Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Kiwi Music Reading 101: Five essential books on New Zealand Music …

Love it or hate it, May is New Zealand Music Month. I’m firmly in the “love it” camp, and can never really understand the criticism it attracts. Surely there’s a lot to celebrate, and there’s nothing wrong with attempting to champion local sounds and flavours, whatever month of the year it is. Regular blog readers will appreciate that everythingsgonegreen doesn’t need an excuse, and the local stuff has always, and always will, form a large portion of the blog’s content.

Anyway, as part of that shameless balls-out cheerleading process, I thought I’d compile a list of books I consider to be essential reading when it comes to coverage of this thing we call New Zealand music. There’s way more than a mere five “essential” books on the subject, of course, but those listed below are titles that take pride of place in my own collection, and they all offer something of a historical perspective, which is more or less my bag when it comes to reading material. It could be that I enjoy these books most because they’re the ones I wish I’d written myself … cue that old Dad-joke about wanting to be a historian before discovering there is no future in it (boom!):

Stranded In Paradise (1988/2005) - John Dix

Often considered the "bible" of Kiwi music history, John Dix's coffee table tome, Stranded In Paradise, was first published in 1988. A perfectly balanced mix of anecdotal stories, factual accounts, insightful analysis, and photos of varying vintage, the book was unprecedented in its scope or depth of detail, effectively tracing the evolution of rock music and pop culture on these shores from the mid-1950s onwards. An initial print run of 10,000 copies was completely insufficient for the barely anticipated level of demand, but it also helped to create something of a myth around the book - brand new copies were all but impossible to source, while used copies became highly coveted prized possessions. That all changed a little with the publication of an updated 2005 edition which not only sated the long running demand for the original publication, it also updated its coverage to bring us right into the 21st century. Where the first edition took us to the emergence of the Flying Nun label, post-punk, and the Compact Disc, the later volume took us into a bold new world with fresh challenges. One where hip hop was the predominant emerging force, a world where the CD had already reached its use-by date, and one where music was being consumed in hitherto inconceivable ways. And, of course, we’re now more than another decade further on from that … the next edition of Stranded might well need to be virtual. My own version of Stranded In Paradise is the 2005 (expanded) update, given to me as a farewell gift by colleagues in a workplace I never really left. Evidently, they knew me (and my reading habits) much better than I had anticipated. I’m sure I read something in early 2016, hinting that a fresh limited reprint process was underway, specifically to replenish barren Library copies/stocks across New Zealand, but I’m not sure that actually happened.
Blue Smoke (2011) - Chris Bourke
If Stranded In Paradise takes the story of New Zealand music and pop culture from the rock’n roll era through to the early 2000s, and I think we can safely say it does, then Chris Bourke’s Blue Smoke is the crucial sister publication. Subtitled ‘The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918–1964’, it’s a book that dares to delve a little deeper, to go back even further, before parking up and concluding its coverage in the mid-Sixties, which is more or less where Stranded launches in earnest. It’s the other half of the story, if not the most important part of the story, because without the pioneering artists, venues, and scenes covered off in Blue Smoke, there would surely have been no need for a Stranded In Paradise. And so it is that Chris Bourke, in meticulous detail, is able to transport us back to an immediate post-colonial, yet still very colonial, New Zealand. Different eras and variations thereof, in fact, depending on your location, your generation, and any predilection our illustrious subjects may have had for the temptations of the devil (and his/her music). But it is about much more than the history of local music; it’s also the most comprehensive account you’ll find of how the people of our previously wild and untamed land evolved in a social context. It’s the story of coffee (or milk) bars, of rural pubs and clubs, of small town cabarets, of big city ballrooms, of the first recordings, the artists involved, the first influential and important performing troupes, and indeed, those of the much less important but still very noteworthy variety. It’s about how we - the collective New Zealand, if you will - found our feet, if not our rhythm, exactly. It’s about styles, trends, and fashion during times when those things were largely - according to mainstream society, at least - considered frivolous and more than a little self-indulgent. Like Stranded, Blue Smoke is built for strategic placement on a coffee table, and is packed full of terrific photos and various odd bits of fascinating ephemera from yester-year. A hugely important body of work.

Soundtrack (2007) - Grant Smithies
Subtitled ‘118 Great New Zealand Albums’, Soundtrack is another coffee table offering, but one that looks specifically at those albums author Grant Smithies considers to be all-time Kiwi classics - 118 being the seemingly random number which met Smithies’ criteria. As a long-standing journalist within the pop culture realm, what Smithies doesn’t know about the local music scene really isn’t worth knowing, with the bonus being that he’s also able to provide a very entertaining and frequently amusing narrative. Along the way he recruits a variety of friends, luminaries, and experts to contribute their own take on specific albums, and those alternative voices - including those of musicians - ensure genuine diversity (of perspective) is on offer throughout. As a result, we end up with Flying Nun classics nestling comfortably alongside hard rock/metal albums, post-millennium poly-soul and hip hop works featuring alongside seminal albums from a bygone era - see self-titled albums from La De Da’s (1966) and Space Waltz (1975), for example. For the most part Smithies and co avoid the bleeding obvious, with just two Split Enz albums, only one from Crowded House, and rather surprisingly, nothing from Seventies giants Hello Sailor, or Th’ Dudes. If anything, and it’s not really a criticism as much as it is a highlight, it does feel like Smithies has scratched something of a post-2000 itch with his album selections … which works well if, like me, you missed out on many of the musical gems released during what was clearly a hugely productive (2000 to 2007) period for local albums, and thus need some insight into what is what, or what was what. In that respect, Soundtrack makes no claim about being definitive, in fact, Smithies makes it clear right at the outset … “you hold in your hands a book crammed with blind prejudices, foggy memories, rash declarations, unsubstantiated assertions and, quite probably, lies” … and that’ll do quite nicely, thank you very much.    

On Song (2012) - Simon Sweetman
I’m probably a little biased here, because the author is known to me, and has in the past helped me out a couple of times with complimentary gig tickets, and on one occasion even allowed me to contribute a fanboy piece (on On-U Sound) to his widely-read but now defunct Stuff-published Blog On The Tracks page. That said, there’s a lot of musical matters we disagree on, and I sometimes wonder why a guy who is often highly critical of NZ music-related issues (his dismissal of NZ Music month, and of NZ Musician magazine, being just a couple of examples) set out specifically to write a book about, umm, New Zealand music. Whatever the case, On Song was, and is, a superb read, thanks to Sweetman’s boundless knowledge and an inherent understanding of his subject matter - regardless of whether or not he thinks NZ music is an actual “thing”, he writes like a genuine fan of the “genre”, with his passion and sheer enthusiasm fair dripping off the page at times. More than any of that though, it’s the way the book is pieced together that makes it far more essential than most - Sweetman selected 30 songs and then set about interviewing each song’s key protagonist(s). So the author provides the framework, adds the context and/or some historical perspective, but the really good oil comes direct from the artist, which makes the whole reading experience a lot more in-depth and intimate than it otherwise might have been. It is key to providing On Song with a real point of difference. I’m not sure that the 30 songs featured are meant to be any sort of definitive guide to NZ music, they’re mostly popular and important, and they may just be the songs that matter most to the author, but each one offers something about who we are, or where we’ve come from, or in the case of a couple of one-off hits, they serve to highlight or offer a reminder of a particular time and place in our history. And that’s a pretty cool thing.

100 Essential NZ Albums (2009) - Nick Bollinger
I’ve just picked up a copy of Goneville, Nick Bollinger’s memoir/account of growing up in and around Wellington’s music scene of the Seventies and beyond. I’ve yet to make a start on it, but I’m really looking forward to reading it, partly because, for my own sins, I’ve met a few of the characters who feature. But mostly I’m looking forward to it because Bollinger is a terrific writer, someone who I always sought out and respected as a reviewer during one of his past lives with the NZ Listener. 100 Essential NZ Albums does exactly what it says on the spine - it’s Bollinger’s choice of local poison, presented in a slightly more orderly fashion than the Smithies/Soundtrack list, which creates the impression - and it may just be me - that it is somehow a more authoritative or definitive list of albums. Which it probably isn’t. After all, we’ll all have our own opinion about what should be included and what shouldn’t. Bollinger’s list of albums certainly appears to be a wider-ranging set, historically very savvy, with a lot more emphasis on pre-1980 albums - the likes of Hello Sailor and Th’ Dudes are acknowledged, as are earlier works by pioneers like Bill Wolfgramm, Johnny Devlin, Dinah Lee, Ray Columbus, and Max Merritt. On the other hand, there’s something distinctly off-the-cuff (yet still very considered, surely) about the Soundtrack list, something more personal and less generic perhaps, than Bollinger’s inclusions. It feels as though Bollinger deliberately set out to tick boxes and cover all eras rather than simply present coverage of his own favourite local albums. It offers a big picture overview, one that Soundtrack lacks, or doesn’t even attempt. They’re both quite brilliant and absorbing books, covering the same subject matter, but still very different in style and approach. If the Smithies book is one I’d most likely pick up and flick through, Bollinger’s is the one I’d be more inclined to read cover to cover … aided by the fact that, unlike all of the above, it’s a handbag-accommodating soft cover, perfect for reading during my daily commute on public transport.

Ps. I will likely post a review of Goneville on the blog when I’m done with it. I’ll also get around to completing a review of Roger Shepherd’s Flying Nun memoir, In Love With These Times, at some point in the near future. Well, okay, probably not the “near” future. I haven’t exactly been prolific when it comes to blogposts in recent weeks, so we’ll just see what happens …

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