The La De Da’s, Blue Stars and others – How Is the Air Up There? (2018)

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RPM Records’ How Is the Air Up There?: 80 Mod, Soul, RNB and Freakbeat Nuggets from Down Under is a generous 80-song, newly remastered three-disc clamshell box set. It comes with a fab full-color booklet tracking New Zealand’s mid-’60s garage / Freakbeat scene from 1965-69. The very detailed liner notes provide info and pics in the Back from the Grave layout style, with the bands’ logos used for each entry. Cool!

Some garage followers might recognize a couple of the Kiwi groups on here, like the La De Da’s and the Blue Stars – and, possibly, Ray Columbus and the Invaders. The rest may be new to most, like me. Funny enough, there are a couple of featured groups who gave themselves the same band names as their much-better-known U.K. counterparts, like the Action and the Smoke. Not sure how they got away with that. Maybe being Down Under had its advantages? At any rate, New Zealand’s version of the Smoke does have a kindred Freakbeat approach to “No More Now.”

Among the many other highlights here is the La De Da’s very rockin’ “How Is the Air Up There?” The title track from this set and the Blue Stars’ stomping “Social End Product” are stone-cold garage classics. You really can understand why the Bangles and Chesterfield Kings both covered these two fantastic songs early on in their recording careers, during the ’80s garage revival. They belong in any respectable garage-rock collection. Both ’60s bands are represented with several tunes on this box set. The descending “Down in the Mine” by Peter Nelson and the Castaways is a pretty tough and catchy sounding tune in a pre-Deep Purple “Hush” like way. “Get Out of My Life, Woman” by the Roadrunners is a cool cover of the Lee Dorsey classic, in the style of the Beatles’ “Taxman.”

The Four Fours’ “Go Go” is a little on the goofy, bouncy side, maybe reflecting more of a Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich approach – proving New Zealand had such a pop group. The Clevedonaires break the boy’s club mode in garage to offer a rare female lead vocal, with the jangle fuzz of “He’s Ready” for her boyfriend in the making. The guys in that group also cover the Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman” in what’s best described as a kooky merry-go-round carnival-like organ approach along with some of the original’s rockin’ guitar.

The Breakaways give a pretty good fuzz guitar work-out to the Easybeats’ hit “Woman.” The Selected Few, Sandy Edmonds, and the Roadrunners were all undoubtedly affected by the Pretty Things’ notorious 1965 Tour of New Zealand, as evidenced with each their respectable covers (“Come and See Me,” “Get the Picture,” “A House in the Country”) from that aforementioned band.

Bari and the Breakaways play Who By Numbers in their note-for-note cover of “I Can’t Explain,” but without the spark of the original. With “Now You Shake,” Ray Columbus and the Invaders show why they were one of the cut-above bands, serving up an infectious, undeniable groove. Just when you thought the garage classic “Hey Joe” had been covered by every American ’60s garage band, and a couple in England, here comes Sebastian’s Floral Array from 1968. The version on How Is the Air Up There? owes more to the Leaves’ hit single version, than to Jimi Hendrix’s influence.

The Principals also superbly capture a ‘65 American garage sound with their moody farfisa organ / surf-influenced guitar tale of the evil “Women” who capture men’s hearts. I can imagine singer Tommy Adderley leading a jamboree of teenage kids to “Mr. Jinx” in a garage-rock hoedown on a Friday night in 1965.

By the time you get to Disc 3 of How Is the Air Up There?, it’s the invasion of the horn section for most of the bands represented. U.S. pop bands like the Buckinghams, Jay and the Americans, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and Blood Sweat and Tears who sprouted horn sections had to have been an influence on these particular Kiwi bands, since the approach and sound is so similar on the mid-tempo tunes. That’s not to say that it’s all horns, but perhaps the best example of that approach is in Neil Diamond’s “You Got to Me,” as energetically performed by Gene Pierson. There’s enough of the other bands who do otherwise, like the Liberettos tackling (oddly enough) Fontella Bass’ hit “Rescue Me.” It’s a straight-forward cover version, but it’s a little strange to hear the amorous call of “rescue me” coming from a guy for a song created for a gal.

Mr. Lee Grant bops and commands “Love” from any lady who he wants in this bouncy upbeat number. Chant’s R&B take on “Neighbor Neighbor” and “I’m Your Witchdoctor” have enough roughness and grit to challenge the Downliners Sect for R&B garage authenticity! Interestingly, Le Frame’s inspired 1968 cover of “Get Ready” predates Rare Earth’s hit remake of the old Temptations’ hit by a year, and it’s the exact same arrangement: To quote Laugh-In’s Artie Johnson, “very interesting.” I don’t think “The Creep” ever caught on as a new dance craze anywhere, but Jay Epae gave it a good try with his rousing, swaying number.

If you haven’t added a New Zealand section to your ’60s garage collection yet, How Is the Air Up There?: 80 Mod, Soul, RNB and Freakbeat Nuggets from Down Under just might be the perfect box set to dip your toes into the water with.

Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott has written for Shindig, Twist and Shake, Garage & Beat and Ugly Things. A big fan of all things rock and roll - especially the British Invasion, garage rock, psychedelic, new wave, folk rock, surf and power pop - he was a consultant on Sundazed Music's reissue of 'The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx: No Matter What You Say' in 2000, and has also provided liner notes for Italy's Misty Lane Records. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Steve Elliott
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