Modern New Zealand Music – The Advantages of Being Far Away From Everybody Else
Since the Cold War, those with a sense for dark humor, although it might not be that funny at all, have been making puns that about the only place on this planet where you can be at least remotely safe from a nuclear war is New Zealand. It is not only at the far end of the globe from most continents, but is also away from all the political and economic centers, and that includes Australia.
You can even go there to make a protracted series of films recreatingJ.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. Not only are you far away from Hollywood or any other cultural center, but you have striking natural habitats to use in your films.
So what can you expect from a country/island that is seemingly a remote place? As far as making contributions to the world’s music scene overall? Well, no matter what the expectations were or are, actually quite a lot. From some of the most influential artists in independent rock to actually some big names of recent and current times, and that includes some that promise to be so.
From the Humble Beginnings to the Seventies Boom
More than sixty years ago, it all started with a guy called Johnny Cooper, also known as the Maori Cowboy, who did his version of “Rock Around the Clock”, and while names like Sandy Tansley and Johnny Devlin didn’t mean much outside of New Zealand, they started a similar rock craze, like in many other places. It made New Zealand’s Minister of Welfare visit a rock concert in 1959 to declare, “There’s nothing much wrong with Rock’n’Roll.”
Not that it helped change the conservative radio programming in the country until the late ’60s, which boosted the growth of the local music scene with the likes of Max Merritt and the Meteors, Ray Columbus & The Invaders, La De Das and particularly The Fourmyla’s, the band that in 1969 came up with “Nature” – voted the country’s most popular song in 2001.
…it was only in the ’70s when an artist from New Zealand made a name outside the country. It was The Split Enz, fronted by Tim Finn…
But it was only in the ’70s when an artist from New Zealand made a name outside the country. It was The Split Enz, fronted by Tim Finn, the band’s glam/prog/pop catching the ear of RoxyMusic’s guitar player Phil Manzanera. However, re-recording their initial album Mental Notes under Manzanera’s helm in England, and coming up with some quirky pop gems didn’t help the band much in their first try, forcing them to go back to New Zealand where they ended up on dole. It was New Zealand’s art council that came to the band’s aid, giving them a 5,000 bund grant. It rejuvenated the band and “I Got You”, written by Tim’s brother Neil Finn, topped the charts, until the band folded in the mid-’80s.
The Nun Flies in the Eighties
As the ’70s were closing down, punk and new wave were having an immediate effect on New Zealand too. The name to remember there is Tall Dwarfs, a duo formed by Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox. Not only is the duo still a name that is mentioned among those following the NZ rock scene, but it was also instrumental in the formation of Flying Nun – the independent label formed and initially run by Knox.
Flying Nun is still around and is one of the longest-running indie rock labels with a name and stature. It came up with at least three or four bands that not only had a profound influence on NZ modern music, but elsewhere, including the US and Britain (considered the cradles of modern rock). But the reason it is still around is because it had, and has, a roster of artists that consistently came up with music that was at its worst, great, and at its best, sublime. It came up with something that was named Kiwi Rock.
… the reason it is still around is because it had, and has, a roster of artists that consistently came up with music that was at its worst, great, and at its best, sublime. It came up with something that was named Kiwi Rock.
If during the ’80s and ’90s you were to pick up any Flying Nun album, either by Knox himself or one of his bands: The Dead C, 3D’s, Straightjacket Fits, Headless Chickens, Bailter Space, the brilliantly named Jean Paul Sartre Experience, or any other Flying Nun band, you would not only get highly diverse music, but music that never lacked imagination or quality. And practically all of those artists were from New Zealand.
Still, all the mentioned names remained something cherished by a relatively limited group of fans (in NZ and worldwide). But four names stood out, not only by the recognition they got (some by fans, some by critics, some by both), and came as Flying Nun bands: The Chills, The Clean, The Bats, and The Verlaines.
The Chills, considered by many as one of the archetypal indie bands, is the best known and luckily, with bouts of periods of being on and off, are still around. The bands instrumental and vocal combinations, essentially the product of its leader Martin Phillipps, have ‘known but unknown’ feelings and are combined by some refined Phillipps’ lyrics, best exemplified in “Pink Frost”, one of the bands’ best-known songs. Their 2018 album Snow-Bound is one of their most consistent.
The Clean were probably one of the first bands of the post-punk era in New Zealand to come with some truly original material and one of the more quirky sounds around. Lead by Kilgour brothers David and Hamish (who are still coming up with some great sounds on their own), they are considered among the fans and critics as one of the best live bands around. Their 1990 album Vehicle is making the best of all time lists consistently.
The Verlaines are more known and revered by critics than having a strong fan base, but under the leadership of Graeme Downes, who did his PhD thesis on Gustav Mahler, have come up with some of the most original and intriguing rock music around. The Bats, who are still around and still lead by former The Clean member Robert Scott, are considered one of the best purveyors of what is still dubbed ‘college rock’, and have a strong fan base in the US.
From a Crowded House to Lord(e)’s Mansions
New Zealand music of the ’80s produced probably its biggest musical act, Crowded House (who actually gained most of their popularity in the ’90s). It was lead by former Split Enz member Neil Finn, later joined by his brother and former Split Enz leader Tim Finn, and probably one of the better op/rock entities to come out of there. Of note, Neil Finn has recently become a touring member of Fleetwood Mac, and also came up with Lightsleeper – one of the better pop albums of 2018; which he recorded with his son, Liam Finn. Talk about keeping things in the family.
From there on until today, the number of prominent music acts from New Zealand seems to only be on the rise. Probably the biggest New Zealand artist now is Lorde, who has become the main act of what we can name moody modern pop. Also popular (and deservedly so), are The Flight of the Conchords. They base their popularity on their TV series, but also on their eclectic music combinations that go by the concept of “everything, including the kitchen sink.” They are seemingly making their return after some period of retirement.
…whether you will consider New Zealand as your possible refuge from a nuclear fallout or not, you will certainly have something to listen to from there.
New Zealand’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra is now gaining quite a number of fans among those who love the sounds psychedelia, while Marlon Williams, Princess Chelsea, The Mutton Birds, and particularly, The Naked & Famous and Connan Mocasin (especially the latter) are considered some of the most promising musical acts around today.
So, whether you will consider New Zealand as your possible refuge from a nuclear fallout or not, you will certainly have something to listen to from there. Here, there, or anywhere, as a ‘certain’ long gone British group would say.