An exclusive chat with Suzanne Donaldson about the history of New Zealand’s pop pioneers and the first-ever U.S. edition or their classic LP The Sound Of The Chicks
Despite its growing destination as a dreamlike vacation spot, not to mention a fertile breeding ground for indie rock (one could make the argument it started there with Flying Nun Records), New Zealand remains a sort of mystery to many westerners.
Of course its sheer distance and cost to get there aid in that status. Even with the dawning of the internet age though, and its ability to make faraway places more familiar, regional kiwi musical acts who were big there mostly remain cult here.
Enter, The Chicks.
A teenage singing sister duo from a half-hour outside Auckland that was snatched up by a wise record producer circa 1965, their debut album, The Sound of the Chicks, was issued for the first time in America this July, via Modern Harmonic. It’s an effervescent singalong that rides on the initial explosion of Phil Spector’s girl group attitude and British Invasion excitement, just as those twin influences were already morphing into something a bit more serious in America. Somewhere inside Judy and Suzanne Donaldson’s harmonies and lyrical winks lie a seed of Flying Nun’s sunspot sounds – not to mention the mostly unfettered production heart of the fruitful garage rock scene in New Zealand at the time. But mostly, this collection of originals and au courant covers is a fun nostalgia romp, a great straddle between malt shop hop and early girl group grooves.
After their first act faded, the two Chicks themselves went on to successful music careers. We caught up with Suzanne (Donaldson) Lynch to get the story of a mostly unknown piece of overseas ‘60s pop.
VIDEO: The Chicks “Hucklebuck”
So how did you start making music together? Was your family a musical family?
Our grandfathers were both performers on the stage. Our mother’s father was a well-known tenor in Wellington, NZ, and our father’s father sang in musicals in England when he was there, and here in New Zealand in local productions. As we lived in the country as children, our entertainment was to sing around the piano. Our mother would play, and Judy and I would sing. I usually sang the melody as I was younger, and Judy would be taught the harmony.
What were early musical influences? I guess you have a story of seeing the Beatles on TV? But I assume there were more regional musical inspirations.
As I was only 13 when we were first discovered, I was too young to go and see the Beatles, but my sister Judy went and screamed with all the other fans. I remember my first real music I played endlessly was the soundtrack of Oklahoma, and “Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits.
I love the La De Da’s! So Kevin Borich (guitarist) was a neighbor? Tell me about him, what you learned from him, and did you guys ever get to see Las De Da’s live?
Yes, Kevin Borich was our neighbor, and we used to go to the same primary school in Huapai West Auckland, New Zealand. The Borichs used to come to our place on a Saturday, or we would go over there, and Kevin would play his guitar and we all would sing. In fact when I was eight years old and Judy was ten-and-a-half, we made a recording with Kevin in a studio in Auckland, and the engineer at the time was very taken with us, and told us to come back when we were older! Ha ha! I think we saw the La De Da’s on television, but I personally don’t recall ever seeing them in person.
VIDEO: La De Da’s “How Is The Air Up There?”
Whoa! I’d love to hear that recording! So, you won a talent contest while you were on a holiday? How did that happen?
At about the same age of eight and ten-and-a-half, we went to Tauranga for a Christmas holiday, and our parents entered us into a talent quest that was being held there. We called ourselves “The Dots,” as our mother had made us matching polka dot dresses for the occasion. We won, and the prize was a frozen chicken, which was hilarious, as we lived on a poultry farm.
Ha! What are your general memories of making The Sound of the Chicks? Where did you make it, recording it, how long it took, anything like that…
We recorded the record at a recording studio in Auckland named Mascot Recording Studios, I remember going in there from school and recording in my school uniform with my shoes and socks! Most of the tracks were one or two-take wonders. No “dropping in” in those days! So what we sang is what you will hear.
Well dang, you had those tunes down then! Ha! That man’s voice in “Hucklebuck” and “The Birds and the Bees”– who was that guy?
Ah, that was one of the Radio Hauraki “Good Guys” as they called themselves. Chris Parkinson, who was known for his deep talking voice on the new pirate radio station at the time.
Where did you get your clothes? Was there a cool mod shop around your town, or did you have to go into Auckland to get clothes and records and such?
Our manager at the time, Ron Dalton, who was the man who “discovered” us, took us out after the recording session and found us the jumpers and tights and boots – and The Chicks image was complete. I used to design most of our clothes after that period, or when we started working on television, the “C’mon Show” wardrobe people would design and make us clothes. Image was important in those days. I think it still is today.
VIDEO: The C’Mon Show
Tell me about the scene in Auckland, and how you got gigs in the early days?
All gigs were organized by our manager Rob Dalton. During that early period, mostly we did tours. Our very first tour was with Sandy Shaw, The Pretty Things, and Eden Kane – all on one bill!
Crazy! It’s said that you formed a friendship with The Pretty Things. Sadly, singer Phil May recently passed away. Do you have any memories of him? When was the last time you spoke with him?
I only saw him on the tour in 1965. We all became good friends on that, but I haven’t been in touch with him since. Very sad to hear of his passing. He was a nice guy.
Tell me about Mike Perjanik. It said in the press release that he wrote most of the originals and formed the band that backed you up on The Sound of The Chicks?
I don’t believe Mike Perjanik wrote any of the songs, but he was the studio band leader, and actually named us. He used to say, “Get those chicks up to the microphone, we’re ready!” So as “chicks” was a pretty cool name for girls at that time, it was decided we should be called “The Chicks.”
You were 14 and 16 at the time, right? So how involved were your parents? And what of Mrs. Donaldson, your chaperone on tours?
Once we started touring, I had only just turned 14 years old, so our mother used to accompany us on all out tours. She had her eyes well and truly opened by the Pretty Things (who were pretty tame really). Very funny! Viv Prince the drummer wore her leopard skin pillar hat throughout the whole tour. She ran our fan club, and was kept very busy with it as the fan mail poured in. Both our parents were as amazed as us at our unexpected popularity, but were very supportive.
A song like “Tobacco Road” or “Looking for the Right Guy,” etc. – you’re both under 16 at the time. I assume you didn’t have too many heavy boyfriend relationships or trips down tobacco road yet. So do you remember ever talking with the producers about the lyrics, or you just jumped in and had fun?
Ha ha! Well, we just had fun, and were so young we didn’t think too hard about the lyrics. Of course during the early days, our mother was always with us, so no parties or boys. As Judy got to be a bit older, she would go out, but I seemed to still be told to “shut the door and read a magazine” when all the guys went off to a party or something. In fact I hardly dated at all during my teenage years, as I was so busy with TV shows or gigs. I think all the boys thought I must already have a ton of boyfriends, or were just too scared to approach me…. Personally, I was just singing what I was told to sing. I think 14-year olds then were much more naive than the 14-year olds of today.
VIDEO: The Chicks “Miss You Baby”
I’ve interviewed Ronnie Spector, and she had similar stories of her early days, and getting to go out on the road with these rock stars, but then made to stay away from most of the parties after the shows. Did you two fight ever against that at all, and try to sneak out sometimes?
No I can’t say we ever sneaked out, and I certainly didn’t fight it. Judy went out on occasion, but we were kept pretty busy, All the musicians and local “stars” we played with during that time are all still good friends. As I said earlier, I didn’t really go out much at all with anyone.
Can you tell me any interesting or funny story of being on the road traveling and playing shows through New Zealand in those early days? I imagine any sort of “rock club scene” was not yet too built up in NZ just yet?
There were clubs in New Zealand, but we didn’t play in them, mostly just bands played there. We were strictly big concert performers. On the tour with The Pretty Things, Viv Prince got a bit carried away one night and was threatening to set the stage curtains alight. He came and grabbed me from side of stage and got me to play his drums, while he ran around the stage with a burning newspaper before the bodyguards took control of him. To a 14-year-old, it seemed hilarious, but I’m sure it was downright dangerous actually. I had always loved the drums and could play a simple beat, so managed to keep the beat and the song going. The next day we were on the front page of the local newspaper.
VIDEO: The Chicks “You Won’t Forget Me”
Tell me some other bands that you got to play with live.
Well, I’ve personally been singing and performing now for 51 years, so too many to name, although in the 1970’s I was the vocal backing leader in Cat Stevens band, which I loved. I did two world tours with him, and the band were all amazing. The biggest highlight for me was singing at Madison Square Garden with Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam’s) band in New York, and Joni Mitchell, whom I have always been a huge fan of, was sitting in the audience watching me sing! What a thrill.
I will assume you both probably caught up with more adult good times as you kept performing through the years. What were some of your musical work that you’re most proud of?
The Chicks went their separate ways after about five years together. Judy went overseas to pursue other things, and lived in Australia singing with a band for a time that performed in clubs and private parties, etc., before coming home to New Zealand to raise her family.
I stayed here and pursued a solo career. I recorded five solo albums and had a couple of hits, and continued working in television on a show called “Happen Inn.” I toured NZ with Val Doonican, who invited me to go to London and perform on his television show over there. I went for a six month visit, and ended up staying for eight years. Did TV shows with Lulu, Leo Sayer, toured with Neil Sedaka, Charles Aznavour, and Cat Stevens, and recorded vocal backing on lots of English artists records, as I was in the first call vocal group in London at the time. I also went to Nashville and recorded two songs with Poppa Don Schroader as producer, which did very well for me both in England, Australia, and New Zealand. These days I am still performing with a New Zealand vocal group called The Ladykillers. You can find us on YouTube.
AUDIO: Suzanne “Yesterday When I Was Young”
What did you think of this overseas reissue of that very first album after all these years? I guess The Chicks still have a name in New Zealand, but were you surprised that an American company wanted to do this reissue?
Yes I was surprised, but thrilled at the same time! It is a bit of New Zealand history now I feel. People still remember our days as “The Chicks,” and we were so lucky our careers found us, not the other way around.