Dragon are more than old enough

By Scott Kara

As his band is honoured tonight with the New Zealand Herald Legacy Award, Dragon founding member Todd Hunter talks to Scott Kara about the band's life and times.

Dragon in the early days. Todd Hunter says winning the Legacy Award is testament to all the band's members, including those who have died. Photo / Supplied
Dragon in the early days. Todd Hunter says winning the Legacy Award is testament to all the band's members, including those who have died. Photo / Supplied

"We had so many deaths," says bassist Todd Hunter, reflecting on the passing of key Dragon bandmates like drummer Neil Storey, songwriter Paul Hewson, and his brother and frontman Marc.

"Marc was larger than life and he lived about four lives in his lifetime. It's been a long time now," he says, thinking back to his brother's death from throat cancer in 1998.

Then there was Hewson, the man responsible for many of Dragon's biggest songs, including perennial anthems Are You Old Enough? and April Sun in Cuba (which he co-wrote with Marc). He had just quit the band when he died of a drug overdose in 1985.

"We came back for his funeral in New Zealand and it was a very grim time. I can't remember what songs were played [at his funeral]. I was too distraught."

Storey was the first to go, in 1975, also dying of an overdose - around the time the band had just started writing cracking good songs like the punchy, and a little bit poncy, pop hit This Time.

It was that song that would get the band noticed across the Tasman and set them on course to become one of Australia's biggest bands of the late 70s.

The 70s, though, were "dangerous times" recalls Hunter, referring to the drugs and other excesses that were free-flowing back then.

"Neil was a great drummer and a great guy. He was exposed to the danger of all that stuff and he succumbed to it. When he died we were all very young and were completely unprepared for anything catastrophic to happen. We went into automatic shock mode and just kept on playing."

And that's something Dragon are still doing to this day. "I suppose the deaths of our band members just strengthened our resolve to keep Dragon going, no matter what happens to us individually," Hunter resolves.

Although, given the band's many line-up changes, deaths, and breaks over the years, including a lengthy one after Marc died, it is surprising Dragon are still going. Hunter thought the band would end when he left in 1995, and he was sure it was well and truly over when his brother died, but in 2006 he got a hankering to reform the band.

Tonight they will be honoured with the NZ Herald Legacy Award at the Tui Awards at Vector Arena. The band, who were just as well-known for melodic and sunny pop hits as their riotous rock 'n' roll antics, also join the likes of Hello Sailor, Shihad and Johnny Devlin in the NZ Music Hall of Fame.

"It's not something you lie in bed at night and go, 'Shit, how 'bout a Legacy Award?'," says Hunter with a laugh, "but when it happens, it's great.

"And also, for Marc, Paul and Neil, who have passed away; it's testament to their life and their part in the band as well."

The Dragon story starts 60 or so years ago in Taumarunui where the Hunter brothers grew up and learned to play songs off the radio.

"My mum's Fijian, so the house was always full of music - people playing piano, playing guitars, and my uncle was in this fabulous band. I was like, 'oh man, I want to do this'. But back then Taumarunui was a struggle because all this music was happening everywhere else apart from Taumarunui. We had to listen to it off the radio. It was pretty primitive, but great."

Todd went to teachers college in Hamilton in 1970 where he hooked up with musicians like guitarist Ray Goodwin and drummer Div Vercoe, with whom he formed OK Dinghy. It was one of many bands he was in before the trio moved to Auckland in 1973 and lived at what was known as Mandrax Mansion.

"Graham Brazier and Dave McCartney and some other people lived on the top floor and we moved into the ground floor. This was before Hello Sailor and before Dragon. There were Sunday afternoon parties there where everyone played music.

"I remember being downstairs one Sunday and the whole ceiling sagging in the middle from everyone dancing and jumping around. There were guys frantically propping up the ceiling with long bits of wood."

In Dragon's early years, with Marc now the frontman, they came up with trippy, psychedelic rock debut Universal Radio in 1974, with 11 minute-long Patina, a trance-inducing highlight; a year later came Scented Gardens For the Blind.

"Dragon started out as an acid jam band. Our job was just to play 24 hours a day," he laughs, "but it all evolved, although we didn't know how to write great songs until we imported Paul Hewson."

Guitarist Robert Taylor came on board - he would go on to write songs like the swaggering Bob's Budgie Boogie - and the band headed to Sydney in May, 1975. Hewson would join them a little later on.

"Paul was an incredibly talented guy and he just started writing songs," remembers Hunter. "But even then it was weird because they were bright, shiny pop songs - and there was something about them that made them want to be played on the radio - but the band were a horrible bunch of ugly poofs," he laughs.

Hunter lights up when he recounts Marc wading out into the crowd whipping audience members with his riding crop as he sang Are You Old Enough? or April Sun in Cuba.

"He was this huge presence. He was a remarkable guy and if he was sitting here now it would be a very different interview. He'd be right in your face," he laughs.

With the success of platinum-selling albums like Running Free (1977) and O Zambezi (1978), and the many chart-topping singles, came excess.

There was much rabble-rousing in the Dragon ranks, especially in 1978 on the band's biggest Australian tour. But Marc's performance and health started to suffer and he was fired from the band in January 1979.

"It was devastating seeing your brother being so self-destructive," says Hunter today. "In retrospect though, we probably [all] should have just taken a break for a while."

In the end Dragon called it quits late in 1979. But come 1982, and with big debts still owing, the Hunters, Hewson, Taylor and drummer Kerry Jacobson got back together and the reunion was a resounding success.

"We had huge debts - hiring stupid cars and planes - and we went on tour, paid it all off in a matter of weeks, and then we just kept touring."

And, as was pointed out earlier, that's what Dragon continue to do to this day, with veteran vocalist Mark Williams taking over singing duties in 2006.

"But now it's sort of reconciled," reckons Hunter, "because when we play Are You Old Enough? it's not what it was originally about, it's about the whole crowd singing along."

Lowdown

Who: Dragon

What: New Zealand Herald Legacy Award winners at the Tuis tonight, Vector Arena

Playing: The Powerstation, with Hello Sailor, Nov 4

Listen to: Universal Radio (1974), Sunshine (1977), Running Free (1977), O Zambezi (1978)

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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