Book Review: ‘How Bizarre, Pauly Fuemana and the Song That Stormed The World’

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Music Impresario Simon Grigg first met Pauly Fuemana through his nightclub ‘Cause Celebre’ on Auckland’s High Street in the late 1980s.  A young and “devastatingly charming” young Pauly was a regular and rather naively (as it turned out) Grigg offered him a small bar tab, one that was quickly used up and looked like it was never going to repaid.

Anxious to recover something from the deal, Grigg set Pauly to work at various tasks around the club and discovered in Pauly “the worst employee ever”, one more concerned with his looks and the ladies than clearing tables and washing glasses.

Regardless, it all turned out pretty good for all concerned when a few years later Simon heard a track that Pauly had been working on with Producer Alan Jansson called ‘Doof it Up.’ Impressed, he immediately signed Pauly to a fledgling label he had created to release Nathan Haines’s debut album. ‘Doof it Up’ (street slang meaning  ‘to have a scap to work things out’ but not in an overly aggressive way) became ‘Big Top’ and then finally ‘How Bizarre’, a phrase Pauly borrowed from Alan’s wife Bernie who was a frequent user of the term.

Simon knew he was onto “something pretty special” and organised a licensing deal with a “less than enthusiastic” PolyGram NZ whose opinion quickly changed after the Australian arm of the label saw the songs commercial potential and rushed it to release.

The song went to number one across Australasia in 1995 and next stop was Britain where the song failed to fire significantly on first release. It wasn’t until British radio superstar Chris Evans heard the song while on holiday Australia in 1996 and started playing it on his BBC 1 Breakfast show that the song hit properly. Grigg: “When the song hit in Britain we were rushed over to appear on Top Of The Pops and there we were (Pauly was broke and still living in a council flat in Auckland) sitting in the Green room with the Spice Girls. Baby Spice came over to Pauly and said “You’re Bizarre” and Pauly replied “You’re Spicy.” It was all pretty surreal.” From there the song set Europe alight, (in particular Germany, the worlds third biggest music market) and finally in 1997, it cracked the really big time, America.

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Image: Simon Grigg and Pauly Fuemana circa 1995

Initial attempts to get the song released in the States had been met with resistance from Labels with comments like “too quirky” but it was via Canada that ‘How Bizarre’ got its ‘in’. Upon release it went straight to the top of the Canadian charts. Radio listeners on the other side of the border locked onto it and started asking their local stations to play it. A radio station in Buffalo (upstate NY) put it on high rotate and it spread like a virus, hitting right across the State and most notably in New York city where it went ballistic. The rest of the story is history.

With the Lorde phenomenon lighting up the local scene in recent years, it’s easy to forget the impact of ‘How Bizarre’, our first really big international hit. Kawerau boy John Rowles had scored first with two substantial hits in Britain back in the late 1960s (‘If I Only Had Time’ and ‘Hush, Not Word To Mary’). In 1980 Split Enz came close with the True Colours album and the single ‘I Got You’ but it wasn’t until Neil Finn’s Australian based Crowded House scored internationally with the single ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’ in 1986 that a native child hit the really big time, and big as it was, ‘Don’t Dream its Over,’ looked a bit pale in comparison with what was to follow with ‘How Bizarre’, a genuine all purpose hit in every market in the world, from Asia to the America’s, Europe, Africa and everywhere else in between.

From 1995-97, the song itself shifted some 4 million units and the album around 1.5 million units and is still a money making goldmine today thanks to royalties from advertising, movies, TV show placements and ongoing airplay.  Grigg: “It’s the song that keeps on giving. The amount of serious money one song can generate is phenomenal.”

Simon Grigg’s book ‘How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song that Stormed the World’ charts the course of the song from it’s humble origins to its world dominating success, but this is not just the story of a song, it’s also the story of the creative minds behind it, most notably Mr Fuemana himself, a man Grigg describes as being “both extraordinarily talented and deeply flawed.”

Pauly came from humble origins; the son of a Niuean father and a Tuhoe mother he grew up on the ‘mean streets’ of Otara and suffered ongoing wounds from a deeply dysfunctional family life. Grigg: “Pauly was psychologically ill equipped to deal with fame and handled it rather badly despite the efforts of a robust management team. At his worst he was a ‘fantasist’ who loved the ‘bling’ and surrounded himself with sycophants, at his best he was a humble collaborator and a loyal friend with a generous spirit.”

While taken to fits of violence and paranoia, “Pauly,” explains Grigg, “also had a good heart. He took care of his wider family, paying of debts and mortgages but fell pray to those within the family who felt entitled and demanded ever more money from him.” Grigg’s goes onto explain that for a time Pauly was “seriously wealthy” but his need to be seen as ‘the man’ and his spendthrift ways led to his financial undoing and eventual bankruptcy.

Pauly died in 2010 from respiratory failure following a protracted battle with ‘chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy’, (an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nervous system). Fuemana’s funeral was held on 5 February 2010 at a Pacific Island Presbyterian Church just off K-Rd in Central Auckland. There were 200 people in attendance.

Simon Grigg was there and it was during “the very moving funeral service” that he decided to write it all down, as it was: the good, the bad and the ugly- fearing that if he didn’t, the real story would never be told as it actually was. He was there, all the way through, a hands on witness to one of the more cautionary tales in the Kiwi cannon and his account is one grand ripping yarn from the first page to the last.

Grigg’s book is a modern fable about the pitfalls of fame and celebrity, a riveting account of a highly complex man and a detailed exposition of the machinations at work in the music industry at large. Destined to be classic, ‘How Bizarre’ the book is not just for music fans, it is a ‘story for the ages’.

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