That fact makes Dave McArtney all the more interesting, because he was both a significant participant in NZ’s rock and roll life, and a top bloke. So much so that his unexpected death at 62 on April 15, 2013, unleashed a torrent of tears and a blanket of sorrow amongst his extended family of friends, admirers and fans.
Vocalist Graham Brazier mostly hogged the limelight in the band that many think one of NZ’s greatest, but Dave McArtney’s contributions to Hello Sailor as writer, guitarist and occasional singer are crucial, even as he played ‘Keith Richards’ cool to Brazier’s swaggering ‘Jagger’. After all, it was McArtney’s superbly guttural ‘Gutter Black’ that made it to the title music of TV show Outrageous Fortune, 20 years after the fact, a testimony to the song’s staying power and timelessness.
McArtney had briefly played with future Hello Sailor chum Harry Lyon as far back as Westlake Boys’ High in 1964, but hadn’t seriously entertained the idea of making music his life’s work, and was in his second year of law studies when opportunity and ambition finally coincided 11 years after his first musical dalliance. One of our most stellar success stories was founded, infamously, out of a dilapidated Jervois Rd flat – nicknamed "Mandrax Mansions" – that Hello Sailor members shared with Dragon prior to that group’s massive Australian success.
The membership of Hello Sailor coalesced around a scene saturated in drugs and debauchery, a pre-punk rejection of the hippie ethos that combined the Rolling Stones’ moral and sexual ambiguity with a sound that was dubbed ‘Ponsonby reggae’; a sound that rocked hard but had a certain groove that was almost Pacifican in flavour. At a time when local music was struggling to be heard, they hit it big, releasing the self-titled 1977 debut that became the first NZ album to be certified gold, and included that now iconic McArtney song, ‘Gutter Black’. It’s part of Kiwi rock and roll lore that the band splintered following a disastrous, disorganised, drug-addled attempt to crack the American market just a year later.
In his next band, Dave McArtney and The Pink Flamingos, he would get to strut his own stuff.
But all wasn’t lost. In Hello Sailor, McArtney was one of three excellent songwriters. In his next band, Dave McArtney and The Pink Flamingos, he would get to strut his own stuff. Formed with Dragon keyboardist (and writer of ‘April Sun In Cuba’) Paul Hewson, the group was to suffer from a constantly revolving line-up, and McArtney knocked it on the head several times only to revive it again later.
Nineteen eighty one, however, was triumphant, with the self-titled Dave McArtney & The Pink Flamingos taking home five prizes at the NZ Music Awards, including Group Of The Year, Album Of The Year and Best Male Vocalist, and that same year they played to huge audiences around the country. But like Hello Sailor, it wasn’t to last, and an attempt to woo Aussie crowds and a lukewarm second album both dissipated their audience rather than building it. The second album in 1982, We Never Close, slipped by under the radar, and that same year McArtney killed off the Flamingos and moved to London.
He was back in 1984, however, when he was briefly drafted into Brazier’s The Legionnaires, before reforming The Pink Flamingos. The upshot of that was another album, The Catch, in 1984, but the same year he turned to producing, working behind the scene with groups like The Narcs (for whom he won producer of the year), and later, doing the soundtrack for the 1986 movie Queen City Rocker, amongst several others.
Sandwiched in between, in 1985, was the Hello Sailor reunion for the subsequently disowned synth-laden Shipshape & Bristol Fashion, and afterwards, a tour of the USA with Shona Laing, followed by his return to university studies, where he completed a degree in English literature.
In 1991, McArtney moved to Bavaria with his partner Donna, only returning fulltime to his homeland to work on his solo album Hook in 2003 (a self-released record containing a reworked version of ‘Gutter Black’), write his warts and all biography of Hello Sailor (also called Gutter Black), and tutor part-time at MAINZ (Music And Audio Institute NZ), a job he kept until his death.
Meanwhile, in 2011 the band that made his fortune was inducted into the NZ Music Hall Of Fame, and 2012 saw the release of the first new Hello Sailor album in 16 years, Surrey Crescent Moon, a reflective work that lyrically revisited the group’s halcyon years. McArtney graduated with a master of arts degree in music just the month before his premature death.
A reticent live performer who nevertheless excelled at the job, McArtney will be remembered mostly by those who didn’t know him as one of our most exceptional songwriters, and for that instantly identifiable voice – coarse and nasal at the same time, the perfect instrument to convey his equally distinctive, sometimes ribald but more often strangely articulate wordplay.
The working title of Gutter Black was Sickness Benefit.
McArtney’s near-death experiences were legendary. Graham Brazier gave him CPR in 1975 when his heart stopped after getting a shock from faulty gear – an experience that inspired the song I’m In Heaven.