Lake describes himself as having “parallel careers”. As well as a dedicated songwriter, guitarist and band leader since the late 1960s, Lake has been a scholar – of Mississippi country blues, and of philosophy. His PhD on Wittgenstein has been a lifelong project, so too has writing songs about characters that are unmistakeably from Wellington – as are the musical settings.
While never abandoned, Lake’s studies in philosophy have played second fiddle to his becoming a musician. In the words of Little Feat – a huge influence on his work – he has “two degrees in bebop, a PhD in swing”.
Born in Canberra, Lake was 19 when he arrived in Wellington with his guitar and a box of blues records. Avoiding the draft in Australia – at the height of the Vietnam War – wasn’t the reason for emigrating but an unintentional bonus.
He soon met Rick Bryant and the Rashbrooke brothers, Geoff and Mike, who recognised a fellow soul mate. They formed the first version of the Windy City Strugglers, a jug band that would still be playing into the 2010s. Their debut was at the 1968 Wellington Folk Festival, which Bryant has remembered – with a chortle – as a pivotal moment when “going electric” was anathema to folk purists.
“We were trying to play authentic country blues and at that time it wasn't common,” Lake recalled in 2018. “We had a pretty primitive sound. We played university arts festivals and folk festivals. We were extremely shambolic. We played multiple instruments, so we had a pile of instruments in the middle of the floor and whenever we changed songs, we had to go to the pile and find whatever instrument we supposed to be playing.”
Another group Lake played with in the late 1960s was The Original Sin, a vehicle for grungier, Pretty Things-style garage R&B in which Bryant and Simon Morris were prominent. This evolved into Mammal, a large, loose combo of the early 70s featuring Robert Taylor (later of Dragon) and Tony Backhouse (later in The Crocodiles, and then a master of a capella singing).
A brief stint in the Red Hot Peppers was followed, in the early 80s, by two bands led by Lake. The Ducks and The Pelicans performed Lake’s original songs, often written in partnership with lyricist Arthur Baysting. The Pelicans featured a horn section and released two albums, Eight Duck Treasure (with its standout track, the Muldoon-era ‘Banana Dominion’) and Krazy Legs. After The Pelicans came Bill Lake and the Living Daylights, in which Lake shared – for the first year – the frontman role with singer Ra Te Whaiti.
The Windy City Strugglers was revived briefly in the mid 70s, and again in the late 80s at the time Bryant and Lake recorded We’re in the Same Boat Brother (Eelman cassette, 1990). The full band once again featured pianist Geoff Rashbrooke, bassist Nick Bollinger and harmonica player Andrew Delahunty. The Strugglers’ first album wouldn’t be released until late in the 1990s and regular gigs and five albums appeared over the next decade. This activity culminated in Costa Botes’s 2006 documentary Struggle No More.
Lake has released two solo albums. Home Truths, from 1996, displayed his melodic skills and acoustic guitar playing, combined with Baysting’s everyman lyrics. Rip It Up’s review said it was a collection of songs “worthy of the influences which infiltrate its Pacific blues sound”. A standout was the soulful ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, “which could be a lost, heartbreaking gem from Arthur Alexander.”
Fifty years after his arrival in Wellington, Lake released a second solo album, As Is Where Is. Intimately recorded in Lake’s living room, it features a small combo of long-standing cohorts (Nick Bollinger, Andrew Delahunty, Andrew Clouston) and once again most of the songs were co-written with Baysting. Rich in characters, the songs have a beguiling simplicity. ‘Love is a Bad Design’ is typically laconic, the pun of ‘Grown Out of the Blues’ a two-sided mission statement.
Bill Lake’s career on AudioCulture is in three parts. The first part, Windy City Blues, covers his arrival in Wellington in 1967, where he quickly became immersed in the blues and R&B scene.