Friday, February 27, 2009

Obituary: Bryan Beauchamp

I wrote the following obituary for the Dominion Post. My fellow blogger Jim Tucker, head of the Whitireia Polytechnic journalism school and a former pop columnist for the Taranaki Sports Weekend (now, who would have thought that?), read it and suggested I post it here.


Bryan Donald Beauchamp, musician. B Auckland, July 17, 1941; m (1) Marilyn, 1d; (2) Pat (3s, 1d); d Rotorua, February 7, 2009, aged 67.

As the singer and drummer for Bari and the Breakaways, Bryan Beauchamp was in the vanguard of the music revolution that swept New Zealand in the early 1960s.

It was the era of the British beat boom, when wholesome, clean-cut performers like Cliff Richard were being elbowed out of the pop charts by long-haired English bands that took their inspiration from black American rhythm and blues.

Beauchamp was a Westie boy who played alongside guitar ace Peter Posa in a band at Henderson High School. He recalled in memoirs written for a Kiwi music website (www.nzmusos.co.nz) that it was the era of slick dance bands such as the Embers, the Keil Isles and the Kavaliers.

Beauchamp originally played guitar but switched to the drums because the band he was with at the time, the raunchily named Mauri Chan Sextet, “was always having trouble with drummers”.

In 1964, in response to a newspaper ad, he moved to New Plymouth to join the Blue Diamonds, led by guitarist Bari Gordon. The group’s rhythm guitarist – then capable of playing only a few chords – was an enthusiastic teenager named Keith, aka “Midge”, Marsden. The lineup was later to be completed with the addition of Dave Orams, another New Plymouth boy, on bass guitar.

As the British beat boom gathered momentum, the Blue Diamonds let their hair grow, threw away their shiny blue uniforms, adopted a grittier repertoire and metamorphosed into Bari and the Breakaways – a name suggested by the late Tommy Adderley, who had appeared with them as the guest act at Taranaki talent quests organised by impresario Johnny Cooper.

The band made its debut under the new name at a dance in the Lower Hutt Town Hall and subsequently moved permanently to Wellington, picking up regular work at Johnny Coolman’s Sorrento Coffee Lounge – then famous as a meeting place for Wellington’s demi-monde – and the marginally more respectable Mexicali.

Then the only full-time band in Wellington, Bari and the Breakways won national exposure through appearances on the weekly TV pop show Let’s Go, compered by Pete Sinclair. Beauchamp recalled: “By this time I had become not just the drummer, but the lead singer as well. When it came time to go ‘live to air’, I had to start out on my drum kit then, while the camera was on someone else, grab a pair of maracas and act like a lead singer.”

A recording contract followed. The group’s first release was a cover version of the Who’s I Can’t Explain, followed by the song that was to become something of a signature tune, the old Frankie Ford rocker Sea Cruise.

Now managed by Wellington promoter Tom McDonald, the band toured widely. The first night of a two-week engagement at the Safari Lounge in Christchurch typified the culture shock that was transforming pop music at the time. “It was about 10 to 8 and the club manager was looking worried,” Beauchamp wrote. “ ‘Hey guys’, said the boss, ‘you’re on in a few minutes. Aren’t you getting changed?’ ‘No,’ we said. ‘This is how we dress’.”

Wellington remained the band’s home base. “Traditionally, when groups moved to the Hot City, Auckland was where you went,” Beauchamp recalled. “But I firmly believe that in the early 60s, Wellington was it. There were more bands and more venues. Auckland groups were coming to Wellington to crack it.”

It was the era of Sunday afternoon pop jamborees, when 4000 teenage fans – some bussed from as far away as Palmerston North – would pack the Lower Hutt Town Hall and the adjoining Horticultural Hall. As Beauchamp said, “If you didn’t like the group in one hall, you moved next door”.

Inspired by the wild behaviour of the Who, Bari and the Breakaways even staged their own demolition act. At the climax of one performance, Marsden attacked a speaker cabinet with his guitar – an eye-catching gimmick, somewhat diminished by the fact that it was an old cabinet with no speakers inside it.

The band’s heyday was relatively short-lived. Gordon quit and returned to Taranaki, where he died aged only 22. The band continued as the Breakaways, developing an edgier rhythm-and-blues feel with new guitarist Dave Hurley, but by 1967 it was all over.

Orams went on to play in top bands the Underdogs and the Quincy Conserve before moving to Melbourne, while Hurley went to Britain. Marsden dropped out of sight for several years before re-emerging with the Country Flyers and eventually becoming something of a musical institution.

And Beauchamp? He never again achieved the prominence he enjoyed with the Breakaways, but he continued playing music in the towns where he subsequently lived – first Paraparaumu, later Auckland and then Dannevirke, where he formed a country rock band, Dixie Express, that included his daughter and foster son.

At the time of his death he and his wife Pat were living near Reporoa, where Beauchamp worked as a teacher’s aid at Reporoa College. He died of liver cancer, having had an earlier brush with cancer in 2007.

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