Forgotten memories dance out of the dark

FLASHBACK: Sharon O'Neill battling a wind machine on the video shoot for Physical Favours, circa 1987.
FLASHBACK: Sharon O'Neill battling a wind machine on the video shoot for Physical Favours, circa 1987.

Creases in your white dress, bruises on your bare skin. Looks like another fine mess, you've got yourself into . . .

Sharon O'Neill wrote the lyrics to her 1983 hit song Maxine when she was staying at a hotel in Sydney's Kings Cross.

O'Neill has released a best of album and the New Zealand musician says the occasion has sparked forgotten memories from throughout her 40-year career.

"With my Kiwi band we were staying at a hotel in Kings Cross. In those days you drove long distances to do these gigs. We often wouldn't get back to the cross until 3am," O'Neill recalls.

"Maxine is about this working girl I'd see every time we came back. Whether it was Woollongong, Newcastle or wherever we'd driven from, she would be working at that hour of the morning. She looked really sad and dishevelled and I was curious about her life and wrote it down. I gave her the name Maxine, I don't know what her name was."

O'Neill is responsible for many great songs, including Words, Asian Paradise, the theme to Smash Palace and Maxine, from her most successful album, Foreign Affairs.

But after its release O'Neill was effectively silenced for five years following a dispute with her recording company, CBS. As she was still under contract, she could not record for anyone else until it was concluded.

Still based in Sydney, O'Neill says last year she was approached by Sony, which ironically is the company that emerged from CBS, to release Words: The Very Best of Sharon O'Neill and was intrigued.

"I thought it would be a fantastic idea. They said they were going to do a package of 20 songs, which is a lot of songs. We picked out the songs and I think it's come up really lovely. I'm really proud of what they've done."

The photographs in the album booklet hint at many stories.

A teddy bear with the number six on its chest certainly stands out among the photos of leather-clad O'Neill on stage.

"That's my wee chap. He is probably about 55 or 56 years old. His ears are a little bit, I'd like to say frayed, but I probably bit them off. I knitted his little outfit. He now wears an All Black T-shirt."

There's a black and white photo of her mum and dad in their Nelson living room, listening to one of her records on a turntable.

"I'm so glad Sony included that. Mum and dad have passed on now, they would have loved to have seen that. I think my sisters will enjoy seeing that, too."

Another photo shows O'Neill with Robert Palmer and the "love of her life", keyboard player and guitarist Alan Mansfield who played with Dragon and Palmer.

"That's a nice one. We were all getting ready to go out to dinner, as you do in Switzerland.

"Alan, my partner, worked with Robert for a long time, since he first started out, they were really good friends. We would go over to Switzerland a lot and stay with him there, sometimes all of us would write songs or we would sing on his album if he was recording at the time."

O'Neill's name can be found on numerous releases by Palmer.

She says that they always went out to dinner, usually "somewhere posh". Palmer didn't drive.

"He'd call a driver, we'd go out, eat, come home and write some songs. We miss him terribly."

Talking about her musical adventures has forced her to realise just how much she has done. "You go on and you go through the years and do what you do but once you start thinking and talking about it, you realise you really have been around the traps a bit."

Meeting Elton John backstage at an outdoor concert in Wellington is a career highlight.

"I am such a huge fan. Being on stage at the end of one of his concerts is one of my favourite memories.

"It was the year Jon Stevens and I had won top female and top male vocalist at the New Zealand Music Awards. We were invited up to sing some rock'n'roll at the end of his concert. It was quite a moment."

There's also a Christchurch link for the girl from Nelson.

She moved to Christchurch in 1972 and joined Chapta after seeing a newspaper article which suggested they were looking for a new lead singer.

"My mum suggested I audition. They sent me a cassette, Easy to Be Hard From Here, I think, it was an awfully weird song but they got me down to Christchurch, they made me sing it and they gave me the job.

"I spent a lot of time in Christchurch."

But her big break, and national exposure, came when she entered The Entertainers television talent contest, placing third with her original song, Luck's On Your Table.

"John McReady who was with CBS, let's just call them Sony, had seen it and decided because it was an original song, and he liked what I did, he signed me up for which I was grateful, that was my leg in the door."

In 1979 she won the APRA Silver Scroll Award for the song Face In A Rainbow from her debut album. She also received the Rising Star Award and was voted our nation's top female vocalist in 1978, 1979 and 1980.

In 1982 she provided the soundtrack to Roger Donaldson's movie Smash Palace, starring Bruno Lawrence.

Now 62, O'Neill looks back to the "many wonderful tours" she experienced, from roaming around Australia opening for Boz Scaggs, to one "hilarious" venture with Marc Hunter and Angry Anderson from Rose Tattoo.

"We were called the Good, The Bad and the Angry, that was a fun tour. Coming off stage and seeing Angry naked because he was really hot and sweaty, that put everything into perspective for me."

Opening for Dragon on their Body and the Beat tour was also special.

"Each band travelled by small plane. The Beat was the Dragon guys and the Body was my lot. We had these two pilots and they flew us everywhere; we used to watch them at night at the house bar that they didn't have one too many because they were flying us out the next day. That's where I met Alan."

As a songwriter, she says she has never been one to approach the artform in a regimented way.

"It's just an easy process. It might be a title, it might be a couple of lines, I may sit down at the piano and come up with a couple of chords and then it all just slots into place.

"It's not any sort of sweating brows about it, really. I don't see any sense in tearing your hair out. It shouldn't be that hard."

As a pioneering woman in New Zealand music, O'Neill is proud of the current crop of New Zealand women taking their music to the world.

"There's a lot of good stuff coming out of New Zealand, with the internet it's become really global which is a fantastic thing because it was a real struggle in my day.

"You'd try to think globally but you had no immediate access. These days acts have that access and it's quite simple and it is global. You've got Kimbra, Lorde, and I'm sure there are others following in their footsteps."

There's a sense, too, with the release of the album, via Sony of all labels, of things finally coming full circle.

One song, her personal favourite, Danced in the Fire, still resonates deeply with her now.

"It is my personal favourite, only because it encapsulates a period of time when CBS . . . a lot was going on in my personal life, it was something I had to just get out musically.

"You are baring your soul to a degree. It's a nice disguise to put it in that form rather than just bawl your eyes out, that doesn't get you anywhere."

Danced In the Fire was written when O'Neill was in the middle of the long-running dispute with her record company CBS.

There's a lengthy silence in our conversation.

"You certainly know what I was going through," she says.

"I was really happy when I finished that song, you know. I thought, phew, I can breathe now."

Showing all her colours, in a poor disguise.

You could tell that things had caught up with her, just by looking in her eyes.

The lawyers, love and litigation, had cut her down to size.

And what seemed like a normal and healthy thing, turned into a really ugly dream.

And she just wanted to sing.


Sharon O'Neill's album Words: The Very Best of Sharon O'Neill is out now.