Friday, August 11, 2006

Watch out young love…

I’ve had a fair response to my last post, more than I expected, mostly from people I know fairly well and overwhelmingly in agreement with the concerns I raised therein and the question I asked myself.

One point that was, however, thrown back at me, several times, with some justification, was “but look how far we’ve come in such a short period”. And there is that of course. Except its not such a short period is it…

With advancing age, comes some ability to reflect a bit further back than those who are lucky to have a few less years on the clock (until of course, that same age causes one to forget altogether what in gods name happened yesterday let alone thirty years ago).

I still have enough functioning memory cells to talk about a time a long time ago when the New Zealand pop industry was strong, when the airwaves were full of “our” music and the stuff sold the sort of quantities we can still only dream of in 2006. Admittedly it was primarily on single but not all, and it was also primarily pop. And that’s a word that suffices for me…dress it all up in whatever niche or sub genre we like, it’s all still pop music.

The era, as distant as it is now, was the period from the early sixties through to the early seventies. There was a period before that of course when Johnny Devlin claimed to have sold hundreds of thousand of records nationwide, but his manager and label owner, my much missed old friend and mentor, the late Phil Warren, happily admitted to me before he passed away, that those figures were somewhat, shall we say, exaggerated for the press.

As only Phil, who was a truly great man in any sense of the word, could.

But the golden age that I’m remembering (and the early part of it is at best vague as I was very, very young) came a little later, heralded as much as anything by a swag of great pop tunes that touched the nerve of a young country hungry to be itself. That coupled with a state television monopoly that was happy to fill its schedule with bands and performers on variety shows and the monumental beast that was the Loxene Golden Disc. Plus radio which, when it played pop, played a lot of the big local stars. For all the fuss about the Scribe hits, the sales of How Many in all its forms are dwarfed by the big New Zealand hits of not only that era but the seventies, eighties and nineties too (there are at least twenty local records I can think of which sold three or four times as many copies).

As a kid in the late sixties I sat, doing my homework, glued to the hit parades coming out of Wellington’s studios, filled with local hits and wannabe hits, all of which were a part of our aural landscape and gobbled up by a massive and overwhelming cross-section of our populace. The acts pulled tens of thousands live, and the annual Loxene album sold in the hundreds of thousands.

And yet by 1974 it was all over. It was as if the monumental hits that were Space Waltz’s Out in the Street, and Blerta’s Dance Around the World were the swansongs for an industry. It was almost a decade until New Zealand’s pop managed to get on the airwaves again and a lot happened in that gap. There were, now, iconic records by Toy Love, Hello Sailor, Split Enz, Dragon, The Suburban Reptiles, Th’Dudes and others. None of these managed to get any airplay at all, and indeed, sold diddly squat at the time (with the exception of the fourth Enz album, driven by the crossover single I See Red, pushed onto a reluctant radio by rabid public demand).

What had happened had nothing to do with what was being produced. The seventies produced some of the strongest, and, more to the point, commercially viable music that the islands have ever produced. There was a large and healthy live scene and, later in the decade, quite a musical revolution. No, what happened was TV2 and commercially driven state and private radio. Auckland saw Radio Hauraki and the rise of 1ZM, and commercial radio and TV takes far less risk by its nature unless it’s forced to. So the music almost overnight disappeared from the airwaves. It could of course be reasonably argued that the disappearance of radio from the equation allowed the artists themselves conversely to take more risks, with the positive flow on from that leading to the likes of Split Enz, but as a result of the lack of exposure and sales, the once thriving local recording industry virtually ceased to exist by the late seventies.

And what that means to me is that any momentum and any currency NZ’s music might have right now means little in the bigger scheme. A change of government for example could (and many might say, certainly would) wipe away the airplay gains. The fragility of New Zealand music’s place in such a commercially driven environment cannot be overstated, especially with the major record companies staring so paranoiacly at the abyss. What happened thirty years ago can happen again, so damn easily.

And, as an aside, attempting to shelter it in the straightjacket that is the odd, parochial phrase “kiwi music” does us no favours either. At least give our popular form of musical expression the dignity of being called by it's correct name.