Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Music Convention – "Ballad of the Light Brigade" (1968)

Ours is not to reason why
Ours is but to do or die

The famous “Charge of the Light Brigade” during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War inspired not only Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous narrative poem but also three movies.

The first film titled The Charge of the Light Brigade is a 1912 silent film that’s only twelve minutes long.  It was shot in Wyoming and used 800 U.S. Army cavalrymen in the battle scenes.

The 1936 Warner Brothers film about the gallant but doomed charge, which starred Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and was directed by Michael Curtiz (best remembered as the director of Casablanca), was much more fictional than factual.  (It was the kind of movie Oliver Stone and Michael Moore are famous for making.)

Poster for the 1968 movie
In 1968, Tony Richardson – who had won an Academy Award for Tom Jones – directed a big-budget British production about the charge of the Light Brigade.  It starred Trevor Howard, John Gielgud, David Hemmings, and Richardson’s ex-wife, Vanessa Redgrave.  

That film’s producers were hopeful that it would be a big success in the UK and British Commonwealth countries.  The movie received good reviews, but bombed at the box office: it cost $6.5 million to make, but earned only half that much back from ticket sales.

Here's the trailer for the 1968 movie:

Efforts to promote the movie in New Zealand included hiring a local band called the Music Convention to write and record a song that would be played in theaters prior to showings of the film.  

Bassist Greg O’Donnell and his brother Rob (who played the guitar) were two of the founding members of the Music Convention.  2 or 3 lines recently tracked down Greg O’Donnell and asked him about the Music Convention and “Ballad of the Light Brigade”: 

2 or 3 lines:  Greg, you and your brother Rob grew up in Hamilton on the North Island of New Zealand.  Tell me a little about your family and your childhood.

Greg O’Donnell:  Rob is my older brother and we have four other siblings in our family.  We had a fairly normal and happy upbringing.  Our family passion was water skiing and we spent many summers together enjoying this sport.  Neither of our parents were musical, but they encouraged us to learn a musical instrument and sing.  Rob learned piano, guitar and accordion.  I soon tagged along on ukelele and then guitar.  We were about eleven or twelve years old when the music bug hit us.  We were soon singing and playing at parties and get-togethers and before long had our first band under way and were playing at local dances.  We were barely teenagers at that point.  We haven't stopped since.

2 or 3 lines: Did you learn about the "Charge of the Light Brigade" in history class, or read the Tennyson poem about it when you were in school?

Greg:  I vaguely remembered the subject from school, but when the opportunity to write a song about it came up, I did a bit more research about it.

2 or 3 lines: Famed director Tony Richardson directed a big-budget British movie titled Charge of the Light Brigade in 1968.  I understand that the Music Convention, was asked to record a song about the charge that would be played in movie theaters in New Zealand prior to screenings of that movie.

Greg:  Yes, that’s true.  Our record company, Astor Recording, was asked to come up with a promotional song for the movie.  We got the job because we were already writing and recording our own material with Astor and they felt we were capable of composing a suitable song.

The Music Convention performing live in 1969
2 or 3 lines:  The lyrics to "Ballad of the Light Brigade" contain several references to lines from the Tennyson poem.  Who wrote the music and the lyrics to "Ballad of the Light Brigade"?

Greg:  My brother Rob and I wrote the lyrics and melody for the song originally, and the band as a whole worked on the arrangement. 

2 or 3 lines:  At the time that "Ballad of the Light Brigade" was recorded, the Music Convention consisted of you on bass and  sitar, your brother Rob on guitar, Sean Kelly on drums, and Graeme Webber on keyboards.  Are those the musicians who played on the record, or were others involved?  Who handled the vocals on "Ballad of the Light Brigade"?

Greg:  Yes, this was the line-up that played on the record.  The vocals were handled by Rob and me.  Astor Recording added the cannon fire and battle sounds as overdubs onto the final mix.  Interestingly, the bugle charge that sounds in the song is a recorded of the original bugle used in the battle.  Astor obtained it from somewhere and dubbed it on.   

The Music Convention hams it up
2 or 3 lines:  The 1968 movie was not a box-office success.  Did it do well enough in New Zealand to give much exposure to your record?  Did the record get much radio airplay?

Greg:  No, outside of the theater promotions it didn't really see the light of day.  Just another interesting exercise in music making.

2 or 3 lines:  I understand that you were the person playing sitar on the Music Convention singles that were released prior to "Ballad of the Light Brigade."  How did you learn to play sitar?  

Greg:  I was working at the local evening newspaper, the Auckland Star, as a graphic artist.  One of my workmates was Daryl Kirby, a recently arrived Indian from Bombay.  He happened to own a sitar, which he kindly let me have on a long-term basis.  So I set about learning to play it in a rudimentary way – improvising tuning and techniques.  It was difficult to get information on the instrument in those days so I came up with my own rules.  Incidentally, Daryl Kirby went on to become a well-known cartoonist in New Zealand, known nationally for his superb “Loosehead Len” series.

A promotional photo for the group's
"Have You Seen My Limousine" single
2 or 3 lines:  What kind of bass guitar did you play with the Music Convention?  Were there any special techniques or tricks you used to create your particular sound?

Greg:  My bass at that time was a Hofner 501, which had a distinctive violin shape – it was better known as “the Beatle bass” because Paul McCartney used the same model.  As far as tricks or special effects I have only rarely used pedal effects like chorus or overdrive – live I tend to prefer a direct bass to amplifier sound, nice and fat and round.  

2 or 3 lines:  What about your brother?  What kind of guitar did he use?  

Greg:  Rob played a Jansen Invader six-string electric and an Eko twelve-string acoustic.  He would use effect pedals on guitar a lot – usually chorus, phaser, overdrive, wah-wah, and so on.  The overdrive pedal he used was made locally by a friend and had a distinctive sound for its time.  You can hear that to good effect on a couple of tracks we recorded – “BellyBoard Beat” and “Berry Rides Again.”   Recording techniques were very basic back then – we mostly played live to a two-track recorder, including vocals.  Any overdubs were added as a bounce down to another two-track machine.  Our producer/engineer at Astor was Wahunui Wynyard, a very clever technician who is renowned for his innovative use of the limited equipment available at the time.

2 or 3 lines:  What happened to the Music Convention after "Ballad of the Light Brigade"?

Greg:  The band continued for quite some time, playing a mixture of clubs, dances and parties, even a few cruises around the Pacific with P&O Cruises.  Reception lounges became very popular during the seventies for corporate functions, and we worked for three or four years as a house band for the Peter Popovic group.  Eventually I left the band to spend some time in Australia.  Rick Van Bokhoven from the Bluestars stepped in to take over my bass duties and the Music Convention continued for two more years or so. 

A P&O Cruises poster
2 or 3 lines:  Tell us about your post-Music Convention music career. 

Greg:  Rob and I joined forces with Brett Neilsen (formerly of the La De Das) on drums and Max Wolfgramme (formerly of Le Frame) on keyboards to form a new band called Suite FA.  Suite FA was a great little band and there are a few tracks floating around which were recorded at Radio New Zealand when it was situated in Durham Lane.  After Rob retired from live gigging in the late seventies to concentrate on a real job, I joined forces with Larry Killip and Dennis “Tub” Winters in Larry and the Ladders.  We recorded several singles for Ripper Records at that time.  Later I played in two Auckland pub bands, Rock Me Bananas and the Barflys.  

2 or 3 lines:  I know that you eventually hooked up with with Gray Bartlett, who is a very successful tour promoter, record producer, and talent scout in New Zealand.  

Greg:  Yes, I began doing some bass work for Gray and some of the acts he was touring through New Zealand.  I performed on several of Gray’s concert tours in China, which was definitely a highlight for me.  I also helped produce Hayley Westenra’s first best-selling album.  

[NOTE: Hayley Westernra, a classical crossover singer, is one of Gray Bartlett’s most successful discoveries.  While she is not well-known in the U.S., she has released several albums that have gone gold or platinum in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.] 

2 or 3 lines:  I understand you are still performing today – is that correct?  

Greg: I am still actively playing and recording these days, mostly with a group called the Geronimo Band, in conjunction with the American country singer JamesRAy.  We have an album called Wanted – the Best of JamesRAy and the Geronimo Band, which is available at our gigs.

The Geronimo Band
*  * * * *

I doubt that “Ballad of the Light Brigade” was ever played on an American radio station or stocked in an American record store in 1968.

I stumbled across “Ballad of the Light Brigade” quite by accident.  It’s one of the 100 songs on a 2012 Purple Pyramid Records compilation titled 60s Psychedelic, Folk, Woodstock & Sunset Trip, which is available on Freegal.  

That album is an odd mixture of re-recorded hit singles – presumably it was cheaper to record new versions of those songs rather than pay to use the originals – and a number of obscure recordings  that presumably have been gathering dust for fifty years.  (The former group includes Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” “Midnight Confession” by the Grass Roots, and “Wild Thing” by the Troggs.  The latter group includes “Raggedy Ann” by Finders Keepers, “Parade of Uncertainty” by the Ragamuffins, and “August Mademoiselle” by Children of the Mushroom).

The producers of “Ballad of the Light Brigade” went way overboard with the battlefield sound effects, but underneath all the bugle calls and cannon fire is a very good sixties pop song.   (Greg does a sterling job on the bass.) 

Here’s “Ballad of the Light Brigade”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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