Saturday, June 2, 2018

Karyn Hay, RWP, Music Month, and all that …

Last Thursday I attended a fascinating New Zealand Music Month presentation hosted by Nga Taonga Sound and Vision in Wellington, which featured a Q & A session with iconic former Radio With Pictures presenter Karyn Hay. It was the culmination of several NZMM events I personally engaged with this year (throughout May), and I was happy to be able to share this experience with my close buddies Simon and Ron, both of whom who share my passion for 1980s nostalgia of a local “grassroots” flavour … and other things, like drinking, football, and fantasy bands.

Radio With Pictures was an institution on New Zealand television throughout the 1980s, well in advance of anything like the 90s excesses of 24/7 MTV, and while other presenters like Barry Jenkin (aka Dr Rock) and Dick Driver enjoyed tenures on the show, Hay’s presentation across the mid-80s period has always been the most memorable element of the show, for me.

It was something I looked forward to every week. Its late Sunday night timeslot – just prior to the regular Sunday Horror feature – provided temporary respite from the horrific sense of dread I’d usually experience when contemplating the start of another working week. Quite aside from introducing me to a wide range of new music, the show would regularly transport me into another world, one I would otherwise feel very isolated from down here at the bottom of the world. It also championed local music in a way we’d never really experienced before, beyond the realm of student radio.

As part of the sold-out theatre/cinema presentation we were privileged enough to view a full episode of Radio with Pictures from 1985 – introduced to us as episode 15, I believe, although that itself was the source of some confusion for me, as surely there were more than 15 episodes prior to 1985? … with Hay herself having been involved with the show since 1981.

Regardless, this particular episode was a special one in that it featured women artists entirely, including a priceless segment covering the 1984 Women’s Performance Festival in Auckland. We learned later that at least one artist who appeared in that segment was in the audience with us. Other clips highlighted the extraordinary talents of Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Ricki Lee Jones, and the fabulous Patti Smith.

The post-viewing Q & A, or discussion, was both amusing and mind-numbing in equal measure.

The amusement came from Hay’s account of things like interviewing a brash (and drunk) Billy Idol, her frequent costume dilemmas, and stories around the wider DIY (and live) approach of Television New Zealand at the time. Plus, a mention of the show’s often bulging postbag, the correspondence viewers would send in, often just to voice criticism of her VERY Kiwi accent. One thing Hay emphasised, given today’s highly regulated environment within that medium, was the amount of genuine freedom both she and the show’s producers were given to do whatever they wanted. Radio With Pictures was all the better for that.

The mind-numbing aspect related to a couple of dodgy middle-aged blokes lamenting the state of “today’s modern music”, or asking moronic questions like “where can I source good music today?” … like Karyn Hay could help them with any of that? Clue: you can source good music everywhere, in abundance, on multiple platforms, in a way we couldn’t possibly have conceived back then.

For my own part, in relation to the accent thing, I was able to offer the perspective of a regular viewer who could dig her accent, with all other mainstream television of the era – beyond comedy – being presented in very correct post-colonial BBC English. Hay’s point of difference, her casual languid chatty style, or her “lazy tongue” as she put it, was precisely the thing that transported her into our lounge(s) … and that colloquial accent had a certain girl-next-door appeal, long before that style became popular on our screens.

More generally, it was a pleasure to get Karyn Hay’s behind-the-scenes take on a show that proved formative for so many New Zealanders of my generation. These days, at age 59, as a mother, an award-winning author, and current Radio New Zealand presenter, Karyn Hay is an unheralded national treasure. I’ll certainly be making more of an effort to check out her radio show in the future.


I know New Zealand Music Month has its fair share of critics, for reasons many and varied, usually in context of it being unnecessary and a little self-indulgent, but I embrace it for the opportunity it presents to celebrate our pop culture history. If we don’t do that, nobody else will … so what’s not to like?

Throughout May, on the blog’s Facebook page, I shared a daily “sleeve of the day” post, a local album or single sleeve (record cover) I had some sort of personal connection with, or felt some sort of affinity for, posting a short blurb about the sleeve (or about the music/each release itself). As I worked my way through the month, while contemplating each day’s selection, I was continually reminded of the broad base of genre local artists have established, musically, and in a wider artistic sense. Indeed, how incredibly creative a lot of those record sleeves (or CD covers) were/are. Of course, some have stood the test of time better than others, but even the worst of them are still able to inform, or tell us something about where we’ve come from, or to offer a glimpse back into our collective past.

Just a quick word on May’s Wellington Museum exhibition, Burning Up The Years, which dealt with the Wellington music scene 1960 – 1978. It was only a small exhibition, and probably not music month’s most high-profile event, but it was well worth a good half hour of my time. There were old gig posters, rare vinyl displays, band profiles, and interactive stuff like listening posts etc. The best thing of all? … big screen flyover footage of the city and central Wellington landscape as it stood in the mid-1970s, and a startling reminder of just how much development inner city Wellington has seen over the past four decades.

Finally, a shout out to DJ Bill E and the San Fran crew for putting on another ‘See Me Go’ event a week or so ago in celebration of all things “us”. New Zealand music, all vinyl, all night. Fantastic. You can listen to the (pre-gig) promo clip on Radio New Zealand at the link below:

Here’s Split Enz with ‘Give It A Whirl’, which just might be the greatest local thing ever committed to black magic plastic:

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