His name is legendary in the New Zealand music industry. It inspires awe, laughter, fury.
He called himself The Hustler and by that he meant he could sell just about anything. His first business card read: "From pop to folk, see Hoght The Bloke."
Hoghton Hughes, Hoght for short, a relaxed, moneyed 71-year-old living the good life in Byron Bay, New South Wales, got where he is by producing what I think might just be the worst music ever made in this country.
Our conversation was a rare interview. He has always kept out of the public eye. I called him at his home and we bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia for a time when New Zealanders paid small change for terrible albums.
I'd long wanted to talk with Hughes; I admired him as someone who maintained unbeatably low standards for four amazing decades. His presence in New Zealand life remains constant: his catalogue of LPs fill the boxes of LPs in every church junkshop in the land.
Hughes grew up in Christchurch, and stayed put in the city when he created an independent record company in 1967. Flying Nun began operations there nearly 15 years later and was never as successful or as crazy.
Then, as now, the music business was centred in Wellington and Auckland. "I think part of my success is that I lived in Christchurch," he said, in a slow, cheerful voice. "No one knew what I was up to. I was an outsider. The other thing is that everyone under-estimated me. But I knew the business."
He knew what people wanted. Hughes had worked as a sales rep for a music store, and formed an intimate understanding of the kinds of records that sold. He signed Max McCauley, a yodeller from Gore, and 15-year-old Brendan Dugan, who went on to become one of New Zealand's most enduring country singers.
They made albums for Hughes' first record company, Master, named in honour of his friend, Invercargill music promoter Frank Stapp, who developed the eccentric habit of addressing absolutely everyone as "master" , as in, "How're you going, master?"
The sheer willpower it took to forever call friends and strangers "master" can scarcely be imagined. But that was a measure of the world Hughes moved in; he recalls picking up Stapp on his visits to Invercargill, and meeting the city's famous piano player, Jack Thompson, for drinks at the Grand Hotel.
Their sessions went for long hours ("We always got very drunk in the process") as Hughes tried enticing Thompson to leave EMI, where he was a prolific, best-selling solo artist, and sign terms with him. Thompson would have made an ideal Music World act. His EMI releases – Party Time, Party Pops, Here Comes Jack Thompson, etc – were unlistenable piano medleys. But Thompson refused to budge. "Win some, lose some," said Hughes, and the regret in his sigh was genuinely felt.
In 1970, Hughes came up with the name for the record company that lives in infamy, and made him millions of dollars – Music World.
The concept was simple and devastating: "Low-price, mass market music." He advertised, heavily and ingeniously, on TV. "I wrote them myself, and always wrote as though I was selling to one person: 'Get your copy tomorrow!'"
He put his annual TV spend at about $600,000; he threw good money at bad music, and made even better money. Music World was a kind of $2 Shop of sound. He sold in more than 2000 petrol stations across New Zealand. He estimated that 80 per cent of purchases of budget music were impulse purchases. "They were buying by price," he said. Cassettes cost $1.99, vinyl was low as $3.99.
I asked, "How would you describe the kind of records you made at Music World?"
He said, "I didn't care if it was a Chinaman playing the bagpipes in the bath. If people wanted it, I'd give it to them. I came up with a slogan: 'Music you can afford to enjoy'."
I asked, "Would you concede that a fair amount of Music World records were … Do you mind if I use the word 'crap'?"
"Oh certainly," he said. "There was a lot of crap in there. Among the good stuff, like the New Zealand Army Band, and Suzanne Prentice, and William Boyd the bapipe player, there was heaps of crap. Heaps of it. I'm not ashamed of it. People wanted it!
"Take Ivy's old time dance band albums. She sold heaps and heaps of records. I just couldn't survive more than a few bars. Terrible! But her record Ivy's 40 Favourite Waltzes sold 40,000 copies."
It was a time when New Zealanders were gripped with an inexplicable yearning for instrumental trash.
Bid Butcher, a nice old dear who played the accordion, sold 20,000 copies of her merry junk. There were similar kinds of albums by Timaru's Terry Kennedy at the keyboard (24 Piano Pops), blind organist Richard Hore (22 Yamaha Organ Favourites), and the incredible Golden Saxophones: 22 All-Time Favourites, which remains the biggest-selling New Zealand LP of all time. Featuring well-regarded jazz saxophonist Stu Buchanan, it was recorded at Tandem in Christchurch – a gold record of the 1978 album is displayed on the walls at the Sydenham studio – and sold an estimated 600,000 copies worldwide. Only Lorde's Pure Heroine, on multiple formats, has outsold it.
All that black vinyl, and all those little cassette cases … Hoght The Bloke said, "I used to tell my salesmen, 'We're not in the music business. We're in the plastics business.'"
The hits just kept coming. Music World's most successful year was in 1992, when sales topped $15 million. By then, Hughes had left New Zealand for the Gold Coast. Yes, he said, he's done well for himself. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't. I'm well-heeled. I suppose 'a man of means' is the way to describe it."
But what about the musicians who recorded for Hughes, and made him rich? Brendan Dugan's 1967 LP Country's Greatest was the very first album that Hughes released. "It really put me on my feet. It sold about 20,000 copies, and of course there were no royalties to pay out."
I said, "What do you mean, 'of course'?"
Hughes claimed that the contract was broken, and Dugan left Master Records to sign for EMI. "My solicitor said, 'Whatever you do, Hoghton,' he said, 'don't pay him one cent of royalties.'
"And I said, 'Well, no, he's earned it.'
"'No,' he said, ' he's saying to you he doesn't recognise the contract,' he said. 'Don't be a fool,' he said. And so he [Dugan] was the making of me. It was a wonderful thing. He did me a favour by breaking the contract, a kind of backhanded favour, I guess. He came to me years later and had the audacity to ask me for a gold record."
Woah, there, said Dugan, who I called at his home in Papamoa in the Bay of Plenty. "There was never a contract. We would never have broken a contract. So that would be a lie for a start."
A minute or two later, he said, "There might have been a verbal contract. Put it this way. I would like to see the contract if there was one ... I think he's telling a little lie there."
Dugan agreed with Hughes that he wanted to advance his career, and EMI offered better terms: "We left because he didn't have the power to do what they could do for me."
Hughes said, "It broke my heart. It totally broke my heart. I was in tears. My whole ambition was centred on Brendan Dugan. I was going to make him into the next John Hore." Hore was signed to Joe Brown, another South Island music entrepreneur, who released stacks of Hore's smooth country music LPs.
Told of Hughes' broken heart, Dugan laughed, and said, "Oh really. Aww. I'm so upset."
These days, Dugan collects tourists from the cruise ships twice a week at Mt Maunganui, and drives the coach to Rotorua, Hobbiton, and other spots. "I pick them up off the boat and away we go," he said.
He's 65 now. Yes, he said, he remembered the first time he met Hughes. Dugan was 13. His family farmed sheep and crops in Canterbury. He won a talent quest in Caroline Bay in Timaru. "He [Hughes] came to us and offered us a contract. Or a record deal," he added quickly. "I was going to be a star."
Suzanne Prentice sold over 100,000 country music albums during her long partnership with Hughes, but they also parted on bad terms.
I got hold of Prentice at her Invercargill home. Her first words were the exact same as Dugan's when I said I was calling about Hoghton Hughes: "Oh, God."
That was pretty much her only unguarded comment. After two conversations and an exchange over email, she decided she wouldn't talk about Hughes on the record.
New Zealand country music, though, is in Hughes' debt.
He released stacks of it and much of it was good and raw and unpolished, by acts such as Cole Wilson, Danny McGirr, Garner Wayne, Les Thomas, and Max McCauley the yodeller. They all made solid albums for Hughes. But the business terms were ... well, said McCauley, from his home in Gore, it was what it was.
"You get an opportunity, and you take it," he said. "I was pretty green I guess and I should have been a lot smarter. My album 50 Golden Yodels sold 50,000 copies and I was paid $150 to make it. That was all that was offered. The message was either you do it, or they'd get someone else to do it."
I said, "You got paid $150 for an album that sold 50,000 copies – how does that make you feel about Hoghton Hughes?"
McCauley is 81 now. He has worked as a timber grader, paper mill machinist, and janitor at a freezing works.
He said, "Well, I wouldn't say he was very giving. But I don't like to talk badly about people. I just don't. I'd rather pat a fellow on the back than kick them in the backside."
McCauley gave me a number for pedal steel player Les Thomas, 82, in Blenheim. He'd lived most of his life in Invercargill and worked as a printer. He played back-up on the highly rated Peter Posa LP My Kind of Pickin', and had a modest hit with his own Music World album Steel Guitar Country: 24 Golden Hits. We talked about Hughes for a bit. "He was a pretty lively sort of a guy," he said. "Always good fun. Some people thought he was a bit tight and miserable with his money. They grizzled that he got them to make a record for nothing or next to nothing. But the important thing is he gave them a chance to make an album. So I've no hard feelings." Mostly, we talked about music. Even though they recorded on the cheap for Music World, many of the musicians prided themselves on their craft; they loved country music. and fashioned a unique New Zealand sound. They played to a high standard, were obsessive, disciplined, masterly. Les Thomas' instrument of choice was something that haunted him when he first heard it. It was in the 1950s, he said, that he started listening to pedal steel guitar on records by Hank Williams and Hank Snow. "It used to amaze me just how the hell these guys could make that sound. One day I saw a pedal steel in a music catalogue. I didn't exactly know what it was but I figured it's got to be the secret noise-making machine." He mastered it, and formed The Countrymen with his brother Colin and Maori guitarist Maaki Goodwillie. I told him I had a copy of their Steel Guitar Country LP. He said, "One of my favourites on that is Pleading."
I said, "Why is that?"
He said, "It was the first time I got it to sound like the mystery sound I heard on all the old records."
I played it on my National turntable after the interview. It's a slow number, and Thomas' pedal steel picks out languid, liquid notes. I listened while looking at the Steel Guitar album cover of Les and the band wearing fancy cowboy duds bought from a trip to Nashville, and thought how it was all made possible by Hughes.
He documented an era. He brought New Zealand music to New Zealand homes.
"The mass market marvel," he was described by his friend Stewart Abernethy, a sheep farmer from Gore who alerted Hughes to Suzanne Prentice when she was 13: "You could hear a pin drop when she sang in Invercargill."
I reached Abernethy in Queenstown. He'd done well for himself with a Ford dealership. "Hoght was a flamboyant character," he remembered. "He turned up at the farm one day in a powder-blue jumpsuit. Well, you just don't dress like that in Southland."
The strangest record company mogul in New Zealand music history had provided untold hours of listening pleasure. Golden Flutes, Disco Superstars: 20 Soundalike Hits, Moog Plays Abba … I asked him what he thought was the very worst LP in the Music World catalogue.
"Punk Nursery Rhymes has to take the cake," he said. Not even The Hustler could sell that. It bombed. It was, he admitted, a waste of plastic.