To most New Zealanders, Max Merritt – who died overnight aged 79 – is best known for ‘Slipping Away’, a Kiwi anthem from the mid-1970s. But his career stretches all the way back to the very beginning of rock and roll in New Zealand.
In 1975 Max Merritt and The Meteors were struggling in London and playing the same venues as the then-emerging punk bands. They’d been signed to the fledgling Arista label but the A Little Easier album met with little success. The band had been largely forgotten in Australia and New Zealand when a second single, ‘Slipping Away’, was released off the album, which would give Max Merritt the biggest hit of his career, 16 years after his first record.
Maxwell James Merritt was born in Christchurch on April 30, 1941. At age 12 he was taking guitar lessons with no great enthusiasm, impatient to replicate the hit songs of the day without having to endure endless renditions of ‘Home On The Range’. The boredom was sorted when his teacher, a second-hand dealer, was imprisoned for receiving stolen property.
Bitten by the rock and roll bug
Leaving school at 15 to serve as an apprentice bricklayer with his father, his interest in the guitar waned until 1956 when he heard ‘Rock Around The Clock’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Be Bop A Lula’ etc. He purchased an electric guitar and with cousin Tony Merritt on guitar and Davey Burns on drums, they attempted to play Elvis, Haley, Little Richard. It didn’t work out, but Max had the bug.
In 1957 Christchurch authorities were alarmed about a growing number of incidents associated with rock and roll. A particular worry was the hundreds of teens who congregated every Sunday afternoon in The Square. A meeting of concerned citizens was arranged by theatre manager Trevor King, which was attended by Jim and Ilene Merritt and their 15-year old son, Max. The result was The Teenage Club, held 2pm to 6pm every Sunday and managed by King and the Merritts, which is where Max Merritt and the Meteors evolved.
Merritt remembers “we were evicted after complaints about noise and kids hanging around outside…. It was a bit like Footloose – all the elders and church folk were agin us!”
Despite the opposition, the club flourished – at its peak, it boasted 1200 members and by the end of 1957 it was attracting weekly crowds of 800 jiving teenagers. Max Merritt became a local legend and a reluctant spokesperson for the rock and roll generation.
The Meteors arrived in Auckland in March 1963 to kickstart a new venue, The Top 20. The line-up was Merritt and Peter Williams (guitars, vocals), Billy Karaitiana AKA Billy Kristian (bass) and Johnny Dick (drums); Kristian was replaced by Mike Angland after a quick trip to Sydney in September to appear on the Sheb Wooley tour.
At year’s end, The Meteors became Viking Records’ in-house band, providing the backing for Tommy Adderley’s ‘I Just Don’t Understand’, Dinah Lee’s ‘Don’t You Know Yockomo?’ and Peter Posa’s ‘The White Rabbit’. Sadly, the band’s own Viking releases were poor sellers by comparison.
Two 1964 EPs in particular, Giddy Up Max! and Good Golly Max Merritt!, display a raunchy band, suitably rough around the edges, which had successfully made the transition from 1950s rock and roll via Shadows-style instrumentals to the beat boom.
“The Top 20 was open five or six nights a week,” Merritt remembers, “and the weekend hours were killers – 6pm to 2am, with only three minutes off every hour. [Aussie saxophonist, arranger and producer, Jimmy] Sloggett would join us around midnight so the last couple of sets were always hot. Sloggett provided the whiskey and Mikey Leyton, the English singer who worked at the drinks counter, provided the amphetamines. Man, by 2am we were bouncing off the walls!”