In 1981, Peter Blake took over the producer role for Ready to Roll and Radio with Pictures and continued to produce local clips and concert coverage of original New Zealand artists. “Yes, there were success stories and some not so. We did have budget constraints, limited technology and time to devote to clips, but I do believe that this sowed the seeds for more awareness and confidence in original Kiwi music.”
The year 1981 was pivotal in several respects. The music industry, already goaded by the Muldoon government’s inflammatory refusal to back down over the sales tax controversy the year before, was further politicised by the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, as was the rest of the country. Many performers used their music to address social and political issues that had been previously ignored in New Zealand popular culture, contributing to a dialogue about the state of the nation (examples from 1981 alone include Blam Blam Blam’s ‘There is No Depression in New Zealand’, The Newmatics’ ‘Riot Squad’, Herbs’ ‘Azania’ and Deane Waretini’s ‘The Bridge’, each of which was promoted by an appearance or video clip featuring on one of Blake’s television programmes).
In the same year, Flying Nun issued its first releases in Christchurch, joining other independent labels such as Propeller and Ripper in Auckland in nurturing original, independent New Zealand music. Blake’s edict that television take a leading role in promoting original New Zealand music helped artists on these independent labels reach a nationwide audience.
Blake not only provided a vehicle for original New Zealand to be broadcast, but he also had an active role in producing it. As a musician himself, he knew how vital sound quality was to the success of a performer’s television appearance. Inexperienced bands often didn’t know how to get the best out of their equipment in a television studio setting. Music shows also didn’t have audio engineers specialising in music working on them; although many of the technicians assigned to the music shows were highly experienced and skilled, some were more comfortable handling sound for the nightly news or for nature documentaries than for rock groups. Shifting rosters meant these music shows weren’t necessarily staffed by the same technicians from week to week either.
To help ensure sound quality, Blake acted as producer for many of the bands that appeared on these music shows. Often, this included producing studio recordings for bands that would appear on one of the music shows that week, and from time to time he’d sit in on keyboards at these sessions too: “In conjunction with my own recording experience, I attended a few record-producer courses, one was with US producer Jay Lewis and another with Roy Thomas Baker, who was Queen’s producer. I started producing records on my day off, being Sunday in Wellington. The motivation was really to help a little bit and get some of these bands sorted so that there was a quality-sounding recording which could then be used as the basis of a clip.
“There was a label in Wellington at the time called Bunk Records run by a guy called Mike Alexander. He would take some of the recordings and distribute them as singles for the respective bands. One example there would be Wellington guitar three-piece punk band The Steroids, a band who, after popping some synth on their track, got me playing live with them a couple of times. [Blake laughs] I was sure I would collect a beer bottle on stage. Alan Jansson was the guitarist/writer who went on to be one of Auckland’s top record producers, recording OMC’s massive hit ‘How Bizarre’.
“The Steroids morphed from guitar punk to the synth electronica of The Body Electric, for whom we also made videos. Others included The Mockers, Phil Judd and Dunedin group The Knobz. Their song ‘Culture?’ was a dig at the then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s sales tax on music. I slapped a Muldoon voice impersonator on the recording which worked well with the message of the song. After our video played, the record received a lot of radio airplay and charted. As the industry and recording standards developed, I left it to the experts but I was trying to get some order into it from the audio side of things.”
Another vital innovation of Blake’s was the Live at Mainstreet series of concerts featured on Radio with Pictures: “In the 1980s Mainstreet was the largest live-performance club venue in Auckland, being in upper Queen St. While working in conjunction with promoters, I would decide on two professional-level bands such as DD Smash, Coconut Rough, [and] Hello Sailor who would give great performances. We would organise and publicise their public concert at the venue, covering it with our multi-cam outside broadcast gear. This included cams, additional television lighting and outside van with director and technical etc.
“It was imperative from my point of view that we would get the best sound quality possible. So, rather than just record it through TVNZ channels, we would incorporate an independent Auckland recording studio who would multitrack the live sound. They would then mix sound back at their studios to the highest possible quality, sometimes in conjunction with the bands’ record producers. We would take that final stereo mix and transfer it back to video, which is what ended up going out on air.
“But there was more to it. The bands’ record companies would release the audio mix as a series of live albums called Live at Mainstreet. Further, in those days television audio was transmitted in mono, but the question was how to transmit our audio in stereo? I set up what I believe to be New Zealand’s first stereo radio simulcasts. So on the night the live concert screened on RWP, it could be heard in synch on FM radio stations around the country. That led to cross-promotion beneficial to all parties including the bands. And, importantly, the viewer benefitted from quality stereo sound. Over the series’ history, there were other concerts covered in locations such as the Christchurch Town Hall, Wellington’s St James Theatre, Auckland’s Town Hall and the Sweetwaters music festivals. The beauty of the Mainstreet series was that the bands had more control over their final recorded sound.”
The organisation of the Mainstreet series required skilful corralling of bands, technicians, management, record labels, promoters, and additional broadcasters. Blake managed to foster cooperative, collaborative working environments in an otherwise cut-throat industry by pressing points of mutual interest: “It was really a reciprocal situation. TV was getting great sound at no cost for our broadcast, a ton of radio cross-promotion and industry association kudos.” The bands and labels emerged with an album fit for release and invaluable free publicity.
As music television impresario, Blake had to juggle the responsibilities of state-owned public service television with the commercial demands of record labels, bands, and managers. This made programming the playlists of the music television shows a highly politicised process.
“In the first few years producing all shows, I formulated the playlists. As more series came to be, I passed RWP onto then-director, Brent Hansen. I took an executive producer RWP role. As far as RTR was concerned, the programme was top-100-singles chart based. It was a simple formula: No.1 at the end of the programme, two or three others from the top 20, a couple of new releases, hit picks or high-fliers – meaning tunes likely to chart – and where possible a New Zealand video. The featured new releases were selected from a number of criteria: the tune, the video entertainment quality, their track record internationally and the record company lobby; are they promoting heavily? Also the nature of the tune: did it provide variety with the other programme content?
“The series became a hit machine in the 1980s, regularly rating one million-plus viewers. It sparred with the mid-evening news for the number one slot. New releases were instant hits the following week. Pop radio followed it religiously, adding the new tracks. I would inform them of the content three days before the show screened, and content was normally added to their high rotate playlist there and then.
“Nearly all videos were despatched to us on arrival at the New Zealand record companies. We would assess and hold until release dates of records and we did not pay for them. They were regarded as promotional material thus there was intense lobbying to me and, later, Brent Hansen, director Simon Morris and RWP presenter Karyn Hay, about screenings. It was common to arrive at work to a backlog of phone calls on hold from company executives with their priority play lists and hype strategies. As volume of clips picked up, we couldn’t screen them all, especially in the pop genre. Hence, I started new series RTR Video Releases, which covered the overflow from RTR; Heartbeat City covered the area between RTR and RWP, and 12 O’Clock Rock covered international concerts. This was introduced by Gary McCormick and simulcast in stereo.
“But the approaches were mainly from the bands, tour promoters or management which over time got more professional. In my opinion the greatest band manager in New Zealand was a guy called Charley Gray. I’ll never forget him; he was arrogant, obnoxious, aggressive and that was unusual as most people were too damn nice – maybe band leader Russell Crowe wasn’t. I remember Charley stormed down from Auckland insisting that I be at my desk at a certain time, slammed down a publicity kit including info booklet, professional photos and final mix tapes of a new band he was managing, telling me they would be New Zealand’s greatest. Initially I thought ‘this Pom is really a pain in the a---’. I played the tapes and couldn’t believe the music: ‘OK, Charley, we’re sold’. The band was Th’ Dudes. We immediately launched into making a number of videos for them including the Barbara Gascoigne-directed ‘Walking In Light’ and shot some live concerts. They were very much part of our early stable of artists, and the rest is history, of course.”
In the hopes of appearing on one of Blake’s music shows, bands sent in demo cassettes. It was Blake’s job to mine these tapes in search of a gem that might warrant the arrangement of a live appearance or the production of a video clip. By the early 1980s, he was “being inundated with cassette tapes from prospective bands with hundreds of fairly unpalatable punk/new wave songs where you couldn’t even hear the singer let alone decipher a lyric. Many songs sounded the same and were often based around the same three chords – what was one to do? You’d listen to the whole tape and try to find some semblance of order in one track or a melody or hook that would render the song interesting for television.
“Some would come via record companies and some via band management and promoters who were growing in numbers – a lot came directly from the bands. The late 70s and early 80s spawned a lot of punk music so you would end up with a cassette of about 100 demo songs to wade through.”
Once a gem was unearthed, bands were brought to Avalon to shoot a clip, either a “live” performance (usually mimed) or a conceptual video. Funding for these shoots came completely from TVNZ rather than from the bands’ record labels.
“Funding for video or film clips came from the programme’s budgets. Often for Avalon-based video studio clip productions, I would tie-in with bands’ tour dates to save on travel costs. This in turn generated publicity for their tour coupled with plugs on our tour news section. In most cases, we would pay a performance fee – minimal, but it helped the group or artist with personal costs. Film clips were shot on location, often in the four main centres.”
Blake didn’t just wait for tapes to arrive on his desk. He also went out on scouting missions to secure emerging talent. Few needed much persuasion to lure them to the Avalon studios. “I think most bands aspired to appear on the shows as it was obviously a promotional vehicle for them. They made the approach in some instances. Having said that, if there was a band in town or indeed in another city I was visiting on biz, I would check them out. I remember going to the Rock Theatre, an alternative venue in Wellington, and seeing Toy Love, who we videotaped in-concert there. The support band was a Wellington all-girl group named the Wide Mouthed Frogs. An all-girl band was virtually unheard-of in the 70s, and I thought ‘what an opportunity’. They were not that musically experienced, so it meant producing a recording at Avalon’s sound studio that could eventually be mimed to. It was a long day and all members insisted on playing their own instruments – still they eventually got it together. The lead singer of that band was Jenny Morris and this track was her first television appearance.”
By the mid-1980s, an increasing amount of independently produced videos began reaching Blake. Inspired by the opportunity to be broadcast nationally, many bands teamed up with budding filmmakers to make videos complementing their songs. Some of these, by the likes of Fane Flaws, Chris Knox, and Stuart Page, became New Zealand’s finest music videos. At first, the amount of these videos arriving at Avalon was “very sparse but they did build a little, and we loved it. This harked back to my original vision of moving away from cover versions. I just wish it had happened faster but as I said earlier, I knew it was going to be a long process. I wasn’t sure it was even going to happen in my tenure at TVNZ producing.”
More international music videos flooded in too, thanks mainly to the influence of MTV, which began airing in 1981. Unlike on radio, on television New Zealand artists were playlisted alongside the hippest international acts. “We took care to showcase as many New Zealand artists as possible. I think it’s fair to say there were more suitable for RWP than for RTR, simply because that was where the majority of local recorded music existed at the time. As I alluded to earlier on, there wasn’t a burgeoning original pop market. So there was balance from week to week, and it was nice to get our quota of local content on, sometimes we succeeded and sometimes we didn’t.” Despite intense lobbying from record labels, many of which were multi-nationals more concerned with promoting international rather than local acts, Blake ensured New Zealand artists got exposure. According to Radio with Pictures producer Brent Hansen – who became head of MTV Europe – Blake “is a very fair-minded, thoughtful fellow and he was trying to make sure that the greatest possible breadth of New Zealand music got an opportunity.”
The TVNZ Rock Unit office was open plan, with grunty stereo, and walls papered with posters and obnoxious viewers’ letters.
The music television team was free to make these programming decisions, as it operated independently of the rest of TVNZ. Blake himself never graduated to the echelons of the TVNZ “establishment”; despite his prominent producing role and expansive responsibilities, he preferred to stay on annual contracts rather than being a permanent staff member. This helped his shows retain an independent flavour distinct from the rest of TVNZ. “One of the nice aspects of our era was that we were left to our own devices by management. They labelled us the Rock Unit and hardly ventured into our office area which bore no resemblance to other departments: open plan, grunty stereo, walls papered with posters and obnoxious viewers’ letters from the various audience factions.
“I think it’s fair to say we were a little anti-establishment and were left alone, apart from at budget time when I had to interface with somebody upstairs to get some more loot or if we had a legal or censorship issue. My relationship with management was excellent, however, so there was always support when needed. So there was great team spirit in the office and most who worked in it were passionate about our output. That spirit carried over to rostered services like camera people, lighting, graphics, vision, sound, sets etc. The shows were youthful, hip and influential therefore young crews wanted to be involved. We could have been on Mars, I think in the early days some were [laughs]. That was one of the great things about it: we could almost do whatever we liked.”
The greatest interference to these shows came not from the TVNZ suits but from the music video providers themselves. In the winter of 1986, an embargo on music videos was imposed, stripping TVNZ’s music shows of all of their content. “The New Zealand recording industry association, then titled Phonographic Performances and headed by Tony Chance, decided that TVNZ should pay for international music videos. TVNZ management disagreed and took the view that they were promotional vehicles, as did every other television company in the world at that time, to my knowledge. For the record: I agreed. An impasse ensued and all clip shows were taken off air.”
Even though he had no part in the negotiations and was in the dark about their progress, Blake was promoted as the TVNZ spokesperson on the nightly news, a position Blake admits “felt odd”. Videos remained off the air until December 1986, during which time Blake produced a new music show, True Colours, which leant on live studio appearances by local musicians and interviews with overseas stars. Only seven of 10 planned episodes aired before that too was removed. By 1987, videos were restored, as were shows like Radio with Pictures and Ready to Roll, but according to Blake “the loss of momentum to my production team was damaging. We were a very well-oiled machine up to that point and were all believers, music enthusiasts, and passionate about our work which the companies respected. Perhaps we were nearing the end of our tenure, who knows? The series never really returned to their former selves. [Producer] Brent Hansen headed to MTV, [video director] Simon Morris hung in for a while and I left in 1987 to pursue a career composing music for television, docos, dramas and themes.”
Blake left behind him a much more visible and healthy local music scene than that of the 1970s, for which he can take some credit, even if he’s unwilling to go so far as to claim it: “As well as to provide viewer entertainment my goal was to increase awareness and acceptance of local music and to encourage growth in the local music industry so that original artists would flourish. Did we achieve that? I’ll leave that for someone else to answer but I like to think it did help.”