Ready to Fly: The Story of New Zealand Rock Music
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.95,
I have a confession to make. I’m not much of a reader – at least not in the always-head-in-a-novel kind of a way. Like a relationship, it can take me a few evening dates to commit to working my way through a novel. I’m more at home reading art criticism and books, snuffling in poetry books and browsing through histories.
My favourite book of the moment is George C Strong’s The Great Rock Discography (2000). In its 1100 odd pages, I can while away many an hour looking up musicians, studying release dates and line-up changes, disagreeing with star ratings for albums, making mental lists of albums I could and shouldn’t buy, and singing quietly to myself.
There’s something enormously comforting about rock history. Over its pages, life falls into a familiar rhythm of magic and loss. The highs are followed by inevitable lows. There are just too many explosive factors: the duds before and after the hits; the maverick managers, insolent bassists and mad drummers; and the casualties of drugs, depression, unchecked egos and the road. While success in rock music is rare and fleeting, failure is always, on some level, inevitable.
This is as true here in New Zealand as anywhere – just without the international success. That’s clear from the title of David Eggleton’s book – we’ve never flown too high; we’ve been busy getting ready to fly. To put New Zealand’s international profile in perspective, among the more than 1000 groups listed in The Great Rock Discography only Crowded House get their own full entry, with Split Enz’s discography mentioned as a subset, and The Chills and Tall Dwarfs listed with a reference to dig out “The Great Alt and Indie Discography”.
Ready to Fly is also the title of an album by great Dunedin band The Verlaines, their first with international label Slash. The Verlaines left seminal local label Flying Nun and signed up to a seven-album deal with the American label in the early 1990s, only to be dropped after two. The Verlaines’ story follows the familiar scenario for New Zealand bands of getting one foot out into the world before having to eventually pull it back in again.
How much emphasis in New Zealand should be placed on overseas success is an interesting issue, but it’s one that’s undoubtedly played a big part in our history, as bands reach their “market potential” relatively quickly here and then look to spread their wings. Again, there’s something comforting in the familiar rhythm of failure, as a band makes the hop to Sydney or London, before eventually self-imploding. How comforted should we be by Shihad’s recent return to their original name after a few years as Pacifier – “Shihad” having been judged too close to “Jihad” for the American market’s taste?
But then the rallying cry of Tim Finn from Split Enz’s “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” still rings in the ears: “The tyranny of distance didn’t stop the cavalier/so why should it stop me,/I’ll conquer and stay free.” Eggleton’s history suggests we’re ready to buck the trend.
Paying due respects to the influences (important to this day) of Polynesian dancehall, Maori showbands and country, Eggleton’s story begins with Johnny Cooper’s version of “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955. From there it’s into the colourful but all the same relatively undistinguished history of New Zealand popular music through until the mid 1970s when the likes of Split Enz, Dragon and Hello Sailor start to make distinctive sounds, and punk and reggae provide roots for the rich variety of more truly original sounds that have developed since.
The clear ancestor of Eggleton’s history is John Dix’s 1988 book Stranded in Paradise, which deserves some comment here (surprisingly it isn’t mentioned or acknowledged in Ready to Fly). Long out of print, Stranded in Paradise is a defining volume. Dix’s own story of getting it into print reads like that of one of his local musical heroes and is a reminder of how marginal a publishing idea New Zealand music was once considered to be.
From 1980, Stranded in Paradise took eight years to be published, with four updates undertaken in that time. Dix went through two publishers (the second of whom found the drug-related stories offensive and asked for 176 potentially libellous passages to be removed). Eventually – no- compromise rock ’n’ roll battler that he was – he published this substantial volume independently.
This period, the 1980s, proved a coming of age for New Zealand music. “By the early 1980s,” Eggleton writes, with his customary flair for the big evocative metaphor, “the home-grown rock music scene teemed like the ecology of a rainforest after a downpour.” Dix’s book had that sense of crawling around amongst the new specimens, and his determination to “tell it like it is” with exhaustive interviews sees Stranded In Paradise heavy in detail. The book’s personal rambling tone, with many a rock ’n’ roll yarn related in the present tense gave the book a fly-on-the-wall rock journo feel. Within its pages you could almost smell The Gluepot’s beer-soaked carpet.
Much of the spadework done, and some distance from the hothouse atmosphere of the 1980s gained, means a history like Eggleton’s has more perspective and more momentum as a story. While this is a less detailed and intimate history than Dix’s, it is no less inclusive and knowledgeable in its critical scope. Few rolling stones are left unturned as, working upstream chronologically, Eggleton is forced to imaginatively leap from one part of our music’s history to another. He has the confidence of a critic with historical perspective to go out on a relative limb sometimes in labelling significant moments in our recorded musical history. As a New Zealand music critic and DJ over the 1990s myself, I found it hard to fault the inclusiveness of Eggleton’s recent history.
Design-wise Ready to Fly is clear and clean, with a welcome generosity in the use of now rare band posters, live photographs and the odd battered record cover. Current into 2003, the book unfortunately just misses out on the notable sustained chart success of the likes of Scribe, Golden Horse and Brooke Fraser. Indeed I would have liked more consideration of the extraordinary recent growth of the local industry and the plethora of labels that are now running as successful businesses (a trailblazer like Kog Transmissions, for example, only gets a cursory mention).
Best known for his poetry, arts criticism and journalism, Eggleton has a way with the English language, and Ready to Fly provides a great vehicle for acrobatic metaphoric vignettes. Entertaining when the repetitive rhythm of rock history might start to see you drift off, his audacity with description carries with it perceptive comments on the seemingly inexpressible. Sometimes, however, I feel he goes too far with the fruity generalisations. Like his description of Crowded House’s Together Alone as “a kind of cosmic hippy effort”, which then leads into the more perceptive, critical observation that in attempting to achieve a sustained grandeur on the album “the group’s architecture groans under the ambition”.
In the looser moments you wonder whether there was a strong enough editorial hand. While not wanting to detract from how engaging and thorough a history this is, it seems to me that another draft might have settled some of the thoughts. I also noted a number of typos, names misspelt and, even more unforgivably, factual errors (for example, The Skeptics’ seminal “AFFCO” appears on their album The Skeptics, not Amalgam as noted).
Perhaps I should give up the day job and start compiling that New Zealand edition of the Rock Discography.
Mark Amery is the script development manager at Playmarket and an art critic and reviewer.