OMC's How Bizarre is one of the biggest hits ever to come out of New Zealand. TimeOut editor Russell Baillie looks at a new book about the phenomenal hit and the rise and fall of frontman Pauly Fuemana.

Once again, Pauly Fuemana is playing frontman.

There he is, all big black eyebrows and pout, cheekbones and facial scar, glowering from the cover of a book that bears his name and the song which changed his life and our pop culture: How Bizarre.

Fuemana died five years ago of a rare neurological disorder. It's now 20 years since the track - sung by him and written with Auckland producer Alan Jansson - was first released and became the biggest song to emerge from these shores until Lorde's Royals.

A still from the video for OMC's hit How Bizarre. Photo / YouTube
A still from the video for OMC's hit How Bizarre. Photo / YouTube

The book, How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World is written by Simon Grigg, whose label Huh! released the song.

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How Bizarre's bitter aftermath has also become part of our music folklore - Fuemana's sad decline into bankruptcy within a year and his family's strongly held belief that the music industry took most of the money he should have made from the song.

Grigg says the urge to record his own take on the Bizarre story came after attending Fuemana's funeral, where, as the book recounts, he and Jansson had been threatened by fellow mourners and told to "pay up".

He thought it was time he told his and Jansson's side of the story. He didn't have a book in mind when he first started writing.

A keen blogger over the years, he just wanted to write something that ensured this strange, brilliant, sad, tragic chapter of New Zealand pop history was recorded. And something that - despite the eventual book cover - would remind people that OMC wasn't just Fuemana.

It might have started off as the Otara Millionaires Club, a South Auckland hip-hop outfit centred on Fuemana. But the OMC behind the four million-selling multiple number one How Bizarre was the studio duo of Fuemana, and Jansson - who had earlier recorded the 1994 compilation of emerging South Auckland acts Proud, which featured a track by the early OMC.

"I felt that when Pauly died it was the end of a really unique thing that happened in New Zealand. If I didn't write it then probably nobody else would ..."

A pivotal figure in the NZ recording industry since the late 70s, Grigg is now creative director of local music history website AudioCulture. He's done time as a a nightclub owner and his various independent labels also unleashed records by early 80s Auckland bands like the Screaming Mee Mees - his first NZ number one - and Blam Blam Blam, as well as releasing dance music in the late 80s and the early albums of saxophonist Nathan Haines.

Music writer-broadcaster Nick Bollinger had been working on a piece about Fuemana and OMC for AudioCulture. He asked Grigg if he had any source material. Grigg gave him his manuscript. Bollinger showed it to Awa Press. A music book was born - and not just another music book.

It's possibly the first insider's account of New Zealand and international pop industry politics, set in an era of excess before the digital era and the music industry's contraction. It captures the ride as the song went from the sound of the Kiwi summer of 96 to international chart topper.

Simon Grigg
Simon Grigg

GRIGG ACCOMPANIED Fuemana, who was yet to appoint a manager, on repeated flights to Britain to appear on Top of the Pops, miming the song before an television audience of millions.

The book recounts how the How Bizarre rollercoaster ride turned into a neverending conveyor belt, carrying a product of unknown expiry date.

"We had a hit record that radio stations around the world wouldn't drop even if we had a second one," laughs Grigg. "It was everywhere. It was so huge. New Zealanders don't realise how massive it was. It was such a ubiquitous radio record. It was the number one radio record in New York City that year - bigger than the Spice Girls."

Grigg's book also tells how the wheels fell off after an apparently tour-fatigued Fuemana assaulted a record company representative in San Francisco. "There are about 19 different versions of that incident and I wasn't there ... but the other moment you knew it was all over was when Pauly and Alan split," says Grigg twisting his hands in the air in opposite directions to denote something permanently fractured.

"Alan needed a frontperson to do what he did and Pauly desperately needed Alan to turn his ideas into something listenable."

Among the missteps in Fuemana's short international career, says Grigg is that once Fuemana got his own management, the Australian company treated OMC like any other rock band and put him on tours when Fuemana and his ring-ins weren't much of a live act. They couldn't get their head around the fact that he wasn't part of that model.

"Part of that was my fault because I brought management on board that came out of that old school thing and especially Australia was very rock'n'roll. It was get up and play, pay your dues ... and Pauly was never that artist."

Grigg says he made mistakes too. Like effectively signing over control to PolyGram Australia, though the song and subsequent album was still released on Huh! Then again, without giving the major label ownership they may not have pushed the song around the world.

"I've always beaten myself up all the way through. We should have retained control far more but we were kids. We were novices."

From how the record was made, to how the hit came to be, to the split and legal battle between Fuemana and Jansson - from which Jansson emerged with an out of court settlement - and repeated efforts to get the OMC duo back together even as Fuemana's health was clearly in decline, it's a riveting read.

Fuemana was declared bankrupt in 2006 (and was discharged three years later), something Grigg puts down to his excessive spending outstripping his income from the song.

The track still generates radio-play royalties and sales to television shows and advertisements - recent buyers range from a Scottish travel show to a Czech republic telco. Some of the split royalties from the song go to Fuemana's widow Kirstine, the mother of their six children.

Pauly Fuemana in the video for OMC's How Bizarre. Photo / YouTube
Pauly Fuemana in the video for OMC's How Bizarre. Photo / YouTube

THE BOOK might be punchy but it's often hilarious. There's a running gag of Fuemana offering musicians he had just met - including the odd hotel pianist - a job in his touring band.

It also tells of how the charismatic Fuemana could turn on the charm - and turn it off in instant, his violent temper unleashed even on his closest collaborators, including Grigg, who he often addressed as a "white devil" when he was lashing out.

That combustibility is possibly the biggest revelation for anyone who witnessed Fuemana's rocket-powered rise and then slow sad fall. "Paul was extraordinarily volatile. Good and bad. Sometimes the volatility was incredibly positive. But he was a terribly hard person to work with. Pauly had a persona - the charismatic thing which was very embracing of people ... but he was very hard to deal with and it was unpredictably hard. In a situation it would just flip instantly.

"I think part of it was his background, where he came from, and part of it was just the unpredictability of a lot of artists."

Grigg hopes the book will be seen as the story of the New Zealand song that conquered the world. The song that was the product of a "Greek Swedish guy from Wellington and a South Auckland guy who grew up on Herb Alpert and hip hop."

Some hope.

Grigg doesn't think he is speaking ill of the dead in his account - if Fuemana had still been alive he might have considered writing a book with his involvement. Or he might not.

Grigg hadn't communicated with Fuemana for some years before his death. He's aware that his book is not likely to go down well with Fuemana's family and supporters.

Like the guy making threats at the funeral or the family members who claimed in the media on the day Fuemana died that $50 million was missing - a figure Grigg's book refutes saying each five-dollar single would have had to generate $17 profit for that to be true. Still, Grigg is steeling himself for some flak.

"That was one of the reasons I didn't want to publish it. I didn't want to upset the family. But Pauly was public property as well and he was the guy who decided to go out there and be a pop star.

"And I didn't decide to write the Pauly story. It's not supposed to me the Pauly story. ... it should never be read as a biography of Pauly Fuemana. But someone has to be on the cover.

"The problem with writing the book was always that Pauly is a role model now for a whole generation of young Polynesian people. He is the guy who did it. [The book] doesn't take away from any of that. He still did it."

His tell-all account, says Grigg, could have told more. What's being published had already gone through many drafts. "I had gone through and quite ruthlessly taken stuff out. I had taken stuff out that was true but contentious and stuff that was arguably defamatory and that was probably a step too far."

As a guy with with distinctive rasp of a voice once rapped: Want to know the rest? Buy the rights.

How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World (Awa Press) is published today.