On Song: Stories behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics
Penguin Books, $65.00,
Any anthology is a work of exclusion, constructed to emphasise or establish a particular narrative. In the case of anthologist Simon Sweetman’s On Song: Stories behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics, he’s chosen to emphasise the notion of the little nation that could, promoting, as he writes in his chapter about Chris Knox’s “Not Given Lightly”, 30 songs that are on-message: 30 songs that are “something for New Zealanders to be proud of”. And though Sweetman also states – somewhat vaguely – that “it’s getting harder to understand New Zealand music as a genre, as a single idea”, his “pop classic” choices – all of which he has seemingly selected with a connoisseur’s relish and a fanboy’s enthusiasm – are written about as confirmed tokens of national identity, prime exemplars of Kiwiana.
These then are songs by ambassadorial troubadours, cultural treasures, and so Sweetman is also implicitly celebrating the singer-songwriter behind each: Jordan Luck, Neil Finn, Dave Dobbyn, Emma Paki, Bic Runga, Anika Moa and so on. Thus this is a book which salutes expressive voices as well as great songs, though occasionally the story becomes more complicated when a song is not primarily the creation of one person but arises out of a context of arrangement and rearrangement, as for example in Alan Jansson’s collaboration with Pauly Fuemana on the making of New Zealand’s most successful international hit single, “How Bizarre”, by OMC. Paeans to the power of pop are always oblique acknowledgements, too, of production, that is of the importance of the recording studio, that crucible within which the disparate elements of composition, musicianship and recording are melded into an artistic unity under the leadership of a producer.
In his fairly brief critiques or appreciations, their measured praise doled out in standard (and now-and-then substandard) journalese, Sweetman quotes selectively from interviews to help establish the genesis and context of his talismanic and touchstone tunes. These insider comments are perhaps the most valuable aspects of the book, though sometimes you sense an interviewee busily embellishing the mythology, feeding the legend, as if unable or unwilling to remember the exact facts. It’s also apparent, too, that the absence of the reminiscences of some talents, notably Neil Finn and Tim Finn, derive from a refusal to be interviewed, perhaps because they have a contractual commitment to other chroniclers.
The book itself features a deliberately jumbled-up chronology, the assorted golden oldies patched together in more or less random fashion, and as the latest in what now amounts to a small library of books published about New Zealand rock music invites the question: Why sing the praises of this particular short list of songs when other recent anthologies – for example Grant Smithies’s Soundtracks:118 Great New Zealand Albums (2007) and Nick Bollinger’s 100 Essential New Zealand Albums (2009) – suggest local music has provided a plethora of recordings which might be acclaimed as possessing classic status?
Enter the book’s publisher, commissioner of the project and presumably also the conceptualiser. Examination of Penguin’s On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics as an artefact offers an object lesson in marketing. Carefully designed by Alan Deare, beginning with the eye-catching black vinyl disc motif on front and back covers, the book is a slick showcase of memorabilia; bulked out with photographs and fanzine clippings, and items such as original handwritten lyric sheets, it also cleverly uses typography and graphic design to mimic something of the songwriter’s craft. Key sentences in each chapter are extracted to be repeated as page design elements. With its rhyming colour chords and rhythmically-patterned layout the book itself might be an analogue for the ear-catching power pop that is its subject – except that this over-thought presentation rings a little hollow.
Similarly, the publication has been smartly hyped publicity-wise across a variety of media platforms, its cultural boosterism aided and abetted by its populist strategy of focusing on recognised anthems. This book is not just a simplifying anthology aimed at the young, packaging old chestnuts for a new demographic, nor is it just a dumbed-down prettied-up anthology of nostalgic ephemera for pop tragics and rock completists. It’s actually a revisionist tome, featuring flax roots songs that have proved themselves as crowd-pleasers, part of the communal memory, and have now taken on an afterlife in the triumphalist age of corporate branding. Knox’s “Not Given Lightly” and the Swingers’ “Counting the Beat”, amongst other songs here, have featured in national advertising campaigns, while Sisters Underground’s “In the Neighbourhood” has been the signature tune for a national TV channel and Hello Sailor’s “Gutter Black” is the theme tune for the popular TV drama Outrageous Fortune.
Some songs are enshrined as representing moments of social or generational change – “Nature” by the Fourmyula, “Glad I’m Not a Kennedy” by Shona Laing, “Anything Could Happen” by The Clean – while others carry geopolitical resonance – “Slice of Heaven” by Dave Dobbyn, “French Letter” by Herbs, “System Virtue” by Emma Paki. Or else they are representative of some aspect of the national mood or the moral climate: DLT’s and Che Fu’s “Chains”, Space Waltz’s “Out on the Street”, Supergroove’s “Can’t Get Enough”. Then there are the beautiful haunting numbers that seem to draw on the weather or the landscape: the Chills’s “Pink Frost”, the Mutton Birds’ “A Thing Well Made”; or else an interior weather, an interior landscape: “She Speeds” by Straitjacket Fits, “The Way I Feel” by Jan Hellriegel.
What is missing from Sweetman’s briskly-written, informative sketches are the subversive, brash, experimental tunes – along with any sense of the fertile undergrowth, the youthquake collectivism out of which popular music erupts. Cheerleading for good vibrations, he brings us no cautionary tales, no perceptive tales from the dark side, only success stories and songs of surplus value, memorable riffs with marketing potential.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and reviewer.