When I interviewed Simon Grigg for my book, On Song he told me, in speaking about the song How Bizarre that he was working on a book – he wasn’t sure if that book would ever happen, would see the light of day in a publishing sense, but he was sure that it was a story worth telling.
Thankfully it is now available for everyone to read and it is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. One of the most forthright, honest accounts of the New Zealand (and international) music industry. Grigg’s label, Huh!, released How Bizarre. Simon Grigg, an industry stalwart by this point as, variously, DJ, club owner, label owner, artist manager and all-around finger-on-pulse guy was also – perhaps unofficially, Pauly Fuemana’s minder. Most certainly he did the job thanklessly.
Pauly was the face and voice of OMC and the huge hit, How Bizarre. But Pauly was not the brains. Nor was he the talent. That was Alan Jansson, a nearly-reclusive genius, hunkered down in his state-of-the-art studio desperate to create a hit in America; so sure of a sound he was conjuring across a compilation album and selected local hit singles (Sisters Underground’s In The Neighbourhood) that his version of Polynesian hip-hop and soul – with just the right special ingredients sprinkled through to make pop hits – was going to break big.
And then he met Fuemana, a working relationship brokered via Grigg, and the half-idea that was How Bizarre started getting fleshed out. Mariachi horns, and a nasally, half-spoken, nearly-rapped delivery…this song would soon be everywhere, bursting out of speakers like a ray of Kiwi sunshine. Helped along by that infectious wee guitar run.
How Bizarre is now 20 years old. It was number one in America. OMC appeared on Top of the Pops right around the time The Spice Girls were a thing. There he was in fact beside them backstage. His song would go on to be a hit in several territories.
Pauly Fuemana nearly sabotaged that success almost every step of the way.
Deluded in part, and pumped up by overnight fame, Fuemana is a nightmare to read about 20 years on. Too much booze and maybe some coke on a boat filled with industry goons and next thing there’s a punch-up, almost any musician he meets in Europe is asked if they might like to join the band and go on the world tour. There is no band. The last thing Grigg and Jansson want is for Pauly to sing live – he’s not good enough. And the details of his life, before OMC, remain sketchy. One minute he’s a gang thug, the next he’s not. Stints of time unaccounted for, vague outlines only. He’s baffling. Intriguing. Frustrating.
But what makes this account so vital is that Grigg – who was there every step of the way – knows that Pauly Fuemana had some talent. Charisma. The face. And the (non)voice that sold the song. He had ideas (so often above his station, barely half-formed most of the time too). OMC worked because of Alan Jansson’s backroom sonic wizardry. And his tireless toiling. But it also couldn’t have worked without Pauly. He had, as they say, something.
So this is no beat-up. We have to believe this is the truth. It reads like the truth.
That means it’s a sad story too, so many highs and then the huge low we know about – we already know through news stories and a documentary and the fact that it’s only recent history that Pauly died young. And broke. He would never scale those heights again. But it’s also so frustrating to read about. All the hand-holding – like herding/juggling cats – goes nowhere. And seems forever impossible. And next thing Pauly is sure that the key to his success is recording a fucking Randy Newman song! Or he’s thinking about touring with a piano-man he finds in a hotel lobby. Or he’s got a tour-promoter up against the wall. It’s almost hard to believe. Except that this is an eye-witness account.
Even if you think that pop songs, this one in particular – or any – arrive by fluke here’s the inner workings exposed to show that hard slog and thousands of hours, and talent, are always part of the formula.
How Bizarre, the song, still holds some strange, magical charm. That’s what happens with pop alchemy.
How Bizarre, the book, is a thrill-ride, the emotional rollercoaster. It’s also the best book about the music industry to come from New Zealand. Just as, on paper, How Bizarre is the best pop song to have come from these shaky isles.