Loyalty, Labour Saving, and the minor legacy of Michael Cullen

One of Murray Webb’s portrayals of Dr Michael Cullen

Dr Michael Cullen was the finance minister and Helen Clark’s deputy during the fifth Labour Government in New Zealand, elected in late 1999, which had three terms in office. He recently died of lung cancer just as his successors plunged the country into another draconian lockdown. His might have been a rather large funeral in his adopted home in the Bay of Plenty. But the pointlessly harsh restrictions on funeral attendance meant no traditional send-off.

Dr Cullen has been portrayed as a kind of MVP (most valuable player) for the recent incarnations of the New Zealand Labour Party. He was certainly a competent Cabinet minister, a good orator, and one of the great debaters in Parliament, something he had no modesty about claiming. However, I suggest his policy legacy is more modest than other commentators think, and he was more of a continuity figure in terms of public finance, essentially working within the existing parameters defined by the so-called ‘neo-liberalism’ of the 1980s and disastrous fourth Labour Government in which he played a minor part towards its deserved end.

Cullen’s career in politics is written about at length in his recent memoir called Labour Saving. I would have perhaps got to review it in the past, but decided to buy it instead. Like many other political memoirs it does not cover a lot of new ground, and, while more readable than most, it does not provide as many insights as one would expected from one of the few intellectuals in recent Parliaments. This is a point in itself, as there have many former academics like Dr Cullen that have pursued a political career, and just as most did not actually have a PhD, they also did not seem to have much of an intellectual approach to policy, nor a philosophical basis for their practice. Most MPs seem to be just career opportunists, and the political philosophy has come from more highly educated public servants who often have PhDs from American universities.

Michael Cullen had a private school education, studied history at Canterbury University, before getting a PhD in a Scottish University. I had been expecting that he might discuss his policy views in Labour Saving within an intellectual tradition, even if this was primarily British such as Fabian Socialism, but he doesn’t do this. Indeed, he doesn’t even discuss his general political philosophy until page 168 in the book, in a ‘brief excursion into basic beliefs’. Other than quoting Shakespeare, he doesn’t pay homage to any Labour figure as inspiration, and refers to something called social democratic philosophy but doesn’t explain it. He is no socialist of course, but does believe in equality, security and opportunity. So did the first Labour Government, but they were hardened trade unionists and agitators who still advocated for socialism in practice.

The brief excursion into basic beliefs does come at an interesting stage of the book, however, just as Cullen discusses becoming finance spokesperson in the Labour rump that emerged from the 1990 landslide. Dr Cullen replaced the former finance minister, David Caygill, a man who presided over the biggest financial disaster in New Zealand history, involving two financial institutions that the State had nominally owned but had gone off the rails badly (DFC and the BNZ). Apparently this was not Caygill’s fault, nor was the rapidly rising rate of unemployment at the time. But Caygill was still close to the Business Roundtable, a lobby group made up of the richest men in New Zealand who were determined to maintain their control over policy.

Anyway the richest of them was brewing magnate Douglas Myers, who it seems was close to the then leader Mike Moore, and they had decided that Cullen could become the finance spokesman if he agreed to study political philosophy in the USA for a while. Certainly, Dr Cullen states that Doug Myers did pay for him and his wife to attend the Aspen Institute course in Maryland during 1991. Presumably Myers would not have paid the fees unless he thought that Cullen would be appreciative of his largesse in the future. Cullen really did not have to mention this minor point at all in the book, unless he also felt the need to assure readers that he was not held sway by the kind of right wing philosophies that had captured the institutions and policymaking of the previous government.

In any case Labour had been replaced by the more naturally conservative National Party in the 1990 election landslide, and the new government was led by a former farmer, Jim Bolger. Some parts of the Bolger ministry were obviously captured by the ‘new right’ philosophy, and the Business Roundtable saw all sorts of opportunities for privatisation in the previously sacrosanct areas of health and education. More importantly Bolger saw through legislation (the Employment Contracts Act) that decimated the trade union movement, at least in the private sector. It also sought to put downward pressure on wages through making swingeing cuts to the unemployment benefit, and all other transfer payments. Dr Cullen made a grand speech at time, I remember it well, but when he became the finance minister in 1999 he did not restore the basic benefit rate, and that would have to wait until the 2021 Budget, delivered by his anointed successor Grant Robertson of Dunedin.

One of the other unusual parts of the book is in Cullen’s comments about Jim Bolger, who got many plum governmental positions and appointments after retiring from Parliament. This includes becoming the chairman of the new State-owned bank, called Kiwibank, that Dr Cullen had to accept as part of a coalition with something called the Alliance. Not only was this an odd situation, because the State had only just dispensed with owning banks like the BNZ; but that bank had also been part of controversy about tax evasion. Strange that, a State-owned bank being involved in things like tax evasion and money laundering, and also that the privatisation of the Bank of New Zealand had come just after a massive injection of capital by the government.

Bolger had also been on record as saying that there had been no evidence that the BNZ had been involved in tax evasion and fraud. He must have known that the BNZ’s operations in Australia had been dismantled, and managers fired, because of dodgy corporate deals. This all came out in something called the Winebox scandal in the 1990s, which included a royal commission of inquiry that Bolger eventually acquiesced in. Anyway, if one thought that accountability and honesty were going to be important in the new State-owned bank, after the failures of the BNZ and DFC, then it was rather odd to put someone like Bolger in charge.

Mr Bolger has since gone on to have something of a trip to Damascus experience, and come to denounce the excesses of his government, as if he was under the spell of neo-liberalism. Of course, most of the appointments made by one of the two major parties when they are in office are respected by the other party, and they wait for terms to end before finding one of their own people for plum jobs. Another version of this scenario is simple cronyism: i.e. there are networks of people in certain jobs who just bide their time before becoming political candidates, or a ‘safe pair of hands’ for appointments to boards in government agencies. Dr Cullen’s ability to take on governance roles was not in doubt, but the overall process is rather dodgy. Labour’s problem is that it usually relies on insiders who don’t always have deep understanding or knowledge of a policy area, and this explains recent policy failures like ‘Kiwibuild’. But as Dr Cullen highlights in his book, loyalty is highly prized in the Labour Party now. Indeed, what he means by ‘Labour Saving’ refers to being a safe brand in electoral terms. The leader made certain electoral promises and then he found the money to implement them, usually against constant pressure to turn his hard won fiscal surpluses into yet more income tax cuts.

Cullen obviously saw the need to steer away from the 1980s path of Labour as the party of the ‘new right’, as it was known at the time. He says: “continuing in that direction implied a kind of Faustian pact in which our political position would become that of another right-wing party, simply favouring a low tax, small government State…[p.106]” Obviously his own economic position, which he calls ‘muddy Keynesianism’, was something of an alternative to neo-liberalism (which he prefers to call the ‘neo-classical’ dream, a more accurate reference to the underlying economic theory). I don’t think it much of an alternative in the circumstances, nor consistent with the founding values of Labour over 100 years ago, as Cullen seems to think. It might have saved Labour as an electoral brand, but did not save the urban base of the party from outright poverty, or the low wage economy dominated by international finance.

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Ardern imposes panic National Lockdown without evidence

Well, here we go again, another nationwide lockdown in New Zealand. The difference this time is that it only took one confirmed case in Auckland. But instead of a regional lockdown she has imposed a total lockdown on the whole country, including places where there has never been a single case of Covid 19. Apparently the Delta variant changes the response required.

I was going to write this just after she announced, but I’m glad I didn’t. The initial justification was that the confirmed Covid case was a ‘mystery’, and not directly linked to the border control facilities. Since the middle-aged man had also travelled outside of Auckland this was enough to impose a lockdown for the rest of the country. So we got the same old cliches about ‘going hard’ and early, and an abundance of caution. But she has changed the rules: when the Australian tourist in Wellington had the Delta variant there was no lockdown at all. Now we have the pre-emptive lockdown; when there are no cases found it will be wound back.

Overnight it now seems that there were more cases, and one is a nurse from Auckland hospital. This must mean that a Covid case that was transferred from ‘managed isolation’ has actually been the source of the infection. The only other possibility is the case of the United Nations worker from Fiji with the Delta variant, who was airlifted to Auckland for treatment. There was talk that Helen Clark, with her U.N. connections, lobbied for the Fiji case to come to Auckland hospital, and Clark is Ardern’s mentor and friend, and that is how the Labour Party works.

It was only last week that a report was released on the ongoing policy towards Covid management, from a group of academic tossers, led by Skegg of Otago University. Based on media reports at the time, this report recommended that a single case of the Delta variant should lead to a national lockdown. And lo and behold, within a week the academic tossers have got their way. Apparently, because the Delta variant has taken off in New South Wales, Australia, we have to do what they did not, i.e. go straight into a full lockdown. The analysis is that the Sydney outbreak is derived from one case, a limousine driver from the airport. However, the logic of this is that all of Australia should be in lockdown, not just the NSW and Victoria states. The governor of Western Australia likes to impose lockdowns, but has held off so far.

The actual reason is that there are not cases there yet. But, according to the ubiquitous Professor Baker, also of Otago University (based in Wellington), all of the South Island should be in lockdown. After all, some Aucklander do visit the South Island tourist spots, like Queenstown, to go skiing. I bet the Ski resorts are really pleased with Ardern and the academic tossers, removing all their customers just as a new snowfall is on the way, in the last gasp of winter. It might also be the last gasp for some of the related businesses hundreds of miles away from any Covid cases. Meanwhile the academic tossers like Baker continue to get their six figure salaries, while those of us with worthless qualifications who rely on casual work at the minimum wage get no more work for at least the next three days, if not longer. There may be no courier arriving from Auckland with my purchases for much longer, nor the new appliance that is meant to be coming from Christchurch.

The photo below is from one of the power substations in Kaiwharawhara, near where I used to live in Wellington city. In the last cold snap the power-generating companies failed to supply enough power, and the retail companies had to ration it. The extra power sources include old coal-burning facilities in Huntly, south of Auckland. Power use is reduced during lockdowns, and the environment benefits, but the Ardern government has failed on power supply as well.

Kaiwharawhara substation #2

Update: it is now six days into this absurd lockdown. Yes, it is true that there has been a bit of an outbreak in Auckland, and thousands of people are being called contacts, so legally have to get tested. There are also a handful of cases in Wellington, where a few people returned after visiting Auckland. Wellington is hundreds of kilometres from Auckland, and there are no cases in between. Today, in justifying the extension of the lockdown, Ardern brandished a crude map of the whole country, with black dots all over it. This was meant to indicate where all the close contacts resided, and so it indicated possible Covid cases, including in the South Island.

The South Island is a cold, mountainous, sparsely populated place, apart from the plains around Christchurch. But there were no Covid cases when the lockdown was imposed last Tuesday, and there are no cases being announced today (Monday). Just maybe that means there are no cases at all, but we have to wait to see if Jacinda will rescind the removal of all civil liberties down south this Friday. The international media, especially the BBC, seem to think that she will accept the presence of Delta cases like the rest of the world, like in Britain where there are about 30 000 new cases per day. But no, they should now realise that Ardern is resolute, if not obsessed, along with her Health officials (and the academic tossers) that the Elimination strategy must be made to work, so she can be the only one to achieve Zero Covid cases.

Update#2: It is now over a week since the national lockdown started, and Covid cases are still rising in Auckland. As expected the total lockdown remains in the Auckland province, and north of Auckland, but the ‘level’ is to be lowered south of Auckland to be at 3. The lockdown madness still continues, though, as ‘level 3’ is still a lockdown. There is simply to be a border with the Auckland region. In fact the whole ‘levels’ model is meaningless now it’s obvious that Ardern prefers a total lockdown. Being at level 3 doesn’t mean civil liberties are granted.

So the people in the South Island hoping to released from this madness are out of luck. Of course there are still no Covid cases, there haven’t been since last year, but Ardern’s health bureaucrats are still looking. Apparently there are still symptomatic people down there, which, in the latest press conference she qualified by using the term ‘contact’. This points to the fundamental misinformation that the government here propagates to suggest there are always cases of Covid lurking out there in society. Their advertising continually tells us that a common cold is also a symptom of Covid; therefore, if there are always people with a common cold in the community there is also the need to be always testing for the possibility of new cases. In other words, it is only a matter of testing properly, not the fact there are no actual cases there.

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The One Case Covid Scare in Wellington

Having reached 50 000 pages views I thought I had better write something new. Below is a photo of Wellington harbour taken in summer this year. I have actually moved out of the central city since then, and am now about 50 kilometres north, but not out of danger. The whole region is back on alert, even though there has never been a Covid case in this area.

This is because of the most recent Covid 19 scare. An Australian tourist visited town the previous weekend, then returned home and had a positive test. And, of course, a single case means that the so-called alert level has to be raised, thousands of people have been tested, and major events have been cancelled, such as the Wellington marathon. Now we also have all the usual academic tossers appearing in the media, raising fears of another quick lockdown.

So, as I write this we have had another day without any new cases. Yesterday the Minister for Covid restrictions extended the so-called Level 2 Alert, despite the fact there is not a sign of any community transmission. Apparently there is more time needed to be sure. The really annoying thing is that the academic tossers are keeping on the pressure for new restrictions, based on what happens overseas. The tosser in chief, Michael Baker, claims that overseas countries are ahead of us on mask-wearing. But that is because they have completely failed to ‘eliminate’ the virus, and thus face wave after wave of new variants. It was Baker that was the architect of Elimination, which only works if the borders remain closed. Where New Zealand is behind is on vaccination, even the elderly have not been successfully vaccinated here, and if more resources had been put into this, rather than pointless testing, we would still be ahead.

You also have to wonder what people like Professor Baker actually do in a university, and how he keeps up with all his responsibilities for supervision. I have a very jaundiced view of this, having tried for may years to do post-graduate research with academics who could not be bothered most of the time. Maybe the real scientists are more conscientious than the so-called social scientists. But research supervision actually takes time, and Baker does so much media and public meetings, that he can’t possible be supervising students as well. Of course, if I had not been left to my own devices for 6 months at a time while doing a PhD at the Auckland University of Technology, the blog would not have been started, and an attempt at local tax haven research made, though it was ignored in Wellington and in the media.

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No more Pre-emptive regional Lockdowns, please?

It is time to acknowledge that Covid 19 is different in New Zealand. We don’t have community transmission in the same way that the northern hemisphere does. But, despite there have never been Covid 19 at all in some parts of New Zealand, we are still having partial lockdowns in the biggest city, Auckland. It seems like as soon as there is a case emerging in Auckland our government locks down the whole region, forgetting that this is a draconian measure that should have been a last resort.

In mid February it emerged that one person had contracted Covid 19, and it was presumed that this was because she worked for a company that serviced aircraft linen. She went on to infect her household. So the Ardern Government decided to have a partial lockdown of Auckland, which lasted three days. It then seemed that there had not been a spread of the virus, even though the household had school age children. A whole secondary school had to be closed and all students tested, along with the usual hundreds of people who queued up for tests even when they didn’t have any symptoms. It seemed to be under control, so the lockdown was relaxed, and the rest of the country went back to no restrictions at all.

Then a week later another case emerged in the same suburb of south Auckland. The young man did not have an immediate connection to the first household. He also had continued to visit the gym, an educational institution, and his workplace, even when symptomatic. So the lockdown was reimposed for 7 days. But then the contact tracers worked out that someone connected to the first household had visited the mother of the young man, and there were similar instances of positive cases not isolating when told to by authorities. However, there was no spread of the virus beyond fifteen linked cases.

Prime Minister Ardern yesterday announced that the lockdown would be rescinded, not immediately, but tomorrow morning (ie after 2 days more of it). All of this for a mere 15 cases, none of whom had to visit the hospital. It appears that we got away with it again, but she did not apologise for reimposing the lockdown just for 1 case. This is obviously wrong, and undermines her own policy. When we had a long lockdown in March last year it was because there was some community transmission, the health services were not prepared, and the contact tracing system was not in place. Since then we have got back to zero cases, there is strict border control, and the contact tracing system supposedly works well.

If the Covid 19 virus was ever to get away in New Zealand it would be in south Auckland. This is one of the poorest urban areas in New Zealand, with high ethnic Polynesian population, and overcrowding in public housing. Similar areas in Britain have seen high rates of the virus, so it might have been assumed that it would happen here. But the outbreak never took off, and it is not just down to luck. The authorities here assumed that, because it was the new English strain of the virus it would be more contagious, but it has not proved to be so once again. We have had earlier examples where some people have tested negative in managed isolation facilities, but tested positive when they were released. In one notable case the woman involved had gone to the hairdresser and all sorts of shops after she left the isolation facility in Auckland. Hundreds of people got tested but there was not a single new case of covid.

So now it is time for the so-called experts in New Zealand to look objectively at the empirical evidence here, and not make assumptions based on overseas experience. And the evidence is that community transmission has not happened, even with the new Covid variants arriving at the border and sneaking through the quarantine facilities. Not a day passes when one of the academic experts aren’t insisting on fine-tuning the existing system, or advocating for more measures that impinge on our civil liberties. Maybe the policies have been more successful in New Zealand because there is better compliance, but this does not need to be excessively enforced. There was no need for the pre-emptive lockdown in the first place in Auckland, and the re-imposition of it after a single new case was a mistake. The so-called scientific experts don’t seem to acknowledge the damage done, including all the community events in other parts of the country that have had to be cancelled over the last two weeks. Talk about cancel culture!

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Chick Corea and Jazz-Rock Fusion in the 1970s.

It was sad to hear of the passing of the great jazz pianist, Chick Corea, yesterday. Though not a great jazz fan as such, I do have a thing for the Jazz-Rock fusion era in the 1970s, and certain other Fusion musicians who were adventurous at the time. Like many jazz musicians, Chick Corea was prolific, and it would be easy to overlook the Fusion phase, which sometimes seems a bit over the top. Indeed, strictly speaking, I would say that the style is exemplified by only three groups: Chick Corea’s Return to Forever; John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra; and Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House.

It is often said that all of key players in Fusion were alumni of the electric phase in Miles Davis’ career, from around 1969 to 1971, and focussing on the Bitches Brew LP. This is slightly misleading, as the relevant albums featured a number of keyboard players, such as Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Corea. Hancock and Zawinul’s later groups are usually included in Fusion, but the three groups I referred to above are all very much electric guitar oriented ensembles, and this aspect is not always to the taste of jazz fans. Whereas rock fans are attracted to the technique and speed of the Fusion players, in particular, McLaughlin, Coryell, and the Return to Forever players, Bill Connors then Al di Meola.

All of the main players appear on the early Larry Coryell LP, Spaces, with the characteristic cover art. Chick Corea only played on one track; and the bassist, Miroslav Vitous would then form Weather Report with Zawinul. John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham went on to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with Rick Laird on bass, Jerry Goodman played the violin, and Jan Hammer emerged with his unique keyboard style. The Mahavishnu Orchestra released two studio albums, and one extraordinary live album, called Between Nothingness and Eternity. The latter might be criticised for the length of the tracks, and McLaughlin over-playing, but the version of ‘Sister Andrea’ is a favourite. That group split in acrimony, and various solo albums followed, with Billy Cobham getting the critical acclaim for his Spectrum LP. This included a fantastic one off group featuring Cobham on percussion, Hammer on keyboards, Leland Sklar on bass, and Tommy Bolin on guitar (who subsequently joined Deep Purple in 1975). The track titled ‘Stratus’ is extraordinary, but there were also contributions by horn players. Cobham’s next LP, Crosswinds, featured the Brecker brothers on horns, and was closer to jazz than rock.

Meanwhile, Larry Coryell unveiled a fusion group called the Eleventh House, whose debut LP was released on the smaller Vanguard label in 1974. The album had Randy Brecker on horns, with Danny Trifan on bass, the blind keyboard player Mike Mandel on keyboards, and Alphonse Mouzon played percussion (he also went on to join Weather Report). In my view this LP is a tour de force, and may well be the best Fusion LP of them all, if not so well known. The follow up LP, Level One, was released on the Arista label in 1975, and featured Michael Lawrence on horns, and John Lee on bass. The remainder of the Eleventh House material, and outakes from the Spaces LP, appeared on the Planet End LP.

Finally to Chick Corea and his contribution to Fusion. Return to Forever was originally an LP title, before the music got more rock oriented, and the playing more elaborate. Corea and bandmates Lenny White on drums, and Stanley Clarke on bass, were all unique players. But the Fusion period also saw them get involved with Scientology, and dedicating their music to L. Ron Hubbard. The album cover art varied, and could be particularly garish, as with 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before. The high brow critics were rather bemused by Return to Forever, given the kind of style that they knew Corea could play in trad jazz. But with the arrival of the young Al di Meola on electric guitar they just got better and better, culminating in a move to a major label, Columbia, for the Romantic Warrior LP in 1976.

Both the cover art (by Wilson McLean) and the playing is great on this album, and listening again to it last night on re-mastered CD it sounded fantastic, but even as a period piece it holds up. Fusion could be over the top at times, with frenetic playing and over blown song titles, but for purely instrumental music it certainly holds the attention of the listener. After 1976 the main players formed different temporary combinations, such McLaughlin and di Meola playing acoustic guitars in the Spanish style; Jan Hammer appeared on many LPs, including playing with Jeff Beck, the other notable British guitarist. There was even a short-lived record label, Nemperor, that released solo LPs by Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, and two from Tommy Bolin before he died in 1976. But if there was only one album that combined all the elements of jazz-rock Fusion, with great cover art in the mid 1970s, it was Corea’s Romantic Warrior.

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New Zealand in the Global Pandemic: Exceptionalism or Luck

As we head into Christmas it is time for a brief reflection on the year. At the time of writing we are Covid-free in New Zealand. While new strains break out in the Northern hemisphere, we remain without community transmission. And as long as the border controls hold, and homecoming passengers stay in quarantine and don’t spread the virus, we can carry on with Christmas celebrations as normal. Lucky us.

So is it just luck? Does being the exception in the world over the last six months result largely from being an island nation a long way from the disease hot spots. And does that make us exceptional, at least in terms of our policy response, and the fact that the political leaders decided to go for an elimination strategy, with a total lockdown in March. There may have been elements of luck, especially when the virus got out of the quarantine area in Auckland, in late winter, and some carriers infected family members in the central North Island. That minor outbreak was contained effectively.

As we continue to watch the chaos in other countries, particularly in the English speaking world, it might feel like we are the exception, if not exceptional. Certainly, when we held an election, with no community Covid, and a very high turnout, there was an exceptional result for Jacinda Ardern. But people voted for the status quo. In other contries millions have still voted for right wing populists who have downplayed or even denied the Covid crisis, and continued to pursue their own agendas. The sight of foreign trucks queued up at Dover, in south east England, should be proof of the folly of Brexit, but still the English nationalists pursue it, despite the circumstances.

It is frankly hard to fathom what is going on in most countries in the northern hemisphere. They don’t even seem to be able to prevent their own leaders from contracting Covid 19. And then when they get the disease, and are to recover and carry on, nothing really changes. Is the policy response the same because they are ideologues, or that they don’t care about the death toll, and the damage to the health of survivors. What appears to be a fiasco in Britain, and the USA, hasn’t caused the social chaos that should have been the obvious consequence of letting the disease rip into urban areas.

Now the northern hemisphere relies on the rushed vaccine programme to create herd immunity, even as the virus mutates, and gets more virulent. How long can even more lives be lost to otherwise treatable disease. Here in New Zealand there will be ‘normal’ gatherings of family, sporting events, and even musical concerts and festivals. We can enjoy it for now, but until the global north gets on top of the Coronavirus we are not safe either, even when the vaccines are rolled out next year, assuming they arrive in bulk.

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Eat A Peach, Yankee Slickers

After one of the more bizarre elections in world history, attention remains fixed on the American state of Georgia. It is the only state that is in full recount mode, because, or despite of, there being a Republican Party member as the Governor. There hasn’t been this much attention on Georgia since 1976, when the then Governor, a Democrat, was about to become the POTUS.

Carter

The Governor, Jimmy Carter, is on the right of the photo. Next to him is Dickie Betts, guitarist in the Allman Brothers Band. To his right is Phil Walden, the founder of Capricorn Records, the label that introduced so-called ‘Southern Rock’. And next to him is Gregg Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band. Presumably, they were not discussing electoral results. Jimmy Carter went on to be a one term President; Dickie Betts came and went from the Allman Brothers band over the years; Phil Walden’s business empire collapsed in the late 1970s, taking out Capricorn Records; and Gregg got divorced (from Cher) not long after this was taken.

But Southern Rock lived on, mostly through the work of a band called Lynyrd Skynyrd. That band had not jumped on the Capricorn Records bandwagon. Instead, they were discovered by a Yankee Slicker, in the form Al Kooper, who managed to sign them to a big label, MCA Records. This put them in the big league, and thus had much more international exposure, allowing them to appear with big British bands like The Who. Skynyrd had much more Southern attitude than the Allmans: as they put it in the song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, they loved the Republican Governor, and didn’t care about Watergate. Their leader, Ronnie van Sant, had the southern schtick, and the group played in front of the Confederate flag. But he was also no fool, and he soon parted company with the Yankee Slicker, once they had achieved a commercial breakthrough. Ronnie van Sant died in a plane crash in 1977, but the legend lives on, and the cash still flows every time ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ plays on classic rock radio around the world.

This was something of an allegory. You could call Donald Trump a Yankee Slicker, and a snake oil salesmen. Many in the news media like to do the old vox pops, and find a Trump supporter who believes every word he says. Maybe some are that gullible. But others are possibly just playing along, having launched their cultural posture back into prominence. Just like rock n’ roll was always Southern music, so are all real Americans.

Skynyrd

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New Zealand Election 2020: It’s all about Jacinda

This was meant to be a longer post about the New Zealand election, and how the MMP system might finally be working here. But it is shorter for two reasons. The first is that WordPress have changed the format for writing a post, which I can’t work out yet. And the second is that the election was all about Jacinda, and her celebrity status. With no Covid to worry about at the time of the election, Jacinda just went on walk-abouts, mostly in malls, with a coterie of security, media, and Labour MPs. The media just filmed each of these, while their other reporters found dissension in the official Opposition party. All the debates were between Jacinda and the Opposition leader, who was nowhere near as popular. End of story, pretty much, maybe policies next time.

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Music Festivals and help from ‘Perfect Strangers’

As certain publications celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Isle of Wight festival, one has to wonder whether we will ever see such musical gatherings again. They used to be all the rage, even here in New Zealand, where the tribes would gather at such places as Sweetwaters or Nambassa, in the North Island, for two or three days of drugs and music. I recall my cousin driving up from the South Island for such events in February, at the hottest time of the year, just as I was starting the school term. But, by the time I got to the age for going to such festivals, they were going out of fashion, or out of business.

In truth, I never did like such large gatherings of people, and even smaller concerts could be uncomfortable. I went to a so-called concert by Motorhead in Wellington, about 1984, and my hearing hasn’t been the same since, they were truly awful. At the time I was mostly into Deep Purple, and through my early years at secondary school this had become something of an obsession. My schoolmates and I were in some kind of a cult, even though Purple had long since disbanded in 1976. But the Purple brand was kept alive through all sorts of issues of compilation albums and unreleased live material.

Then in 1984 the classic Mark 2 line-up of Deep Purple re-formed, and released the Perfect Strangers LP. In truth, it was not great album, although the title track is certainly a good song, but the show was back on the road. And that meant a world tour, which included dates in Australia and New Zealand. In a documentary I recall the guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, stating that he liked travelling, but not so much that he wanted to go down under. But Deep Purple, with Blackmore in tow, did make it in late 1984. And somehow me and my friend Eamon managed to get there, even though it took all of my savings to afford the ticket, and the cost of an all night train to Auckland and back.

I had unfortunately left the organisation of our accommodation in Auckland to Eamon and his parents. The venue for the concert was to be Western Springs, a motor-racing site that is quite close to central Auckland. However, we had arranged to stay at a house in the North Shore, which is over the harbour bridge. When we got into the train station in central Auckland, very early in the morning, we had to find a bus that could take us over the bridge. Any bus would do, but we got lucky with a driver that took us on a detour to get us close to the destination, when he should have gone the other way. The kindness of strangers continued when we got to our hosting house. It was meant to be the residence of Eamon’s father’s friend, whom Eamon had never met. But when we got there we found out that he had long left the family, and the result was that we were complete strangers.

They put us up anyway, while the man’s son explained to us what the situation was. He was bit older than us, and it turned out he was in a local rock/alternative group called the Screaming Mee Mees. Obviously Deep Purple was not his thing, but he took it upon himself to get us to the concert, which was quite a long journey. He also had to find us after the concert, but I can’t remember how he managed it. This was over and above the call of duty, and I only wish has musical career had not been so short lived. Our time at the concert did not start well, as we had to be checked when going in, and Eamon had tried to bring a camera in, so his roll of film was confiscated. My only other memory is that the band tried to play Smoke on the Water as an encore, but Ritchie Blackmore didn’t bother to come back out for it. He didn’t last that much longer in the band. Years later I was intending to see Deep Purple with a female friend, but she bailed out, so 1984 will probably be the only time I get to see them. I haven’t seen Eamon since he left school.

After the obsession with Deep Purple ended I picked up on other English groups from the 1970s, particularly the group known as Free. Free was big in 1970, and was one of the major acts at the Isle of Wight Festival that year, after All Right Now became a hit single. Photographs by Charles Everest were published this year in the Guardian:

free

This shows the singer Paul Rodgers trying to rev up the crowd, while the guitarist, Paul Kossoff, hits a no doubt anguished note. What a player Kossoff was, and what a mane of hair he had, especially as he was really quite short in stature. I’m not sure why Kossoff is not mentioned in the same category as Peter Green, especially in terms of technique, but his time was short. Koss died in 1976 on a trans-Atlantic flight, after some years of drug abuse. Paul Rodgers went on to form Bad Company, and achieve success in the U.S.A.

I also can’t resist including this photo of Clive Bunker, from the 1970 festival, the original drummer in Jethro Tull, when the group could really play:

bunker

Tull obviously had the advantage of playing at night, and having adequate lighting for the gig. This could not be said of the The Doors, who played one of their last gigs at the Isle of Wight festival, and didn’t bring any of their own lighting. As shown in a documentary of their performance, they relied predominately on one red light most of the time. In fact, this seems to have led them to kind of huddle together, in what was a performance of great concentration, where they found a really intense groove in the extended improvised tracks. That was last time we would see Jim Morrison; and, of course, it was (virtually) the last time that Jimi Hendrix would perform. The end of an era, even if it was still the beginning of the rock music culture, such as it was.

 

 

 

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Not Forgetting the Engineer: Martin Birch

Not a day seems to go by when some important figure from the music world, as it emerged in the 1960s and 70s, passes away. Following Peter Green, and of the most relevance to me was Martin Birch, not a musician, but recording engineer for Fleetwood Mac and many other English rock groups. Such is the cultural power of that period in music that even an engineer can be mourned, despite the fact that he retired from the role about 30 years ago, aged 42. He was actually a bit younger than Green and most of the other musicians he worked with early on, so got the dream job at a very young age.

It was certainly the age of the young artist, and Martin Birch was described as the catalyst for much of the music, particularly the rise of Deep Purple. In the press he was described as a ‘heavy metal producer’, due to his work with Iron Maiden. But we can forgive him for that. He should be remembered for his role in a run of classic LPs in the early 1970s, beginning with Deep Purple in Rock in 1970, and the period in which he also engineered for Fleetwood Mac and Wishbone Ash. My interest here is to look at a few of these albums, and try to see them as a particular genre, not the forerunner of ‘heavy metal’. Birch was so busy in 1971 and 72 it must be seen as a kind of peak of British rock.

Fleetwood Mac continued on without Peter Green after he left in 1970, with Birch being the engineer for Green’s solo album End of the Game, and the Mac LP Kiln House. Then Jeremy Spencer left for a religious cult, leaving Danny Kirwan as leader, and they recruited American guitarist, Bob Welch. Welch wrote the title track for the next LP, Future Games, and added his particular songwriting touch to that of Kirwan and Christine McVie. The track ‘Future Games’ is a strange one, and rather long, with Welch’s multi-tracked vocal kind of buried in the mix, and with various over-dubbed guitar parts that sometimes seem out of place. It’s hard to believe that Martin Birch would have mixed it that way as the actual producer, but it was the early seventies after all. Mac went on to release Bare Trees in 1972, which I think is a great album, with all three songwriters on great form. Danny Kirwan’s guitar instrumental ‘Sunny Side of Heaven’ is truly beautiful, no doubt assisted by Martin Birch’s recording of the guitar tracks.

‘Bare Trees’ is an another guitar-laden track with some perfunctory vocal lines, but with a clear theme. Danny Kirwan was something of a master of a kind of autumnal feel in his songs, a shame I can’t describe it any better. But there is a clear similarity to the music of Wishbone As in this period. This was another twin guitar group, without any keyboards, and with most vocals handled by bass player, Martin Turner. Their 1971 LP Pilgrimage appears with stylized cover art of an old bare tree, and contains a number of moody instrumentals, in which the lead guitars of Andy Powell and Ted Turner weave around each other. This distinctive guitar style was honed even further on the classic album that followed, Argus, which had a kind of ancient warrior theme happening on the second side. There is also a very distinctive LP cover designed by the Hipgnosis guys.

argus

Argus is the most well known LP by Wishbone Ash in a long career, and is closely associated with the twin lead guitar approach, and with Martin Birch. Along with Bare Trees, it comes from the same period as Deep Purple’s Machine Head, perhaps the best album in the British rock genre. It’s well known that Birch was in charge of the Rolling Stone mobile recording unit that was based in Montreux, Switzerland, in the middle of winter in 1971. As described in ‘Smoke on the Water’, Deep Purple ended up in an empty hotel for the recording session, and came up with some long-lived gems, such as Highway Star, Space Truckin and Lazy. Of course, Purple only had one guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, a man who could not have played with any other guitarist, and he wasn’t that keen on vocalists either. It was not long before vocalist Ian Gillan left, and while the follow up, Who do we think We are, wasn’t as successful, it still has a great sound.

In fact, the recording of those four Purple LPs changed fairly clearly over time. The breakthrough album, In Rock, has a deliberately raw sound. It’s almost as if Birch was still a novice at this point, not able to use all the tracks available in the studio; or, perhaps, that he didn’t use the latest technology. Though I’m not an expert on these things, sometimes it seems that groups did try to use all the tracks they could, and end up with a song that is too busy, a possible criticism of some of Bob Welch’s stuff. But In Rock sounded like a group in a hurry, with a live feel to the recording. The first side is one of the classics in rock: going from Speed King into Bloodsucker; and then the epic Child in Time, where Jon Lord’s organ playing has a classical feel, before we get to Ian Gillan’s so-called ‘silver throated’ screaming, and Blackmore’s extended guitar solo (then a reprise of Gillan’s screams). But what a tour de force the album is, and even if the second side is less memorable, it still has momentum, ending with Hard Loving Man. And with iconic cover art.

in rock

One of the interesting things about the Deep Purple albums in this period, and the Wishbone Ash LPs, was the format chosen. All the Purple LPs have seven songs, and with one side of three songs, it allows for an extended track. This usually worked well, except perhaps on the album that followed In Rock, called Fireball, which has a bit of a throwaway song, Anyone’s Daughter, ending side one; and then the second side loses its momentum in the middle track, The Mule. Ritchie Blackmore has suggested that the band had let the standards slip on Fireball, but it nonetheless still went to the top of the charts in Britain. Birch continued to produce for Purple until its temporary demise in 1976, the year that he worked with Blackmore’s new group Rainbow, producing the Rainbow Rising LP, which included Stargazer, recorded with the Munich symphony orchestra (something Blackmore was not usually keen on). And another iconic cover.

220px-RainbowRainbowRising

Rainbow also included the American singer Ronnie James Dio, who lasted in the group until 1978. He then replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath for two LPs, both produced by Martin Birch. These did not sound that much like the classic Black Sabbath, but were more melodic, and closer to Birch’s early 70s guitar sound than the Ozzy era band. But it also meant that Birch became the so-called heavy metal producer, and Iron Maiden called. So what to say about Birch: you lucky man, well played old son, a glorious career.

 

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