It was 1982. Musically, things were not good. There are still people who wake up, screaming and sweating, the words “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you blow my mind, hey Mickey!!” forever gouged into their brains.
I was a rather naive country boy in the big city – Wellington – at Polytech. Spinning up the dial on my very basic Sony tranny, and heard this lovely, deep echoing twanging guitar and a flat, bored Kiwi drawl…
“Aaanny thing could happen, and it could be right now…” I had discovered student radio, Flying Nun, and a whole new take on life. The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle
was fairly quickly added to the record collection.
Sometime later that year the Dunedin Double EP came out and I got hooked on the Chills, particularly ‘Kaleidoscope World’…
I have this theory that one of the things a truly great pop song should have is a certain dumbness about the lyrics. The Chills might have been pushing this a little far with the couplet “It gets real cold so we turn on the heater/Things are great and that makes it neater” but it is still a great piece of jangly pop.
The Chills were to produce two songs which bring a lump to my throat – ‘Rolling Moon’ is the first, singing the chorus of this (I challenge anyone to sing along to the verses) on a tramping trip up at Lake Angelus, in Nelson Lakes, back in 1990, as the sun went down and the air chilled…
“We got feverish sweat
Please O god don’t take us home”…
The other, much later – 1995 – one is “Come Home”, with its simple, if naive, plea to expat New Zealanders to do just that. I had too many friends overseas by that point not to feel a lurch. Martin Phillipps is good at songs on the Kiwi overseas theme – another favourite, ‘Part Past, Part Fiction’, has a chorus which is like a haiku postcard from a homesick New Zealander:
“Some place alone,
And no-one known,
So far from home here.”
[Yeah, I know its not technically a haiku. But it could be. ]
And of course, they did ‘Pink Frost’. I love that skidding bass…it always put me in mind of the Maori myth that, after they die, souls fly up the country and out at Spirits Bay in Northland. It sounded to me, when I first heard it, like lost souls zooming northward over the New Zealand landscape. I may have been less than sober at the time.
The Verlaines…’Death and the Maiden’ of course, but then the EP, ’10 O’Clock in the Afternoon’. Came out when I was living in Tauranga, and hating it. In my memory it is full of people in boat shoes and those Choose Life t-shirts drinking Steinlager… The thing about Tauranga, which was apparent even then, was that it really really wanted to be Auckland – well, to be precise, the North Shore. anyway, there was a subversive at the downtown record store who used to whip off the usual Springsteen/Alison Moyet/Wham tracks and throw on REM, the Smiths, Billy Bragg…and Nun Bands. It was where I first heard the “10 O’Clock in the Afternoon” EP, during a lunchbreak…
Somewhere about the same time, or earlier, I’m getting a flashback of lying on the floor at a friend’s place somewhere in Auckland one afternoon, listening to the Dunedin Double EP and being blown away by ‘Crisis After Crisis’....
… those magnificent chords as the band crashed and ripped its way into “Well if I get drunk well that’s all right….”
DoubleHappys. There’s a great line in a song called ‘Theme from Lounge Bar’ by non-Flying Nun but very Kiwi outfit Front Lawn…the line says something about “Just then a chord change/Makes the blood change direction in her veins” …
‘Others’ Way’ has a whole heap of chord changes like that….there are at least three, maybe four guitar tracks overlaid here, one of them doing that durr-durr durr-durr police siren thing. Angst-torn, appropriately semi-articulate lyrics:
Ok I’m now screaming from the inside
Is it really going to help me?
That’s the only place that I could screammmmm
And a great sort of dual guitar solo in the middle.
Shayne Carter did this sort of thing so well…Equal to ‘Others’ Way’ is the Straitjacket Fits’ ‘Dialling a Prayer’. If existential crises could play the guitar and sing – well, OK, howl – this is what they would sound like. It’s all about tension, this song, from the edgy scratching of the opening chords, and the turmoil of the rhythm when the bass and drums kick in: then the opening lyrics,” Well you wind me up, just to let me go-ow..” … bloody perfect. This song is all being wound up and let go, and its there in the guitars as they build up to that despairing chorus, and as Carter hits the words of the song’s title the backing vocals howl and reel back, falling, like a tormented soul tumbling backwards and downwards into a bottomless, pitiless black hole…And that middle bridge and the whirling, violent guitars fighting themselves is pure King Lear on the Blasted Heath….
I got a bit carried away there.
(The Chills, of course, had a much better approach to existential crises:
“I tried to find my real self
Maybe on the Top Shelf….”)
The Bats…always much better live than on record. I had their first two EPs, sort of lost them after that – although ‘Courage’, from 1993 , captured their live sound better than anything else I’ve heard.
Able Tasmans: their original EP, ‘Tired Sun’ had ‘Snow White Chook‘ as well as the very silly Nelson the Cat.. the album, in 1987, ‘A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down’ had the glorious ‘Sour Queen’ a song which at the time seemed to sum up very well someone I knew; daffy numbers such as ‘Evil barbecue’ and that silly cowboy song, and the slightly odd ‘Little Hearts’…
I saw the Able Tassies live, many times, in Auckland. Marvellous. Just a FUN band, and I don’t mean that in a dumb way, although there weren’t too worried about seeming a bit dorky. The album “Hey Spinner’ is probably their highlight – great harmonies on ‘Michael Fay’ (yes please carry my bones/to a place I can call home…’); the joyous, cascading waterfall of ‘Hold Me‘…and ‘Grey Lynn’, irresistible, reminds me of walking across Grey Lynn park off Williamson Ave after some exam…they’ve got, unlike a lot of these songs, a happy vibe.
Damn. I just used the word ‘vibe’. Oh well.
JPSE – passing a bottle of Baileys around the flat lounge one wet Auckland afternoon in 1986, with ‘I Like Rain’ on the stereo…
More obscurities…the first thing I ever heard from the Headless Chickens, a thing called ‘Throwback’, sparse, desolate and menacing… Mainly Spaniards’ only release, a single called ‘That’s what Friends Are For’, with its chorus of
“We will go out and get drunk together
And get depressed together
That’s what your friends are for…”
All these tracks are redolent of a time of grotty, peeled-paint flats with bamboo blinds in the bedrooms, tilted floors, bald carpets and the odd carpet tack you could catch your bare feet on if you weren’t careful; the month’s Capitol Cinema poster on the kitchen wall, possibly somewhere near the flat duty roster…..
Life has been better since then, but the music hasn’t been as good.