New releases in New Zealand: 22 January 1989
- Crowded House – Sister Madly
- Tracy Chapman – Baby Can I Hold You
- Rick Astley – Take Me To Your Heart
- Herbs – No Nukes
- Daryl Braithwaite – As the Days Go By
- Pop Will Eat Itself – Def Con One
It was probably in 1990 that I went to see my friend perform in Measure for Measure. I remember three things about this show.
- It was performed inside the Old BNZ Building which, at that time, had not been refurbished and was a giant interior space of rubble, and scaffolding. Looking back I think no school would now get permission to perform inside a space like that. It was pretty cool.
- My friend’s character at one point grabs a female character’s breast. The night I went his mum was in the audience.
- The soundtrack was Pop Will Eat Itself’s Wise Up Sucker. I went and bought their album soon afterwards. My friend was called James (he still is) and the album features a song called Not Now James, We’re Busy. I used to sing it to him as a joke. I still think this joke is quite funny.
You might note that I say nothing about the plot of the play. That’s because I have no memory of it. Even now I couldn’t tell you what it was about. Those three things are literally all I remember.
I think it’s fair to call Pop Will Eat Itself a post-modern group. They were very self-referencing, and ironic, and constructed their songs out of scraps of samples and references from pop culture. I didn’t understand most of those references at the time. That James was James Brown. Or where “Wake up; time to die” came from. Listening to a song like Radio P.W.E.I. now it is fairly clearly based around the guitar riff from Two Tribes, (not that I noticed at the time even though I loved FGTH), but everything is happening so fast it is only after searching the internet that I can now hear Tears for Fears and L.L. Cool J too (for starters). The most impressive thing is that this works at all. It still sounds weirdly crude but also clever, like someone making a compelling new image out of ten different pictures ripped out of diverse magazines.
On the other hand it also feels like being assaulted by a cartoon character. Listening to too many P.W.E.I. songs in a row begins to feel arduous. A little like being subjected to something.
Sensitive To A Smile was big in 1988. In Aotearoa. No Nukes was the fourth single off the album and I expected the worst, but this is a good song. Just a solid kind of verse, but the chorus is great and the “no nukes!” fading shout works well. Also, a song that ends with “no shit” has a plus against its name. Herbs had a knack for making very didactic ideas work. A song with a chorus hook of “2 4 5 T no!” that makes you sing instead of cringe is impressive (Rust in Dust). Then there’s the lead single, and Listen. In fact, the whole album stands up and the frame of E Papa and Karanga Rā seems to root the album perfectly.
Except it is all a bit more troubled than that.
To launch the album Herbs went to Ruatoria, and took a film crew with them. The film is available on NZ On Screen. Ruatoria between 1985 and 1990 was not a happy place, and the video of the visit there makes for complicated viewing.
There’s the jarring pronunciation of Māori in the voice over, the complexity of urban Māori and rural Māori meeting, of language loss, of the arsons and a syncretic kind of Rastafarianism, and gangs, and neo-liberalism’s strangling hands. Not to mention the legacy of colonialism, land alienation and resistance, or the scythe World War Two had put through a generation 40 years earlier. The music Herbs plays is good, but their lyrics feel foreign to Ruatoria in 1987-8, and the performers themselves look about as comfortable as most Pākehā at a pōwhiri nowadays. Which must have been a complicated kind of feeling for them. Sometimes it seems a little like the feel good idea of “let’s heal the people with our music” might just be a bit simplistic. On the other hand, if the intent is authentic and done with genuine emotion something good can flow out of it.
Temple of Low Men is a much better album than the first Crowded House album. That first Crowded House album is good, but a bit uneven; it feels like it is bits and pieces stuck together while Temple of Low Men has a coherent feel. It’s a darker album. Musically and lyrically.
I have always liked Into Temptation which seems gentle but is uneasy.
The guilty get no sleep
In the last slow hours of morning
Sometimes the unease shows in the lyrics on this album – “you laugh at yourself as you’re bleeding to death” – but there are also a lot of queasy bridging sections that slide off the brighter path. Sister Madly runs a black lyric line against what sounds mostly like an upbeat skiffle band (one that teeters out of tune a little). It’s a great song and would fit right alongside The Beat(en) Generation.
Now the insects swarm
In the lowlands
I played Tracy Chapman’s first album a lot. I think I first heard her in the Amnesty International Concert Tour with Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel. Maybe. Like pretty much everyone I fell in love with Fast Car. So inspired by the Amnesty concerts was I that my friend and I went and found their offices to see if we could – you know – “do something”. We talked with a very nice lady, but we didn’t do anything.
- Crowded House – Sister Madly (8/10)
- Tracy Chapman – Baby Can I Hold You (8/10)
- Rick Astley – Take Me To Your Heart (2/10)
- Herbs – No Nukes (6/10)
- Daryl Braithwaite – As the Days Go By (4/10)
- Pop Will Eat Itself – Def Con One (6/10)