Peter Blake's love affair with music began in his godparents' farmhouse, down the road from his home in Motueka. "I remember being totally absorbed with playing notes on their old, out of tune upright piano," says Blake. "I was fascinated by the purity of the sound, and would spend hours on it." At age seven, he began getting lessons from a local jazz pianist. By age 15, he was playing Hendrix and Cream covers in his college band.
Blake went on to play keyboards for Wellington's Quincy Conserve, and performed with the Rodger Fox Big Band, the 1860 band, Australian singer Renee Geyer, and Hello Sailor. He has also played at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and toured Europe, the United States, Asia and Australia with Rodger Fox and company.
Fresh from school, Blake already had plans for combining broadcasting and music. At that point, "being in radio seemed a complementary thing to playing in a band". After a short stint mixing processing chemicals in the labs of the National Film Unit, he tried to join Wellington station 2ZM. Instead he was exiled to Palmerston North's Radio 2ZA, where he programmed pop shows for future Radio with Pictures host Barry Jenkin. A year later Blake was back in Wellington, trying to balance copious gigging with a day job in the 'television schedules' section of the state broadcaster. His job was to write synopses of TV programmes for The Listener and other publications.
He was then asked to join the new setup at Avalon, as a production assistant on new music show Grunt Machine. Blake's knowledge of the local music scene quickly proved a major asset; soon he was working closely with producer Mark Westmoreland and director Clive Cockburn, deciding what local acts would perform. The presenters included Andy Anderson, who Blake had played with in underground band Arkastra. After two years Grunt Machine was replaced by the more chart-based Ready to Roll, which would become one of state television's most watched shows.
Initially Blake took on a talent co-ordination role, "which included deciding on local artists to appear, and what they would cover". Then he was promoted to RTR's musical director. This gave him more control over song choices, and the job of arranging and producing backing music for guest singers.
Blake's career in music television chimed in with the rise of music videos, and the birth of music channel MTV in 1981. New Zealand's music programmes had long been dominated by local performers doing covers of overseas songs. By 1981, when Blake was promoted to producer of RTR and Radio with Pictures, the covers were dwindling, partly because of a growing wave of music videos from overseas. In this period Blake did away with cover versions entirely. Well aware of the Kiwi cultural cringe, he felt that "to foster a New Zealand music identity, and for Kiwi music to prosper, we must promote original music". Blake's belief was that "television was in the best position to lead" in terms of promoting local music, with radio following closely behind. Radio "really was the hit maker, television the hit breaker.”
The music team substantially increased the number of in-house videos for Kiwi bands. As TVNZ colleague Brent Hansen puts it, Blake tried to ensure "that the greatest possible breadth of New Zealand music got an opportunity.” Blake also estimates he commissioned 50+ clips from directors working outside TVNZ. In 1983 the Kiwi music industry nominated him for a special 'beyond the call of duty' award, for 'recording as many local acts on video as he is able'.
Playing on Saturday evenings directly before the news, RTR regularly sparred with the news for number one spot. The audience hovered around a million viewers. "It was a great slot," says Blake. "It had a hugely loyal audience for around about seven years, through that period of 1980 through to about 1987". As he explains in this video interview, RTR "became a hit music machine."
In this period Blake became commander of TVNZ's stable of popular music shows, known in-house as the Rock Unit. The sheer amount of music-related material now available saw Blake introducing new shows to join the core attractions of RTR and the more eclectic Radio with Pictures. Among them were RTR Video Releases in 1983, Friday night concert slot Twelve O'Clock Rock, its successor Heartbeat City, and New Year's Eve video specials.
Blake also masterminded a series of high profile Radio with Pictures concerts at Auckland's Mainstreet club. Keen for "the best sound quality possible", he got independent recording studios to record and mix them. The specials were simulcast on FM radio, spawning Aotearoa's first stereo broadcasts to combine radio and TV. The recordings also saw release as classic live albums for bands like DD Smash and Dance Exponents. Further concerts followed elsewhere.
With so many shows to supervise, Blake handed control of Radio with Pictures to RWP director Brent Hansen, and moved into an executive producer role. The age of music videos had a downside. Local audiences now expected Kiwi videos to equal the far more lavish clips from overseas. By now TVNZ was putting less money into making videos; Blake argued that record companies should be taking up the slack. Yet the labels had actually began demanding payment to screen overseas videos. In 1986 a short impasse saw videos disappear from local screens. Blake launched short-lived studio performance show True Colours to get around the problem.
By now he'd began composing for the screen in his off-time. Developments in sampling and computer technology made it possible to to write, arrange and record from his home studio. Blake had already composed TVNZ's main station identification, and an opening theme for Ready to Roll (see second clip). Next came themes for Heartbeat City, 12 O'Clock Rock, and immigrant drama Legacy. In 1987 he jumped at the chance to handle a full score — for female forward series The Marching Girls. It was nominated for best original music at the NZ Film and Television Awards (Kim Willoughby sang the opening theme).
After 15 years of "public service television bureaucracy", Blake now made the move into full-time composing. He called his company Out of the System Music. Although a Bluebird Chip ad for Lee Tamahori provided eyewatering fees, Blake initially concentrated on TV work — it offered more of a musical challenge. He composed for Night of the Red Hunter, a trio of Lawless TV movies, comedies Spin Doctors and Neighbourhood Watch, and madcap movie Send a Gorilla. With cop show Shark in the Park, new band Shihad allowed him to use demo tracks in the background of some scenes.
Blake has written opening themes for a range of news and magazine shows, including Close Up, Breakfast, Q+A,Holmes, and Asian business channel ABN — plus the Rugby World Cup and varied sports shows, and natural history documentaries for Discovery and National Geographic. A number of male viewers requested copies of his 1988 Winter Olympics music, unaware that its heavy guitar sound had been created on a keyboard. In 1989 he composed a clarion call theme for the prime time One Network News. It continued to be used (with some rearrangements) for another three decades. His music for The Lion Man has probably travelled furthest — to at least 120 countries.
In the late 90s Blake began devoting more time to commercials. Late guitarist, bass player and composer Rob Winch often joined Blake at his studio, where they produced dozens of adverts, including campaign themes for the Hurricanes rugby team, The Interislander, Lotto, and a Toyota campaign in the United States. One year they provided music for both Labour and National's election campaigns. They also composed sounds for Te Papa Museum.
In 1990 Blake and lyricist Simon Morris (another RTR veteran) won New Zealand's Sesqui music competition, with the much played song 'New Zealand — Kainga Tuturu'. Blake declined a role as musical director on NZ Idol and Dancing with the Stars, feeling he had been there already on RTR.
Back before leaving state television, he took music production courses with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. He found time to produce tracks for Wellington's Bunk Records, including The Mockers, punk band Steroids, and top five hit (Don't Give Me) 'Culture?', The Knobz' dig at Rob Muldoon's sales tax on music.
Blake continues to perform live as a keyboard player. These days he splits his time between Europe, South East Asia and New Zealand, where he performs his contemporary jazz compositions on solo piano.
Profile published on 3 April 2013; updated on 11 April 2019
'Peter Blake: On making music and getting Ready to Roll' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Uploaded 3 April 2013. Accessed 29 March 2019
Lee Borrie, 'Peter Blake on music TV - part one' (Interview) AudioCulture website. Loaded 4 February 2019. Accessed 29 March 2019
Lee Borrie, 'Peter Blake on music TV - part two (Interview)AudioCulture website. Loaded 4 February 2019. Accessed 29 March 2019
John Dix, Stranded in Paradise (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2005)
Irene Gardiner, 'The jazz thing in Peter Blake' (Interview) - The Evening Post, February 1986
Victor van Wetering, 'Blake makes break - back to the music' (Interview) - The Evening Post, date unknown
Unknown writer, 'Music calls full-time' - Unknown publication, 29 May 1987