How Bizarre is 20 years old. In fact a little older now even. When I was asked to write a book about important/favourite songs I was encouraged to make it a personal selection but there was a list supplied of obvious contenders. Top of that list was How Bizarre.
I would have included it anyway – for I hadn’t heard anything like it. I was intrigued with its sound and its success. And I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. End of my first year at university, driving a car of friends home for the holiday, stopping off to drop off something in Levin – and that song burst from the speakers. I hadn’t heard it before but the others in the car had and promptly started to sing along. It was brand new – and infectious.
It was the sound of that summer. A crucial part of the soundtrack. It was catchy and kinda kitsch to me, as well as being current. It was sometimes excruciating but often wonderful. It was a hit pop single.
The song would be everywhere and OMC (which was, as far as we knew at the time, just a guy called Pauly Fuemana) wasn’t the best singer. But he sure had something. Vague-eyed but just arrogant enough to be a pop star. And when I had my first job in music retail the OMC album was often an instore play, particularly on the late nights, and it was alright. Even if you just didn’t tell your friends you were listening through to the whole thing…
So, a few years back I was tasked with writing this book about New Zealand songs and interviewing people connected with the music. I couldn’t interview Fuemana – he died broke and young. He was just 40 and he was gone by January of 2010. We all seemed to know that much – but none of us knew anything close to the real story.
I contacted a guy called Simon Grigg. I hadn’t met Simon – still haven’t – but his fingerprints had been all over the New Zealand music industry when I was growing up and I knew about him as a label owner and manager, a DJ, a guy behind the scenes. He had also owned nightclubs and been both business savvy and very knowledgeable about a wide variety of music.
I knew he’d have some stories for me about How Bizarre – the song was released on his label. He had ended up as some sort of minder for Fuemana. Never quite his manager and often having to do a whole lot more than most managers would put up with.
Simon wrote to me at length about the song and the story behind it – and was super helpful. It’s one of my favourite chapters in the book because it’s a song that was so successful (New Zealand’s biggest international pop success, pre-Lorde) and it has this sad ending, the song’s star unable to repeat that overnight success, vulnerable and confused. Fuemana, it seemed, from the details Grigg had supplied to me, was both his own biggest fan and worst enemy.
The other fascinating thing – the ultimate teaser I felt – was that Simon Grigg had told me in an email that there was possibly more to come. He said something along the lines of writing a book that he was not sure would ever be released. He had been there from day one, seeing the song come to life, touring with it as Pauly appeared on Top of the Pops in the UK, as the song broke in Australia. He knew more than anyone else the sides of the story too, he had been the connection-point between Alan Jansson (the producer/player/co-writer and brains of the song) and Fuemana, a guy that had intrigued Grigg as much as anything.
Well, Simon Grigg released that book. And it is something you have to read if you haven’t yet. The true story of How Bizarre from the only person that could tell it. And Grigg, a fine writer, pulls no punches regarding Pauly – he is frank, honest. And we know – from the details included – that Grigg really was there, hand-holding and reassuring, head-shaking and baffled. He’s a constant advisor and a friend, so much more than just the guy with the label where the song (and then album) appeared.
What makes Grigg’s How Bizarre book so compelling is that it tells tales of the music industry – of clueless radio types and useless record company folk (as well as mentioning the small handful of good ones) – in a way that hasn’t been done locally.
It’s such a page-turner, such a riveting, fascinating story. Argue all you like that you personally never liked the song, couldn’t see the fuss, that would just make the book even more important to read.
It also did its job – as any writing about music did – I didn’t just click on the YouTube link of the song I’ve heard so many times, I returned to the album. There’s some strange magic there. I hadn’t heard the album in, I guess 17 or 18 years. It has something. That was the only thing I could pin down about Fuemana reading the book. He sure had something.