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Zed: renegade fighters - part one


Zed gained nationwide media attention in 1996 when music business veteran Ray Columbus announced that these talented Christchurch teenagers had been signed to a song publishing deal with Warner-Chappell. Columbus then managed the young band as it saturated the airwaves and music video channels with hits such as ‘Glorafilia’ and ‘Renegade Fighter’. The machinations of seeking to repeat its local success in foreign lands proved difficult and soul-destroying.

The three Cashmere High School students were Ben Campbell, Nathan King, and Adrian Palmer. They formed a band that was briefly known as Supra before changing to Zed. 

“They found me,” Columbus told NZ Business Times in 2001. “Ben Campbell, the bass player, is my godson. His father Arch has been one of my best mates and a songwriter. He kept hassling me about them in early 1996. I had never heard the group and only seen Ben fleetingly. But I finally arranged a session. I stayed away from the creative process totally, but put them in with a very good engineer. They recorded a demo with 17 songs. I was blown away. There wasn’t a dud song on the tape. So we started to talk and by September 1996 I had signed them up. Two days later I flew to Australia and got them a worldwide publishing deal with a five-figure advance from Warner-Chappell Publishing.”

Nathan King (guitar, vocals) and Adrian Palmer (drummer) finished secondary school that year but Ben Campbell had two years to go. It was decided that they would record singles and make videos but not play the pub-circuit until they had all finished school.

Campbell recalled the genesis of their first single ‘Oh Daisy’ to AudioCulture: “I wrote and submitted it for my high-school music composition in sixth form. The track was definitely mixed and video completed while I was still at school.” He left Cashmere High School at the end of 1998 and ‘Oh! Daisy’ debuted on the New Zealand singles chart on 10 January 1999. It stayed on the charts for 10 weeks and peaked at No.15.

Universal 

When Columbus took Zed to Universal Music Group, the company was the new kid on the block. General manager George Ash had only opened its first New Zealand branch, as MCA, in October 1995; the following year its name changed to Universal. 

When Universal’s parent company Seagram purchased PolyGram in 1998, it became the biggest kid on the block. Universal took over in 1999 and its Auckland staff had to move from their small Ponsonby Road office (above Santos Café) to the sprawling PolyGram offices on Mt Eden Road. Zed had been on the verge on signing with PolyGram but ultimately ended up signing with Universal.

The first recordings made by Zed were on their own label GMH: “Grievous Musical Harm” – “That was Ray’s idea, we loved it,” says King. After three singles the band signed directly to Universal, to formalise the business relationship and to gain a budget to record their first album. Columbus liked working with Ash’s now super-sized Universal Music NZ. “With their hard work and enthusiasm it’s been like dealing with a fired-up little independent in many ways,” he told Billboard in 2001. King liked the fact that Ash let him drive his Audi S8.

Silencer

Zed began 2000 playing The Big Day Out at Auckland’s Ericsson Stadium. Guitarist Andy Lynch joined Zed in April, weeks before the recording of Silencer, the band’s debut album. (Lynch is the son of singer Suzanne Lynch, who was managed by Columbus in the early 70s.)  

David Nicholas, a longtime engineer and occasional producer, was brought in from Australia to record Silencer. In the 1980s, as engineer at Sydney’s Rhinoceros studio, Nicholas recorded albums such as INXS’s Kick and Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining. In the 1990s he worked in London as a recording engineer with top producers such as Chris Thomas and Chris Kimsey on acts such as Elton John, Sting and Pulp, or as a producer himself.   

The rhythm tracks and vocals for Silencer were recorded at Revolver Studios in Auckland, and some overdubs and mixing took place at Mangrove Studios, north of Sydney.

Silencer was released on 27 August 2000 and by the end of the year the album had sold triple platinum (45,000 units). ‘Renegade Fighter’ was the top charting single of the year. 

Zed began 2001 playing a New Year’s Eve concert in Paihia and in January they played the all-important Big Day Out with a line-up that included Limp Bizkit, Rammstein, PJ Harvey, Coldplay, and Queens of the Stone Age. “Chris Martin, the lead singer from Coldplay, watched our set from backstage at Big Day Out over summer but we didn’t know,” recalls Campbell. Later that year Zed opened for Coldplay on its Australia and New Zealand tour.

Late in 2001 Zed opened for Coldplay on its Australia and New Zealand tour.

In February, Zed headlined a seven-date New Zealand tour of indoor venues such as sports stadiums and town halls. Playing venues bigger than licensed rock bars was ambitious, but they had the advantage of being all-ages venues, suitable for teenage fans.

The band then flew to Bangkok to perform at the Universal Music International’s Asia-Pacific region marketing conference (February 12-16). The company’s executives met to prioritise the promotion of the acts in the region: primarily acts from the US and the UK, but named as promising “outsiders” in Billboard magazine were “Germany’s Rammstein, France’s Alessandro Safina, and Zed from New Zealand.”

Zed’s attendance at this Bangkok conference caused the organisers of the Summer Hummer tour – which Zed was headlining – to move their Masterton show by a week. The prior year, with The Feelers headlining, the Summer Hummer tour drew 10,000 punters in Masterton. The ticket price for Zed was a family-friendly $2. On the day of the concert Campbell explained the postponement to the Wairarapa Times-Age: “The conference was a really big deal for us, a foot in the door for the rest of the world.” 

In March, Zed performed at the inaugural Summer Jam concerts presented by The Edge, a youth radio network then based in Hamilton. As the network was not yet broadcasting in Auckland, the concerts were in Christchurch, Wellington and Hamilton. The line-up was Zed, Stellar*, Breathe, Garageland, and Killing Heidi (from Australia).  

Later in March, Zed was one of the support acts when Bon Jovi played a charity show to raise funds for flood-stricken Australian farmers. The Universal Appeal concert at the Colonial Stadium, Melbourne, was attended by 34,000 people. (Other support acts were Grinspoon, The Mavis’s, and Primary.) 

Zed’s e-mail newsletter said that the band “started the show at 5pm – 15 minutes of fame to open the Aussie campaign. Just four songs: ‘Unseen’ being the first live track Zed played on Aussie soil, ‘Driver’s Side’, ‘Oh! Daisy’ and ‘Renegade Fighter’. We even sold some t-shirts.” The band then flew to Sydney to do two days of media and a music industry showcase concert at Bar Broadway in the CBD. 

The band’s debut album Silencer was reviewed by Bob Gordon in the May 2001 issue of Australian Rolling Stone magazine: “Songs such as the driving ‘Renegade Fighter’ and the poppier ‘Oh! Daisy’ are rousing yet agreeable in the New Zealand rock tradition – and a steady-handed approach to balladry is depicted on ‘Come On Down’, ‘He’s Sad’ and ‘Don’t You Wish’. There’s nothing new on offer at all, but at least it’s fresh.”

‘Renegade Fighter’ achieved a high rotate on Australia’s Triple J nationwide youth radio network, but the track did not get significant play on the Top 40 radio stations and none on the powerful Triple M. 

Australia chose to issue Silencer in a different cover and drop ‘Glorafilia’ as a single in favour of ‘Driver’s Side’. “They shelved ‘Glorafilia’ which was a more obvious hit in our minds,” recalls King. “It’s little decisions like that make you wonder whether things would have turned out differently. ‘Driver’s Side’ was a Blur-influenced track – the guitar riff being similar to a track off Leisure. We were big fans of theirs at the time.”

After the Australian showcases, Zed returned to New Zealand for bookings best suited to the Southern man: the Embassy in Invercargill, and Carisbrook Park, Dunedin – often called “The House Of Pain”. Both cities were freezing and at Carisbrook, Zed performed for the first time in big jackets – except drummer Palmer, who had work to do. The headliners were Super 12 rugby teams The Highlanders and The Waratahs. 

Full Monty deal

In 2001, for Real Groove magazine, I interviewed Ray Columbus about his career in the 1960s and his time in the US. Inevitably our conversation drifted into his passion at the time, managing Zed. The band’s success in New Zealand had been sweet but he was focused on something bigger: the United States market. He and Zed had just attended the Universal Music conference in Bangkok and met with UMG staff from the US, Europe and other territories. By that stage Zed was well advanced in the process of signing with Interscope, the UMG label helmed by Jimmy Iovine. 

“I’ve been so careful with Zed,” said Columbus. “The undertaking we’ve got from Interscope is that they’ll do the ‘full monty’ – full release, album and singles – no test marketing.”

When Columbus refers to “test marketing” he is referring to the so-called release in the US of his song ‘Till We Kissed’ (1965), when radio stations in only two cities were supplied with his single, to see if it worked in that region. The record was also released in only two cities, one being San Bernadino. “When I found out how the American system worked I was determined never ever to let a New Zealand act I was involved with get treated like that.”

“I always had a passion for America, I still have,” he said. “My one un-achieved goal in life is to be part of a smash hit in America. It didn’t have to be whether I wrote it, sang it, played it or managed it. That’s the passion with Zed.

“New Zealand is such a small market a manager cannot earn a living. With Zed the whole dream was to be an international band. I did not want them to be a pub band touring around forever. America was always the target.”

American Pie

In May 2001, Zed performed two key showcase gigs for record label executives from Interscope in Los Angeles, and Universal in London. On May 23 they played the infamous Viper Room (then owned by Johnny Depp) on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood; six days later they played at the Water Rats Club in London.

In 2001 Zed played the infamous Viper Room, owned by Johnny Depp, in Hollywood

Before the trip the ZM network ran a competition for two Zed fans to travel to Los Angeles and see the band perform at the Viper Room. At the gig, there were also five expats from Santa Barbara plus, as cheerleaders, Auckland celebrities Sally Ridge and model Nicky Watson.

The NZ Herald’s Yvette Adams described the scene in the hours before the gig: Zed basking “in the sun by the pool of their Hollywood hotel, while Bob Marley blares out of dreadlocked guitarist Andy Lynch’s room, they look more like Kiwi surfies in Whangamata than up-and-coming rock stars.” 

Campbell recalls the Viper Room showcase being a “nightmare” as “none of our gear worked due to the different voltage in the US.”

King recalls Jimmy Iovine being at the Viper Room: “Yes, he was a shadowy figure at the back of the room. Those showcase gigs are always a strange affair as you’re getting up to try and impress some ‘seen it all before’ industry types with their arms folded at the back of the room. We had a bunch of technical issues as we hopped onstage for the Viper Room gig. We were fairly young and inexperienced. We just got up and did our own thing and it seemed to work – or so we thought.”

After the London showcase, Zed had some time off to explore Europe. It was mid-June; from 30°C in Italy they returned to a New Zealand winter. In Christchurch on 25 July – performing as “Supra”, their early band name – they road-tested some new songs at Dux De Lux, where they had first played four years earlier. Approximately 300 drinking-age fans packed into the venue and Zed received a warm, rowdy hometown welcome. The band then played a charity gig for Cure Kids in Queenstown and the musicians were rewarded with three days of snowboarding.

Billboard, The Biz 

Meanwhile, on July 1 at Zed’s record label, Universal Music New Zealand, there had been a changing of the guard. George Ash moved to Australia and Adam Holt came in as the New Zealand general manager. White at Polydor Australia, Holt had been involved in OMC’s world conquest and he had juggled sizeable local A&R budgets, so he was well suited to oversee Zed at the label. 

A news story in Billboard announced a July release for ‘Renegade Fighter’ in Germany on the Motor Music label, and in the Netherlands on Mercury. The article quotes Martin Kierszenbaum, Interscope’s VP of International, saying he was struck by the band’s songwriting and arranging abilities during a visit to New Zealand the previous year. 

The Billboard article reported the band’s success at New Zealand radio and retail, which led to over 60,000 sales of Silencer. Terry Anderson of The Warehouse chain – then New Zealand’s biggest music retailer – says he learnt Zed’s appeal extended beyond teens when the band played to his 150 store managers. “The managers, who were in their 40s, cheered and scrambled for photo opportunities with the act. Knowing these guys were extra-hot property, we shipped gold [7500 units] on day one.”   

Zed gained its first US soundtrack placement when ‘Renegade Fighter’ was in the movie American Pie 2, though it did not appear on the 15-song soundtrack album released in the US. (Bic Runga, a fellow ex-Cashmere High student, had her song ‘Sway’ featured the first American Pie movie and on the soundtrack album worldwide.) In Australia and New Zealand, Universal added the Zed track and ‘Perfect’ by Australian act Crash Palace to the local soundtrack CD. 

Universal Australia was firmly behind Zed: they released the new single ‘Driver’s Side’ on 23 July and the first 3,000 copies came with a free Zed key ring.  

Coldplay

When Coldplay returned to do theatre shows in August 2001, Zed scored the support slot in a tour of Australia, which concluded with a concert at Auckland’s St James Theatre.

A regular e-mail newsletter sent out to fans from Zedquarters.com sometimes included “Age’s News from the Road”. On the Coldplay tour of Australia, drummer Adrian “Age” Palmer wrote: “Everything is going really well, we are being well looked after – we get a good rider, dinner, 40min set, Coldplay’s lighting guy, full PA, decent sound checks and a free Coldplay concert every night! Couldn't be better. We’re eating our dessert first with this tour! We have had some near nightmares though – Customs Oz nearly impounded all our gear, they let us through at the last minute just coz we looked so honest!” 

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Zed: Renegade Fighters continues with part two

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