Graham Reid | | 9 min read
But let's allow him some leeway here, after all he has been kinda busy since he first started getting paid for gigs way back in the mid-Sixties.
There was the long-running Hello Sailor which he co-founded with Dave McArtney and which soon enough included Graham Brazier, both now passed on. When Sailor took a break in the Eighties he formed Coup D'Etat and then played in other bands lead by McArtney, Brazier (the Legionnaires) and with friends like Hammond Gamble and others.
And off and on Sailor just kept going, even recording a new album Surrey Crescent Moon in 2012.
But what mostly kept Lyon from doing his own album was his role of director at MAINZ (Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand) in Auckland, a job he had up until a couple of years back.
“It was a different head space being at MAINZ in a business role, but I was always happy being the guitar player in Hello Sailor to be honest.
“I would have sailed into the sunset doing that. I loved Dave and Graham's songs and was relatively happy with my George Harrison slot there,” he laughs.
So the long overdue solo album from the man who wrote classic songs like Lyin' in the Sand, Doctor I Like Your Medicine and others was because he lacked ambition?
“No,” he says emphatically. “But I've always been in a band, and yes is strange that at 68 I've got my first solo release. I started getting paid semi-professionally as it were when I was in the 5thform in '66.”
“Interestingly though that Johnny Cash song,” he says referring to a salute to the working man, “that came when I did my masters degree which was essentially a business degree in arts management, so half the papers were MBA papers. I had this really strict study regime, I had a fulltime job [at MAINZ] and the Sailor band was still working reasonably often and I looked after that.
“So I used to study Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6 – 10 every night.”
He tells of how he had to read up on what experts said about how to study – do a bit, take a break – and during the downtime between the dry texts he always had a guitar at arms' length.
“And I found that playing a guitar in the breaks was good because it was different side of the brain. One night I picked up acoustic guitar and that Johnny Cash song just came out.”
And yes, he sees the irony in studying for an MBA and writing that particular song.
Across the 12 songs on To The Sea, Lyon roams musically from a gorgeous ballad Christmas in Dublin to the Pasifika sound of Harbour Lights, through gritty pop-rock on One for the Road (about K. Rd) and a brooding reworking of Muscles which he gifted to Midge Marsden but now comes with the Davidson edge.
“Some of these songs are over 30 years old at least and then Delaney and I wrote Harbour Lights in Lyttelton from an idea I had. I had it as this kind of Gary Moore blues thing . . . but that's what Delaney brought to it, he would pull me up.
“And Muscles was Midge's song, I gave him a demo. But you can find a Legionnaires Live at the Esplanade which is on-line somewhere and you can hear the way I would do it as swinging blues thing. But on To The Sea you can hear Delaney's edgy approach.”
The album was recorded in March 2017 but his conversation with Davidson, whose work is a kind of outsider country-cum-raw rock-blues, had begun late the previous year.
“Like everybody, for me Delaney seemed to just arrive and when I saw him I thought he was very cool. Then he sang [Brazier's} Billy Bold in that tribute to Graham at the Silver Scrolls and I had to get the tissues out. I'd never met him at that point but sought him out afterwards and literally fell into his arms weeping.”
He says they became friends but it was others – notably Paul McLaney from Native Tongue Publishing – who nudged him into making an album. Maybe if he collected up his songs they could be published, maybe a place could be found for some?
One night McLaney came around with a six-pack and Lyon hauled out some of his songs and, impressed, McLaney suggested he actually record them for an album. But if he did, who would he like to produce it?
“I said Delaney and he said, 'I can arrange that' because he'd worked with Delaney. We had a coffee when Delaney was in Auckland and I'd sent him some demos and he said, 'Why don't you come down for a weekend [to Lyttelton] and see if this is going to work?'
“I did, but in the meantime he'd taken the very scratchy demos that I'd sung into my laptop using Garageband and he'd looped up some stuff and put some edgy guitars on it and he said, 'This is what I can bring to it'.
“And I thought 'Well, okay!' “
Amid the musical diversity all pulled together by Lyon's rich and deep voice, there are songs which touch parts of his life.
And of course he had good songs in his files because he came from a crucible of creativity in Hello Sailor – three songwriters – which was unique.
“We were internally quite harsh critics in a constructive way, we'd always seek and take counsel from each other about lyrics and musical things. Graham was always pretty happy with Dave and I tearing into his songs arrangement-wise and re-harmonising.
“Because we were together for such a long time you relinquish control and trust is built up, none of us were trying to diss each other or play mind games. It was always about trying to make things better.”
And the self-confessed George Harrison of the group looked deep into his back-catalogue to pull out songs which tell, in part, the story of his life and thinking.
The title track is autobiographical in that it mentions his wife (by her maiden name), the Sailor boys terrorising Australia in a Pontiac and children; Christmas in Dublin he says “is just everybody's story, people with family living away” and One for the Road which mentions the Rising Sun Hotel on K Rd . . .
“I wrote that one 20 years and in quite a few cases for some of these songs, like To The Sea also, that now at my age and what has happened in recent years, their time has kind of come. When I wrote them – even though I haven't changed them to much – the time wasn't right.
“Something reflective like One for the Road or To The Sea make more sense from someone who is nearer 70 than someone who is 40.”
Part of the success of the album, not just the concise songwriting and Delaney's production – which can be as light on Christmas in Dublin as it is obvious on Muscles – is the deep gene pool of musical ideas and information Lyon carries with him.
And it's not just the Beatles/Stones-era pop of the early Sixties which initially excited him.
“We were just as influenced by all the Tamla Motown stuff. Back then Radio Hauraki played everything, 'That was the Beatles and now . . . . Wilson Pickett.' That was great.
“I used to play all that stuff in covers bands, white pop and equal parts Supremes songs like Stop in the Name of Love.
“And talk about songwriting, I really love Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter . . . all of that is magic and smart. Cole Porter? Talk about social commentary: 'In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. But now, goodness knows, anything goes.'
“And, 'I get no kick from champagne . . .'
“So sophisticated and clever.”
A couple of years ago Lyon and his wife Maggie sold their house in Auckland and moved to the Far North. The change of pace suits him and a bonus was having a room where they put the turntable and dust off the old, very old, records.
“The South Pacific soundtrack? I love that. When I was a boy, because we didn't have TV and my father went away in the Navy -- for 18 months one time and quite often three, four or six months at a stretch -- it was just me and Mum and my little sister. We'd get the bus to Northcote and go to the movies to see Oklahoma and those things.
“And I just love South Pacific, I love going back to it. Talk about hits: 'If you don't have a dream how you going to make a dream come true' [on Happy Talk].”
Although there is little that is overtly what we might call “Pacific music” in South Pacific, Lyon seems to have acquired a gentle mainline to it, as witnessed by Lyin' in the Sand for Hello Sailor. And it is here again on Luxury Cargo with Davidson on lap steel.
“That is pretty much how I had it, there's a few like that – and Christmas in Dublin – which Delaney said, 'You've got that, it's just right'.”
Yet he says he didn't grow up hearing the likes of Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm.
“Not so much, it was all a bit distant and we didn't have television til I was 13 when we came back here from Britain. It was the Howard Morrison Quartet, Lou and Simon, the Sundowners with Sonny Day,” he recalls with obvious delight.
“Dave and I used to ride our pushbikes round to the Mon Desir in Takapuna and lean them up against the hedge, stand on the saddle and look at the showbands in there, that was the first live music I saw.”
And bitten by it, he started playing in covers bands . . . and the rest somehow leads to the present and To The Sea.
We embark on a digressive conversation about Lyttelton which seems to have become a musical and artistic hub in the past decade (“it's attractive with the water, a place I'd consider living, it has lots of imagery like the port that I like”) and what hopes he has for the album.
He tells of what he might be up against however. When Hello Sailor joined Dragon and Hammond Gamble on a tour they had Surrey Crescent Moon on the merchandise table.
“We liked the sound of it and thought some good songs on it and the gigs were packed out and people would come up and say, 'Fantastic gig, love you guys' and they'd pick it up, it had a nice cover, and then say, 'Has it got Blue Lady on it?'
“No it's a new album.”
“Oh, I only like your old stuff”
We laugh that in some ways, given the history behind some of the songs on this new album, he could almost pitch at as “old stuff”. Like the celebratory I'm Surrounded.
“Yeah, I wrote that . . . well, that might almost be the oldest song, about 1984 – 1985. It was shortly after we bought the house which was '82 and we bought our daughter a piano when she was about seven or eight. And I sat down and wrote that on the black notes.
“My dad was a mathematician so he played the black notes because statistically there was less chance of playing a bum note because there were less of them,” he laughs.
“It's a kind of fun song and almost like an extended Dad joke.”
After this short tour he will “take my foot off the gas and enjoy the summer. But I'd love to do quite an exhaustive New Zealand tour, next year. But solo because it's too costly to go out with a band.
“I can do most of them solo and a add in few back-catalogue songs in the set plus some of Dave and Graham's songs too.”
Harry Lyon is affable, candid, engaging (camels are more comfortable to ride than elephants he tells me) and modest about an album he has no reason to be modest about.
He did it because . . .
“I just wanted to get it out, if nothing else just for the kids. I hope people like it.
“I didn't want to die wondering,” he grins.
HARRY LYON, TO THE SEA TOUR