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Through the brittle, tensile exhilaration of their early hits -This Time, Get That Jive, April Sun In Cuba, Still In Love With You, Sunshine, Konkaroo, Are You Old Enough? and the album cut O Zambezi - Dragon dominated the Australian charts for three intense years from 1976 to 1978. In commercial terms they were unstoppable, the medals couldn’t be minted fast enough - Band Of the Year, Album Of the Year, Most Popular New Group. They collected a stack of Gold and Platinum record plaques, toured America twice and, inevitably, collapsed under their own awesome weight. “We were incredible,” boasted vocalist Marc Hunter during a 1986 interview. “I don’t necessarily subscribe to that vision of Dragon as a dark, malevolent, destructive force but there used to be this composite energy that reared its head whenever we were together. I still don’t know what it was or what caused it but I do know that it remains in the spirit of our music.”
Even if Dragon had never made their way across the Tasman to become scream-dream pop sensations with a decidedly dark side, they would still have been the stuff legends are made of. "Few groups in the history of New Zealand rock have covered as much ground or attracted as much attention from the general media as Dragon" wrote John Dix in his Stranded In Paradise book. "New Zealand's top band when they flew to Australia in 1975, they left behind two moderately successful albums and a reputation for decadence".
Todd and Marc Hunter grew up in the tiny town of Taumaranui, the marshalling area in the middle of New Zealand’s north island where trains stopped for a famous pie and the Maoris sat around with guitars and sang traditional songs and American soul they picked up from the radio. Marc and Todd, one sixteenth Fijian from the matriarchal line, came to an early understanding of Maoritanga, the Maori worldview of life, art and culture. Marc once spoke of singing in local choirs, in his bedroom and at school; of plucking classic pop songs from the airwaves and running them ragged. “We got guitars for Christmas one year. I broke mine but Todd played his”.
Todd left home to enrol at Waikato Teachers College in 1970, hanging out and occasionally playing with local musicians and bands, one of which became, on the occasion of a gig at the Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival at the end of 1972, the aggressively experimental and assiduously uncommercial ‘head’ band Dragon. Marc had followed Todd to Auckland. He worked as a door-to-door salesman, kitchen hand, general dogsbody and occasional drummer/singer before Todd got tired of seeing him laying about the flat and said, “You might as well get up and sing with us.” He did just that and the band found itself in a residency at Levis' Saloon in June 1973 and, a year later, Phonogram recording artists with a firm instruction, in those hippy, trippy days, not to come up with anything that sounded like a commercial hit single. It was a stance that worked there and then but when they transferred base to Sydney it didn’t wash for a moment.
Competitive and charismatic, Dragon broke through hard and fast. Nothing could stand in their way. Years later, Todd would marvel over his brother's extraordinary stage presence. "Marc had this command, the whole thing. No matter the audience, he would be so in their faces. He'd push it, always. One thing I know is that I don’t believe we’ve ever been scared of anything" conceded Marc.
Certainly the band was able to engender warmth and trust in the hearts and minds of those who grew up with its passionate, full-bodied, fluid pop. "We still really don’t give a shit about the fads, fashions and trends of rock music," said Marc in 1989. "To us, it’s still pop music, that’s always been the prime attraction. I like the idea of making basically disposable music which, through fluke or artistry, can last for a long time and become a part of people’s consciousness. I’d say Dragon made good pop. I think people probably think about us that way, having first heard us at a party somewhere. You get folded into people’s lives. Pop doesn’t receive enough honour. It can sometimes be a high art form.”
By the end of the 70’s the extraordinary union of Marc, bassist Todd, guitarist Robert Taylor, drummer Kerry Jacobsen and keyboard playing master songwriter Paul Hewson was fracturing at the seams. “People came along because they wanted to see Dragon de-combust” Todd has said. “They were enjoying it but Marc was just killing himself. We had to fire him or he'd have destroyed himself." With extra members Richard Lee and Billy Rogers, Dragon operated for nine months in 1979 without their singer, recording a lost-in-the-rush album and scoring a minor hit with Love's Not Enough. While Dragon floundered commercially in those confused punk/new wave days, Marc landed a solo deal with CBS and scored himself a 1979 Top 20 hit with the bright and light Island Nights.
Marc was readmitted to the ranks and after a one-off single for EMI, Ramona, and an aborted album, the reformed Dragon signed with Mercury and settled down to some serious, focused hit making, again becoming one of the most reliable sources of classy chart hits in the country, with an exceptionally distinctive sound of crisp melody and gritty emotional texture.
“I’ve come to believe that there actually is a ‘Dragon Sound’” said Todd in 1989. “We don’t go after it but what we do ends up on the record sounding that way. It’s really weird; sometimes we put songs down and they don’t sound like Dragon at all. Then we muck around with it for a bit and it suddenly becomes Dragon, though we can’t put our finger on what it is we did to make it happen.” Marc's view was: “Our polarisation results in a creative tension and that’s how our ideas get sort of mutated into a distinctive sound, without us even being aware of it at the time.”
This sound reached its peak with the irresistible 1983 national number two hit Rain, which had a dramatic impact on the band's fortunes, introducing it to a new radio generation. "We'd hear that in all sorts of places" recalls Todd, "like out on beaches on headlands in Northern Queensland, coming out of a radio with people singing along loudly." Off the back of that hit came the accomplished, accessible and unashamedly commercial Body and the Beat album - recorded in five London and two Sydney studios - which made Top 5 and re-established Dragon as a major league Oz Rock entity. Just brimming with pop singles (all of which had slick, punchy one word titles - Rain, Magic, Cry, Fool, Wilderworld) it brought out the song writing talents of virtually every member and established a new creative dimension for the outfit.
There was a clean slate of sorts and upon it was drawn what might be seen, musically, as the most impressive Dragon formation of all. Young Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel augmented Marc, Todd, American-born keyboards player Alan Mansfield and Doane Perry an American drummer who Dragon shared with Jethro Tull. This outfit was responsible for the expensive and ambitious 1986 album Dreams Of Ordinary Men, recorded in upstate New York under producer Todd ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ Rundgren.
The PolyGram association ended during 1987 and Dragon, still very much a viable commercial entity, signed with Glenn Wheatley's imprint through RCA/BMG. While supporting the Tina Turner tour in Europe – where they were known for a time as Hunter - they had taken to playing Kool & the Gang's Celebration. It was always so well received that they decided to record it. The only non-original Dragon single ever, it shot into the Top 10 at Christmas 1987, just in time for the Bi-Centenary celebrations of the New Year.
In 1989 Dragon was back in the upper reaches of the charts with the slick Bondi Road album and Young Years hit (co-written by Sharon O’Neill). The bombastic lushness of the Spectoresque Dreams Of Ordinary Men had given way to a solid, confident, more mature sound; it didn't so much strike and overwhelm as much as it rolled and seduced. The Dragon of 1988/9 was seasoned and knowing. “We don’t have a crusade to be the biggest band anymore, nor are we interested in watching fearfully over our shoulders at other bands" said Todd. "Everyone is older and looking after their families, and it’s very relaxed. It’s so much looser without the pressures we once had. Now we really enjoy being able to make records that enable us to work with great people and great players. I’m not sure if you can expect more than that.”
The list of Australian rockers and even country stars that name Dragon as a major influence on their own evolution is a long one. Indeed, when Todd, Marc and Alan came out for a last hurrah in 1995 with the Incarnations album on Roadshow (unplugged meets unexpected) there was an interesting and impressive array of admirers and old friends to help them put together a most engaging album - Renee Geyer, Keith Urban, the Rockmelons, Lee Kernaghan, Kevin Borich, Sharon O'Neill, Kirk L’orange, Robert Taylor, Kerry Jacobsen and Tommy Emmanuel, among others.
Keyboard player Paul Hewson died in Auckland in January 1985, officially by ‘misadventure’, occasioning a second profound shock for the otherwise-inured band members (drummer Neil Storey had passed away as the band was establishing itself in Australia).
The enigmatic Marc Hunter succumbed to throat cancer on 17 July 1998, at the age of 44. Brother Todd (who with wife Johanna Pigott had penned the John Farnham hit and album title track Age of Reason) retreated to television soundtrack work. “I didn’t think I’d ever revisit Dragon,” he admitted. But in 2005, after playing bass in a concert at his son’s school, old urges arose again. “There are mixed memories for me. There were incredible highs but too many people died. It was simpler to leave Dragon as a distant memory.” But when the Liberation Blue label proposed an acoustic revisiting of the legendary band’s towering body of work, Todd enlisted the superbly voiced Kiwi Mark Williams, Canadian guitar slinger Bruce Reid and the young drum prodigy Pete Drummond and cut the acclaimed Sunshine To Rain album in 2007. Since then there have been hundreds of performances and a second reformation album featuring versions of classic Oz rock songs. As at every stage of the Dragon saga, the sound is unmistakable.
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Broadcast on VH1
The ARIA Hall of Fame will be exclusively broadcast on Vh1.
Premiere - Saturday, July 5 at 9pm Encore screening - Sunday, July 6 at 5pm.