Well-overdue homecoming concert for Howick’s greatest and most acclaimed songwriter
John Hanlon Accolades
- Recording Composer of the Year Awards: Is it Natural (1974); Higher Trails (1975); Nightlife (1976).
- APRA Silver Scrolls (nation’s best song voted by music industry): Lovely Lady (1974), Windsongs (1975).
- Single of the Year: Damn the Dam (1973).
- Album of the Year: Higher Trails (1975).
By PJ (Phil) Taylor
John Hanlon was a big name on the New Zealand music scene half a century ago, with four songs released as singles achieving Kiwi Gold Disc status.
That famous quartet – Lovely Lady, Damn the Dam, Higher Trails and Apple Wine – appeared on his first albums, Garden Fresh and Higher Trails – a collective body of work considered legendary Kiwi folk-pop.
Damn the Dam became and remains an environmental anthem – ‘Damn the dam, cried the fantail…’, Higher Trails was a soulful and heartfelt socially-observant album, and this writer’s first introduction to Hanlon’s music was Lovely Lady, song one on side two of the record, Solid Gold Hits Volume 10, in 1974.
Solid Gold was the album in the day, the biggest-selling pop compilation, found at most homes in the land. To be on Solid Gold meant the artists were getting radio (and some TV) airplay, leading to album and single sales and royalties – all-important income – for musicians and songwriters.
‘Then in 1977’, as his bio reads, ‘at the height of his career, John walked away from the stage in search of a more private life’.
Words, however, keep coming for accomplished wordsmiths; melodies still flow from a songwriter’s soul. And five decades on, Hanlon has a 10th album released, a charming 23-song epic of beautifully crafted works in different styles.
“I’m glad to be here to talk about it,” says Hanlon, of Naked Truths, recorded in 2020 and 2021.
“A hereditary kidney disease hit me – slammed me – to a grinding halt. Then I was lucky. Somebody, I will never know their name, a deceased person, left a kidney.
“I was the recipient and had a transplant. It went a bit pear-shaped. What was going to be a six-day stay in hospital turned into six weeks. Apparently, I died a couple of times. I was extremely ill.
“If anyone is thinking about being an organ donor, please do. You will save somebody’s life.”
He’s now buoyed enough, with encouragement of fans from across the country, to head out and play concerts again.
He’s been pretty keen to commence those shows in Howick, and An Evening with a Songwriter – John Hanlon – Lounging Around at The Lounge in Wellington Street is on November 19.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says, of what will be a special homecoming performance.
Hanlon, 73, spent his adolescent years growing up in Howick. It’s where he started becoming a musician and songwriter. Many of those compositions that generated widespread applause in the 1970s drew inspiration from this patch of paradise.
“There’ll be new material. Old songs will be done in new keys, which stands to reason. What I’m finding is people who thought they knew my music are discovering my new music.”
Floating, his first album, was digitised a few years ago.
“You listen to it. It’s songs about being at the beach. The song Floating, and Flight of the Seagulls, my head was full of images of growing up in Howick,” Hanlon says.
“One of the first songs I wrote was called When Will I Write This Song. Years later, I was to write a song called Chocolates and Roses, where I wrote the lyrics sitting on top of Stockade Hill.
“It’s one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. As an artist, it represents who I was, who I am, and how I feel at a more mature stage in my life.”
He moved away but still maintained a close connection to Howick and observed transformations on return trips.
“I noticed how everything changed. What was once country was now a sea of roofs. My mother lived in Howick to the day she died. As did my brother.
“I did think everything’s changed, but I’m pretty much the same teenager sitting on top of this hill dreaming about the things I’m going to do.
“You come over that hill and can’t help but think of the trolley races, the box-car races, down that hill. I remember the street fairs. There would be hula hoop contests. Those days are gone, but the skyline over Howick hasn’t really changed.”
For the Naked Truths album project, Hanlon decided to “record some songs with friends”.
“Two producers, Bruce Lynch, who is well-known in New Zealand, and Russell Finch, who is based in Australia and I’ve worked with him for many years.
“I said I can’t afford big productions [on song recordings], this is literally a hobby. Let’s keep them sparse. That’s where the idea Naked Truths came from. I wanted to do stripped down productions. We try not to have any more than five instruments on any song.”
Guide recordings of his vocals and guitar parts, while ill awaiting a new kidney, involved him sitting on the couch at Lynch’s place.
“Bruce is probably New Zealand’s most underrated person in the music business. Glance down the tracks of the past to see his involvement in them. He’s an unbelievably good bass player. The bass he puts on Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout the Weather is Bruce at his absolute finest. He’s basically the band on most tracks. He plays just about everything.”
Finch recorded piano and keyboard parts in Australia, as did another virtuoso Rex Goh on guitars. Dean Kerr, on guitar, and Lewis McCullum, playing clarinet and saxophone, also appear.
There’s a dusty vocal texture on some tracks, adding to the learned nature of the compositions.
“Some days are diamonds. Some days are gravel. At my age, that happens.”
Tis the way of a legend.
“I wasn’t going to do any more recordings, to be absolutely honest,” Hanlon, admits.
“The recording industry – the reality for most of us, and I don’t mean for just us older people, is pretty much an expensive hobby. You do it for the love. You certainly don’t do it for money anymore. The world of streaming has pretty much put an end to that.
“It’s convenient for listeners, but for artists, 1000 listens can earn you something in the region of 4 cents.
“When I came home to New Zealand after being away for a while, I won’t call it ego, but I was a bit miffed to discover I wasn’t even listed as a songwriter on any platform I could find in NZ other than Audio Culture.”
He was thinking about recording the tracks for possibly two albums.
“I didn’t actually know what to do, struggling with the changing market. I was comfortably told by everybody that people weren’t buying albums anymore. They were just streaming those as well.
“Downloading is much better for artists, but streaming is a lost cause.
“When I came out of that [health ordeal], I said to the guys put everything on the album. It could be my last hurrah. That’s why it’s such a long album. It meanders in styles, but I’ve always done that.
“I’m extremely happy. I might have issued instructions before I went under, and they took my 50-odd demos and just chose some to do. I didn’t really get in the way.”
Once he was well enough and had his medical clearance, Hanlon put down the lead vocals, recorded by Lynch, who he pays another compliment.
“You know you’re a good musician when Cat Stevens flies you to France to work on his album.”
Lynch played on Yousef Islam/Cat Steven’s album Tea for the Tillerman II, re-recorded in 2020 to celebrate its original release fifty years earlier. There were fresh takes and reworking delivered on some of the classic songs.
It’s something Hanlon is very aware of, especially when how to approach the hit songs his audiences will be expecting.
“What I’ve been able to do is reconnect with people who have me frozen in the 1970s. I understand that. I was part of the musical landscape at that part of their lives.
“I’ve written by far the greatest amount of songs and recorded since that time, of course. I just wasn’t doing it public. I sort of had walked away.
“I released an album called Short Stories in 1988. It’s got that ’80s sound, with the voices quite back in the mix.
“Then I didn’t release anything until the late 1990s, when I was in a studio working on an advertising track for a television commercial.”
Finch was working with Hanlon and heard John playing guitar, a song of his and Finch liked it.
“That song, Twenty Men in Penguin Suits, on the album After the Dam Broke, was the first ever song I recorded that involved programming. It was a laborious process for me.
“I rather much sit down – 1, 2, 3 – the band plays, I sing, and then it’s all over.”
With 23 songs on Naked Truth, and Hanlon’s penchant for travel, it is understandable geographic references run through it. Places such as a Street in St Germain, his home patch Muriwai, and, the Big Apple.
“I love New York. Every time I go there I’m inspired by so many things going on. And it’s a different place now from the 1970s when I first went. It was pretty rough.
“New York, like many of the great cities of the world, is a walking city. I’ve been there many times.
“I literally had this strange feeling and was overwhelmed and realised I was standing outside of the Dakota Building, right where John Lennon had been killed.
“That’s why I have that line, ‘I always cry each time I walk by where John Lennon died’.”
A shorter version of this story was first published in Eastlife magazine.