Graham Reid | | 3 min read
By Roger Shepherd's own account, his Flying Nun label released 75 albums, 78 EPs and 31 singles in its first decade to 1991.
Amidst that landslide of vinyl (a new album every couple of months with singles and EPs in between) and the success of his praetorian vanguard – the Clean, Chills, Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings and others – some acts went past him: “Focus wasn't one of my strengths in the mid-80s,” he admitted in his 2016 memoir In Love With These Times.
Among those which got away were Dunedin's Netherworld Dancing Toys fronted by the genial, bookishly handsome and ambitious Malcolm Black, one of the band's songwriters.
With a horn section, joyous and danceable pop and an eye on the mainstream charts, NDT stood apart from the indie guitar reverb of Nun and after three EPs they were scooped up.
“I was apparently the last person to know they had signed to Virgin Music,” wrote Shepherd. “I found out when the Virgin sales rep came into the Record Factory [shop] and sold me their debut release . . . apparently they were the next big thing”.
Briefly they were.
NDT enjoyed massive success with their enduring '83 number one hit For Today (as heard in numerous advertisements and promotions subsequently) and the albums The Real You (84) and Painted Years (85), but broke up soon after.
Black became a much respected entertainment lawyer, manager and music consultant. He was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2019 New Year's Honours list.
The Netherworld Dancing Toys re-formed for the 2018 music awards performing For Today but it would be Black's final flourish in public.
His death from cancer in May 2019 at 58 was a shock to many and he was widely mourned.
However Black still had something more he wanted to say.
Two years on from his death his wife Julia has released Songs For the Family which he'd recorded in six days in Dunedin with friends knowing two months before his death.
“After a busy life I simplified things; family and friends, meditation and music,” he wrote. “It turns out that being forced to contemplate my death led to a better way of living, which I’ll continue to do until I can’t, and then will see what happens next. Faith, Hope and Love.
“It was the most effortless and joyful music making experience, which is a testament to the players and to the talented [producer] Nigel Stone.”
The gentle, crafted folk-pop of Songs For The Family is so intensely personal – letters in song to wife Julia and his four daughters, Martha and Cilla having songs named for them – that listening can feel like uncomfortable eavesdropping on their private, emotional intimacy.
“We should have grown old together. You'll grow old, I'm young forever . . . I never asked to die, will you ever forgive me?” he sings on Tuesday Forgive Me.
This can be uneasy listening for its naked emotion, but only the hardest heart would not be moved by Good Year, Black's plaintive but strong voice singing “this has been a strange year, one day at a time . . . almost half my baby's life . . . this has been a good year, a good year . . .”.
It comes off as self-reassurance and a love letter to those waiting with him for the inevitable.
Julia sings We Are One to him: “I'll keep our family safe and sound . . .”
The final song, the country-flavoured Long Road offers a note of optimism: “It's a long road to freedom, winding steep and high. But when you walk in love with the wind on your wings . . . the miles fly by.”
In his final interview, with Grant Smithies, he echoed the sentiment which runs through these songs: "I'm not afraid of dying, really, in the slightest. I've had a good life and death comes to us all – eventually."
Malcolm Black's Songs For The Family is available now with all proceeds from the sale going to the University of Otago's Centre for Translational Cancer Research. You can buy the album here on CD, vinyl and digital download