Ash Burton and the Nightcaps

Sometimes the name of the place that you live just seems to pop up on a page or screen, as if bigger than all the text surrounding it.

It’s a phenomenon well known to New Zealanders who can probably spot a Z on a page more readily than folks from most parts of the world. There’s something about that letter that acts as an alert to take note – just in case that Z leads to mention of our home country, or an interesting story.

If you watched the TVNZ series, ‘Funny As’ this may have happened to you during the programme about New Zealand musical comedy, when the words Ash Burton flashed across the screen.

Funny As is a five-part television series and book that looks at the history of New Zealand comedy. It includes numerous interviews with our best known and most loved comedians. It opens the archives through original footage of television shows, live stand up performances, unaired programmes and interviews with a pantheon of New Zealand comedians.

Through this footage, Funny As explores how New Zealanders have used comedy to navigate cultural change and make light of our unique – and often very funny – Kiwi culture, lifestyle and sense of humour.

It features well known comedians and personalities, such as John Clarke’s Fred Dagg, Dames Lynda and Jools Topp (known as the Topp Twins), Billy T James, Ginette McDonald as Lynn of Tawa, as well as more recent performers and directors such as Rose Matafeo, Naked Samoans, Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords.

While most people will know those familiar comedic names, perhaps less well known was the musical comedy group once known as Ash Burton and the Nightcaps.

While not actually from Ashburton, Ash Burton and the Nightcaps were very typical of musical comedy of the time, and no doubt their songs would have been very popular and well known locally.

Ash Burton was actually the stage name rugby writer and journalist Alex Veysey. The band also included Ken Avery and other members who played various instruments and sang on stage or album.

Ken Avery was a songwriter, making the most of our distinct lingua franca. His turn of phrase made for the broad popularity and humour of his lyrics by making reference to familiar place names, experiences and situations.

By night Avery was a jazz saxophonist and by day a New Zealand Broadcasting Company radio programmer.

He is perhaps best known for vernacular lyrics such as the well-known Kiwi road trip song ‘Tea at Te Kuiti’ produced in 1962.

Many people will recall the words, “I’m having tea at Te Kuiti with my sweetie”, or “I’m going to canter on the plains at Canterbury” and “A Kiwi always tells you where to go.”

Its sequel, ‘Gumboot Tango’, produced in 1963, was recorded by Ash Burton and the Night Caps. The rural setting of Gumboot Tango – set in a dance in a Taranaki woolshed –  would be familiar to many people across New Zealand who had rural connections.

Many country woolshed across the country would have been the venue for parties and celebrations, such as 21st birthdays, anniversaries and after-balls.

On the B-side of the album, was the more regionally titled recording, ‘By the Dog Dosing Strip at Dunsandel’.

Avery’s lyrics and upbeat musicality is part of a long tradition of homegrown Kiwi musical comedy, that traces its history back well before the more recent and famous classics. It sits in the genre of comedic music such as the Howard Morrison Quartet’s spectacularly successful ‘My Old Man’s an All Black’ produced in 1960; or John Clarkes rural classics a la Fred Dagg, that provide a backdrop of humour and sound through the 1970s.

While Ash Burton and the Nightcaps were not a true local classic, their lyrics and sentiments reverberate just as much in this district as other parts of vernacular Aotearoa New Zealand.

While these once hugely popular sings still pop up from time to time, if youre keen to revisit Avery’s lyrics in details, his self-published and hand drawn book, of comedy songs can be found online as The Ken Avery collected his comedy songs in The Ken Avery Songbook, which can be downloaded for free Avery Songbook and in a spirit of generosity, downloaded for free

By Tanya Zoe Robinson

This article first appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 20th of August 2019.

Captions

  1. Ash Burton and the Nightcaps record cover, 1963.
  2. The vinyl pressing of Gumboot Tango by Ash Burton and the Nightcaps.
  3. The handwritten cover of ken Avery’s Songbook.
  4. The famous Anama Woolshed in 1977 – a great venue for a party, or a likely place where the words of Avery’s songs were known.

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