This Is Andrew McLennan

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At the age of ten, Andrew McLennan (born 1960) bumped the dial on the family radio and was shocked to hear music coming out. “I thought that the radio was all about horse racing and had no idea there was music.” The song was The Doobie Brothers ‘Black Water’ and the beginning of a love affair with music that would take Andrew all the way to the top of the local industry. By the age of 22 Andrew McLennan was just about as ‘pop star’ as it is possible to be in New Zealand. At the age of 30, somewhat disenchanted with where he was with his career he gave the music away and embarked on a new course of life, one that would take him a fortune before almost destroying him.

Andrew was 14 when his father on his way out to the pub pushed open the bedroom door to say goodbye and Andrew caught unawares hastily hid the magazine he was reading behind his back. Naturally his father thought it was some kind of pornographic mag and demanded to see it. It was just a music magazine, the kind that Andrew had been buying and pouring over every chance he got, soaking up stories of bands and songs and dreaming of fame and fortune. It was at this moment that he gave his father the news that he was going to be a singer in a band. “Yeah Yeah,” was the reply.

For a kid whose ambitions were to sing in a band, Dunedin born McLennan found himself exactly at the right place and time living as he was just down the road from Westlake Boys High on Auckland’s North Shore, a school where a serendipitous meeting of like minds was about to take place.

His wider circle of schoolmates included Richard Von Sturmer, Don McGlashan (“I was so in awe of his musical gifts that I felt very shy around him”), Mark Bell, Ian Gilroy, Peter Warren, Rob Guy and Tim Mahon. Bell, Gilroy and McLennan formed a band called Titusucanbe which they later renamed The Whizz Kids. The Whizz Kids were a Petri dish, a nurturing ground that mentored a group of young musicians who later contributed to some of that generation’s most exciting music- Blam Blam Blam, The Crocodiles, The Plague, Pop Mechanix, Lip service, Coconut Rough and The Swingers.

For Andrew it was straight out of school and straight into fulltime music. Between 1978 and 1980 he fronted both The Whizz Kids and The Plague, played some keyboards and wrote some of the songs. The Whiz Kids were power pop; The Plague was art rock theatre anarchy. The Plague seems a strange contrast to Andrew’s mainstream pop ambitions, but Andrew explains it was because of school-mate (poet and screen writer) Richard Von Strummer. “Being involved with anything he had a hand in was always something special.” (Everyone in The Plague were known by the surname Snoid, explaining why Andrew McLennan is sometimes referred to as Andrew Snoid).

In 1980 Andrew joined one of the nations top touring acts the Australia bound Pop Mechanix, replacing their long time vocalist and founding member Dick Driver. Playing support slots for Spilt Enz, The Stray Cats, Joe Cocker and Eric Burden the band were building a solid reputation and playing to ever increasing crowds when Armageddon hit. A Sydney outfit called Popular Mechanics claimed a conflict of interest and approached the bands label CBS Records and asked for $5000 in return for relinquishing all rights to the name. The record company refused and a protracted court case flowed severely denting the bands momentum. The judge ruled in favour of Popular Mechanics and Pop Mechanix lost the right to use their name in all territories except in New Zealand, Canberra and the Northern Territory.

Andrew: “CBS could have paid the cash but didn’t, they were not going to be pushed around by a small time band that had only released one independent single. It was all about the labels arrogance and it fucked us.” (Tim Murdoch of Warners NZ later reclaimed the rights to the name and gave them back to McLennan). The band soldiered on as NZ Pop then The Zoo eventually returning to NZ to continue as The Pop Mechanix but for Andrew it was all over, (temporarily as it turned out). Feeling somewhat disenchanted by the experience he accepted an offer to join The Swingers.

Andrew had played with the Swingers a year earlier at the XS Café in Auckland taking on vocals for a cover of The Suburban Reptiles track ‘Saturday Night Stay At Home’. “When Phil Judd called me a year later and asked me to join the band the chance to work with him was too appealing but I did feel like a rat jumping a sinking ship as far the Mechanix were concerned.”

The Swingers were faltering under the weight of their mega-hit ‘Counting The Beat’, a song that had become so all consuming it had stopped the band from moving forward and Judd’s solution to this dilemma was to recreate the band. In 1992 Andrew took over lead vocal duties from Judd, taking some of the weight of his shoulders and allowing him to concentrate on the guitar but it was to no avail. Andrew: “The Australian audience didn’t get The Swingers and ‘Counting The Beat’ was all they wanted to hear. It was soul-destroying.”

Despite everyone’s best efforts the band was playing to ever diminishing crowds and losing money. Finally Judd pulled the plug but it wasn’t all a loss as Andrew explains: “Working with Phil was an accelerated learning curve. I got to work with a musical genius who taught me simple things like routine and discipline. His attitude was awe-inspiring. He would start off every day with writing then we would learn new songs and when the rehearsals were done we would spend the rest of the day doing bonding stuff like playing baseball. Phil taught me how to run and manage a band and apply a workman like attitude to the creative process.”

 

The Swingers with Andrew McLennan (Mushroom Evolution Concert 1982)

 

With the end of The Swingers Andrew returned to NZ in 1993 and taking what he had learned from Judd applied it to his next project Coconut Rough. He sat down and wrote 22 songs some of which were demoed at Mandrill and then shopped them around.

The response was positive, especially so as regards a track called ‘Sierra Leone’. After working through a few offers the band signed with Mushroom. Andrew remembers taking a call from Mushroom boss Michael Gudinski who expressed his feelings on ‘Sierra Leone’ with a hearty “Maaaaaate!!”

 

Coconut Rough- Magic Hour (shot in an abandoned cement factory in Warkworth in 1984)

 

Shazam: Coconut Rough making of Sierra Leonie Part 1

 

The song was released and went top 5 in NZ and top 50 in Australia. “The irony of it was that the one hit wonder thing that effected The Swingers so badly became our yolk to bear as well. ‘Sierra Leone’ became the only song from our repertoire that people wanted to hear and no matter what we did we couldn’t follow it up.

I was 22 years old and that song was everywhere. It sure as hell gave me my seventeen and a half minutes of fame but it also became this albatross I couldn’t get past and for a long time I struggled with it. I don’t feel that way now because it’s grown beyond me and I am really grateful for the royalty checks, they never ceases to amaze me.”

Coconut Rough eventually imploded, partly due to the weight of ‘Sierra Leone’ and in 1986 Andrew rejoined Pop Mechanix for “3 years of productive and well-paid work” but when the band decided to relocate to Christchurch to take up a long-term residency Andrew didn’t want to make that journey and bowed out. Instead he took up an offer from Tim Murdoch of Warners NZ who paid him to go Los Angeles and write songs with producer John Boylen (Sharon O’Neil, The Little River Band, Boston).

 

POP MECHANIX – Pale Sun (1987 Friday Night Live)

 

1990-91 was spent living at Boylen’s Laurel Canyon home/studio, “I wrote and recorded all day most days but I was not confident about what I was doing and on top of that I was missing home. I was a bit despondent and escaped as much as I could and explored the city by car. I discovered these specialist vintage toyshops and started buying up bits and pieces and I began to think this is something I could do.” Packing up the toys he had collected, he returned home and in 1993 opened a shop on Parnell Road called ‘The Old Tin Toy Shop’, a retail and Internet operation that became a money making machine and paid for a heady lifestyle that included plenty of partying. Between 1985 and 2000 Andrew kept his musical hand warm, performing on and off with A cappella group The John Does, (Peter Elliot, Jay Legia and Nathaniel Lees).

It all started coming apart in late 2005 when Andrew purchased a noted collection of Disney memorabilia in San Diego. The purchase required a hefty bank loan and when he realised the collection was not going to be as easy to sell as he thought and with numerous other deals to maintain he began to feel the pinch and increasingly stressed he started losing his grip. In 2007 he walked away from the business narrowly avoiding bankruptcy.

“I was a workaholic who was abusing alcohol and drugs. I had been living a dishonest life and it cost me my business and the woman I loved.” Suffering burnout and clinical depression he lapsed into in a state of morbid paralysis that friends worried might cost him his life. With prompting he sought assistance at specialist clinic where he met meet Kevin Findlater (Bulldogs All-Star Goodtime Band, Hogsnort Rupert, Dave and the Dominoes) who had gone through something similar and was now mentoring patients working their way back to recovery. Andrew; “Kevin urged me to start writing music again saying that it would be the key to my recovery and that through music I would find myself again. I don’t like admitting it, but he was right!”

 

Andrew McLennan’s Telling Tales: Hiding In Public

In 2010, three years after the fall, he picked up the guitar and wrote ‘Cabin Fever’ the first of 25 new songs, 12 of which have been recorded at Kevin Findlater’s home studio for Andrew’s debut solo album ‘Hiding In Public’. Between writing and recording he has been keeping himself busy with live work and while the venues are smaller than the ones he played in his hey-day they are always full and the audiences enthusiastic.

Andrew McLennan is intelligent, thoughtful and no longer ambitious in the way he once was. These days it’s all about the craft and enjoying the moment. Reflecting on the new album, Andrew looks up and fixing me with that intense stare of his matter of factly states that “I have been away so long that it is not a comeback, it is a beginning.”

Epilogue:

Andrew picks up an acoustic and belts out a couple of songs, ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘Hiding In Public’, both reflective pieces that examine aspects of the dark years still only freshly out to bed. These are catchy, relevant and honest songs replete with a depth of character that can only forged through the school of hard knocks. But these songs don’t feel sorry for themselves; Andrew is too clever and self-aware for that. These songs are like old friends, the kind of friends who know you intimately and they are like the man himself, memorable and interesting to be around.

 

On Depression:

“A friend once told me that that there was a process to these things, a beginning middle and an end I would come through it and be ok, I remember feeling that was ‘mumbo jumbo touchy feely’ nonsense that offered no consolation. He was right though. I had to do a lot of work and make big changes to my lifestyle and attitude. I am good these days, really good. I watch for signs of the ‘black dog’ and if I sense it lurking in the shadows I actively do something about it. I fear it in a healthy way. I don’t ever want to go back and I’ll do my best to never let it catch me again.”

 

On Phil Judd:

He can just go places most people can’t. He is a bandleader not a member. May not necessarily mix well with others. He is complex, both aloof and genial, he isolates and suffers. He is intense and hilariously funny, sometimes dark and unfathomable – he can be a right prick as well as utterly charming. I know he has had his demons, perhaps its a price the gifted pay, I don’t know, but somehow he keeps on producing Juddesquely brilliant music. I remain a fan and I’m still in awe of his talent. He is unique.

 

Andrew McLennan’s Telling Tales: Jumping Out A Window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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