Hello Sailor has released a new album, Surrey Crescent Moon. I've listened to it a couple of times - and I really like it. The blurring of guitar lines between Harry Lyon and Dave McArtney, one of the best guitar tag-teams to ever come from this country; the blurring then of blues and rock and calypso and country ideas - the best songs on the new album (Bric A Brac Shop, Looking for My Shades, Holly and Billy, These Furs Were Hers, De Dog) hark back to some of the band's earlier material, in that there are certain flavours. But it's the sound of Sailor now - one of this country's finest ever rock bands.
The new material has already slotted into the live set - a handful of songs from Surrey Crescent Moon are being played by the band currently as it opens for Dragon on that group's 40th anniversary tour. Hello Sailor might be, along with Hammond Gamble, the curtain-raisers for that gig but in my mind there was no question (I saw the Wellington show on Wednesday night) Sailor were the stars. Still such a great live band, something so vital about the way they look and sound and feel just right. Rock stars playing rock music. Good rock stars playing good rock songs.
We're not very good at the rock-star thing in New Zealand. We've had a few. They don't last. Or people laugh it off - because it's not convincing. Sometimes - most often, in fact - the people pretending to be the rock stars are the ones that laugh it off. They know they're pretending. They know they're pretenders.
Hello Sailor were always the real deal. And there are the stories of burnout and blowout to pepper the myth. There are also the songs to salt the legend.
I first heard Sailor as a very young kid - tunes like Blue Lady and Gutter Black were played around the house, on the radio, on tape - later my brother would introduce the very formative split album that was one side Hello Sailor/one side Th' Dudes. That was a revelation. White-hot electric.
When I was at high school I wondered why more people my age didn't listen to Hello Sailor - such a brilliant band. Then they released a brand new album. It wasn't as good as the earlier material - but it reintroduced the band. Showed they still had that sound.
They have that sound because they did the work. Hello Sailor was (is) one of this country's best bands because they did the work, tirelessly touring, gigging relentlessly often to indifferent audiences, winning them over. Then the first album was released and the three big singles came from three different writers. Here was a band that had three unique voices, vocally, instrumentally and compositionally.
But they had that look. And that informed the sound. They had a strut. They had charm. And they oozed confidence.
You see it now - 35 years on Graham Brazier might joke on stage about being out of shape and not what he once was but he has a new dance-step for every song, a wiggle, a shuffle, a shake of the tambourine that lets you know it's both prop and instrument. He creates a role to play for each song and then lives that role with utmost conviction. If a Jagger-derived hand-wiggle seems silly, well, too late - no time for self-conscious, controlled movements. Just live in the moment.
Pacifica Armour is one of my favourite records - an album I've been listening to for many years but one that still surprises, still feels fresh. There are so many great songs on it. Sure the three really big singles (Blue Lady, Gutter Black, Lyin' in the Sand) came from the first album. But this had I'm a Texan - such good strut. And also On Parade (For the Hell of It). And start to finish it's just a great record. One of my favourite bargains. Bought it for a buck, certainly got more bang than might have been expected.
From there Hello Sailor moved to LA and imploded. There were incendiary shows. There were messy shows. Brazier famously was offered to join The Doors - there's footage of Ray Manzarek playing with Sailor in the States.
Returning to New Zealand burnt out, broken, the three songwriters established their own new brands/bands. Brazier released the superb solo album, Inside Out, featuring Billy Bold - a staple of so many Sailor live sets (reworked as a band song in its own right). He also formed The Legionnaires and trotted out a couple of other tidy solo albums.
Lyon played with both The Legionnaires and Flamingos - he also created Coup d'état. They gave us Dr I Like Your Medicine. And, hey, if that wasn't what you wanted, they did a nice line in the new wave of the time - check out No Music on My Radio.
There was a reunion of Hello Sailor in the mid-1980s, one last whip around the country to get out of debt, a quick spit-polish of the songs, and away they went. It either worked, or it didn't. Depends how you look at it. But since the mid-90s they've settled into the sporadic working beast - they'll always put on a great show, but McArtney will disappear to do dates as Pink Flamingos still. And Brazier will do a solo gig. They have jobs and other shows. They have lives to get on with but can still play the rock-stars when they need to. They still convince.
That's because it's inherent. And for all that may have been pumped in and through the veins it's rock'n'roll that courses out. The band lives and breathes the sound.
I loved seeing them play a couple of nights ago. I'd seen them at the end of last year (opening for Jimmy Barnes) but they seem newly enthused with the material from their latest release. I've loved listening to the new album. Sure, it won't ever make me forget Pacifica Armour or the self-titled debut - but there's a lot of great leads and lines and songs on Surrey Crescent Moon. It's a droll and dry summary of where they are at - as people and rock stars - right now.
Last year I interviewed Garth Cartwright about his excellent book Sweet As. Garth was a regular attender at the Sailor gigs when they earned their reputation. He told me, when speaking about seeing Hello Sailor in the early days, that "they were so glamorous - they looked like they had arrived to Earth. They were like nothing we had seen. So elegant and rock'n'roll!"
That stayed with me. I could only imagine what it must have been like seeing these guys in the early days. But the music has such an urgency about it. Vital. Pulsing. There's the rattle of great rock'n'roll, the shake and shimmy but what makes it work is the great work of three distinctive and talented writers.
Last year I met Jordan Luck and asked him to sign a copy of the Live at Main Street album that featured The Dance Exponents on one side, The Legionnaires on the other. He obliged, leaving a message in support of Graham. By chance - and it really was spooky - Brazier called Luck at pretty much that exact moment (the ink was drying). Jordan told Graham that he was standing with me and that I was a fan. Next thing I'm on the phone with Brazier and making plans to visit him at the book store he calls home.
The next day I pop in to the Dominion Road staple and Brazier is sitting in the middle of the store, a smell of must dominating, old books everywhere, his first-edition Bukowskis behind glass, under lock and key. It's early. I introduce myself. Brazier offers me a drink. He's a fallen king. We sit and talk about his music, his love of words. He quotes poems to me, Shakespeare and Eliot, Tennyson and some Bob Dylan. He shows me a folder that has a typed-up short story. He asks me to take the time to read it. I do. I'm not sure really what happens (it's incomplete). But it's good. It's very good. And I tell him that.
I show him the Main Street album and he marvels over Luck's inscription, telling me that Jordan is a great guy, that he rates him highly, that he has so much love for him. And then he writes a return-inscription on his side of the record.
It was lovely to meet Brazier. But there was a part of it that seemed so very sad. Here was a guy who might have not always made the right choices - but hey, who in this life ever does? Here was a guy who had such obvious, natural gifts - that voice, an ability to recall almost anything - anything - to do with music and literature at the snap of a nicotine-stained finger.
There was madness, absolutely. I thought of one of Brazier's heroes - and mine - the great Bukowski, with his line about how some people never truly go crazy and what horrible lives they must lead as a result.
I left with a copy of a Clive James book of TV columns, a bargain from the store, one I'd been all but instructed to buy. I left with a sense, briefly, of sadness. I didn't feel sorry for Brazier - I just wanted a world where more people thought more of him and I couldn't see that in his store on that day.
But I saw that a couple of nights ago when he was on the stage in Wellington. There was some nervous banter, the odd slur, but there was a commitment and conviction to putting on a show. There was a bunch of great songs. And there was the work of a very fine band. Every play supporting each other - the guitarists still so good as they wound sound around one another.
I could never forget about Hello Sailor. And I don't think anyone from this country should.
They were one of our greatest bands. And they'll still give you a good night if you let them.
That good night might be tonight or next week as part of the Dragon tour - or it might be an afternoon in the sun with a copy of The Sailor Story or one of McArtney's or Lyon's or Brazier's solo albums/side-projects. Or that good night might not come to you for a while. But keep it in mind. And keep them in mind.
Just, whatever you do, don't forget about Hello Sailor. They're too good.
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