To mark the death of Dan Birch, I tapped out this feature I wrote about Beat Rhythm Fashion, published by the short-lived NZ Rolling Stone in December 1981. The article is dated, and the author should be shot (I turned a shade of crimson while re-reading this purple prose). But I guess it’s a snapshot of a time and place not often discussed.
Beat Rhythm Fashion is coloured, textured, simple and refined, blurry music with a cutting edge reinforced by straight, warped, provocative words; poetry that is both bitter and shattered romantic. It’s music that feels, glides, hits home in the most basic (not base) areas of the jaded modern psyche. It’s music of true hues.
Beat Rhythm Fashion tries to work on three or four different levels. It works off pretension, arrogance, avoids easy belligerence, doesn’t fake accent and background. It’s the paranoia of the Beatles double white album wrapped in a stark, stunning and persuasively deceptive 1980s vision. It’s one year on from the Wellington Terrace scene of bilious outrage and negativity.
Dan: “We don’t tie the message to any philosophy. The music had to be important. It just so happens that that’s what we write about and it just so happens that it is important. Very few are writing things like that. There’s a kind of level that we work in that’s rare, because no-one else is really on that level.”
Dan: “It’s pretentious to assume that anyone would be interested in finding out what we’re talking about. But it’s only pretentious until someone’s reached. It’s not pretentious any more because we’ve succeeded.”
Beat Rhythm Fashion (herein referred to as BRF) are Dan and Nino Birch who grew up in China and don’t see New Zealand as a place to be. These boys, with clipped British accents, strummed their first guitars in their early teens, but only last year electrified themselves. Dan is in his late twenties, Nino his mid twenties, and the two bicker as brothers are wont to do. Dan plays bass/voice, Nino plays guitar/voice, and they both write – Dan most of the lyrics, Nino most of the tunes.
The BRF plan finds electric beginnings in Terrace parties mid-to-late 1980. No venues but plenty of crazy house parties with live music sees the rise and meteoric fall of the Wallsockets (whose flat these bands use as a base), Life In The Fridge Exists (with whom Dan plays occasionally) and others. Dan and Nino hang out here and hatch the plot.
The first-recorded BRF potential is unearthed on the Terrace scene’s climax/obituary sampler album, Four Stars. Dan and Nino’s two budding creations are “Not Necessary” and “None In The Universe”, real drug-induced hippy/punk jokes: “I would much prefer to be made of air/It would make me so happy not to be here.”
When all that ended, BRF got serious. They were next seen with a new sound, a proper high quality repertoire and new drummer, Glen, at dates in April 1981. Their big gigs were at the defunct Last Resort, and at the infamous first Wellingtonzone concert. Three BRF tunes (“No Great Oaks In China”, “Art And Duty” and “Song Of The Hairless Apes”) along with pathetic audience response are to be found on the Wellingtonzone LP document.
“Beings Rest Finally”, backed with “Bring Real Freedom”, was released by Bunk in July. The A-side is a lovely introspective pop song tinged with jazz melody and Cure-sound. It sold in encouraging numbers and left Joe Public waiting for the second and third instalments of the BRF Marmalade-recorded singles trilogy.
The second single is the best BRF song to date. “Turn Of The Century” is wordlessly lovely, aching with melancholy. So simple, condensed and open to interpretation, such a feeling: “It’s a long project/With no prospects/But I’d still like to see the turn of the century.”
It’s haunting and slow with spectral swirls of string synthesiser adding immensely to its atmospheric ambience.
Drummer Glen left not long after the singles were recorded. Now BRF are back as a duo, and they’ll use hired hands when necessary unless they find that elusive kindred spirit to work with.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS
Nino: Dan and I only really speak the truth and say what we really mean in our music. Outside of that we just talk a load of bullshit.”
Dan: “Speak for yourself, sonny.”
Nino: “You do it too. You don’t give a fuck what you say.”
Dan: “I give very clear signals when I’m pissing and when I’m joking and being serious.”
Nino: “But those signals may not necessarily be seen.”
Dan: “But that’s not my responsibility.”
Dan: “It’s my responsibility to give the signals.”
THE CURE COMPARISON
On first taste, and those skeptical but mesmerized second and third absorptions, BRF sound like The Cure. Definitely not outtakes; just the best Cure material The Cure never did! That comparison wears off as the music becomes embedded.
Nino: “All this bullshit about our pretentiousness and Cure clones and that we’re just trying to jump someone else’s train…”
Dan: “What we write will stand on its own. The only song we deliberately used a Cure sound on was “Beings Rest Finally”. We used a Cure guitar. I think it’s legitimate to take an area that a band is into and try and work on that area, because that’s the whole nature of the music scene. Modern music will develop through that sort of interaction. Specially when The Cure have sort of left that area and they’re not exploring that anymore. We just took a Three Imaginary Boys thing and started working on that. There is a pool of consciousness in music. Inspiration in music comes from there. I don’t think you can compose in isolation. We never steal melodies like other bands do. Now that’s unforgiveable.
Dan: “I think Nino’s a better guitarist than Robert Smith. Robert Smith is a novice and that’s why he plays guitar like that: because all he can do is strum. All we’re doing is playing music we like and if it’s Cure MkII, I don’t give a fuck because the melodies are not. They’re their own, and stronger than anybody else’s, much stronger.”
SONGS AND LYRICS
Dan: “The song has a structural problem. A well-structured song will have all levels running through it the whole way. Each verse, each line. That’s the art of wordcraft, isn’t it. That’s what I find great. Each word is right. Every single word. I’m not saying all our songs merit close scrutiny, but some of them do.”
The Birch brothers don’t really fit into the popular music model the way our arbiters of taste on radio or TV see it. It’s a curse on the inflexibility of our radio programmers that they can’t see the viability of BRF and suchlike music; and it’s not even hard on the ear. It is unfashionable because all the best music is of “now” only in that it was created in a special moment in time. Yes, sweets, it’s “difficult” – but only if you really don’t want to know. BRF themselves know not where they fit, so they’re using the pop music machinery as the only commercially possible mode. They like the idea of radio play but don’t like the company they’d be keeping. They respect good pop music, but how much of that do we hear on radio?
Dan: “I feel, when I feel self-important, that my songs are going to change what singles do. They’re going to raise it to a more respectable artform. Songs are all that count for me.”
THE REAL CURE: TRUTH HURTS!
Isn’t BRF music a bit of a downer? Isn’t it somewhat negative?
Dan: “Truth is pretty negative. As soon as you say something positive, problems start popping out at you. I don’t really see it as being negative or positive. If we’re going to be honest we’ve just got to do what we feel.”
Nino: “People can say what they like about the fact that it’s more important to get up there and have a good time, but they still wake up the next fucking day, they’ve gotta go to work, the girlfriend’s pregnant. Real life is real life. Cops are bastards, politics is fucked, there’s trouble in the Middle East, war is looming. If you can accept that, and try and understand it, then you can go out and try and do things. But if you just try and chuck it all outside and make your world as “nice” as possible, you become a dead person. You just exist for yourself.”
Dan: “That’s why it’s not negative. It’s positive. It’s an uplifting thing when truth gets out.”
Isn’t “Turn Of The Century” a little too morbid? It doesn’t reflect the way you appear as people.
Dan: “Turn Of The Century” isn’t all that morbid. It’s contradictory. It’s morbid musically. That song’s a vision of the future but it doesn’t make any statement one way or the other. We thought “Turn Of The Century” would do a lot better than “Beings Rest Finally” because it’s such an irresistible tune.”
Nino: “So pretty.”
Dan: “No, it’s not ‘pretty’!! It’s really lovely, eh? My grandmother likes it. My dad likes it. Everybody likes it, y’know? It strikes a chord. I was in this shop where it was playing and an old guy who was in there turned to me and said “that’s a very nice sentiment.”
BREAKING UP THE SECTS
To whom would BRF wish to appeal?
Dan: “…to break across the lines of demarcation between the different sects. There’s so much aggro and fights between tribes. I think what started it was the Beatles myth… the myth of becoming a pop star. People could become musicians… doing it because it was their childhood dream. That makes them tailor their message. That thing that the Beatles did that was so healthy at the time, beautifying everyone, and everyone loved the Beatles. It was a huge phenomenon that put cheer into people’s lives at the time of the Cold War – it’s resulted in all these bands wanting to be the only ones. We’re doing it because we’re driven – it’s all we ever think about, talk about. I’d like straights and suburbanites to like us because I feel that their lives are just so homogenous – I’d like to get into those lives. Old people – they’re thinking about who they are. Universe reverts back to self-analysis. They’ll be shuffling off the mortal chord quite soon, and they start thinking quite cosmically.”
The BRF song to date that has created the most dissension and cause for discussion is the B-side of “Turn Of The Century”, “Song Of The Hairless Apes”, which begins with the lines: “John Lennon is dead/But he’s always on the radio…”
Easy sensationalism or what?
Dan: “It’s a little statement. Quite a cheap shot really. Quite trivial but the verses aren’t. Like your enemies only become your friends after you’re dead. It’s just an example of how fucked the music scene is.”
Nino: “We like John Lennon.”
Dan: John Lennon’s message was never really got across.”
Nino: “It’s not disrespectful but I hope it’s not misinterpreted.”
Dan: “This is talking about the real greats, which John Lennon is. John Lennon, John Lydon, David Bowie. My main men of the last two decades.”
Nino: “It’s blatantly arrogant and it’s blatantly cutting but it was written with that genuine anger. Lennon cut across the whole fucking board. My father and plenty of other parents and kids listened to him and loved him. They were nice boys. They were revolutionaries.”
Dan and Nino Birch can be downright arrogant. They make many dogmatic statements that make them as many enemies. With the arrogance comes a searching, questioning and challenging of everything including, one hopes, themselves.
They say, though, that fans should not concern themselves with the personalities of musicians. It’s irrelevant to the music, they say.
Never mind. The music: concern yourself with that. That which is not irrelevant. That which is, like Joy Division (note: this is not a comparison), weaves sound into colours and feelings – a unified and distinctively strong whole, rather than the common compositional musical nervous twitch that most “bands” “entertain” us punters with. No ego-boosting arpeggios found in this vicinity.
And BRF go walkies. They’re off to Auckland and (can we hope?) the exposure their music cries out loud for. Que sera… etc. GARY STEEL
* The BRF compilation on Failsafe Records is required listening for all NZ music fans.