He writes the songs

John Hanlon is still writing and playing music. Photo supplied.
John Hanlon is still writing and playing music. Photo supplied.
Songs such as Damn The Dam, Lovely Lady and Higher Trails lifted John Hanlon to critical success in the mid-1970s, yet the Kiwi songwriter walked away from the music industry. Shane Gilchrist finds out why.

''I became famous because of an ad.''

John Hanlon, the New Zealand songwriter whose 1974 single Damn The Dam was claimed as an anthem for the Save Manapouri conservation campaign of the time, is matter of fact about the genesis of his pop-folk gem.

Contrary to musical folklore, the song was not written as an ode to Manapouri. Rather it was a radio jingle penned by a young advertising rep, whose brief was to come up with something for his client, the New Zealand Fibreglass Company, in order to increase its sales of housing insulation material.

''The clients knew that I was a greenie. I managed to convince my boss to do a two-minute radio ad in which the product is never mentioned,'' Hanlon reflects via phone from Auckland earlier this week.

Based in Sydney since the early 1980s, the 63-year-old has returned to New Zealand for a two-week, two-headed promotional push: one is the release of After The Dam Broke, a two-disc, 40-song compilation of his music; the other is a book, Golf: A Course in Life, in which he offers business and personal advice based on his own experiences.

Significantly, the closing song on After The Dam Broke is titled Don't Go Forgetting Me. It might be based on a dishevelled man who walks into a pub and turns heads when he reveals his prowess on a piano, but Hanlon admits the track has a personal resonance, too.

''I was thinking that one day I could be this guy who nobody remembers.''

Certainly, Hanlon is known more for his early work than any recent material: from 1974 to 1976, he collected three successive New Zealand Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year awards, a feat achieved by no other artist before or since. In addition, he won the Apra Silver Scroll two years in succession.

Having taught himself to play guitar, Hanlon had amassed a large collection of songs by the age of 20, when he met Bruce Barton, of Mascot Studios, who secured him a recording deal with Family Records.

Though 1973 album Floating was released to critical acclaim, it was Damn The Dam that put Hanlon on the map in New Zealand.

Thanks to its initial advertising connection, which generated plenty of airplay, its subsequent commercial release in 1974, as well as its inclusion on sophomore album Garden Fresh, saw it reach No 5 on the national charts (it also won an award for Single Of The Year).

Hanlon followed that success with the single Lovely Lady. The most successful song of his career, it was released at the end of 1974 and became a summer hit, peaking at No 1 for all of January 1975, spending 20 weeks in the charts and earning him the 1974 Apra Silver Scroll (songwriting) award.

The year 1975 was also notable for Hanlon.

His new album, Higher Trails, recorded at Eldrid Stebbing's state-of-the-art 16-track Auckland studio, produced another successful single, Apple Wine, and went on to collect four New Zealand Music Awards, including Album Of The Year, Composer Of The Year, as well as Producer Of The Year (Mike Harvey).

''I think I can say, without a trace of arrogance, that album was the equal in production quality of anything in the world at that time,'' Hanlon says.

''It was a huge leap forward in terms of production. When I went to Australia, there were people in the music industry there who would comment on how stunning it sounded.''

Yet, despite his success, Hanlon was notably absent from Apra's Top 100 New Zealand songs project, compiled in 2001. Does he care?Yes, and no.

''The only time I really cared about that was when my grandkids came to me and asked: 'Were you a songwriter?' My own son said to me: 'John I hardly remember [your music career]'. I thought I should do something about that.

''As it turns out, when I was back recently a journalist said to my publicist: 'Look, it's been 20 years since John Hanlon was even relevant in this country'.

"My friends got a bit upset about this, but I didn't care. The journalist was probably in her 20s and had never heard of me.''

Generational issues notwithstanding, Hanlon concedes the reason he has been ''largely forgotten'' in New Zealand is of his own doing.

At the height of his popularity in the late 1970s, he walked away from the music industry.

The explanation is simple enough: he wasn't enjoying himself.

''I loved the beginning of my songwriting career. I'd write a song and get up and perform it and the crowd would listen to it. I loved sharing songs with people.

"Until you've shared a song, it's not really a song. But the strangest thing happens: you segue to a point where the audience has come to hear their favourite song; they aren't the slightest bit interested in your new songs.

''So by the fourth year of performing, I'd morphed into becoming an entertainer. It was a paradigm shift.

"It's like going to a dinner party three times a week and telling the same joke: it gets old really quickly,'' Hanlon says.

''I began my creative life as an artist, not a singer or a writer. I was a painter. And when you're a painter, nobody asks you to do the same painting you did 10 years earlier.

''I don't think I had embraced the whole concept of fame the way I should have. I should have been grateful. But I'd gone from the observer, which is what a songwriter is, to being observed. I didn't enjoy it.

''I never intended to go away as long as I did. But I got all these publishers in Australia blowing smoke up my a..., suggesting I could write songs and sell them to others. And I thought that was a much better solution.

''But it didn't work. I've got out of all my songwriting contracts in recent years ... I've got all my songs back, except for a New York company that just refuses to.

''I can't think of anything more flattering than to have my songs recorded by someone else.

"Unfortunately, I failed miserably. I think one country artist recorded a song called The Lone Ranger and two weeks later shot himself. So maybe recording my songs isn't a good idea.''

Having eschewed music in New Zealand, Hanlon headed to Sydney and returned to advertising.

''My income was minimal so I had to go back to work. It was really that simple,'' he explains.

It was also something he was quite good at.

Having trained as a graphic artist in Auckland, Hanlon got a job at the Auckland Star and had a weekly cartoon strip.

At the age of 20, he was offered a job as political cartoonist at the newspaper. However, he declined, citing a lack of experience of the world, even though his upbringing was ''interesting and unconventional''.

Born in Kuala Lumpur, the son of a Chinese mother and New Zealand father of Swedish, Irish and Scottish extraction, Hanlon was raised variously in New Zealand, the heady bustle of postwar Singapore, a West Australian boarding school and at an iron mine deep in the jungles of Malaya.

''When the time came to make my own way in the world I ended up a graphic artist,'' Hanlon reflects.

''I came first in art all my life. I thought I was a genius artist. Then on my first day at art school [a one-year graphic art course at the Auckland Institute of Technology], the teacher put a still life in the middle of the room and told us to draw it.

''I dashed off a picture that I thought was pretty brilliant, then got up to look at what I presumed would be the pathetic efforts of others. I took one look and sat down and screwed up my drawing.

"Suddenly, I was in a class where 23 others could draw better than me. I realised I needed to put in the work.

''After a few weeks, I realised I'd never be as good as most of those people, but what I did have was better ideas than they did.''

Hence, his eventual move into the role of an art director in advertising. Until recently, he was creative partner of Sydney-based communications agency LOUD.

His latest advertisement is an anti-factory-farming commercial for Animals Australia, which has been picked up by animal rights groups around the world and has been seen on New Zealand screens (as adapted by the organisation Safe). He is proud of the campaign.

''Coles supermarkets no longer sells factory-farmed produce. It has made a difference.''

Which brings us to his curiously titled book, Golf: A Course in Life.

Building on various sporting metaphors, such as ''keep your eye on the ball'', or ''know when to cut your losses'', Hanlon ruminates on aspects of personal and business behaviour, including respecting others as well as the environment, taking responsibility for your actions, as well as accepting occasional failure.

''The thing about life is that experience can only be learned one way. But you can write down a bunch of thoughts that let people come to their own decisions.''

Hanlon has also contributed to another recent book, Grumpy Old Men, by Paul Little and Dorothy Dudek Vinicombe, in which he addresses politicking over the environment, ageism and a lack of respect for intellectual property.

''One of the last lines I wrote was: 'The thing that really makes me grumpy is people who stop living well before they die'. I'm definitely not one of those people.

''I think people are interested in the fact that although I'm almost 64, I'm not dead yet. I'm still doing stuff,'' says Hanlon, who has released two albums of new material in 2009 (Just Quietly) and 2010 (12 Shades of Blue).

''I'm at an interesting stage of life. I recently got a new girlfriend. I hadn't had a serious relationship for some years. I've tended to have flings with young women. But this new woman came along ...''

Twice married (for seven years and 22 years respectively), he has one son and four grandchildren, with whom he also intends sharing some of his experience including, significantly, his lust for life.

''I love the fact I was born with a creative mind. Being able to convey ideas ... that's what creativity is.

''I spoke to a friend of mine and mentioned the idea of doing a small tour, playing to small houses and stuff.

"I would say we'll do that within the next two years,'' Hanlon says, adding he plans to move back to New Zealand within two years.

However, those hoping he'll fire off all those all old hits might like to reconsider.

''I have no desire to do a golden oldies tour, none at all.

''I'm about to go on Jim Mora's National Radio show and have been asked to pick three songs: one is a beautiful song by Bob Dylan called Moonlight.

"It's off his Love and Theft album. It's a great example of what comes from strumming and humming.

''Now, Dylan doesn't want to go out and perform The Times They Are A Changin'. The times have changed and so has he.

''That's what I want to do: go out with just a guitar and present the songs in the same manner in which they started.''

Hear it, read it
After The Dam Broke, a two-disc, 40-song compilation of John Hanlon's music, and Golf: A Course in Life are available now.


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