Murray Cammick talks music, photography, and his industry-defining magazine by Sam Hollis
Published in June 1977, the first issue of New Zealand music magazine Rip It Up opens with a letter from Split Enz keyboardist Eddie Rayner. “SPLIT ENZ SHOCK! SCOOP! SCANDAL!” it reads before Rayner discusses departures from the band and the arrival of “pommie whinger” Nigel Griggs and “very talented young lad” Neil Finn. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, but before Rip It Up there was perhaps nowhere for this story to go.
The contributions its co-creator Murray Cammick has made to our music industry cannot be understated. Earlier this year, the journalist, photographer, DJ, radio jockey, and Wildside Records founder was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM). He’s in Wellington to oversee an exhibition of his early photographic work, Flash Cars, on at Photospace Gallery until the 23rd of January.
You’ve clearly got a good ear, but you’re also a very visual person as we can see in Flash Cars: a collection of photos taken on Queen Street in the 1970s featuring teens and their grunty restored V8s. How did photography develop as one of your early interests?
I went to Elam Art School and ultimately I was planning to teach secondary school art. I did want to paint, but I failed in painting in the first year – I think the lecturers just didn't like me. So that's why I ended up specialising in photography.
Those photos spawned from you simply hitting Queen Street, parking up, and looking for life. Was that part of it as well, that you appreciated the rawness of it?
I discovered what is called ‘street photography’, but my interest was in documentary photography and music, too. I worked for Craccum, the student newspaper, and that's where I would photograph politicians. The photography lecturers tried to sort of steer me away from music photography, but because I started Rip It Up, I ended up doing a lot of it.
Your taste in music is varied, which is as clear as day looking through old Rip It Up issues. Can you recall some of the artists that helped form your passion for music?
I was born in 1953 and grew up in the 60s, so growing up I was into The Spencer Davis Group, Small Faces, obviously the Stones and The Beatles, Motown and Stax, it was just all pretty mind-blowing stuff. Alistair Dougal and I started Rip It Up in 1977, and I'm not sure that we were aware that the music scene was going to be turned upside down. I mean, obviously punk had already occurred in England in 76, but I was into soul, funk, Thin Lizzy Live and Dangerous, stuff like that.
It seems that a big focus for you with the inception of Rip It Up was giving Kiwi music equal billing. Why were commercial radio stations of the time failing to support homegrown tunes?
With the punk new wave era, some of the stuff was quite lo-fi in a sense. When slick recordings came along, they definitely played Hello Sailor’s Gutter Black, but things like Th’ Dudes took a while to be played and the Flying Nun stuff was just out of the headspace of commercial radio. When we did the first two Shihad albums, we didn't expect commercial radio to play them – it wasn't their material. If you have alternative music, you probably don't expect it to be on commercial radio anyway, and you're probably proud that it's not there! But when you have commercial music like Th’ Dudes or the Citizen Band, and most of the time they couldn't get on the radio, that's when you complain. But the same people at Hauraki who wouldn't play NZ music wouldn't play Meatloaf initially. Michael Jackson, because he wasn't white, Radio Hauraki wouldn't play him. So commercial radio was not only anti-NZ music.
So, that was integral when you started Rip It Up, that you would create a space for different kinds of music?
Yes. And the other thing is, we were brought up with a serious culture cringe towards NZ.
Meaning it wasn’t common to embrace our own artists?
Yeah – we just looked too much to England. There wasn't a confidence in NZ culture. Like, at one point we criticised an Australian soul singer and said the Mark Williams album was better, and the guy from RCA, Marcia Hines, rang me up: ‘how can you say an album produced in New Zealand is better than an album produced in Australia? Everybody knows this is insane!’ And at the time, something in me actually agreed with that concept. But obviously I learned otherwise.
You’ve launched a number of record labels, which is a notoriously tricky business. Why did you decide to get involved in that side of the industry with Wildside and Southside Records?
I had watched my friends own a record label and I considered it to be a fool’s enterprise. And then one day Simon Lynch came in with a recording. He was ex Ardijah and he did a recording as a band called D-Faction, Motivation, and he couldn’t get it released by anyone. I just sort of egotistically decided I would do a soul-funk label. We did D-Faction, Upper Hutt Posse, and we sort of fluked a number one for six weeks with Ngaire’s To Sir with Love.
What are some standout memories from your time working with the bands on those labels?
I think Wildside was the most fun I ever had in my life. I recall when Head like a Hole played an event at a place called The Building. I was just side of stage – if you could call it a stage – and all the young kids were in a mosh pit, and I just thought ‘there must be a dead body at the end of this!’ I think Nigel Regan [Head like a Hole] climbed up on a rafter and then fell flat on his back, and we had photos of it in the New Zealand Truth, a full page. I recall the story, and it was just… you know… ‘Head like a Hole make Split Enz look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’, and sh*t like that. And I initially thought, ‘this is awful’, but the next time they played, I think it was at Auckland’s Gluepot, the venue was packed and I thought, ‘oh, this is alright’ [laughs].
It’s about time I congratulated you on your ONZM honour. On top of winning the Taite Music Prize Independent Spirit Award, this has been a massive year for you. What have those honours meant?
It’s definitely thrilling, and you enjoy that it’s recognition from your friends in the business who’ve supported you, and Independent Music New Zealand – I really think they’ve got an important role. I believe heavily, not only in indie labels and in NZ-owned labels, but in NZ-owned media and independent media, too. That’s what Rip It Up was. So, certainly both recognitions were really enjoyed.