NZ Music Hall Of Fame: Sailor rocked our boat

When Peter Urlich inducted Hello Sailor into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame this week, he paid this tribute.

Hello Sailor: (clockwise from top left) Paul Woolright, Ricky Ball, Stuart Pearce, Harry Lyon, Graham Brazier, Dave McArtney. Photo / Topic
Hello Sailor: (clockwise from top left) Paul Woolright, Ricky Ball, Stuart Pearce, Harry Lyon, Graham Brazier, Dave McArtney. Photo / Topic

It was 1976. I was a 19-year-old kid from Panmure who wanted to be somebody. Music was all I thought about, all I knew, and I had a burning desire to rock.

Together with my two best friends, we were literally a garage band banging out impressive versions of songs by the Rolling Stones and The Doors from a burnt-out garage in the back of Parnell. Filled with longing and high on hope, we adored the likes of Jagger, Richards, Morrison and Reed who seduced us with images from swinging London, L.A. and New York.

Then one day something big happened. I saw a street poster advertising a band playing at a grubby city pub called The Kiwi. It was an A4-sized poster but it may as well have been a Times Square billboard. It stood out from the others for some reason. It called to me.

Ian Morris and I went along, found ourselves a seat at the back and changed our musical lives. Everything about this band was special, from their stage set which included the grille from a '57 Chev and table lamps draped with scarves, to their clothes, to their girlfriends.

Suddenly, on that autumn night on Wellesley St, a door creaked open to expose a strange, wild and wonderful world that beckoned us in.

How could we not? These five men were different, they were from another world, another time, telling tales of Ponsonby but not the Ponsonby we knew. It was the underbelly of Auckland, peopled by dodgy characters called "Johnny the Creep" and "Jack Rabbit" who toted hidden flick knives and agendas. But the difference was that these guys looked as if they weren't making this shit up. These guys were Hello Sailor.

The next thing I remember was Sailor playing a three-week stint at the Globe Tavern, Wednesday to Saturday. I went every night. I was a Hello Sailor groupie!

And they were certainly heroic. Picture this - Graham Brazier in leather trousers and ripped leopard-skin top, all too tight to mention, just the right amount of mascara, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, doing tricks with a tambourine that I later tried but could never master. There was no better frontman. He owned the stage and the crowd who eagerly followed Sailor into a demi-monde of excess.

They were the Stones, the Velvets and the New York Dolls all rolled into one but they were also distinctly themselves. Graham, Dave and Harry were telling their own stories about their own bohemian world, which wasn't overseas but right here in Northcote and Grafton and the notorious Mandrax Mansion in Ponsonby.

The songs were about people on the edge and the outer, thinly disguised references to the real-life rock'n'roll riot that they were actually living. It was inescapable and it was blatant. They were the real deal and they were dangerous.

It made me feel like a lightweight, an innocent, an ingenue, but I was nevertheless hooked. I bravely stepped forward one of those nights and introduced myself and we remain friends to this day.

Sailor influenced us in many ways. They were determined to write their own songs about their own experiences, their own adventures and in their own language. And they did it in their own inimitable style. It was up to us as a young up-and-coming band to go out and find our own.

They showed us such colour, not the greys and neutrals of 70s NZ but the vermillion, velvet and the very special blue of a new tattoo. They had swagger which was a quality not readily available in our town and only the brave would buy try on.

It made their live shows incredible, steaming, sexy stuff of legend wherever they went. They were at the vanguard of a new wave of NZ artists in the late 70s that opened up a brave new world of original music and entertainment.

They broke records for crowd numbers on the national pub circuit and they made headlines for the wrong reasons but it only fuelled the public's desire to vicariously experience the dark side. And by all accounts when they went to America, they were this far away from being The Next Big Thing.

But most of all they wrote great songs filled with wit and charm and honesty and humanity. I could regale you all night with stories which might both shock you and delight you - but what happens on tour, stays on tour.

What I can tell you is one day I was paid the ultimate compliment. Graham was again suffering from a stomach ulcer and as the band was booked to play a string of big dates, Dave and Harry rang and asked me to fill in. A bit like asking the First XV captain to run on for Richie McCaw?

I did my best but I couldn't quite pull off those tambourine tricks.

Today, sometimes it feels like this all happened a hundred years ago. But I only have to hear that guitar riff or that cheeky blues harp and it all comes flooding back. They paved the way for me and many more like me.

They are responsible for some of the best and most loved songs of our rock history. They are still here writing songs, passing on their wisdom and craft. Their significance as songsmiths and performers cannot be overlooked. And they are still making their unique style of rock'n' roll as wonderfully as they did 30 years ago. And - damn - they still look good.

* Peter Urlich was the frontman of Th'Dudes, a band which he formed with school mates Ian Morris and Dave Dobbyn and followed in Hello Sailor's wake in the late 70s. The above is his speech given at the 2011 APRA Silver Scroll Awards.

- NZ Herald

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