ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias celebrates a lavishly illustrated history of a Herne Bay recording studio.
London has Abbey Road, Memphis has Sun, Berlin has the Hansa studios where Bowie made Low and Heroes – and Auckland has Stebbing Studios, at 114 Jervois Rd in Herne Bay, the spiritual home of classic New Zealand rock. All the pioneers from the 1950s onwards recorded there, or at the earlier, nearby studios, at Saratoga Ave. Peter Posa recorded at Stebbing, also Split Enz, Dragon, Th’ Dudes, and, memorably, in 2003, the visiting White Stripes.
Grant Gillanders and Robyn Welsh present the Stebbing history in their whopping great big coffee-table book (and at $90, whoppingly expensive) Wired For Sound. The stories are good, the photographs really good. Exhibit A: below, Te Kokori Miha Waahi, better known as Bunny Walters (1953-2016), the big-voiced soul belter from Katikati, seen here at Stebbing Studios in 1977 and wearing what appears to be a one-piece jumpsuit with plunging neckline and studded mofo belt. God that cat was cool.
The visionary behind the studios was Eldred Stebbing. He went to school in Avondale, and made radio transmitters at the age of 13. There was always music in the house; Wired For Sound remarks that it would be routine for him to walk into the lounge to see up to 20 musicians playing waltzes by Strauss. He became a radio and cinema technician. He had the know-how but he also had big dreams, and built his first recording studio on the fourth floor of a building on the corner of Queen St and Wellesley St. He recorded anything – racetrack meetings, A & P shows, weddings – and he also operated a pressing plant, in Surrey Crescent, Grey Lynn. By 1952, though, he went into receivership. The liquidators moved in.
The dream was over but only for the time being and when he got married and built a house in Saratoga Ave, he put in a recording studio in the basement. It opened for business on August 13, 1959. He made commercials – the backbone of the business for the next 50 years – and he also made great records. His contribution to New Zealand music is immense, legendary, amazing. Really good photos, Exhibit B: below, Hello Sailor in their pomp, making their first and best LP at Stebbing beneath a set of very groovy ceillng lights.
Gillanders and Welsh tell the stories of the bands, and capture a golden era in New Zealand music. It’s Kiwi as. At the height of psychedelia, when the La De Das and The Underdogs were smoking dope and making freak-out records in Herne Bay, the working conditions were like something out of the Public Service: the studio hours were from 8am to 4pm sharp, and Margaret Stebbing, Eldred’s wife, ferried in cups of tea and Chocolate Wheaten biscuits on the stroke of 10am, 12pm and 3pm. Pablo the familly dog slept anywhere it liked. Musicians knew not to move it.
Murray Grindlay, the former Underdogs blues singer turned maestro of the advertising jingle, looms large in Wired For Sound. The book details his painstaking recording of country star John Grennell, syllable by syllable, singing a version of the Jim Reeves song “Welcome To My World”. It was an advertising jingle that Stebbing released as a single, and became a number one hit. Grindlay flew to Melbourne to record the backing: he used a group of non-English speaking violinists from Russia and Austria. You could get away with that sort of extravagance back then, which is to say only Grindlay could get away with it. He was seen as a god. The problem was that he saw himself that way too, and it came to a sudden end.
Robert Stebbing, Eldred’s son, came into the studio one day to fix a light fitting which had fused in its socket. “Get out,” commanded Grindlay. The boss summoned him into his office. They had words. “Okay, bye,” said Grindlay, and joined Revolver Studios the next day. “They gave me my own office,” he tells the authors. “It was just a hipper environment and you didn’t have to hold your [marijuana] smoke in when somebody came into the room. But the sound that I got out of Stebbing, I have never bettered anywhere else.”
Really good photos, Exhibit C: below, the control room looking into the studio with an Ampex AG440-8 multitrack tape recorder to the left, capturing a sound never, ever bettered.
It’s a lovely book, a cultural aretfact. It costs too bloody much, and the story-telling is a bit clunky – it’s told in bits and pieces, and there’s an irritating, off-putting editorial decision to feature quotes from magazines in italics – but the history is just so downright fascinating, and it’s beautiful to look at. Read with a Zodiac LP played loud.
Wired For Sound: The Stebbing History of New Zealand Music by Grant Gillanders and Robyn Welsh (Bateman, $89.99)