The sad news spread quickly – sad news tends to do that. Today we lost a hero, one of the greats, Dave McArtney of Hello Sailor, Dave McArtney of Pink Flamingos, Dave McArtney of the twin-guitar attack with Harry Lyon, Dave McArtney the songwriter, musician, musical educator. Many people in New Zealand music have lost a friend. Many listeners have lost a songwriter still at the top of his game.
I never met Dave McArtney but I did interview him – a couple of times. Most recently I spoke with him for my book, On Song. I spoke with him just last year. He was not only knowledgeable, thoughtful, interesting – and interested. He was also quick to reply to what was probably the silliest fact-check or simplest question. He was super helpful in providing archival material for the book too – great replications of gig posters from when Hello Sailor owned Auckland, all sleazy and rock star-like; all coiled and cool.
McArtney was one of three songwriters in Hello Sailor, each bringing a distinctive voice to the band’s sound. When I wrote about Hello Sailor late last year reminding people to not forget about them it was a form of eulogising I guess. It was a tribute piece. One I was so happy to write. The new album had me hooked, once again, on the sound that seemed so effortless. Had taken me back to my pre-teen years when I followed the music that my brother brought to the house, hanging on every word from mum and dad when they shared music they loved. Hello Sailor was one of those bands – a band for the whole family. A band for our whole family. Hello Sailor. And Th’ Dudes. That split record – I learned to play every song, I listened to it over and over. For a while Th’ Dudes’ side was my favourite. Then it was Sailor. Then it switched back. Then it switched again. Both bands so, so good.
When I wrote about Hello Sailor late last year reminding people to not forget about them I didn’t think that I would be eulogising one of the members of the band now. Not this soon.
I’ve read a lot of sad-but-happy stories today. Musicians sharing their grief – they’ve lost a good pal. They’re united in praising Dave McArtney for his skills as a player and writer and for his qualities as a friend, as a more than decent human being; patient with his ear, always happy to help.
I saw some of those qualities in my interactions with him.
But I can’t say anything really. Not when Harry Lyon is lamenting the loss of a musical partner, someone he played guitar with (and against) for 50 years. They formed their first band back in 1963.
I imagine Graham Brazier delivering some very fine words for Dave McArtney. And if he hasn’t today he will. One day soon. And they’ll be from the heart and the head. And he’ll carry them with him.
When Dave McArtney, a very fine songwriter, spoke to me about his contribution to my list of Kiwi pop classics, the Hello Sailor single Gutter Black, the theme song to the TV show, Outrageous Fortune (our best TV show scored by our best band), he praised everyone else.
He went into significant detail about how crucial the production from Ian Morris was; that drum sound – the biggest snare sound in NZ rock, the result, apparently, of being “heavily affected with an Eventide harmoniser, new technology in 1976. There are actual handclaps on the beat also, four pairs of hands and then triple-tracked in the recording”.
This was what Ian brought to the song. There were quotes to support what Graham brought to the song as saxophonist, “horn players were amazed at Graham’s ability and tone – he picked it up very quickly; triple-tracked, stacked, no attention to even-tracking, that would be too perfect. That’s why the saxophone sounds like a whole section rather than one horn”. And called the bass sound “very important”, lovingly referring to Lisle Kinney’s part as “inspirational”.
So what about the song’s writer? What did Dave McArtney bring to the song? Well I can’t give that all away, when, shamelessly, as a writer I’m always interested in the idea that someone might buy my book – so the full answer is in there, of course. But it was interesting seeing how giving McArtney was, in terms of sharing the credit, and in understanding that the song is more than just the chords and words, more than just the feel that the song’s writer suggests. The feel comes from the band and producer too. And Gutter Black is a song that is all about the feel.
I liked, too, that he said that despite not thinking about the tune’s legacy and impact all that much he was hugely proud of it. And pointed out that you “appreciate that certain songs do feed back to people certain ideologies, moral lessons and feelings we can all identify with”. He said of Gutter Black, “mainly I see it as a uniquely Kiwi record. When you’re a younger musician you aren’t connected with what is to become your own voice”. That seemed very important to me. That understanding of the voice; of knowing the voice. Growing into and around the voice.
The most recent Hello Sailor album – the now final Hello Sailor album – showed that McArtney was still doing plenty of the heavy lifting, songwriting-wise. His compositions were a big part of the success of that album for me. He knew the band’s sound. He knew the heart of a good pop song too. He understood the voice.
I haven’t talked about the Pink Flamingos stuff – so many good songs. But that’s the easy part. The music is still here. Still worth hearing. Still there to be discovered.
The person that made the music isn’t here. And that’s the part that’s not so easy at all. The part that’s not fun. The part that’s really sad.
And I’m grateful for everything he offered through Hello Sailor. He always gave his best. You saw that and heard that when you saw them and heard them.
You in my brain; you in my heart…