Friday, June 20, 2008

A Kiwi Lament For A U.S. Icon

When ‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’ hit the Australian charts in mid 1987 I’m sure many people in Australia, me included, thought that singer Shona Laing was new to the music scene. But New Zealand born Laing started a long and distinguished career as a singer/songwriter 15 years prior to her big chart breakthrough in Australia.

At age 20 Shona Laing signed her first record deal with Phonogram in 1972. She scored a top 10 hit in New Zealand on her first attempt with the song ‘1905’ (#4). For the next three years Laing continued to be a regular presence on the Kiwi charts with the hits ‘Show Your Love’ and 'Masquerade’. She then set her sights abroad and spent the latter half of the 70s based in London. She gained a strong following on the folk-rock circuit which led to an EMI album release in 1982 featuring a compendium of singles released in the preceding few years. Her talents came to the attention of Manfred Mann who invited Laing to join his Earth Band as a backing vocalist on their 1983 album ‘Somewhere In Afrika’.

Laing returned to her native New Zealand in 1985 and soon after recorded the album ‘Genre’, featuring the single ‘One In A Million’. But it would be her 1987 album ‘South’ that would take Laing’s career to new levels. The album featured eleven tracks, all written by Laing, and she played keyboards in addition to her vocal duties. Laing’s strong suit as a songwriter had always been in the lyricist’s department. She was noted for incorporating issues of note into her work, often with a socio-political edge. The track ‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’ took a historically familiar and evocative subject matter from two decades previous and made it seem relevant to a contemporary audience. The song had actually been featured originally on Laing’s 1985 album ‘Genre’, and had even won the 1986 Pater Award for ‘New Zealand Song Of The Year’. Through music publisher Chris Gilbey and English producer Peter Wilson, it gained a new lease on life, the remixed version being included on ’South’. ‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’ came to notice on college playlists in the U.S. and reached as high as #14 on Billboard‘s ‘Modern Rock Tracks‘ chart. It was an even bigger smash in New Zealand (#2) and Australia where it climbed to #9. A second single ‘Drive Baby Drive’ performed well again in New Zealand but stalled at #65 on the Australian charts. ‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’ featured excerpts of speeches recorded by John F. Kennedy interspersed with Laing’s vocals, but it wasn’t the first hit song to draw on some the fallen President’s more iconic speeches, Tom Clay doing similarly on his 1971 hit ‘What The World Needs Now Is Love’.

On the back of her success Laing signed a new recording deal with Epic and released the album ‘New On Earth’ in 1992. The album succeeded in leaving some of the dated 80s instrumentation behind but fell well short of the commercial success of ‘South’ and Epic soon dropped her from its roster. Laing maintained an audience in New Zealand throughout the 90s and continued to record at regular intervals, including the albums ‘Shona‘ and ‘Roadworks‘. She still performs sporadically much to the pleasure of her loyal fan base.

In 2001 ‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’ was voted in at #24 on APRA’s list of the top 100 New Zealand songs of all time, just abovethe classic ‘I Hope I Never’ by Split Enz. In decades to come Laing’s name in popular music history may not hold the same historical cache as the name Kennedy does in the political realm, but ‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’ remains a worthy legacy.

No comments: