Down by the river, Charlotte Yates

How to Listen to Pop Music
Nick Bollinger
Awa Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0958250960

Nick Bollinger is well known as a music reviewer or, perhaps the weightier epithet, rock journalist. He has worked in print media since 1988 for, among others, Real Groove magazine and the New Zealand Listener (for whom he still writes a column), and now presents his own programme, The Sampler, on National Radio. That he has survived for so long with a perennial freshness is perhaps due not only to the personable and non-judgemental style he has developed for the music listener, but also because over the last 20 years, Bollinger has quietly gained the confidence of music makers themselves.

This is because not only is he an ardent advocate for and admirer of many styles of music, but he is a practitioner himself – longtime bass player for the Windy City Strugglers, and now producer and label owner in his own right. And because Bollinger knows a B flat from a bass drum, he is accorded a very different level of respect and authority among New Zealand musicians to pretty much any other rock reviewer in the country. Furthermore, since he has never developed the wannabe rock star tosspot attitude that many of his colleagues exude, he has been able to gain a higher degree of access and insight into the making and breaking of much of pop music – New Zealand pop music in particular.

How to Listen to Pop Music is the third book in the innovative Awa Press’s “Ginger Series” – small, pocketable, non-fiction alternatives to airport books. Easily digested, visually attractive, these illuminate selected aspects of New Zealand culture by “experts” well versed in the speciality of the day. Here Bollinger is able to stretch out from The Sampler’s sound-bite formula, using the careful ear he has given to the work of legions of popular musicians into this personal-meets-professional essay. And crikey, has it had popular appeal! How to Listen to Pop Music remained on the New Zealand Booksellers’ Association’s New Zealand non-fiction bestseller list over the summer of 2004/2005, and at the time of writing is being reprinted. It seems that the happy combination of Bollinger’s reputation and the elusive, appealing nature of his subject has well captured public attention.

Perhaps it’s also because Bollinger clearly maps out the anatomy of popular music, as if for an alien. His technique is autobiographical, with a mixture of deft personal revelation and thoughtful musicology. And maybe the title should have been How I Listen to Pop Music. Redolent with nostalgia, the chapters on how Bollinger has himself connected with popular music are tenderly beguiling as he reveals his path along – his own effective metaphor – the river of music: “Pop is a fast-moving river. Stand in one spot and the music that flows past you will be different from day to day …. Somewhere in the river is the sound that sings to you.”

And sweetly summoning a memory per family member, Bollinger’s dive point into the pop river picks up pace when he hits high school and the teenage friendships forged over sticks, strings and big black vinyl discs date his epiphanies forever. He aptly illustrates how identity development and music appreciation can fuse, searing a time in your life so that hearing a certain piece of music again will forever be a trigger back to ancient days:

Every so often one of us would acquire a new record or borrow one from a classmate’s older brother. In this way we eventually got to scrutinise such hallowed objects as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde … .


But music was a serious business to the teenagers. And it’s a crack-up to read as one squeamishly recalls one’s own and not too dissimilar semi-religious pop throttle: “Occasionally a disc would violently divide us. When Andrew turned up with James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Martin pronounced it ‘wet’. The two didn’t speak to each other for weeks.”

Bollinger’s writing fervently recaptures pre-internet, pre-CD Wellington, describing the almost secret squirrel nature of pop, how underground the culture was and how devoted people had to be to seek out new sounds at the bottom of the world. He gently reminds us of how music consumption has changed with the burgeoning global economy.

Import restrictions meant the only records available were those the local branches of international record labels had deemed viable in the modest New Zealand market. To save money these records, manufactured in local pressing plants, were housed in thinner, light cardboard than their overseas counterparts, and the back covers were printed in black and white. Fabulous multicolour designs were reduced to the reproduction quality of newspaper photos. Text was often rendered unreadable.

My, how times have changed.

Attention too is paid to how the creation and production of music has altered over the last 30 years. For non-practitioners, this may be a real eye-opener, since the process of “recording a record” seems a mystery to anyone not involved. The advent of the digital revolution has changed the very construction, let alone, recording of pop music. And all that we know of the future is that there will be more change. Bollinger politely pursues the philosophy that xenophilia is a more agreeable lifestyle than the musical xenophobia that many of his fellow music commentators eventually collapse into.

Sure, he supplies definitions suitable for any parent wanting to actually try and understand what their teenager is listening too. For me, the glossary approach was stylistically distracting and far less attractive than Bollinger making links between the generations of music and technology, and the wall-to-wall acceptance that pop now has. In fact, some of those teenagers who grew up and got elected actually promote New Zealand music, something that was unthinkable in the Muldoon era. Even at the time of writing, the current government is hurling money at institutions that now enshrine pop – New Zealand on Air and the New Zealand Music Industry Commission. And that in the 1970s, was a fucking pipedream.

Bollinger is one of journalism’s unsung heroes. His ultimate legacy is the evangelical capacity for enthusiasm without sounding like a street preacher. How to Listen to Pop Music is a nice piece of highly readable musicology, but for anyone who has ever been lovingly lost in the creation and recording of music, it sure makes you remember exactly why you dived in the river.


Charlotte Yates is a Wellington musician. 


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Posted in Essays, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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