutely unchanged, back to Ross and said, ‘Here you go, buddy.’

‘See,’ Ross said, ‘now it’s perfect.’ He added it to the daytime playlist straight away.

The response elsewhere was not encouraging. The people in PolyGram who dealt with radio stations met an almost immovable wall of negativity. Absolutely no one wanted to know about ‘How Bizarre’. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising. These were, after all, the same stations that had refused to play Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ because they couldn’t find it on their US radio programming sheets. Once the song became a hit in the States it was not only quickly added to local playlists but programmers from Bluff to Kaitaia claimed ownership.

In the years to come, dozens of programme directors from every corner of New Zealand would also loudly claim they had helped break ‘How Bizarre’. The truth was that until it was just about to hit number one, courtesy of Mai FM, most commercial radio stations in its homeland ignored it.

At Mai the record was an immediate success, rating extremely well in its phone polling and being ordered by the record stores where the station’s listeners shopped. In the 1990s there was a belief in the music industry that the singles chart was created in two large stores in Manukau City Centre on late-night Thursdays, when the kids poured in and bought that now forgotten oddity the cassingle in vast numbers. Those two shops, ECM Music and Sounds, were now asking for ‘How Bizarre’ in large numbers.

In December I was invited to Rip It Up’s Christmas party. Rip It Up, the most important music magazine in the country, had recently been acquired by a successful publishing entrepreneur, Barry Colman, and his company Liberty Press but was still being edited by Murray Cammick, its founder. Cammick had as his right hand one of New Zealand’s best young writers, John Russell. John had given ‘How Bizarre’ its first press review and it was close to a rave, predicting the record would go ‘at least Top 10’. In the context of the times, this was a big prediction for a New Zealand record. And given Rip It Up’s huge influence, it was a crucial endorsement that would help attract the potential audience that wasn’t anchored by Mai FM.

For Murray, the Liberty Press deal had been a godsend. Not only was Rip It Up now financially secure, with suppliers and printers being paid, but he was able to annually entertain hand-picked members of the music industry on Barry’s gin palace, MV Liberty, which came complete with jet skis and several beautifully appointed suites to which guests would disappear on occasion.

The Liberty Christmas party was the hottest in town and tickets were highly prized. Both Murray and John suggested I bring along the rising man around town, Pauly Fuemana. The storm had started to break around Pauly and his song. Everyone, including those who’d been cynical about ‘How Bizarre’ just a few weeks back, now wanted to know him. 

We arrived about eleven in the morning and were ushered upstairs to the sweeping rear deck, where guests were greeting each other and the first of the day’s many drinks. By the time we set off there was a mishmash of about forty people – label people, TV people, band members, Rip It Up staff and hot alternative radio hosts such as 95bFM’s Mikey Havoc. I settled in next to Pagan Record’s Sheryl Morris, Flying Nun’s Paul McKessar and Big Day Out promoter Doug Hood.

In blisteringly hot sun, we headed out into the Hauraki Gulf. Pauly seemed in good spirits. His record was out and he was about to start his first climb up the charts. People were interested in him, in his music, in his opinions, and in his plans. He seemed to have forgotten, or at least have decided to ignore, the critical comments that had cut him badly just a few weeks back.

Out on the gulf the sun’s rays bounced off the water, annihilating any protection a hat or sunshade could offer. I went downstairs and noticed a steady stream of people heading to one of the cabins, where a group of people, led by a well-known radio personality, were carving out lines of white powder.

Pauly was there, smiling. I pulled him aside and said he should leave it alone.

‘C’mon, bro, let’s get into it,’ he said and flashed me a grin.

I grabbed the media jock and whispered very firmly in his ear, ‘Please don’t give him any more.’

‘C’mon mate,’ he said. ‘Nobody’s going to know out here.’

I told him that wasn’t my primary concern. I just knew that, given Pauly’s emotional fragility and his potential to get aggressive, feeding him drugs was not a good idea. Coupled with free-flowing alcohol and an alien social environment, there was the making of a bad situation. He agreed not to supply him with any more.

As the afternoon wound on, the jet ski was lowered and most of us ended up swimming in the sea. Around six o’clock, as the boat was about to head back to shore, I went downstairs. Pauly was emerging from the room where the drugs were being dispensed. After again pleading with the radio man, I went back up to the deck and sat next to Pauly.

Looking into his eyes I asked him if he was okay. ‘Yeah, bro,’ he said, ‘but this boat is full of wankers. Up themselves, all of them.’

As we sailed towards the mooring he seemed to recover his good spirits and by the time we docked he was laughing again. Sheryl Morris had invited us both to her apartment in Freemans Bay for a coffee. I asked Pauly if he wanted to come. If he didn’t we could drop him off at his apartment in Greys Avenue, which was only a short distance from Sheryl’s. He was in deep conversation with a couple of guys from television. He assured me he would rather stay. Sheryl and I said goodbye and headed off to find a cab.

I would receive several reports of what happened next. The party had almost finished. There were only some Rip It Up staff members and a few hard-core guests remaining. Even Murray Cammick, the host, had left. Pauly was sitting next to the owner of a television channel, who had for some reason decided to make offensive comments to him about his ethnicity and how lucky he was to be there. 

Furious, Pauly strode over to John Russell and said, ‘You guys don’t think I belong here. You don’t want a brown face here.’ He then said something to a woman from Liberty Press. When she rebuffed him, he pushed her hard. She fell back and hit her head on a door frame. 

The boat’s captain decided to intervene. He put Pauly in a headlock and punched him in the face several times, cutting his eye. A member of the Rip It Up staff and another man then helped him pull Pauly down the stairs and throw him off the boat. 

John Russell tried to calm the situation but Pauly refused to be placated and took off into the night. Later we discovered that the captain was in the middle of an illicit affair with the woman Pauly had pushed, which may have explained his reaction, which was so violent he should probably have been charged with assault.

If the matter had ended there, Pauly could have been seen as just an unlucky victim. Unhappily, though, things were to get much worse. 

Sometime after leaving the boat, Pauly arrived home. Apparently he couldn’t find his keys and started abusing Kirstine when she let him in. He then appeared to be going to leave. Kirstine asked him where he was going and heard him reply, ‘I’m going to get a knife.’ He would later claim his actual words were, ‘I’m going to get a life.’

Whatever the truth, and Pauly would change his story several times, Kirstine jumped from a third-floor window and broke the bones in both her heels, leading to a long spell in hospital.

The first I heard of this was the next morning when I had a raft of calls from Murray Cammick, John Russell and others who had witnessed the boat incident, as well as from Alan and Victor. When I heard from Pauly later that day he seemed thoroughly distraught. Kirstine, however, had forgiven him.

I was shocked by these events. They seemed to underline how vulnerable Pauly was to excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol. From the middle of the afternoon he had obviously been walking a tightrope. I felt guilty for having left him on the boat.

A week or two later Alan, Pauly and I were having dinner during a break from recording. Pauly was talking happily about the work in progress when he suddenly leaned across the table and accused me of ‘setting him up’ on the boat. I had, he shouted repeatedly, paid the captain to have him beaten.

Alan and I quickly pointed out this was ludicrous. Why would I have my new recording artist with a coming hit single roughed up? It had been done to teach him his place, Pauly said. But his rage was slowly subsiding. Towards the end of the meal he announced there were only two people in the world he could truly trust: Alan and me.

Aside from this outburst, Pauly was contrite about the episode on the boat, although when Alan, Victor and I tried to talk him into sessions with an anger management counsellor he refused. As 1995 ended and the record took off, we hoped and prayed such incidents were behind us.

Exclusive extract from How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World by Simon Grigg (Awa Press, $40. Available at bookstores and online at awapress.com).

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