Photography by John Rykenberg
In the beginning
One Sunday 35 years ago, an 18-year-old Russell Crowe nursed a cigarette and struck a pose on a building site in downtown Auckland, in a curated costume of Chelsea boots, leather jacket and neck kerchief. At the time, the current Hollywood A-lister had a band, his first 12” single to promote, and two test-playing cricketing cousins, Jeff and Martin. He also went by the name Russ le Roq, for reasons winkled out of him by the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly in 1989: “Russell Crowe has flashing green eyes, a sultry pout and an aversion to being known as the singing cousin of the cricketing Crowes”. Or, “sick of being asked about Martin and Jeff he renamed himself Russ le Roq”.
In 1982, the disavowing Crowe had recorded his debut single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando’ (B-side: ‘It Hurts So Bad’), at a Pakuranga studio. He walked into Rykenberg Photography at 44 Albert Street – “a little surly” remembers Wendie Wright – and asked Wright’s husband John Rykenberg (1927–2014) to take some publicity shots. By then the unassuming little business had been going for almost 25 years, established by Rykenberg who, not long after emigrating from Holland in the 1950s, was making a living taking candid shots of nattily dressed Aucklanders traversing Queen Street, and other slices of city life. By the time Crowe came calling, Rykenberg had diversified into studio photography and did weddings and passport photos besides. Crowe was not after a studio shot, recalls Wright, so her husband suggested the nearby grand Star Hotel, then in the process of being flattened. Following the shoot, Wright warmed to Crowe, who sent the Rykenbergs his single in a sleeve featuring one of Rykenberg’s photographs, and a polite message of thanks and appreciation. Wright remembers giving it a spin. “I thought it was okay,” she says, “but it wasn’t really my kind of music.” Her tastes, she says, run to the classical, not “bam bam bam”.
It was evident Crowe had something Australian about him even then, which he later confirmed to the Weekly: “A lot of people saw me as being a self promoter, but remember I’d lived in Sydney from when I was four to 14 so I had a different view of what you had to do to get ahead.” To drum up publicity for his single he sent a note to Rip It Up for inclusion in the magazine’s Rumours column: “In an industry where it seems everyone knows the Joneses, no ones [sic] heard of the Roqs. Yet, Russ le Roq is soon to release his debut single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando’.”
To foment additional enthusiasm, a more substantial media release took the form of ‘A Roq Quiz’, comprising various questions: “What is his favourite milkshake flavour?”; “Is he related to Marlon Brando, or is that just a rumour?”; “Why does he hate the French?”; “Where does he buy his clothes?”; “What political electorate did he contest in the last election?”; and, “Does he really want to become a teenage sex symbol?”. Parsing the lyrics of the single, the answer to this question is surprisingly debatable. Aside from clearly admiring the manly Brando, le Roq also gave a shout-out to Rudolf Valentino, who occupied very different territory. In the 1920s, many flappers fell hard for the pomaded, dandily dressed Italian movie star. Some men, however, were unsettled by him, a state exacerbated when he married a lesbian. Perhaps le Roq was challenging New Zealand male sexuality. Or not.
Le Roq went on a less ambivalent confrontational jag in a press release sent to radio stations to accompany his 1983 single, ‘Never Let Ya Slide’: “The information contained herein is of great importance to the youth of New Zealand. Never before has it been possible to fulfil their needs so totally. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to programme Russ le Roq’s new single... The record included will self-destruct upon hearing the words ‘You don’t fit my format’. The ensuing explosion will take the record, you and a large percentage of your fellow workers with it. If you know what I mean... and I think you do.”
Then there was le Roq’s refreshingly frank biography, issued by his Auckland label, Ode Records. “Reaction to Russ le Roq has been, to say the least, diverse,” it read, citing reviews to illustrate: “Megastar embryonique,” assessed Metro. “Embarrassingly obvious,” assessed Rip It Up. There was also mention of his education – at Mount Roskill and Auckland Grammar schools – his likes (thinking, reading, writing songs, good conversation, and his blue Persian cat) and dislikes (“overly intense people, excess drinking, drugs of any form, and being interrupted while working”). Ten years later, following stints running a live music venue for teens in central Auckland (called Venue) and working as the entertainment officer for Pakatoa Island resort in the Hauraki Gulf, the clean-living and Calvinist work ethic had paid off: Rolling Stone was now writing not about Crowe’s singing ability, but his “emotional volatility” as “a potent screen elixir”. No mention of Russ le Roq.
The series of mostly never-seen-before photos of the youthful Crowe on these pages has been unearthed by Wright, who is in the process of sorting through one million images taken by Rykenberg Photography, and giving them to Auckland Libraries. She has attempted to contact Crowe to offer copies of the photos. The single ‘I Just Wanna Be Like Marlon Brando’, along with other Russ le Roq numbers, is available on Spotify.