Dennis O’Brien elbowed his way to pop’s heights, then gave it all away. On 20 February 1975, piano-playing vocalist O’Brien and his band strode onto the stage at rock’s most hallowed turf: the Marquee Club in London’s Wardour Street, where the Rolling Stones first performed live in 1962.
“From the first chord I was in heaven,” he recalls. “Here we were, a bunch of kids from Wellington gigging at the Marquee, finally getting a proper PA to play on. It didn’t get much better than this.”
The Marquee gig was not only a highpoint of O’Brien’s career; it would yield a record deal and an album featuring the same musicians who played on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. So how had this sweet-throated New Zealand singer, best remembered for a frenetic version of 'Cara Mia', managed to climb so high? And where could he go from there?
Flashback to 1964, when O’Brien, a piano-playing pupil at St Patricks College in central Wellington, met Nick Theobald, a fellow third-former, who shared a love of the exuberant pop of the times. In 1967 came The Rising Sons. Billed as “Wellington’s fastest rising beat group”, the four piece band played at the Attic nightclub in Courtenay Place, later recording an album of covers.
In 1971 Triangle played its way to England on the liner Southern Cross.
In 1970 came Triangle, a piano-driven trio offering covers of the high octane pop and folk-rock popular at the time. Backing O’Brien on vocals, Nick also played bass, flute and 12-string guitar. In 1971 Triangle played its way to England on the liner Southern Cross, entertaining the last cohorts of young New Zealanders making the voyage to Europe by sea.
In London O’Brien washed cars by day, playing solo piano by night in smoke-filled workingmen's pubs for three quid a night, “singing if there was a mike”. He’d play standards like 'Doing the Lambeth Walk' and even sing the odd Cat Stevens song. Triangle then returned home, determined to turn professional and record its own material.
The group expanded to a quartet. A replacement drummer was found in David Porter, with Dave Knowles on guitar. By 1973 O’Brien was getting a lot of recognition, increasingly called “one of the best vocalists in New Zealand, if not the best”. PolyGram Records invited him to record the Aphrodite’s Child hit 'Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall'. He and Theobald were already writing and taping their own songs.
But the local pop scene held little appeal. The pair returned to England in 1973, on what would be one of the last Shaw Savill voyages. This time they were determined to break into the music business.
They rented in bleak West Dulwich, a cold water terraced house without a phone. Porter would join them. The three continued to rehearse, building the material that would be heard on the first O’Brien album Any Other Face in the Rain.
From a nearby tube station Dennis O’Brien phoned record companies and music producers. “I remember feeding coins in as trains roared overhead. I could hear nothing for sixty seconds.” By day he worked as a typist-secretary and took whatever other work he could find.
O’Brien knocked on doors, trying to persuade music publishers and record companies to buy the songs. Few were listening. The once booming British music industry was in a slump, as the 1970s oil shocks pushed up the price of the vinyl from which pop LPs were manufactured.
Along the way, O’Brien met legendary industry figures like producer Adam Faith, and songwriters such as Nicky Chinn, who “came to the door in a dressing gown”. Together with Mike Chapman, Chinn was busy writing for glam-rockers Sweet.
In 1974, O’Brien got an audience with record producer Shel Talmy, who signed him up for a production and publishing contract.
In 1974, O’Brien got an audience with record producer Shel Talmy, who signed him up for a production and publishing contract with Hush Productions. Talmy had produced 'My Generation', the ultimate 1960s anthem, for The Who.
Talmy’s new project was Hush, his partner a man called Hugh Murphy, who later co-produced 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty. Murphy would later produce Any Other Face in the Rain.
The relationship with Hush paved the way for the 1975 Marquee gig. But the timing was not good: the cost of album vinyl was increasing by the day. Which meant that when Charisma Record’s Tony Stratton-Smith offered O’Brien a contract, it was for singles rather than an album deal.
Meanwhile, IRA bombs terrorised Londoners. Charisma persuaded O’Brien to abandon his Irish surname and replace it with Neal, a family name. The result was three singles, the first of which was 'Cara Mia', a 1950s song by Jay and the Americans. 'Cara Mia' would attract a lot of attention in New Zealand. It became O’Brien’s signature tune.
The recording of Any Other Face’s 10 tracks took two years. Backing was provided by the seasoned team behind 'Baker Street': electric keyboardist Tommy Eyre, bassist Gary Taylor and saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft, with drummer Dave Mattacks (ex-Fairport Convention) and guitarist Ray Russell.
The final product, with nine of its 10 songs original compositions, remains an extraordinary achievement. In producer Murphy’s hands, slow and bittersweet O’Brien/Theobald ballads like 'Star Of The Sea' and 'Remember The Fall' swell to epic proportions.
Any Other Face was released in Europe in 1978, striking a particular chord in Germany. O’Brien toured there regularly, exceeding album sales of 10,000, and appearing on prime time television.
But rather than build on the album’s momentum in Europe, he decided to return home. As news reached here of the album’s success, independent local label Ode Records released the eponymous single. It helped him win the NZ recording industry’s Most Promising Male Vocalist award in 1978.
Recording of a second album entitled Still In the Same Dream began in 1980, at Marmalade Studios in Wellington. The album featured 11 tracks of finely honed pop, nine O’Brien/ Porter compositions. The mood was lighter.
'Get Yourself Another Fool', 'Can Anyone Play' and 'Breaking Into Another Day' remain memorably catchy songs. Sharon O’Neill, The Yandall Sisters, The NZ Symphony Orchestra and players from the Rodger Fox Big Band all contributed to the album’s depth.
The Recording Industry Association judged single 'Still In The Same Dream' Song of the Year. The album made the finals for record of the year.
The Auckland Star called it “a world class record”. RipItUp added: “If EMI doesn’t push this album for all they’re worth, they’re crazy.” The Evening Post concluded it was: “faster, livelier and a little rockier” that Any Other Face. The Recording Industry Association judged single 'Still In The Same Dream' Song of the Year. The album made the finals for record of the year.
O’Brien and his new record label, Marmalade Studios new in-house label Toast, backed by PolyGram, then decided to come back with a “big budget album” that would be called Strangers.
Over the winter of 1982, O’Brien laid down 10 tracks, eight of which were O’Brien/ Porter compositions. 'Nature' songwriter Wayne Mason and musician Kevin Bayley each provided a song. The local musicians contributing included jazzmen Frank Gibson Jr, Bob Smith and Martin Winch, with backing vocals by Jacqui Fitzgerald and Erana Clark.
Strangers retains a slick and professional sound, vividly recorded on analogue 24-track equipment. Standout tracks include 'Only The Night To Kill' and the melodramatic 'Into A Stranger', where the O’Brien vibrato is showcased. Bayley’s 'Julia', the first of two singles from the album, has a great singalong quality.
Strangers proved a critical rather than commercial success. O’Brien decided to change course, soon establishing the iconic Slow Boat Records in Cuba Street and, with wife Suzy, raising two daughters. Behind him was an impressive portfolio of three albums and 14 singles, including four in the UK.
Three decades passed. Most people only knew O’Brien as the knowledgeable old geezer up at Slowboat. No clue this was the rocker who once had them swooning in the aisles. In 2012, in classic below the radar style, O’Brien released Still In the Same Dream (1972-1982), a CD of 21 digitally remastered songs.