I don’t think I’m the only person who, when this came out, thought they were singing about Janet Frame.
That, though, would have been a bit too direct for Don McGlashan.
Someone once defined the Muttonbirds as being like the a Kiwi version of the Kinks with a touch of Twin Peaks’ undefined menace to them.
That to me is almost right. The band – and Don McGlashan’s other work, with Front Lawn and Blam Blam Blam and elsewhere – certainly get, and convey, New Zealand culture in a way the Kinks, at their peak, were able to do for the English.
But Twin Peaks? Hmm. You can see it a bit in this video clip, I suppose. But really, you don’t need to go offshore to seek influcneces. The band is like a rock muso version of Maurice Gee’s novels, or of some of our infamous ‘Cinema of Unease’.
If peoeple still bothered to market music compilations, someone could do a very good ‘Music of Unease’ of Kiwi Music.
In fact, of course, you could probably make one of your own.
A favourite spot, over the past summer, has been the hills above Makara. The bottom left-hand corner of the North Island, the area is wild, open, and glorious. The daughter loves it there, I’m pretty fond of it myself.
There’s a high tensile toughness, as it looks out at the world. The plant life is not tall – under constant pressure from howling seaward winds, it sticks close to the ground, even though the ground itself is not the most fertile you would find. It’s scrabbly, rocky, and gives up its nutrients grudgingly.
Remnants of how New Zealand faced past threats are there: concrete gun emplacements built at the start of World War Two glower out at the sea.
To the north, you can see Mana & Kapiti Islands. Wheel your view around to the south-west and there’s the South Island. You’ll often see at least one of the Cook Strait ferries, possibly more than one.
‘Silver blue, the sea like sheets on a bed At the edge of the world a ferry boat crawls away like a snail…’
…as Don McGlashan wrote in the great Mutton Birds song, ‘Along the Boundary’. I don’t think the song is actually about this spot – I remember McGlashan saying, somewhere, it was about a specific place and memory, but I suspect that place is on the other side of the strait.
But anyway. It’s off an album which came out in 1995, around the time I moved to Wellington. It’s always had a special place in my heart and I think of this particular song almost every time I go up to this place.
It’s about a child climbing a tree, and struggling to keep up with a bigger child – a friend or, more likely, a sibling or a cousin – who is ‘much older’.
The song tells of a child discovering he/she could keep up with the ‘much older’ person.
‘You never thought I could get such a long way up, but I looked straight ahead…’
And there’s the evocative memory…
‘I feel the branches move around me I see the thistles along the boundary Up along the boundary…’
And, from up there, the child’s feeling of, if not omnipotence, then certainly strength and potential:
‘I move patches of wind round the bay of glass I move shadows of clouds over the grass I’m at the controls, there isn’t a shelf or a rock on the beach That I couldn’t reach…
The sun pulls the hills the way the tide pulls on the sea Waves and waves of grass are breaking, rolling over to me And the sky’s like a wheel Like a wheel…’
It’s sheer poetry. McGlashan’s one of our best songwriters: he is certainly our best at evoking the New Zealand space – both headspace and physical space.
He’s kind of a rock muso version of Maurice Gee.
Today the threats those concrete blockhouses were built to face are gone. Behind them, the flat area dug out to house soldiers’ barracks is partly overgrown with lupins.
Sheep may safely graze there. Children play noisily and happily in the old buildings once built by khaki-clad soldiers in deadly, fear-filled earnestness of an overwhelming threat.
Just over the hills, the Makara wind farms whirl, while under them, a stream of mountain bikers, all sweaty and multicoloured exuberance, whirl their pedals in a kind of mock tribute.
So: here’s the Mutton Birds, doing ‘Along The Boundary’, live. Bit rough, but its still a great song.
‘Bittersweet’ is such an over-used term, but here it fits. A lovely song about disappointment and heartbreak. I love the little bits of detail like ‘you knew I had to come here/you knew there was no work at home’ and the poetic bit at the end of the last verse:
‘Is that the sun that’s rising on you now? And did it shine the day you changed your mind?’
Remember seeing them live in Wellington in around 1995….a bunch of people in front of us said, more or less together as the band came on and plugged in ‘Hope they play “Ngaire” – and then the band opened with it. It set off a magic night.