Colbert was in the eye of the storm that was the Dunedin Sound, being a conduit between the artist and the audience through his legendary second hand record store, Records Records. This, coupled with his career covering local, national, and often overseas musicians has seen him gain the reputation as the Godfather of the Dunedin Sound, though he disagrees with this title.
Roy Colbert is a Dunedin lad, with a huge love of music and sport. While an avid cricket and competition level table-tennis player (he played for Otago in the 60s), music was a huge factor in his life, though his first gig wasn’t The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones at the Dunedin Town Hall – it was Herman’s Hermits, a triple bill with Tom Jones and Ray Columbus and The Invaders. His writing career began at high school with sport, and then music, reporting, and later he was the music and sport editor for Critic, the Otago University Student Association magazine.
This led to a long period writing the music column for Dunedin newspaper The Evening Star. “I just went to The Star and said I’d organise it all if you want to have a music column,” he explained. “So I did that until The Star stopped in 1979. And from that came a whole lot of magazines.”
In the late 1960s, Colbert corresponded with Erika Von Kessler, a close friend of the Mamas and Papas, who answered their fan mail. This gave Colbert information and news on the Laurel Canyon and LA music scenes, which he, understandably, describes as magic. This news from LA gave him an edge on other writers, who were waiting for freighted copies of Rolling Stone and NME to arrive here months later.
In 1971 a new, initially temporary, venture began for Colbert: A record shop. “My girlfriend and I were looking for somewhere to live, and we wanted to live right in the middle of town,” he says. They moved into the upstairs apartment in the Stuart Street terraced houses, which had a spare room that they used as a shop. “We thought ‘what can we sell’, and I had like two million records. It was kind of a hippie shop – we had beads, rolling papers, we had posters all ‘round the walls. It grew into something much bigger, but it was again – like writing, pretty accidental. We thought, maybe six months, give it a try." The shop in question, (originally called Roy’s by his customers, before being briefly coined Astral Weeks) grew into Records Records, a haven for lovers of music old and new, and a great place to go to find obscure or forgotten titles.
Records Records was the Dunedin distributor for Flying Nun material, and on any given day in the store you could find yourself in the company of local musicians, from the up-and-coming, to the likes of Martin Phillipps or Graeme Downes. Colbert continued Records Records until 2005 when ill health (which led to a kidney transplant) meant he sold the business. Sadly, the shop closed permanently in 2010.
Colbert was central to the Dunedin Sound, selling material by the artists involved, as well as championing them in the press.
Colbert was central to the Dunedin Sound, selling material by the artists involved, as well as championing them in the press. The period around the recording known as the Dunedin Double (real title The Verlaines, The Stones, The Chills, The Sneaky Feelings, Flying Nun, 1982) was a fertile time for local musicians and Colbert knew many them all, as they frequently visited his store, and his house, watching early 80s rock videos. Colbert modestly downplayed his, and Records Records’, significance during this time, saying, “I think the shop was probably important, but that doesn’t reflect on me ... I just sat there in a chair. I got far more recognition than I deserved for that.” Colbert’s knowledge of Dunedin music was showcased in his liner notes for the comprehensive retrospective of Dunedin music and musicians, But I can Write Songs OK: 40 Years of Dunedin Music (Yellow Eye, 1996).
Colbert’s writing for various publications, including The Listener, The Sunday Star Times, and The Cut, continued throughout his career as shop-owner, and he has met some infamous musicians and artists during this time. Among the many well-known local and international names, there are some stories that stand out, like David Bowie being unable to work a toaster. Colbert has some fascinating tales to tell, including the one about how he attended a party (in purple flares), and wrote about Led Zeppelin for Rolling Stone, when Led Zeppelin had boycotted the magazine after a bad review. Another tale he vividly recalls is Lou Reed’s 1975 press conference at Wain’s Hotel in Dunedin. Reed insulted everyone present (including Colbert), leading to a mass walk-out of journalists, with only Colbert and Jim Mora staying until the end. Colbert remembers Reed as “a prick, but he’s fascinating,” adding “he had a big bible, a pharmacology Bible, he’s just obsessed with drugs ... it was kind of fascinating!”
He credits two things for these opportunities. “I was lucky being in Dunedin,” he says. “No-one else kind of wanted to meet them, or maybe one other person. Occasionally I’d have to go to Auckland … I’d be in a press conference with a semi-circle of people from radio stations. I was just one little voice in that room. I also got to help the promoters. You help the promoters; you’re giving them free ads, so they all considered me a friend.”
Since selling Records Records in 2005, Colbert has been quietly busy, writing a regular column for the Otago Daily Times, essentially a comedic diary, though often wandering in the areas of sport and music. While he thinks there is enough machinery around the local music scene (the University’s rock course, Albany Street Studios, Dunedinmusic.com), he also considers “you’re never ever going to get Shayne Carter, Martin Phillipps, Peter Gutteridge, Graeme Downes, Robert Scott, David Kilgour, all those people at the same time ... that wasn’t created by some brilliant thinking on someone’s part, or great venues or whatever, it’s just an accident.” He’s still the best person to talk to about the Dunedin Sound.