The Tin Syndrome – Artefacts Which Reason Ate, 1980-83 & No Ordinary Sickness (Jayrem) CD REVIEW

October 8, 2014
4 mins read

Excuse me if I’ve banged on about this before (the elderly are prone to repetition) but the average Kiwi has absolutely no idea of the wealth of New Zealand’s recorded music history. While the bands and artists that were lucky enough to get eulogised and compiled have fought for space in the great (or not so great) Kiwi consciousness, there’s a veritable goldmine of lesser known talents that have been all but forgotten.
Those who have come to NZ music in the past 15 years probably won’t understand why, so let me elaborate, a little. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of us thought that our own music was inferior to anything truly “international”, there was very little in the way of TV, radio or live exposure available to a band, and, lacking the hype machine we now have, there was very little exposure available.
Which brings us to these two handsomely packaged and annotated releases by Wellington group The Tin Syndrome, which existed from 1980 to ’84, had one “hit” EP, but never had the opportunity to tour extensively and make a name for themselves nationwide, or to make a video. There were very few column inches written about the group, although in 1983 as editor of the local “arts and entertainment” listings rag, I deemed them good enough to make the front cover.
The first disc, Artefacts Which Reason Ate, 1980-83, is subtitled ‘Early Demos, Singles & Live Recordings’ and that’s an apt description of its contents. What that may suggest, however, is a bunch of shoddy recordings. While some of them are rough, producer Mark Ingram has cleaned them up so that they sound warm and life-like, and it’s this, together with the thought that has gone into the 19-song selection, that gives a real insight into one of the country’s more interesting ‘80s groups.
A good portion of Artefacts… is taken from desk recordings of live performances, and these show the band as being uncommonly musical amongst the dilettantes populating the Wellington scene at the time. While punk and post-punk was still in vogue in Wellington in the early ‘80s, with the roughness and attitude that went with it, The Tin Syndrome were making a music that was more musicianly and traditionally adept than most of their contemporaries in the scene, and that explains, perhaps, why they always seemed to stand apart from it.
The disc also contains portions of their first EP, which contribute some of the highlights, as well as some intriguing demos that show the band in various stages of development – and in three years, the evolution proved to be swift. The earliest songs show The Kinks to be a prime influence, with a patina of post-punk moves on top (Elvis Costello, the Monochrome Sect, XTC all seep through).
Clearly, The Tin Syndrome came from a noble tradition of intelligent pop as defined by bands like The Kinks and later rehabilitated by the likes of XTC. These guys look and sound like they’re from the nicer side of town, well educated and keen to articulate themselves. And just like The Kinks and XTC, The Tin Syndrome typically wrote satires on prevailing trends and societal foibles, rather than the usual love songs.
Locally, the group bears a lot of similarities to Blam Blam Blam and Don McGlashan’s mid-‘80s group, The Front Lawn. Ironically, their guitarist, David Long, went on to perform with McGlashan in The Muttonbirds in the ‘90s.
Within a couple of years, however, the band were sounding almost New Romantic, and there are songs here in which both the pubbed-up robot rock of Mi-sex and the sensitive stylings of David Sylvian/Japan, Spandau Ballet and Ultravox are rather transparently influential.
Also, unfortunately, is the white-boy ska and reggae that can be found rhythmically propelling a small portion of these songs. You could blame the whole thing on The Police, but the style still sounds awkward, and I couldn’t help wondering if somehow this (and other groups from the era) somehow created an incubator for the scene that erupted like a lanced boil in the city some two decades later. But we’ll sit on those recriminations for now!
The other disc, No Ordinary Sickness (Revised) is, as the name suggests, a revised version of the group’s only album, which was released posthumously in ’85.
It’s an odd fish, with its slippery “muso” feel and the overt commentary of its lyrics, including ‘American Blessing’ (which slams American culture in an awful US accent), ‘The Right Wing’s Going To Pieces’ (a spoof in which baby Prince William turns out to be gay), ‘The Package To Sell’ (a broadside at the materialism of a new generation of university students), and ‘The Kiwi Can’ (a tirade against conservative, “heartland” NZ).
As with Artefacts…, there’s a fair bit of musical invention, and along with Dance Macabre and The Body Electric, The Tin Syndrome show themselves on No Ordinary Sickness to be one of few local bands to really respond to the musical currents of the UK at the time. Few other NZ groups were dominated by synthesisers, or contained the kind of musical innovation attached to the likes of Japan on their groundbreaking The Tin Drum, or had a guitarist with the wit and invention of David Long. The driving force of The Tin Syndrome, however, seems to have been vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Mark Austin, whose lyrics seldom took off into the arcane philosophical zones of a Sylvian, instead obsessing with the mores and morals of the day. So in that sense, his band were more in tune with UK group The Passage.
Having the chance to reassess The Tin Syndrome almost three decades hence is fascinating. Interestingly, the things I found compelling about them back then, and those factors that inhibited my fandom, have not changed. Their music makes for a rich exploration, and both these discs show a group that had much going for it, and could have been much more successful than it was, given the right circumstances. At the same time, it’s equally clear that The Tin Syndrome lacked the almost maniamaniacal focus that contemporary acts like Blam Blam Blam had in spades. Their music dared to deviate, never quite finding its true centre; that meant its songs never quite coalesced into those memorable tracks that could have punctuated those Kiwi compilations. Which isn’t to say that the songwriting is bad; it’s not. Just that, with a few exceptions, these tracks impress as parts, rather than the sum of their parts.
These are important reissues, however, and Austin and his crew have done a superb job of getting the sonics sounding as spruced up as possible, and of pulling together packages that do the group justice; each disc has a pull-out booklet and each song is detailed in the notes. GARY STEEL
SOUND = 3.5
MUSIC = 3.5

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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