Not 'the other' Chris Thompson
29 May 2012
Author: Michael Miller
Freelance writer Michael Miller recently interviewed Hamilton musician Chris Thompson – the one who wrote Where Is My Wild Rose, which the Fleet Foxes’ singer/guitarist Robin Pecknold nominated in Rolling Stone magazine as his #3 folk tune of all time. Thompson also wrote the Tron’s very own conveniently-titled folk anthem, Hamilton. Despite a gulf of difference in musical output he still gets confused with the Waikato capital’s ‘other’ Chris Thompson – the one who sang with Manfred Mann.
They spoke, mid-May, on the veranda of 100 Old Farm Road, an address that resonates in the personal mythologies of a certain segment of Hamilton’s population, a post-war bohemian sanctuary that is sadly in its final days.
Mike: In a way Chris, it’s quite appropriate being here at 100 Old Farm Rd, an institution in Hamilton since the 1960s, as you are yourself. What was it like starting off in music in Hamilton in the ‘60s?
Chris: The main influence was the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band for me, you know they were everywhere, and even more than The Beatles I just connected with their love of American music. And it wasn’t just bluegrass music, they had roots in folk, and blues as well before they formed the bluegrass band and things started accelerating for them.
Mike: Did you pick up a lot from their guitarist Dave Calder?
Chris: I just sort of hung out with them and picked up on their drift.
Mike: Was there a scene happening around them?
Chris: Yes there was a kind of folk scene that predated the HCBB, there were guys that were a major influence in the coffee bar scene… Ted Ninnes, the Sociology lecturer up at the University and Sally Gedge, they had a club called the Kon Tiki Folk Club that met at a coffee house above Pascoes the Jewellers in Garden Place. I used to go there and thoroughly enjoyed it. That was in ‘65, ’66.
Mike: And you played there yourself?
Chris: Yes I did. I picked up on it pretty quickly. There was folk music on television and so forth… This was while I was still at school Mike, I was a schoolboy at Hamilton Boys High School. I was yet to be exposed to psychedelic music and rock‘n’roll.
Mike: When did that come into the picture?
Chris: That came into the picture in ’67 - ’68, when I started hanging out with these guys who would often go surfing at Whangamata and we started listening to The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds… that electric thing. It was a fantastic time, wonderful. You know, it seemed to be always summer.
Mike: So Bob Dylan playing an electric guitar wasn’t a problem for you, as it was for some folk purists?
Chris: No, I always saw him as a songwriter, it didn’t really matter whether he played electric or acoustic. He was someone who had an original point of view and was kind of a link with the scene I was in and the scene in the East Coast of the United States and that in London – that trans-Atlantic music scene.
Mike: When did you first leave Hamilton?
Chris: At the beginning of ‘68 I went to Auckland and very quickly got involved in clubs like the Poles Apart in Khyber Pass and the University had a folk music club in which I had an administrative role – I was the vice-President of that. Robbie Lavene was the president and he was a very influential musician in NZ folk/rock, he formed the Red Hot Peppers.
In Auckland there was more of a blues influence – bands like The Underdogs and some of the acoustic players who would pay at the Wynyard Tavern – and pretty soon the business started coming round. ¥ou know, hip television producers who saw a scene happening and wanted to make documentaries about folk music. ¥ou could actually get work on television in those days.
Mike: At what point did you start considering yourself a professional musician?
Chris: Probably around the television days. I’d had some paid work with a band I was in with Chris Parfitt, The High Revving Tongues, and then in ‘69 I got a semi-regular gig on television, on a show called On Camera. By that stage the whole thing was really taking off. The Musician’s Union was very effective in those days, we used to get paid the union rate for playing on television and you could actually make a little bit of money out of it. It was better than a kick in the teeth anyway… and if you supplemented that with club gigs and the odd concert, you could get by. Same as I do today.
Mike: When did you start recording?
Chris: Well, there was television that was recorded on video tape. As far as making records go, there weren’t terribly many options for what I was into by ’69, which was kind of a progressive folk, singer/songwriter thing. The recording industry in NZ was pretty square, companies like Kiwi Records which was a division of AH & AW Reed Publishers were about the only opportunity, but even they were very conservative.
The pop scene then was mainly orientated around the people that played on TV shows like C’mon and Happen Inn, and they were generally not playing original music. They used to cover the music by mainly English bands, so whatever was on the charts in the UK would be reproduced on NZ television. There was Craig Scott, Shane, The Chicks all those ones… Larry’s Rebels were different, I quite liked them. They did a cover of a song by a local writer Roger Skinner, it was called Let’s Think of Something. That was the first kind of original song I’d heard come out of the scene. There was very little acoustic music,Tamburlaine perhaps, the Steve Robinson Band…
NZ radio was very conservative. It wasn’t until 1972 or ‘73 that records by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were actually allowed to be played on National Radio, prior to that they’d been banned. In those days radio was all one business run from Wellington, by these guys with the boffin type mentality who’d learnt all their techniques from the BBC. I never found too much opportunity to record my stuff early on. That’s why when I got the opportunity in ’71, I went to England, hoping to make records.
Mike: How much of a culture shock was that, coming from small town Waikato landing in swingin’ London?
Chris: It was everything you’d expect and more, and it had windows of opportunity for what I naturally took to. I immediately related to the work of other musicians, writers that were alienated by the big city blues.
Mike: Sounds like Nick Drake?
Chris: Yeah. I never actually met him and didn’t hear his music til ’73 or so in Belgium, but he didn’t really play out that often, he was more of an in-dweller. But round the clubs there were people like Davy Graham and Wiz Jones… great players.
Mike: You started writing your own stuff fairly early on?
Chris: London inspired me to do that. I mean I was listening to Dylan and Traffic and the Rolling Stones… ‘Sticky Fingers’ came out that year. Bert Jansch had a good album out. There were lots of really interesting things going on, and it really inspired me to start developing my own thing.
Mike: How did you go about first playing live in London?
Chris: Probably with Julie Felix, the Californian singer.
Mike: ‘Mama’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow…’
Chris: Well, yeah… but she wasn’t really into that then, it was more of a heavy trip. You know, the Goddess stuff, the earth mother and archetypal hippy… and she was really good at it too.
Mike: That sort of witchy, ethereal ambience?
Chris: Yeah, all that. It knocked me for a bit of a loop really, but she was a really kind person… easy to get on with.
Mike: How did you meet Julie Felix?
Chris: I met her in NZ before I left. Barry Corbin, who subsequently became Split Enz’ first manager, got me a gig opening the show for her in Nelson. I got talking with her about guitar players in England that she knew and I liked, people like John Renbourn and Martin Carthy… So I toured with her in England. She was one of those Americans who focused on the European music scene. She was very good at it, she could talk to an audience and they always liked her.
Mike: What size audiences?
Chris: Oh, they were big concert venues, she was quite a big star. She had her own BBC television show, and some of her guests, man… Leonard Cohen, Tom Rush, The Incredible String Band…
Mike: She’s still around, do you keep in touch?
Chris: Not really… we sort of fell out. I quit working for her and she never really forgave me for that. I started working on my own stuff after I left Julie’s band.