Gary Steel pontificates on a perplexing few weeks for NZ music.
IT HAS BEEN a bittersweet few weeks in music-land.
The annual New Zealand Music Month is just around the corner, but this old April fool has been soaking in homegrown sounds for a months already.
First, I was involved in the Taite Music Prize, which involved an evening of debating with the judging panel, and doing the best to push my agenda. (See my report on that here.)
The Taite Music Prize is all about having one award go to a musician, songwriter or band that is judged on the artistry, not the popularity. It was a fantastic feeling seeing SJD (aka Sean Donnelly) get his just dues, or at least a prize of $10,000 to recognise his decade-plus and six albums of consistently great music, and specifically for his latest, Elastic Wasteland.
I’ve followed Sean since his first album in 1998, and have been amazed over and over at his layered and deeply hued work. This guy has depth, and no matter what he’s working with (often a partly electronic palette) the songwriting is top-notch, and innovative with it. And that’s what attracts me. We don’t need more Paul Kellys in this world, but the landscape can always do with people who can write fantastic songs, sing them, and compose/produce music that’s intriguing and gets better and better the more you listen to it. And it also sounds like it comes from here.
It was also great to be able to cast a vote that contributed to The Gordons’ self-titled and most singular 1981 album getting the award for NZ Classic Record. To be eligible for this award, an album has to be over 20 years old, and the judges came up with a fantastic selection of potential winners, but in the end, it was decided that with an award like this, each great band/record will eventually get a chance. And while The Gordons is a band that ended up being influential amongst many alt-rock groups internationally (Sonic Youth springs to mind), it’s only really in the last 10 years that local bands have started acknowledging their debt to its utterly unique, powerful sound. (Reprints of my old articles about The Gordons can be found here).
It’s true that my heart swelled with all of the above, but then came the dampener: Dave McArtney’s unexpected death.
I had interviewed the singer-songwriter-guitarist just last October for my Metro magazine story on the first Hello Sailor album in an age, Surrey Crescent Moon, and McArtney had been in jocular good shape. Listening back to the interview tape, his voice is often drowned out by the more garrulous and dominating Graham Brazier, but on the night he seemed healthy and in a happy mood and, more than Brazier or Harry Lyon, was keen to embark on discussions. He had read my 2-star Metro review of the last Bob Dylan album, and disagreed vehemently with me, but instead of playing the protagonist, he was keen to know more about my views than the capsule review had allowed, and happily talked about what he liked about the record. He also japed around with the Hugh Hefner-style dressing gown he had brought along, presumably for the photo session.
I didn’t know McArtney well, so I’m not going to wax forth about what a great guy he was. In any case, there’s plenty of those eulogies floating around after his funeral earlier this week. I’m only really interested in the music, and the thing is, McArtney wrote some fantastic songs. It’s true that only a few of them (Hello Sailor’s ‘Gutter Black’, for instance) are considered Kiwi classics, and it’s the connoisseurs of NZ music that look further into his catalogue to find more McArtney songs of great merit; but that doesn’t make his contribution any the lesser.
And that got me thinking.
OH MY, HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED
It’s something that’s been gaining cumulative traction over the past few months, as I toil away on material for the forthcoming Audio Culture archive of New Zealand music.
Audio Culture is a new initiative spear-headed by Simon Grigg, who I’m tempted to label an “industry stalwart” but is so very much more than that. (But I’ll save that rave for another day).
I remember meeting up with Simon a few years back after both of us were simultaneously found to be boring to death anyone who would listen on Facebook with the idea that what we desperately needed was a New Zealand music archive. We had a great discussion over great coffee; then he actually got on with the monumental task of making it happen while I went on with the daily chore of making my mortgage payments with whatever would pay.
We both felt passionately that, while the history of popular music was guarded and cherished and celebrated in most capitalist democracies around the world, in NZ we had gotten perilously close to losing some of that important heritage through sheer neglect.
There were numerous reasons for that institutionalised neglect, but the fact was that some of our more important groups hadn’t ever had their singles or albums reissued, or made available, and therefore the public consciousness around these artists was non-existent.
It had gotten to the stage that several generations of New Zealanders thought Flying Nun was the only credible label to have ever existed in NZ, and its roster the only credible alt-rock musicians of that era, simply because it was visible, and its catalogue had stayed more or less in print. [Which isn’t in any way denigrating “the Nun”, of course].
Which brings us back to McArtney. Hello Sailor was one of NZ’s biggest groups, albeit fairly briefly. They had two fine albums in the late ‘70s that you’d even now be hard-pressed to find in the shops, and have never, to my knowledge, been remastered and reissued properly. The same is true of post-Hello Sailor bands McArtney played with, most notably the Pink Flamingos.
Ultimately, even an artist with McArtney’s obvious talent – despite the iconic songs – couldn’t make a living making records. He told me in 1981 that he didn’t like touring, but he ended up going on the road. He tried his hand at making music for movies with the 1986 film Queen St Rocker, but that seems to have led nowhere. For the past decade, McArtney had been a part-time tutor at Unitech, where his bandmate Harry Lyon works fulltime. Now, I’m not saying that his life was a bad one – I’m sure that in many ways McArtney’s life was full, and full of joy. But it’s always surprising to learn that major music figures often don’t end up earning a living doing what you expect them to do, and very possibly what they want to do: writing songs and making records and playing concerts.
This is New Zealand. It’s a small country, still, and far from anywhere else, and only a select group has really made it. There’s the Finn brothers, Dave Dobbyn, Shihad, um, um…
This was brought home to roost at last week’s Record Store Day, which Auckland’s Real Groovy marked with the re-release of Shihad’s 1993 debut album Churn on vinyl, and a few other vinyl releases, including the self-titled Waves album from 1975.
Waves was a record issued slightly out of its time. I would have read about it in NZ’s rock magazine of the time, Hotlicks, and spent my schoolboy allowance on the record at Hamilton’s Direction Records. I loved it immediately, even though by that stage the provocative pre-punk Split Enz were already upsetting every apple cart.
Despite the hippy connotations of its Crosby, Stills & Nash-like harmonies and acoustic fretwork, the album was bathed in an emotional glow that was 100 percent pure Kiwi. Guitarist/songwriter Graeme Gash has written brilliant liner notes to go with the album’s first-ever reissue on vinyl and CD nearly 40 years later that really give a sense of Auckland back in ’75, and just how isolated they felt from the real world. Well, maybe ‘isolated’ isn’t quite the right word. Dislocated? In any case, we didn’t give a rat’s ass about New Zealand music at this juncture, and when the record label went broke, Waves became one of a growing legion of NZ albums that just seemed to slip away to oblivion.
I’ll write about this re-issue at length elsewhere, but it’s a great example of our collective amnesia. Up until now, if by quirk of fate a single or album was never reissued, then it ceased to exist. Kiwi music sucked anyway, right?
I hope that this reissue (and the others that have preceded it, and will surely follow) represent the beginning of a new wave of appreciation for our own music history. I hope that the Audio Culture project helps to rid NZ of its musical/cultural amnesia, and that eventually, some of NZ’s most important cultural assets that nobody has ever heard of will rise up out of the murk to take their real place. And I hope that the premature death of Dave McArtney might spark a respectful reissue campaign related to his good work, so that not only his friends and NZ pop connoisseurs know his real merit outside of being a top bloke. GARY STEEL