(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 27).
I replayed the video of How Bizarre a few days ago, just to remind myself what all the fuss was about.Remember the song? “Brother Pele’s in the back, sweet Sina’s in the front”.
Perhaps it would jog your memory if I mentioned the promotional video showing a red Chev Impala convertible with the singer Pauly Fuemana, wearing a tropical shirt, behind the wheel.No one alive and sentient in New Zealand during the late 1990s could not have been aware of How Bizarre, both the song and its accompanying video (no one, that is, except the two otherwise knowledgeable gentlemen with whom I have lunch most Fridays, both of whom looked at me blankly a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned it).
How Bizarre was a phenomenon; there’s no other word for it. Recorded in Auckland in 1995 and attributed to OMC (for Otara Millionaires Club), it was arguably the most successful New Zealand pop record ever, topping charts in the United States, Australia and Canada and reaching the Top 10 in Britain, Germany and Sweden. The video was shown on US television an estimated 15,000 times.The word “phenomenon” seems particularly apt because there was no obvious explanation for the song’s success.
It didn’t seem to matter that the lyrics didn’t make much sense. The history of pop music, after all, is littered with songs that became massive hits despite lyrics that were unintelligible. If you want verbal profundity, listen to Bob Dylan (although his lyrics don’t always make much sense either.)How Bizarre chimed with record buyers and radio listeners for reasons that defy intellectual analysis. The most you can say is that the song was catchy, and that it seemed to capture the so-called zeitgeist – in other words, the spirit of its times.
It had a sunny, laidback vibe that fused Pacifica-influenced South Auckland soul - Fuemana's vocal inflections were pure Otara - with South Central LA hip-hop. An incongruous dose of Mexican mariachi-style trumpet was thrown in for good measure. It’s fair to say no one had heard anything quite like it before.At the time, credit for the song’s success was naturally given to Fuemana. To all intents and purposes, he was OMC. He was generally presented in the media as something of a backyard genius.
It took nearly 20 years for the real story to emerge. I read it over the holidays in an absorbing and well-written book by Simon Grigg, the owner of the Auckland record label that released Fuemana’s records.Grigg’s book is called, naturally, How Bizarre, and those two words turn out to be far more apposite in the context of the book than they were in the song (which was about nothing bizarre at all; apparently Fuemana just liked the phrase).
The first thing that becomes evident in the book is that How Bizarre, the record, wouldn’t – couldn’t – have happened without Fuemana’s producer, Alan Jansson. A master of digital recording techniques, Jansson co-wrote the song (such as it is) and created the sound.In fact it soon emerges that Fuemana had limited musical ability. According to Grigg, he had trouble even holding a tune. The reader gets the very clear impression that he wouldn’t have amounted to anything without Jansson’s inventiveness and technical wizardry.
In a sense, there’s nothing new here. Recording stars have always benefited from the ability of producers, engineers and musical arrangers to make them sound better than they really were. But recording technology is now so sophisticated, and so adept at embellishing and polishing sounds with digital massaging, that it almost doesn’t matter if the supposed “star” can’t hold a note.The real stars are often the anonymous people manipulating the sound in the background. This seems to have been the case with Fuemana, whose contribution to the songs attributed to him often seems to have been minimal. He was a mere bit player in Land of Plenty, the follow-up hit to How Bizarre.
Grigg reveals this without malice. He was Fuemana’s friend, adviser and travelling companion throughout the roller-coaster How Bizarre years, but it was a friendship that was repeatedly tested to the limit.Fuemana, who died in 2010, had charisma, charm and style, but he was also unstable, petulant, paranoid, naïve, feckless, egotistical and a fantasist. He often teetered on the edge of violence.
The reader is left wondering whether Grigg stuck with him because of his money-making potential or because he genuinely cared for him and wanted to protect him, often against himself. I decided it was probably the latter.His book is an eye-opener. It’s no secret that the music business, internationally, is greedy, exploitative, manipulative, heartless and often extraordinarily stupid, being totally geared to the moving of “product”.
What was a revelation for me, reading How Bizarre, is that all the above is almost as true of the industry in New Zealand and Australia as it is in the US and Britain. A high proportion of the characters in the book come across as egotistical, nakedly ambitious, quick to take credit for other people's achievements and often just plain incompetent.By the end, I found myself wondering how many good songs must have sunk without trace because some vain, stupid record company boss or radio programmer decided they didn’t fit whatever rigid, narrow, unimaginative template was being enforced at the time.