Shona Laing was a Hutt Valley High School student who came to public attention in 1971 at the age of seventeen when she made the final of TV’s Studio One (New Faces) in New Zealand with her own composition 1905, an ode to the actor Henry Fonda who the teenager regarded as “elegant”, and it was a local #4 hit for her in NZ.
A follow-up single Show Your Love also peaked at #4 in NZ in 1973 and Laing won the Tokyo Song Festival with another of her compositions Masquerade which charted at #11, her 1973 debut album Whispering Afraid also charted well in NZ.
Laing relocated to the UK in 1975 but record success proved elusive, she ultimately hooked up with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band where she performed songwriting, backup singing and record production duties for two years ultimately returning to New Zealand in 1985.
Her next album Genre was her first release for some time and the first single lifted from it, One In A Million stiffed and it looked as though the second single, (Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy was also set to fail as it was initially ignored by radio stations.
The song is a quirky mesmerizing lament about the “Kennedy curse” that had seen members of this high profile family die in tragic circumstances “The family tree is felled/ Bereavement worn so well/ Giving up on certainty/ Wilderness society…”, actual excerpts from JFK‘s speeches advocating world peace and warning of the imminent threat of nuclear destruction are dramatic inclusions at several points in the song “We will not…risk the course of worldwide nuclear war/ In which even the fruits of victory/ Would be ashes in our mouths.”
At this song’s beating heart is a protest about the casual indifference displayed by Americans to violence in their society, the lack of gun controls that facilitates the killing and the constitutional right to bear arms that enshrines that right in law. “Wearing their fame like a loaded gun/ Tied up with a rosary/ I’m glad I’m not a Kennedy.”
Fortuitously Australian music publisher Chris Gilbey saw the potential for the song, he brought it to the attention of Virgin Records and arranged for English producer Pete Wilson to re-mix the track and give it a sheen and a sharper commercial edge which propelled the record into the charts.
Musically the record is synth-influenced with the subtle use of violin at the intro and acoustic and electric guitar, percussion and strings throughout, which lifted what was essentially a folky protest song to the level of an international hit.
Since this song was released another six direct relatives of the Kennedy brothers have died prematurely – John Kennedy (plane crash), David Kennedy (drug overdose), Michael Kennedy (skiing accident), Kara Kennedy (heart attack), Mary Kennedy (drug overdose), and Maeve Kennedy McKean (drowning), in addition to many other partners and more distant relatives of Kennedy family members, who have also died.
The enigmatic Shona Laing had produced a mature and thought-provoking song which hit #2 in NZ, #9 in Australia, and #14 in the USA.
At this time a bright future was predicted for Laing who was being favorably compared to such artists as k d lang and Sinead O’Connor, but her next album, South, which included several songs already released on Genre, did not chart well, and although her original compositions were praised for their worthy sentiments and clever lyricism, critics felt that the songs were generally overproduced, lost in a wash of programmed drums and techno-pop keyboards, and the album failed to chart internationally.
The most successful single lifted from South was the Cold War lament, Soviet Snow, which was inspired by the disastrous failure of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine in 1986 (above) “Are we wide awake/Is the world aware/Radiation over Red Square/Creeping on to cross Roman roads/Fear of freezing in the Soviet snow.” Despite criticism of Laing’s songs being overly processed, Soviet Snow was a great song which benefited from the lush layers of keyboards, strings, and backing vocals, which produced a sonic effect that actually took it to #32 on the US Dance charts in 1987. It also won Shona the APRA Silver Scroll Award for Song of the Year in NZ in 1988, and the promo video was a suitably chilly kaleidoscopic montage which merged Russian iconography and Soviet imagery with urgent synthesized beats; Laing would return to this song on her 2007 album Pass The Whisper, where she stripped back the synthpop effects, to create a more wistful acoustic version.
Shona Laing had three top forty albums in the period 1987-92, Walk Away (42nd Street #14), Fear of Falling (#26), and Thief to Silver (#35) and she was inducted into the NZ Music Hall of Fame in 2013.