Friday, January 04, 2008

And in the end / you have to play the game

Over at, professional critic (of which I’m always rather suspect) Richie Unterberger seems to take some great pleasure in pointing out how derivative the classic NZ bands of the sixties were. He, of course, always tames it with a comment about how fine the odd track was.

He’s largely right of course but he misses the urgent passion that NZ’s isolation produced. Even a pure pop band like The Hi-Revvin Tongues had a raw something about them, and the best of the era, like the HRT, from the catalogue of Eldred Stebbing’s Zodiac label, and others like it, exuded something that would not have been out of place on any of the Nuggets albums. They all made acceptable noise in isolation.

That was all forty years ago plus. New Zealand is no longer, or least should not be, musically isolated. And in the decades an awful lot has happened to the loose genre now tagged as “kiwi music” (as much as I hate the phrase, it does get used and carries something with it, no?).

So some forty years after The Underdogs’ seminal Sittin’ In the Rain, one of the greatest New Zealand singles of any era was released, comes a report card..well two the form of the two CD Kiwi Hit Discs #100, from NZ on Air.

The first disc, in a nicely embossed digipak, celebrates what it claims are the key tracks from the era of the Kiwi Hit Disc. The second is the normal round up of 15 or so current tracks aimed at radio programmers.

And over 100 discs, which is quite an achievement, nobody can really say that Brendan Smyth and his varied crew have not achieved what they set out to do, which was to get a lot more music made by New Zealanders on the radio. End of story.

Others disagree with the way it was done, and what was presented to radio and I do too, but I don’t go as far as to criticise Brendan etc…their target was clear and it was not to make qualitative assessments. My disagreement is that the brief should have been tighter, but it was not. Please don’t blame Mr Smyth, the messenger, who has done his defined job superbly, with pressure from every angle.

However with all that in mind, taking a broader view of things, it ain’t healthy out there, it really isn’t. Mainstream radio in NZ is, putting it bluntly, playing fuck all NZ music. Especially if one takes a couple of radio fodder friendly acts out of the mix, like Brooke Fraser (who is perfectly radio friendly in every way but is so vacantly soulless she makes Leonard Cohen look like a sexpot). Check out the airplay charts at Radioscope…the number 16 NZ track does not make the Airplay Top 100, and the bulk of the Top NZ Top 15 sit in the overall airplay chart under number 30 with a bunch of songs I bet you’ve never heard on the radio.

All of the celebratory disc that comes with KHD100 consists of tracks which have had massive radio (and popular) success over the past decade and a half and are mostly ingrained in the NZ psyche. Like em or hate em, they are our songs, as per the slogan. Songs like Lydia by Fur Patrol….but the terrifying thing about the disc is that is all they are. With the solitary exception of How Bizarre (oh, and Supergroove whom I hear everywhere in Asia, but they really predated this system), not one of these tracks has had any success beyond New Zealand’s shores. Bic Runga may well have had some critical success and a nice picture with Jimmy Page in Mojo, but that’s about it. And that is an appalling statistic. And a failure of the NZ on Air system (but not a failure of those who targeted NZ airplay) which has allocated large sums of money towards foreign success, beyond Australasia, without any result whatsoever in original contemporary music, despite what the media tells you.

And that brings me over to the other disc. If the first was the report card, this is like the fifty lines on the blackboard for failure.

Listening through this, three times, I understand why. In a year that produced astounding music internationally, is this the best we can do, seriously? Almost every end of year round-up I’ve seen included names like Burial, LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead, Justice and dozens more. Innovative bands and artists one and all, and each record perfectly crafted and of their time. Put anything on the Hit Disc next to any of those acts, or to Amy Winehouse, the Robert Plant / Alison Krauss album , the noisy Arctic Monkeys and they are seriously wanting..and that is very generous.

Everything therein simply sounds resoundingly, and glaringly old fashioned. Admittedly some, like the first track from the Electric Confectionaires, sounds like fashionably retro sixties. But the problem is that that that fashion came and went about five years ago. Now it just sounds dated, shoddily produced, and, yes, flat (even if the vocals are not flat...they sound it). And the song needs to be edited. I put it on two days ago and someone, without knowing who it was called out “my god, that is awful”. They are right. And that’s the best track on there. Well, almost, track 11, by The Little Bushman is rather good.

How can you compete when you are not even looking the right direction.

Where are the standards that all this radio play was supposed to bring, the honing of the art, the songwriting. Where are the songs you might hear in LA and feel a twinge of pride? Sadly missing, on available evidence. There is not one track on KHD 100 that doesn’t sound dated, poorly recorded and derivative. Nothing that would leave a demo disc in much of the world. Sad but true. Where is the innovation and edge that is going to ensure that KHD 200’s Celebratory disc does not speak the volumes that number 100 does.

So where is it….well thousands of NZers could tell you it is out there. This used to be land of musical innovation, and guess what, it still is. It just ain’t getting through. 

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