Return of the Dragon

20:02, Oct 15 2012
This time: Dragon in 2012, from left, Bruce Reid, Mark Williams, Todd Hunter and Pete Drummond.

Dragon, the classic Kiwi rock band that took Australia by storm, is now 40. There's also a new double CD out The Dragon Years, with 40 songs spanning the band's career from April Sun in Cuba to Who I Am.

So is the Dragon 40th anniversary national tour, which kicks off tonight in Palmerston North and comes to Wellington tomorrow, just an exercise in nostalgia?

''It's funny. It's not like a nostalgia thing, it's more like a shift,'' says Todd Hunter, the co-founder and the only remaining member of the original Dragon lineup. ''I just couldn't stand it if it was a nostalgia thing. It would turn to parody so quick, so the thing now is to reinterpret it and play.

''And to play in this current day and age you have to play very differently than you did originally. You have got to play harder in order to get people levitating off the ground. There's just a different angularity about music.''

That's not to say that on this tour Dragon will ignore some of its best known songs, including Are You Old Enough? (No 5 in the Kiwi charts in 1978) or Rain, one of the band's biggest hits in the United States. But Hunter, who has lived in Australia since Dragon moved there in 1975, is at pains to point out that Dragon has had a life throughout its 40 years.

This is despite its tumultuous history. By 1977 Dragon was the biggest band on both sides of the Tasman. Then drummer Neal Storey died of a drug overdose. During an American tour, the band retreated from a stage in Texas after charismatic frontman Marc Hunter baited hecklers. To top it off, the band performed terribly in front of music bigwigs in New York. Marc quit and the band folded in 1979. (During this hiatus Hunter co-produced Kiwi punk upstarts Toy Love's self-titled debut album in 1980.)


Dragon reformed in 1982, had more hits and a revolving lineup that included virtuoso guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and former XTC drummer Terry Chambers.

Then in 1985 Kiwi keyboardist Paul Hewson, who co-wrote some of the band's best-known songs including April Sun in Cuba, died of a drug overdose.

Hunter himself quit in 1995. Then another even bigger blow: his brother Marc died of throat cancer in 1999. Hunter is blunt about what happened next: ''I had a complete breakdown about everything and I took a year off. I didn't do any music, which was fabulous because I found out that music isn't life itself.''

The Dragon story could have ended there. Instead, Hunter, who for a time composed music for television and film, reformed the band in 2006 with veteran Kiwi Mark Williams taking over singing duties for a new series of albums, EPs and gigs. The result is not only renewed interest from fans won in the 70s and 80s but the band - all up 34 musicians have been members at one time or another - continues to pull in young people, Hunter says, which gives the title of Are You Old Enough? a whole new meaning.

He also has the added perspective of having three sons, though they have not shown the same drive to become professional musicians. ''I'm so glad my kids don't want to be musicians because you have to reinvent the wheel even if something is going really well. You don't know. In four years' time it may be gone.''

Harry, the oldest in his early 20s, works for Apple and is a film-maker. James is at college in the United States playing basketball - ''he's totally into that'' - while Joey, the youngest, is at the College of Fine Arts. ''They are all totally creative and off in their own direction. As you know, in the old days, you were either in a band or you weren't. Now you can do anything you like.''

It was all very different for Hunter 40 years ago. ''Some memories are very strong, like driving down to Dunedin in an old yellow bus. We used to do a lot of staying in people's houses because we couldn't afford hotels. We'd play universities a lot and we'd get billeted out.''

As Hunter describes this, you can almost hear in his voice the feeling that he is back there. ''But a lot has happened in the last 40 years,'' he says, breaking the spell.

And while Dragon in 2012 is not about nostalgia, he says, his brother Marc or Hewson will still pop into his head at unexpected moments. ''When we play and you get a massive amount of people singing those songs, Marc and Paul live on in that music. For those moments, they're there.

- Dragon, with support from Hello Sailor and the Hammond Gamble Band, play the Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, October 16, the Opera House, Wellington, October 17, and The Mayfair, New Plymouth, on October 18. See the full tour schedule here

The Dominion Post