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Pop CultureApril 29, 2017

The Paul Holmes album: Lost classic or bargain bin novelty? Or both?

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Today would have been the 67th birthday of broadcasting legend Sir Paul Holmes. To celebrate, Pete Douglas looks back on that strange time when a broadcaster could release an album on a major label for seemingly no other reason than shits and giggles.                

“Hi there – do you sell many of these?”

“We are New Zealand’s biggest compact disc retailer sir…”

“Oh yeah, I get that. I mean do you sell many of these – the Paul Holmes album?  You’ve got a couple of copies in the bin over there, I just wondered…”

“I’ve never seen that before sorry sir…”

“Never?! It’s a cultural artifact of sorts really. I mean before people got their noses all out of joint about Sonny Bill Williams and his boxing, Paul and his singing was really the grandest vanity project that a New Zealand celebrity had undertaken. Not to speak ill of the dearly departed at all, which I’m certainly not, but the sheer hubris of it all at the very least is kinda fascinating, don’t you think?….”

“Will that be all today sir?”

I’m standing in The Warehouse, failing miserably at striking up a conversation with the perplexed woman serving me at the entertainment desk. In my hand hovering between us, smirking almost knowingly is the image of Sir Paul Holmes (RIP), as pictured on the cover of his 2000 self-titled album.

I found the prized disc nestled in between Warehouse staples such as 101 Greatest Housework Songs and Chillsville Volume 3 – those kind of haphazard compilations that time has forgotten, and whose titles and artwork actually make you wince a little in embarrassment for the makers. A quick check on Spotify revealed the album was available digitally, but as I flicked through the liner notes and admired the cover art I realised that I wanted, nay needed, to own this artifiact of New Zealand history. I wanted to go back and understand how one would have experienced the album in 2000, after eagerly purchasing it for $34.95 and rushing it home to listen.

I can remember when the album first came out surprisingly vividly. I was at university and, without listening myself, was convinced it was garbage, an opinion no doubt formed by some desire on my part to cement my views on Holmes himself. Our household by this point had reached loggerheads on the topic of Holmes. I was young, and saw him as a standard bearer for all the middle-aged conservatism I disliked at the time in this fine country of ours. My dad, who worked with closely with Holmes during his initial failure and then eventual rise to power in the Auckland radio market during the late 80s, loved to say things like “no one in New Zealand can do what Paul Holmes does”.

Few things are more infuriating when you are young than someone saying something is good purely because there’s nothing better. So when the record arrived to a chorus of mockery I took it as a vindication of every bad thing I might have said about Holmes. Aspersions were soon cast on the platinum status that Warners and Holmes himself claimed the record achieved, and by early 2001 it was already a staple of bargain bins and joke birthday gifts throughout the land.

So why did he do it? By the turn of the millennium, Holmes was media king. Imagine Mike Hosking with a passion for real causes, an actual heart, and superior journalism skill. Holmes was everywhere – dominating Auckland morning radio, and then beaming into most of the country’s homes at 7pm each night, dual roles he’d held for over a decade. You could hardly blame him for getting itchy feet. This was five years before John Campbell came along and shook things up, so all he really had was himself, his celebrity, and his kingdom.  

The first thing that strikes me about the package itself are the extensive notes penned by Paul himself:

“As a child I loved singing. I sang to family and friends and at home I learnt the lyrics to the popular songs of the day. I sang at school and worked on songs during lunchtimes and sang in the school choir. One day, however, at a school prizegiving I was given a two line solo. I was so nervous I sang flat. I was devastated and never sang to anyone again.

Now, over thirty years later, I’ve made a CD.”

Paul goes on to explain how his impromptu singing at a number of events evolved into the idea of releasing an album, the process of which sounds very organic and not at all like the insane ego-driven power trip 21-year-old me had once seen it as.  

As if I was not feeling guilty enough at this point, Paul then sucker punches me from the grave with this:

“Warners were keen to go ahead. I hesitated, worried about public reaction if I suddenly turned up as a singer on a CD. At the end of 1999 I found out I had cancer. I decided what the hell. I had a chance to make a CD. l would do it.”

I am a truly horrible person.  

And so it’s time to listen. It’s not amazing – Paul’s vocal is a little pinched, the music is such polished and slick Y2K adult-contemporary that it sounds a little bit like a karaoke track, and the pace is very sedate over the 47-minute running time. But Holmes can hold tune much better than I expected, and his taste, while very safe, is not bad. It’s white bread as hell, but ‘Fire & Rain’, ‘Reason to Believe’ and ‘Sundown’ are at the better end of the easy listening spectrum.  

I realise that I’ve judged Paul a bit harshly. Sure, I’ll rarely listen to the album again. Sure, it would have been much better if Holmes recorded something reckless in 1975 when he was a rock ‘n roll DJ who looked a bit like a young Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople. But it’s really not as bad as it could have been, and it sounds like Holmes genuinely enjoyed himself making it. And so long as that never results in an album of Rod Stewart covers by the dastardly Mike Hosking, maybe that’s OK.

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