The joy-filled and youthful optimism of early 60s, when teenagers put their parents’ post-war generation behind them, had begun with buoyant Beatlemania and morphed into the acid-reign period at the end of the decade.
But that brief and colourful moment gave way to the uncertainties of young adulthood for many in a generation which saw the war in Vietnam just over horizon and the responsibilities of life beyond adolescence coming in all too soon.
And much of that was reflected by the five-piece Farmyard, whose songs spoke to the sense of alienation the hippie generation was starting to feel. On their self-titled debut album from late 1970, their two-part, nearly eight-minute ‘Which Way Confusion’ languidly stated: “Confused, don’t know which way to go …”
The impressive album was produced by Peter Dawkins, using the first 8-track recorder in the country.
The album opened reflectively with ‘Those Days Are Gone’ (“age is all I have … once my days would drift along … but suddenly I have nowhere to hide”). But there was also the light-hearted country-rock of ‘Learning ’Bout Living’ – the closest they had to a hit – in which the singer has “a beard of grey”, is looking back and “it appears to me we’ve got to toe the line”.
Farmyard was saying the past was great, the present was tense and the future looked grim … but always delivering these thought-provoking lyrics in memorable songs.
That’s because there was quite a pedigree in the group, which had emerged out of the hefty R&B band Tom Thumb and even more interesting reference points. The former Tom Thumb members were bassist/singer Rick White (also in pre-Thumb band Relic), and drummer and self-confessed “jazz fan” Tom Swainson (also in the pre-Thumb Spyce of Lyfe) .
On flute and saxophones was Andrew Stevens, formerly with the National Youth Orchestra.
Farmyard briefly included guitarist Robbie Mackie, who was replaced by Milton Parker (also a former a Relic, he announced his ambition was to become a classical guitarist). The band was then joined by classically trained Andrew Stevens (flute and saxes, who cited his former group as the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra), and singer/guitarist Paul Curtis (Sons and Lovers, “no formal musical training”).
White said of Stevens, with whom he worked at PolyGram, “I thought I would take the chance and take him on. We didn’t know how he would go. As he even admits himself, he was really square. He knew what he liked, but he had never been in a group before.”
This wasn’t a band formed out of raw clay but a collection of seasoned talent. With two of its members, White and Stevens, working for the multinational PolyGram at the time, Farmyard was signed to its in-house imprint, Polydor. The group certainly took it seriously, rehearsing four nights a week and then on Saturday and Sunday nights until 11pm.
In some ways – given the small world of New Zealand rock at the time – Farmyard were something akin to a supergroup, albeit of members from former groups who were not exactly big names beyond the capital.
But their debut – reissued on vinyl in 2020 on Wah-Wah Records, Spain – remains not just a document of the zeitgeist but an enjoyable album in its own right. It came in a plastic bag cover and included a fold-out calendar, just right for pinning up alongside the Che poster and the cheap Dali print in student flats. And their audience was mostly students at university gigs.
When their debut was released in late 1970, a promotional flyer said “the boys” described their sound as “country-rock-classical”. The NZ Truth headlined one 1971 story, “Move Over Beethoven for Pop Culture ... Culture is coming to rock music in New Zealand. And the NZBC is ready to acknowledge rock’s departure from the musical stone age.” The story was previewing a gig at the Wellington Opera House that would be broadcast live over 2ZM.
Certainly the classical background of Stevens gave them a refined edge, but his use of flute and tenor saxophone in a pastoral setting was more akin to that of Traffic than the obvious comparison to Jethro Tull in Polydor’s flyer. The band, it said, also incorporated “Latin American rhythms and instruments to create a distinctly original sound.”
Talking in 1971, White explained the band was neither progressive rock nor a country group. But they did admit to liking King Crimson, Chicago, and Colosseum.
Farmyard reflected the desire of urban alternative life-stylers to find something more rural and bucolic.
In their embrace of the emerging country-rock movement out of the US – and back to the country trend in the UK – Farmyard also reflected the social change in this country when urban alternative life-stylers were looking beyond their cheap communal flats in old villas to something more rural and bucolic.
At the time New Zealand was undergoing rapid social and political change: Norman Kirk’s Labour government was elected in November 1972 and announced the back-to-the-land ohu project in which communes could be established on rural land.
If Farmyard tapped into many of these ideas on that album, it didn’t translate into regular live work. (The single ‘Learnin’ ’Bout Livin’ was nominated for the Loxene Gold Disc Award in 1971, broadcast on radio, and a pioneering, rustic video received several plays as a “filler” on one-channel NZBC TV.)
“Some of the songs are good for the album but not good for the stage,” White said to Groove magazine in 1971. “We definitely want to go [overseas]. There is no work in New Zealand.”
And as White said in 1990, although there was mutual respect among the musicians with such diverse interests, “Farmyard was very much hard work, a very stressful band.
“I think all of us musically were stretching ourselves and trying to accommodate a new situation of writing and playing our own stuff, and playing concerts as opposed to dances.”
White would leave Farmyard after their second album Back to Fronting (1972) and the group briefly carried on as four-piece. But there was a sense of lyrical ennui, lack of focus and shapeless musical diversity on Back to Fronting.
“On the first album it was very much a group effort,” White said in 1990. “On the second, very disparate efforts. Whoever wrote tended to arrange it and decide who sang it. So the second album could almost be three or four bands.”
Song titles included ‘Nothing Happening Here’ (“don’t complain, don’t you cry, your voice just can’t he heard”), ‘Too Much Wrong’ (“nobody’s trying, nobody cares ... what can I do on my own”) and ‘Looking for a Place’ (“a friendly place that I can call my own”).
Musically it was all over the place, from belted-out Blood Sweat & Tears-styled rock with progressive inclinations on the five-minute ‘All in Your Head’ (“some are fat, some are lean, some are very very clean”?), to the jaunty country-rock of ‘Me The Dog And Dear Old Dad’ and ‘Too Much Wrong’. A guitar and flute arrangement of Telemann’s ‘Fantasia’ from the 18th century took us “back to the fluting and luting days of yore”, said a contemporary review, and the live-in-the-studio jam of ‘Looking for a Place’ featured The Quincy Conserve’s Rufus Rehu on piano.
White’s ‘New Road’ alluded to his imminent departure: “It’s a brand new road that I’m going on …”
‘New Road’ by White was a very slight piece but alluded to his imminent departure: “It’s a brand new road that I’m going on …”
“I started a band called Taylor which was, for me, really a collection of people I’d known for a long time who tended to want to play a little more relaxed ... Taylor’s first concert was Farmyard’s last.” Taylor was an all-star, pre-Rockinghorse five-piece featuring White, Kevin Bayley, Clinton Brown, Steve McDonald, and Keith Norris.
Farmyard produced two albums and two singles and it was all over in less than two years. Some artists reach beyond entertainment and self-expression and – knowingly or unwittingly – capture something of the spirit and concerns of their time.
On their debut Farmyard achieved that and even if Back to Fronting is the lesser of their two albums, it also articulated the weariness of spirit and slow erosion of optimism at the start of an increasingly volatile decade of social and political unrest.
Rick White’s 1990 comments were made when the German company Little Wing of Refugees reissued both Farmyard albums as Looking For a Place in a limited edition of 500 in a colourful gatefold sleeve. Farmyard was reissued in 2020 on Wah-Wah Records (Spain), also in a limited edition of 500, and housed as it was originally: in a plastic shopping bag with sleeve and disc inside.
Rick White - vocals, bass
Tom Swainson - drums
Milton Parker - guitar
Andrew Stevens - flute, saxophone
Paul Curtis - vocals, guitar