John Hanlon may not be a widely recognizable name in the annals of popular music, but in his homeland of New Zealand he is somewhat of a cultural icon. Throughout the early to mid 70’s John has won Composer of the Year, Album of the Year, and had a number of songs reach high into the Kiwi charts. But, he’s not been averse to covering ecology-sensitive issues and challenging the censorship of his lyrics. We hope with this reading, a whole new audience will discover his talents.
John, thanks for taking time to answer a few questions.
*I will say up front that a majority of the questions reference the outline on Bruce Sergent’s website http://www.sergent.com.au/music/johnhanlon.html*
You have quite a bit of multi-cultural ethnicity in your blood. How did your mother and father meet?
My father was in the New Zealand Air Force during the war stationed in Malaya. While he was chased down the Malayan peninsula by the Japanese and escaped via Singapore, he liked the country and went back after the war to work as a trouble shooting mechanic for Caterpillar. The Malayan jungle was occupied by Communist Bandits during these years (a hangover from the war) so Dad was armed when he travelled and photos showed he pretty much looked like Indiana Jones when he was on the road. While he was stationed in Singapore his work regularly took him to Malaya and it was in Kuala Lumpur, the Malayan capital, that he met my mother.
You were born in Malaysia. Do my eyes deceive me in reading your website or were your first digs an iron mine?
I was born in Malaya but went to NZ when I was only 3 months old. We returned to live in Singapore when I was 4 and then back to NZ when I was 8. When I was 10 we headed back to Kuala Lumpur and when I was 12 the family moved to an iron mine deep in the jungle of the then uninhabited east coast of Malaya. They had to build a railroad through the jungle to reach the mine, this took years and, from my memory, so did the train ride to the mine – it as the world’s slowest train. I only lived on the mine during the Christmas holidays since I was sent to boarding school in Perth, Western Australia. I only saw my family for 6 weeks every year, spending the rest of the year alone in another country from the age of 12 – 15. When I was 15 we moved back to NZ.
What are some of your earliest recollections of childhood in Kuala Lumpur?
Life in Kula Lumpur and Singapore was fantastic. While on the one hand we had the privileged life so often enjoyed by ‘ex-pats’ – Europeans working in the colonies — we had the advantage of a Chinese mother with family who lived locally. The best of both words you might say.
Was your young life mostly a happy one?
Very happy and adventure filled. Both my brother and I share many wonderful memories of an exciting and stimulating childhood – exotic colours, smells, tastes, voices, sounds – a veritable feast for the senses. There were some challenges while in boarding school, since being of mixed race stirred up xenophobia in quite a few of my schoolmates.
Guess it may have been difficult to make long lasting friends with all the uprooting you experienced?
I still have many friends I made in my childhood, especially in New Zealand.
What was your earliest exposure to pop music?
I have always loved pop music, right back into the 50’s when we were in Malaya and Singapore. But it was the first mouth organ strains of “Love Me Do” by The Beatles that really grabbed me by the ears. And when later I discovered they wrote the songs my life was changed forever.
Do you recall one of the first 45’s you bought or were given?
Hard question. It would have been something by Rick Nelson or Cliff Richards, I imagine.
Were either of your parents musically inclined?
Dad had an impressive whistle – but no.
How, dare I ask, was boarding school in Australia?
The racism was not good, not least because racist bullies are inevitably stupid people. But I quickly learned that people act differently as individuals than they do in groups and I became an extremely good fighter. It took more than one guy to beat me. But boarding school was good in terms of academic things and sports. I did well at school and because I had no one to run home to I learned to be independent and self-sufficient.
Any groups/artists that you liked growing up?
The Everly Brothers, early Elvis, Sam Cooke, Bill Haley, Nat King Cole, The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Beach Boys – I could be here all day there were so many I liked.
At what age did you relocate to Auckland?
Went back and forth many times but eventually settled there when I was 15.
Originally you took up an interest in graphic art. From where did the artistic creativity stem?
I was always good at art but being a scholarship winner I was always pushed towards more cerebral subjects since art was seen as a hobby and not something anyone would seriously consider as a career. So I took art as a hobby course and it was a visit to a commercial art studio that the idea of being a commercial artist was born.
Do you still have any of the original cartoons you drew?
Sadly, no. I have thrown away many significant things in my life that I now regret – not the least of which are recording awards.
Did you enjoy working as an Art Director in Advertising?
Yes, and even more so when I became a copywriter and Creative Director. Advertising was once a wild and stimulating industry. It is far less so now.
You picked up guitar on your own. Any influences?
Many. Initially I thought it would help me meet girls. (The downside to being trapped for years in a boy’s boarding school was that I was very shy with girls). But I didn’t have the patience or brains to learn to play properly and began to write songs instead. Only I did so in private because I was too shy to perform in public. Years later my mother when asked if she knew her son was a songwriter she said, “No, but when he was a teenager he used to lock himself in his bedroom and jing-a-jang a lot.” Lord knows how that was interpreted over the airwaves. It caused hilarity in our house.
Approximately how many songs and lyrics had you composed before you ever performed live?
Talk about that fateful night at a party in 1971. Did you know a representative from a recording studio was in attendance?
Not a clue. There were only about 12 people there in total.
Bruce Barton liked your material so much he helped you get your first recording contract on Family. Were things moving fast?
Incredibly. Not the least since it was never my intention. I just wanted to be a songwriter. Imagine getting a 3 album contract today. My first album bombed!
How did you enjoy working with keyboardist Mike Harvey?
I enjoyed it very much. He remains one of my closest friends. We grew together in the studio and I look back with great pride on what we did together.
B-side of your first single “Old Fashioned Music” was “Mickey Mouse House”. Did you receive any legal correspondence from Walt Disney after this release? Hehe
No. Strangely I hated that arrangement and so did Mike. He says it embarrasses him to hear what he did now. It was meant to have far more grunt. A few years later I did another version with a band just for fun.
Have a listen here to the “revamped” “Mickey Mouse House”
Were you pleased with how your first album “Floating” turned out?
I was, yes – Except for “Mickey Mouse House”. However, I did not include songs from that album on my recent 40 songs retrospective release ‘AFTER THE DAM BROKE’. This was because we could not find any tapes. However, in recent weeks I’ve been told a pristine vinyl copy has been found and rescue mission is underway.
That is good news! One of your songs “Knowing” was sung by Wellington pop vocalist Steve Gilpin and entered into a Studio One Television contest. Was this contest like a localized Eurovision Contest?
Can you give some background on the Manapouri Hydro Dam controversy and how this inspired you to compose “Damn The Dam”.
I did not actually write the song about Lake Manapouri but it was adopted by that protest movement. My song was originally written as a two minute radio commercial to promote energy conservation. At that time there were controversial plans to raise the height of the lake for a dam to provide power for a large aluminum plant. It was a case of the right song at the right time. Now everyone thinks the song followed the protest. Not such a bad rewriting of history, really.
Released in 1973 the song really struck a chord with the music public and shot up to #5 on the New Zealand charts and was awarded Single of the Year. Did you expect “Damn The Dam” to do so well?
Another ’73 single “Shy Ann” has a b-side that is one of my all-time favorites, “In Love Out Of Love”. Was this one based on a personal experience?
I love that song, too. Not sure how I wrote it as such a young age. But I’ve lived it many times since.
Yes. It was written for a contest the government broadcasting authority ran to promote the environment on their stations. I won the contest but had issues with the people. One of the contest rules was that the song would be published by Southern Publishing and not my regular publishers who were associated with my record company, hence, the latter did not push the song.
In 1974 the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) banned the single “Is It Natural” for a couple of lyrics they considered offensive. But this wasn’t the end of the story, was it?
No. It was played by the pirate radio station Radio Hauraki from a ship moored off the NZ coast, so it became a hit in the Auckland region – within the reach of the station’s airwaves.
Today, would “randy schoolboy” be considered as offensive?
You are kidding, of course!
You yourself entered the 1974 Studio One Contest with “Lovely Lady”, another one of my favorites. The single release became your most successful of your career. One of the high points in your career?
Hmmm… not really. It simply showed that if you can get a song on TV it will help it become a hit. I found it almost impossible to get on TV during my career since I refused to do cover versions of pop songs and that was the bulk of the TV work for singers in NZ. This song got me on TV and the rest followed. It was never my best song. Not even close. By the way, it didn’t even win the contest. I came second although most people think I won.
The track “Higher Trails” was actually the first John Hanlon song I ever heard. Still beautiful with each listen. It reminds me a lot of John Denver. Hope that’s a compliment.
It is a compliment. The multi tracking of voices was definitely one of his tricks. It’s a song based on many things going on in my life at that time. And I can’t get near the notes today. It’s in E and I’d have to do it in C today. It would be Lower Trails.
The album ‘Higher Trails’ was voted Album Of The Year. How proud of you are the work you did on this album?
Very proud of it. I say without fear of contradiction that the production values of that album were as good as anything recorded in the world at that time. And listening back today I have not changed that view.
Your next album, 1976’s ‘Use Your Eyes’ yielded 3 singles and a “Composer Of The Year” award for the song “Night Life”. Relate the highlights of this album for you.
There were few highlights for this album. Just as it was released my record company closed down. They did not promote the album and it did not sell well at all. The pressings were also terrible. I was so disappointed. That said, I really liked the songs on the album and was delighted to have the chance to re-master the tapes recently. Damned shame that most people will never ever hear it.
You took a little hiatus from recording until a 1982 single “Romantically Inclined”/b/w “The Culprit” came out on Polydor. Then came an album in 1988, ‘Short Stories’ on RCA. How would you compare these later releases with some of your earlier work?
The songs are strong but the recording was tinny (far too bright) and the voice pushed so far back in the mix in the way that was fashionable in the 80s.
So, take us through what transpired to “deter” you from making music to going back to advertising.
After I had a few hits I found that I had to sing the same 6-8 songs night after night, week after week, month after month year after year. I had segued form the creative life of a songwriter into an entertainer who was required to do the same tricks every night. Saying to an audience “Here’s a song I just wrote” was anathema to them – they only came to hear the hits. As well, I was a public figure in a small country and my record company refused to accept the international offers to distribute me internationally.
So John, you’ve returned to Advertising while still writing songs on the side. Has the journey sort of taken you back full circle?
Ironically I’m writing as many songs as I ever have and am continually being tempted to go back into the studio.
You also are writing some short stories, poems, plays and even film scripts. I have read a few of these on your website and find you in fine form.
Yes and I will do even more writing in the years to come. Painting also, which I’ve returned to in recent years and have found to my delight that I’m quite accomplished and enjoy it very much. The older I get, the more I will paint.
Any boundaries for John Hanlon, or the proverbial sky’s the limit?
Well, having just sold my house in Sydney I’m about to become a global gypsy for a while. A big adventure awaits.
Talk about your family, kids and grandchildren.
I have one son and four grandchildren – three girls, one boy – all teenagers. They are delightful, bright and happy and have more races in them than the United Nations.
Any pets – or pet peeves, as it were? Hehe
For years I had Ridgeback dogs and recently lost a beloved cat. For now I have no pets. As for pet peeves – how long have you got? I was recently asked to contribute to a book called Grumpy Old Men. I’ll see if I can find my piece and send it to you. Or you can always read my blogs from time to time.
How would you like to be remembered, what is your legacy?
As an honest man, a good friend and someone who always did what he said he was going to do. As for my legacy – hopefully that will be whenever someone hums one of my songs or remembers something I wrote or said. Who could ask for anything more?
For more on John Hanlon, check out his website/blog http://www.johnhanlon.com.au/