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First published October 2017

The Byrds & 'Bright Lights'

On New Year's Eve, 1964, we concluded the final night of appearances with The Howard Morrison Quartet in Howard's hometown of Rotorua.  The entourage had performed all around the North Island's popular summer beach resorts during a two week period, in December, taking us right to that emotionally charged 'goodbye' night.  The Quartet was 'huge' and positively legendary, and that is where it all came to an end.  We were privileged to be part of it, but for us, The Byrds, we had 'arrived'.  We left Christchurch as The Playboys, but morphed quickly into The Byrds before we hit the road as the teen, 'Mersey Beat', component of the concert package.  An experience that stood all of us in good stead, and taught us a lot. 

Next day, New Year's Day 1965, we drove our well used 'bangers' to Auckland charged with enough cheek to believe that if we could appeal to tens of thousands of people, camping out on annual holidays, we could tackle New Zealand's 'biggest smoke', Auckland, head on!  Supercharged youth!  Ahh -- 'Bright Lights; Big City'. 

We gigged around most of Auckland's night-spots, in those early weeks, and were somewhat the 'toast of the town'.  Our association with Howard Morrison did help, of course, and it was Howard that 'dropped a mention' on Eldred and Margaret Stebbings of Zodiac Records.  In very short time we were sorting out possibilities for our first 45 single.  We were truly lucky.  Everything was happening at a pace right down to a residency at 'The Shiralee' -- life was good. 

I had absolutely no doubts about what one of the recorded sides was going to be -- 'Little Lover'.  A Hollies song that we had honed perfectly in live performance.  It was typically British, which was all the 'go' in 1965.  My intangible musos 'gut instinct' told me that it was right and that we were on top of it.  I had no compunction about going with it.  No doubts.  No hang ups!  The 'other side' was a different kettle of fish.  For something like three or four years I had been secretly sitting on, legendary American bluesman, Jimmy Reed's 'Bright Lights; Big City'.  I do not know why, it just said something to me.  All I knew was that it needed a 'time and place'.  It came, for me, via The Rolling Stones.  While I was deliberating, The Stones released 'Little Red Rooster'.  It shot up the charts and, quite decisively, paved the way.  The other members of The Byrds were not too sure, but I was not going to be pressured or swayed (diplomatically and tactfully, of course).  We rehearsed, and rehearsed it, and it got to where we were all comfortable and liked what we were doing. 

We went to Zodiac armed with the two sides.  'Little Lover' was as live as was possible, with minimal over-dubs.  After we had laid it down, we all looked at each other, and gave a collective, thumbs up.  We knew, without discussion, we could not top what we had done. 

'Bright Lights' was also laid down quickly and efficiently but Brian (Ringrose) could hear, in his head, a direction he wanted to pursue for the lead guitar solo.  On the original, Jimmy Reed played harmonica, which was his thing, but none of us, in The Byrds, were accomplished enough to 'blow anything meaningful'.  Brian's amplifier was 'home built', by himself and his father, and he knew it like the back of his hand.  Coupled with his Stratocaster he stoked the amp till the signal was 'pushed' well up the scale, reaching the point where he got a 'distinct wailing whine', attached to harmonic over-tones, and, when you take into account that he had none of today's effects pedals or gadgetry to fall back on, his solo was exceptional for 1965.  To this day I believe it added a lot of distinctive character and uniqueness to our interpretation.  Quite masterful.  As a result we were a bunch of 'happy campers' and strolled out of Zodiac's studio without any real misgivings.  We had given our best and were optimistically hopeful. 

In the period between recording, and the record's release, we featured both sides, in live performance, as being our forthcoming single's coupling.  Promoters started billing us as, 'Zodiac Recording Artists', and it felt good.  Another rung up the ladder, as we saw it. 

When the record finally made it into the market place it got immediate air-play.  Fans at The Shiralee were quick to tell us that they had heard it broadcast.  Of course we were always working during the hours that 'pop' got airtime.  The flow of encouraging words became more consistent and more intense.  We started to believe we had a real chance of making Auckland Radio's Top 20.  I did the rounds of record retailers, in the CBD, and ascertained that sales were brisk.  I went to the distribution warehouse and saw it going out, in encouraging numbers, amidst retailers' orders. 

After two weeks I was getting the cautious word that, everything considered, 'Bright Lights' should make the new radio chart in the forthcoming weekend.  Wow!  It all sounded unbelievably good, but the band members were not as excited as I was because none of them had 'done the rounds'.  Still, they were hopeful and wanted to believe, but were not quite hanging off my every word. 

The weekly Top 20 was broadcast on Sunday night at 6:00 p.m.  We had played, along with The Rayders, during The Shiralee's Sunday afternoon, and were lined up to do the same thing in the evening, starting at 8:00 p.m.  All The Byrds made a dash for hamburgers and chips, between sessions, and, en masse, squeezed into Brian's Renault Dauphine motor car to eat and tune in.  The Renault was the only one of our vehicles that had a radio, on board.  The mood was jocular, to the point of silliness, and quite decidedly childish.  No one cared, it was grand excitement time, and with the average age somewhere between 19 and 20, growing responsible was not always to the fore-front!  It was all about fingers crossed and being madly hopeful. 

Knowing, as we did, how hard it was to get radio airtime, or for that matter, the likelihood of a hit record, we conditioned ourselves to thinking that, if luck was on our side, we would nestle somewhere between slot fifteen and, bottom placed, twenty.  There was a bit of 'soft drink' consumed along with the salty chips, and, in no time, the sugar kicked in -- the mood was boisterous!

The countdown started and 'Bright Lights' was definitely not in place 20.  19 was not about us either.  Nor was 18, 17, 16 -- or 15!  That took care of our territory, on the week's numerical scale.  The mood sank and became despondent and excited conversations petered out.  When the bottom ten placings had played out disappointment took full sway and I got a few looks which openly suggested that I should take a long walk over a short pier.  I found myself saying: "Oh well, maybe next week."  It didn't cut ice!  It was almost time for The Shiralee's night time 'bash'.  Place 9 came and went, and as we were about to squeeze back out of the Renault, the opening strains of 'Bright Lights; Big City' resounded all around Brian's car, magically at place 8, first week in.  We were inside the Top 10.  We went mad -- mental actually -- and the inside of the Renault was almost trashed!  Our 'custom made Beatle boots' stayed at least six inches off the stage floor for the whole night.  We played brilliantly -- we were flying!  The crowd was with us and pushed us to new heights. 

Up until that time, we were simply Zodiac Recording Artists.  We had now become Zodiac Recording Stars!!  The thrill of that night has always stayed with me. 

Written as a tribute to the O'Neill brothers, John and Kevin.  To my brother Graeme, and for the late Brian Ringrose

Dave Miller. October 12th, 2017


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