Old (lady) rockers never die: Suzanne Lynch, Tina Cross, Jackie Clarke are The Lady Killers

Old (lady) rockers never die: Suzanne Lynch, Tina Cross, Jackie Clarke are The Lady Killers

07/03/2021

Three women who first sang their way to fame in three different decades tell Kim Knight why they’re happily “hiding in plain sight”.

There’s washing on the clothesline and a half-finished crossword on the kitchen table. A blonde woman pauses, en route to the bathroom.

“The others are just getting changed,” she says.

Last week, if you turned on the radio in suburban Auckland, chances are you would have heard Olivia Rodrigo. Three of New Zealand’s top five pop singles were by the same American teenager. In the entire Top 20, there were no women older than 25; no men over the age of 40.

The blonde woman shifts the crossword and makes more room at the table. She did two world tours with Cat Stevens before any of today’s musical stars were born. In 1974, she sang the solo backing vocal and melody on Oh Very Young. Suzanne Lynch began her musical career as one half of The Chicks when she was just 13. She went on to perform with Neil Sedaka, Cleo Lane, Lulu, Chris De Burgh, Art Garfunkel and more. But, sometimes, the thing that people are most surprised about is that she is still alive.

“We’d done some gig for some big boat thing,” says Jackie Clarke, 55. “Someone walked up to Suzy and said ‘I thought you were dead!’ That’s what we deal with. Actually, we just keep on keeping on.”

“And we’ll keep on popping up,” says Tina Cross, 62.

Seventy-year-old Suzanne Lynch: “Onwards and onwards, I say!”

Old (lady) rockers never die, even when their fans think they have. Clarke, Cross and Lynch are, individually, grande dames of New Zealand’s music entertainment scene. Collectively, they are The Lady Killers, taking songs by everyone from Bon Jovi to Queen, and turning them into three-part female vocal harmony.

The table sits in Clarke’s kitchen. It’s where the women meet to rehearse and rearrange songs. They used to be four, but Taisha Tari moved to Australia. The Lady Killers have been together 16 years, but it’s hard getting everybody in the same room at the same time. Also difficult? Surviving for this long in a youth-driven, gender-biased business.

“It’s hard to get cut-through now,” says Clarke. “There’s just so much content. Spotify? How do you even know where to start? The world is there in your phone. The classic experience in New Zealand is that people get lauded early, get lots of air blown up their arses and then it all turns to nothing and they’re working in Countdown. It’s hard to stay. And we’re all blessed that we’ve come up the ranks at a time where we have a platform based on our work history . . . because the one great thing about New Zealand is you can keep on doing kind of whatever you want to do, once you find your niche. There’s an incredible freedom here.”

It is rare to grow old making music in this country and these women have done it, partly, through sheer pragmatism. They do session work, mc’ing, musical theatre. As a trio, they’ve supported Tom Jones and The Beach Boys. They’ve performed at Christmas in the Park and the Queenstown Winter Festival. They’ve even done cruise ships.

“When you go as a girl gang, it’s hilarious,” says Clarke. “It was like the end of an era was happening on these ships, musically. They’ve got these big show bands, but most of the acts have their own midi tracks. So you’ve got this five-piece horn section sitting around doing nothing. The last one we did, they didn’t even have a guitarist. We do classic rock and pop, and there’s no guitarist!?”

Everybody says, Clarke, raves about the cruise industry’s permanent musicians.

“They go ‘oh, the bands are so amazing’.”

Cross: “They’re not.”

Clarke: “They are not amazing. They’re really like civil servants . . . Let’s be honest – are we ever going to work on a cruise ship again?”

Cross: “Well, I did get sick on one of them . . .”

Clarke jumps up and reenacts the night it was so rough the dance troupe was cancelled and The Lady Killers came on instead, lurching across the floor until “you hit your mic and then you clamp your knees together and you sing! Tina was puking her ring out in the toilet. She had to go straight to the doctors and get the be’serious jab in the arse!”

The Lady Killers press kit describes their performance as a “dazzling vocal tour de force . . . warmly presented by women who know how to entertain and have a good laugh too”. And that, perhaps, is another secret to their longevity – zero shame about the word “entertainment”.

“It’s like an old-fashioned word,” says Cross. “It is not cool!”

Clarke: “We’re at this age and it’s a delight . . . I do see a lot of young women performing and it’s fey, it’s like you have to be vulnerable in order to be acceptable and I think ***k that, I’m going to be fierce. This is my gig, you’ve come to it, I’m going to have a good time with my girlfriends and I’m not going to apologise for anything or feel like I have to look down through my lashes. It gives me the shits, it really does. I just want to see people own their space.”

She agrees “entertainment” has become a dirty word.

“And I don’t know why. If a song is worth singing, and it’s worth performing, then why not give it its worth?”

Google this group’s live gigs and they are very definitely “women of a certain age”. Stage banter traverses Pilates, their kids and their love of Electric Light Orchestra. Lynch is the quietest, Clarke the most talkative. It’s all fun and pelvic floor muscles. And then Clarke says “Mickey, give us a beat please darling,” and the drum sticks clack and the shoulders shimmy and it is crystal, note-perfect clear, that these women can sing the roof off.

“When I was coming through,” says Lynch, “We did endless shows that were 40 minutes long, eight songs and you had to entertain people sitting at dinner. You’ve got to be able to talk. You’ve got to be able to include your audience.”

Clarke (a Samoan New Zealander) grew up in Gisborne. The co-founder of pop comedy group When the Cat’s Been Spayed, she went on to become a judge on NZ Idol. She’s toured with the likes of Dave Dobbyn and Annie Crummer, performed with every major orchestra in the country, is a member of Jubilation Choir and has just finished a season of Rock Follies Forever. But she found her first tribe at 15, singing originals in a high school synth-pop band influenced by Depeche Mode and Yazoo – all teased hair, Goth-eyes and winkle-pickers.

“I grew up,” she says, “Watching Tina Cross on Ready To Roll.”

In the 1970s, the television music countdown show could not always access original tracks. Cross (Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Porou) subbed in on the likes of Boogie Oogie Oogie and You’re the One That I Want. For the 18 weeks, as the latter sat at number one, it was Cross viewers heard, and not Olivia Newton-John. In 1979, she became the voice of Carl Doy’s Nothing But Dreams and, almost 30 years ago, recorded Shortland Street’s first theme tune. Right now, she’s in rehearsals for the musical Wicked.

“I’m a very different performer and person to the one that started out in the industry in 1976,” says Cross. “I’ve got far less fear of the decisions I’m making now. I’m making decisions for me.”

Cross describes the factory that was television’s “light entertainment” era – an endless loop of shows like Happen Inn, Sing and Opportunity Knocks, where the singers pre-recorded and lip-synched for the cameras.

“I don’t know if we knew it was manufactured. When I think back now, the formula was set . . . but what you don’t know doesn’t bother you. You just get given a great song. One of the first songs I sang on telly was To Sir with Love, and I loved that movie.”

She remembers being “in awe” of The Chicks, the 1960s act Suzanne Lynch (Pakeha New Zealander) formed with her sister Judy.

Lynch: “I was doing what I was told. My sister wanted to be like Hayley Mills and because I was younger, I learnt the melodies . . . I was only 13 then, I was told ‘stand there, wear that, sing this’. I fell in love with music when I was about 16. I discovered The 5th Dimension, Diana Ross and the Supremes. Joni Mitchell. And, after all these years, I still love to sing. Especially with these old tarts here.”

Clarke: “Trouts, actually.”

In this business, if you didn’t laugh, you’d quit.

“We basically get more praise for still looking presentable,” says Clarke. “We’ve had lots of experiences . . . you’re filming a variety show where there’s a cast of thousands, and when it’s broadcast, they’ve cut out almost all of the women over 50. It’s not about how you sing, it’s just about the obsession with youth.”

She shrugs. “Everybody’s young once.”

The Lady Killers have the kind of fame that is tied to a particular time and place in New Zealand music history. Ask if they wanted more, and they reply, in three-part unison: No.

Clarke: “I’ve never wanted to specialise in anything and that’s what you have to do. In the pop world we inhabit, you’re past your use-by date by about 26.”

Lynch: “Not after I saw what it did to people. No, never once. I want to have a real life.”

Cross: “That’s very true, actually.”

This Saturday, The Lady Killers mark their Sweet Sixteenth with a birthday bash in Auckland. They’re also celebrating the release of a single they first tackled during last year’s Covid lockdown when they discovered Zoom was the enemy of harmony.

“As soon as one voice happens, another is cancelled,” says Clarke.

But then they sang into their iPhones. And then they cut the individual tracks together and, if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know that they weren’t all in the same room harmonising a cover version of Just One Look that has racked up almost one million views.

What next?

“You can’t take away ‘established’,” says Cross.

Clarke: “It’s a blessing. We’re still muddling along in the middle ranges, but we can still keep on doing what we want to do. It’s this great ‘hiding in plain sight’ thing.”

Lynch: “That would be a good title for an album . . . “

The Lady Killers’ Sweet Sixteenth Birthday Bash, Saturday July 10,Dorothy Winstone Centre, Auckland Girls’ Grammar. More info: theladykillers.co.nz

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