A few years ago during one of my many visits back home to New Zealand a woman I’d never seen before walked up to me and said, ‘Didn’t you used to be John Hanlon the singer-songwriter?’
I knew what she meant but had to laugh.
‘As far as I know I’m still John Hanlon and I still write songs,’ I replied. I was tempted to borrow from the writer Mark Twain and add, ‘News of my death has been greatly exaggerated.’
Apparently, my leaving the New Zealand music scene in 1977 without so much as a polite goodbye has led to a deal of conjecture over the years, much of it inaccurate.
And, sadly, despite some significant achievements in my brief time in the spotlight, it would appear they’ve largely been forgotten and I’ve become one of those names that gets mentioned whenever people are having one of those ‘Whatever happened to so and so?’ conversations.
As well, on the rare occasions one of my old songs gets played on air these days I’m told it often causes the radio host to wonder out loud what became of me.
Someone even wrote on YouTube recently I was now a reclusive painter of some note. If only that were true.
It’s not as though I’ve cultivated this mystery. Private I may be but never purposefully enigmatic. Over the years I have done the odd interview for radio or television, albeit that it’s usually an hours earnest, candid chat that gets edited down to 60 secs.
So while the truth has been out there you might well have missed it even if you were interested.
However, since I’m about to step back into the musical arena with renewed purpose, now seems an appropriate time offer up my own version of my past, present and possible future.
To understand why I decided to end my time in the musical spotlight you need to know how it began.
Never at any stage of my childhood or adolescence had I entertained the slightest desire to get up on stage as a singer or performer. I only bought a guitar on the shallow delusion that it might make me popular with girls. This proved futile since I was an ordinary guitarist and far too shy to play in front of my own family let alone teenage girls.
This shyness coupled with the ‘poetry period’ I was going through led to my spending hours locked in my bedroom playing with myself. Not an unusual pastime for teenage boys you might say but for me it meant strumming my guitar and finding tunes for my rhymes.
How I was able to pluck melodies out of the ether like that I do not know. It certainly wasn’t based on any musical knowledge or competence in the accepted sense, since I couldn’t read or write music and still can’t.
Nevertheless, I was prolific and pretty soon had an entire school exercise book filled with original songs.
As I’m writing this I vaguely recall being invited to a start-up band rehearsal in someone’s basement once, simply because I owned a guitar, but my limited vocal range and musical ineptitude soon had me heading for the door — much to everyone’s relief.
Far from having any desire to be a pop star, my dream was to become an artist/illustrator. Art was my first love and I really thought I might be good enough to make it in the commercial world.
I attended art school with this in mind.
Once there I quickly realised that compared to most of my classmates I was at best a mediocre illustrator.
However, while many of my peers could draw better than me, I found I often had better visual ideas than they did and it was this ability that led me to becoming an art director and eventually a copywriter in the advertising industry.
Sometime during the very early 70s I took the brave step of playing a few nights in a coffee bar in Auckland, but quickly realised people weren’t quite ready for original songs back then and scurried away with my tail between my legs.
Now married with a young son to support I concentrated on my advertising career. While my song writing continued it was not motivated by any musical ambition, it was simply something I did. In the same way I used to paint, I now wrote songs — they became my musical paintings. And, just as I once did with paintings, once a song was written my passion and interest went into writing the next song. This is how it was when by sheer fluke I was overheard singing to a handful of people at a private party by a man called Bruce Barton who owned a recording studio in Auckland. Incredible but true. As a result of this chance meeting Bruce generously sat with me every night after work for an entire week recording every song I’d ever written.
We emerged at the end of that week with four boxes of tape and I thought that would be the beginning and end of my recording career.
Moreover, I was happy with that. Delighted in fact. However, without my knowledge or further participation, copies of those tapes found their way across town into the hands of the man who was to change my life.
No one was more surprised than I when some months later I was summoned to the office of Tim Murdoch, then MD of the now long since defunct Pye records.
After the shortest and most surreal meeting in the history of the world, Tim signed me to a three album recording contract.
If you wrote this scenario as part of movie plot no one would believe you but that is exactly what happened.
Tim put me together with Michael Harvey who was to be my arranger/producer and we tiptoed tentatively into the studio and made my first album ‘Floating’, which basically bombed.
If this had been any other age and Tim had been any other man it may well have ended there. Luckily, it did not.
Tim maintained the faith and was rewarded with my next album ‘Garden Fresh’, which included the song ‘Damn the Dam’ and the rest, as they say, is history.
Garden Fresh went on to win Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year in the New Zealand recording industry awards. As well as Producer and Arranger of the Year for Mike. The next two albums ‘Higher Trails’ and ‘Use Your Eyes’ did exactly the same.
I’m not sure anyone has ever done this three years in a row before or since. And, yes, I’m boasting but I’m proud of that.
I even won the coveted APRA Silver Scroll for two years in succession. This was peer approval at its finest and all the more gratifying for that reason. I was, as they say, at the top of my game. Then I walked away.
And you might well ask why?
Immaturity had something to do with it but more pertinently I was bored and had ceased to have fun.
I loved making albums because — sticking with painting as a metaphor — each new album was like an exhibition in which I could display my latest work.
This was satisfying and challenging.
Performing on the other hand was, for me, less fulfilling. Having had a number of hits, I was naturally expected to perform those over and over and over again. This would have been wonderful had my motivation been to become famous and admired as an entertainer, but it was not.
To me singing the same songs day in and day out was like having to paint and hang the same pictures week after week. It was mind numbing and far from welcoming the attention of my fans and basking in the applause (as I should have) I began to resent the intrusion into my private life and those in the audience who only came to hear the hits.
If you’re reading this and thinking ‘you arrogant, egotistical, petulant bastard’ I don’t blame you. I realise many people would kill to have even a modicum of the success and recognition I enjoyed, but enjoyment was not what I was feeling. To some extent fame is Faustian deal for anyone and for me it became a private hell.
As a songwriter I was used to being the observer, now I had become the observed. And — as I intimated before — I didn’t have the maturity to accept and cultivate the role of pop icon or protest singer or whatever I was expected to be. More crucially, I didn’t have the desire.
I just wanted to be left alone to write songs and make records and I began to realise that was never going to happen — at least not on my terms. So I quit.
No great epiphany took place. I had no mind snap or breakdown. Nothing dramatic happened at all really. It was just one sunny, suburban afternoon when, after taking a phone call about a cancelled booking, I realised how glad I was and at that moment I knew I was over it.
I remember telling the woman who was to become my second wife I didn’t want to do it anymore and she was patently delighted.
That was all the affirmation I needed.
The fact that the disco era walked in the door as I walked out was a mercy for everyone, since I’m sure my record company would’ve insisted I put on tight white sparkly clothing and sing in falsetto in order to ride the new wave. Can you imagine? Thank goodness we were all spared that. I already have enough embarrassing images of myself longhaired, bearded, bespectacled in the 70s to live with thank you.
Truth be told I hadn’t really intended to stay away from recording for so long, it’s just that life intervened with other distractions and I never found my way back.
In the late 70s I wandered back into advertising, which was still lots of fun at that time and in a deliberate search for anonymity, moved to Australia in 1981. I continued to write songs for various publishers without any great success. They kept insisting I had to get back into performing and I kept resisting.
In the 80s, at the request of my music publishers, who paid for it, I released an album called ‘Short Stories’ showcasing some of my newer songs. But I put no great enthusiasm behind it even though, looking back now, it did contain some good work.
In the late 80s I started my own ad agency in Sydney and that became all engrossing as running your own business tends to do.
And that was my life more or less until 2005.
Then, perhaps inevitably, I became bored with advertising and made the necessary life changes to set myself free to write, paint and record music again.
I have no illusions that any of these less certain creative pursuits will prove wildly successful, but I’m driven to do what I do. Especially the music since, as a songwriter, I feel I have unfinished business.
But the big question is: Where and how might I fit in this new world?
Popular music has changed hugely. If you believe the record companies it’s now all about prepubescent teenagers, BIG ACTS and instant stardom.
Rap and Hip Hop while popular, energetic, and steeped in ‘street cred’ aren’t exactly producing the type of songs anyone will be humming in 30 years time, which is what I try to do.Everything seems disposable. Especially the artists.
Reality TV produces Pop Idols who find overnight fame or notoriety. But more often than not their careers go Pop and they end up idle. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that).
As for radio play — as far as I can tell the radio stations that do play music either play Top 40 or songs from yesteryear. The few that do break new music are really only interested in young artists. And given the average age of their audience who can blame them?
As well, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, it seems to me music has long since taken a back seat to the vacuous banter of ‘crews’ of comedians on most radio stations. Significantly, I rarely, if ever, hear the artists I most enjoy on air.
Meanwhile, the exponential growth of Internet downloads and iPods is impossible to ignore.
The early signs were that the Internet was only ever going to be a conduit for pirated music and free downloads so the concept of intellectual property and royalties would be rendered a thing of the past. This coupled with the fact that CDs can be copied at a brilliant level of quality seemed to signal the end for anyone hoping to make a living from writing, recording and releasing songs.
However, even as the record companies and music publishers were embroiled in lawsuits against music piracy of various sorts, it became obvious that many artists and their fans were evolving new and more direct relationships online.
It was this last trend that got my attention. Perhaps this was my way back into music. Perhaps I could build a website like a gallery where I could hold exhibitions and people could come in browse and if they liked anything they heard, might buy it and tell their friends. Perhaps through the cyber world I could begin a dialogue with people who liked my work. If it all went well, I might even get out and perform again.
Wouldn’t that be exciting?
So I’ve taken the plunge, built a website and compiled my first CD for release in May. It’s called JUST QUIETLY, which, as the name would suggest, is comprised of more intimate songs. These are intended to reach your head and heart. The foot tapping songs will come later on other CDs. Stay tuned.
I used to be John Hanlon, I’m now: johnhanlon.com.au
Please tell everyone you know.
John Hanlon, Sydney, March 2009.