Kevin Borich reflects on what might have been for The La De Da's and their rock opera, 'The Happy Prince'.
It’s a tale worthy of its own rock opera. The storyline goes a little something like this …
A band from New Zealand realises that rock ’n’ roll is getting serious. It’s no longer I want to hold your hand but strawberry fields forever. The bass player comes up with an idea: how about we adapt an Oscar Wilde story and put it to music? Call it a concept album—or a rock opera.
It’s the end of 1966.
But after a few false starts – the fruitless search for financiers, with deals collapsing in Melbourne and Sydney – the band doesn’t enter the studio until the start of 1969. Four weeks later, they emerge with the album. It’s released in April – nearly two months before The Who’s Tommy, which gets all the accolades; six months before The Kinks’ Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) and four months after the Pretty Things’ S. F. Sorrow, which The New York Times says is “generally acknowledged as the first rock opera”.
But could history have missed the actual starting point?
The timeline suggests that the genesis and development of the New Zealand band’s album predated both Tommy and S. F. Sorrow, but it has largely been forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of concept album history.
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This is the not-so-happy story of The La De Da’s The Happy Prince.
“It was a great idea,” remembers The La De Da’s guitarist Kevin Borich. “[Bass player] Trevor Wilson and [keyboards player] Bruce Howard conjured up the idea of writing music for Oscar Wilde’s story.” Borich laughs. “I didn’t even know who Oscar Wilde was.”
By mid-1967, Wilson and Howard had written half of the rock opera, and The La De Da’s were playing four of the songs live: Come And Fly With Me, Civic Pride, Winter Song and Swallow, Little Swallow.
At the start of 1968, Sunshine Records – the label started by Normie Rowe’s manager Ivan Dayman – planned to release the record, but the band fell out with the producer and the sessions were aborted.
Later in 1968, The La De Da’s hooked up with English producer Jimmy Stewart, who’d had a hit in Melbourne, producing Pastoral Symphony’s Love Machine. He’d started an Adelaide indie label called Sweet Peach and organised recording sessions for The Happy Prince at Melbourne’s Armstrong Studios. But then Sweet Peach ran into financial difficulties, and the deal collapsed.
The La De Da’s shifted to Sydney, where they performed the album for a crowd that featured Liza Minnelli, as well as would-be investors, including Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood, who was reportedly keen to stage the rock opera, but nothing eventuated.
The Happy Prince story is believed to have inspired the Bee Gees’ 1968 single When The Swallows Fly, from their fifth album, Idea.
Downhearted and dejected, The La De Da’s were resigned to the fact that The Happy Prince – a story of injustice and greed – was never going to happen. But Melbourne poet Adrian Rawlins convinced them to keep going, and they ended up landing a deal with EMI.
“Adrian was a bit of a guru at the time because he’d interviewed Bob Dylan,” Borich explains. “And he loved us.”
Rawlins had hung out with the Stones and Dylan when they toured Australia, even publishing his Dylan articles as a book, Dylan Through The Looking Glass.
Rawlins became the narrator of The Happy Prince record, which was produced by David Woodley-Page.
The album starts: “High above the city, on a tall column, stood a statue gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold. For eyes, he had two bright sapphires, and a large ruby glowed on his sword-hilt. He was much admired, and people called him The Happy Prince.”
But a little swallow meets The Happy Prince and notices he is crying. “Why are you weeping?” the swallow asks. The Happy Prince says he is sad because he can see all the ugliness and misery in his city.
The Happy Prince instructs the swallow to remove his gold, sapphires and ruby and give it to the poor. But stripped of his beauty, The Happy Prince is no longer admired. “He is little better than a beggar,” the Mayor says.
“It’s a great story with a lovely message,” Borich says. “It really should be an animated movie with the music. If I had lots of money, I’d make it happen.”
Just before recording the album, Borich was reading Ravi Shankar’s book, My Music, My Life, which included “a manual for the sitar”. Borich followed Shankar’s advice on how to tune the instrument and added some sitar to The Happy Prince, as well as some flute.
The local music press hailed The Happy Prince as a masterpiece, but the day it was released, The La De Da’s were on a plane to the UK. “We’d saved up three grand,” recalls Borich, who headed to London with copies of the record under his arm. They organised an audition for Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant, planning to play him The Happy Prince. But their van broke down on the way, and the audition never happened.
An American producer later talked to the band about staging the rock opera in the US, but that also never eventuated.
After The Happy Prince was released, The La De Da’s rarely played any of the songs live, apart from the single Come And Fly With Me. “It always reminded me of a Qantas ad,” Borich smiles.
Borich is the only surviving member of The La De Da’s The Happy Prince. Singer Phil Key died in 1984. Drummer Keith Barber died in 2005, followed by Trevor Wilson (2009) and Bruce Howard (2021). And producer David Woodley-Page died in 2010.
Borich is occasionally asked about The Happy Prince and remains proud of the musicianship. “I think we did it justice, honouring the guys who came up with the idea.”
John Dix, the author of Stranded In Paradise, the history of New Zealand music, had mixed feelings about the record, saying: “The project’s greatest shortcoming was that it took itself far too seriously.” But he highlighted Ruby For The Lady, praising the production as “near flawless”.
The Happy Prince finally got a CD release in 2005, while Kevin Borich continues to make music, with his new album, Duets, featuring recordings with Aussie legends including Ross Wilson, Joe Camilleri, Russell Morris, Tim Rogers, Ian Moss and Suze DeMarchi, as well as international stars Leo Sayer and the Eagles’ Joe Walsh.
The making of the Duets album was also delayed – by a global pandemic. “It was a challenging record to complete,” Borich notes. But it still managed to travel a smoother path than The Happy Prince.
If not for all the recording dramas, The Happy Prince would have been released at the start of 1968. “And The La De Da’s would have been at the zeitgeist of international pop music,” New Zealand music historian and archivist Grant Gillanders believes. “And their latter years could well have been a lot different.”
“Yep, what might have been,” Borich reflects ruefully.
Kevin Borich’s new album, Duets, is out on Friday, 14 July. You can pre-save or pre-order the album here. Kevin Borich is currently on tour, giving fans a preview of what to expect from the album.
16 July 2023 @ 3:00 PM – Capalaba, Koala Tavern
28 July 2023 @ 7:00 PM – North Toowoomba, Mouse Proof Brewery
Find tickets via Kevin Borich’s website.