On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics, by Simon Sweetman (Penguin Books, 2012), 208 pp., $65
It seems only a handful of years ago that there was a distinct shortage of books on New Zealand popular music. In the last few years, however, the subject has escaped from ghettoisation and become accepted as a topic of both generally respectable and formally academic interest. A wide array of works has materialised on various aspects of the topic, including several hefty genre-specialising tomes and profusely-illustrated volumes, all vying for space on the bookshelf. One of the latest to appear is On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics, by Simon Sweetman, published by Penguin.
This debut book from Sweetman, a regular music columnist for the Dominion Post and stuff.co.nz, takes the tried-and-true approach of picking a selective hit list — a favourite Top 30 of New Zealand pop songs. In order to avoid endless arguments, the songs are left unranked, and Sweetman is at pains to point out that they are a personal array of favourites rather than any formalised attempt to pick the best thirty songs this country has produced. Sweetman sets out his criteria — or perhaps lack of criteria — in his introduction. They essentially boil down to the fact that these are songs which represent New Zealand’s music scene to the author, and — more importantly — they are songs the author feels passionate about. Luckily for the reader, at least some of this passion comes through the text in the pages which follow.
The choice is never going to please everyone, and indeed any attempt to pick thirty representative songs is unlikely to assuage all tastes and silence all argument. In this case, thankfully, the tracks chosen are a fair, if somewhat uneven representation. One could argue that more weight should be given to the early years of New Zealand popular music (only one track pre-dates 1974 — the ubiquitous and much-enshrined ‘Nature’, by the Fourmyula), and one might well push for the well-established presence of, say, Th’Dudes, Fat Freddy’s Drop, or Shihad, over important but still relatively minor names such as Lawrence Arabia and Darcy Clay.
The chosen titles range in style from sixties mainstream pop through the Dunedin Sound to Urban Pasifika, with enough quirky choices, colourful digressions and short anecdotes along the way to make the journey a fascinating one. The songs are interspersed with a handful of short biographies of the artists involved, though why only five of the artists were singled out for this bonus treatment is something of a mystery.
Specifying that the tracks are a personal list of favourites has allowed Sweetman to indulge himself with a couple of tracks that are less obvious picks. In some ways it is these unpredictable choices which make for the more entertaining read. In particular, the occasional overlooked album track (such as The Mutton Birds’ ‘A Thing Well Made’) or pre-fame gem (Split Enz’s ‘Spellbound’) allow for one or two of the less-explored tunes of New Zealand musical history to get deserving consideration, and in the wake of their selection perhaps more of a hearing on turntables or in iPods.
In these choices in particular, Sweetman has hit the mark — the swirling otherworldly vistas of ‘Spellbound are a New Zealand prog rock beacon, and ‘A Thing Well Made’ is a miniature epic, with its melancholy euphonium and elliptical references to the Aramoana Massacre. The latter also provides one of the great opening lyrical couplets of rock music, depicting a Tennessee Williams-style tale of domestic discord in a few scant words.
In using the ‘Top Thirty’ approach, Sweetman’s book instantly sets itself up for comparison with titles such as Murray Thom and Tim Harper’s The Great New Zealand Songbook (Thom Music, 2009). Here, it scores admirably. For all that Thom and Harper’s work contained many fascinating insights, in many ways it was a light confection. The design was reminiscent of a fan’s scrapbook, and the same lightweight approach continued throughout the volume. On Song, by contrast, strikes a happy balance between bubblegum enthusiasm and more erudite works such as Counting the Beat: A History of New Zealand Song (Gordon Spittle, GP Publications, 1997).
In many ways a fairer comparison would be with the Grant Smithies-written Soundtracks: 118 Great New Zealand Albums (Craig Potton Publishing, 2007), alongside which it sits handsomely, albeit as a less-wordy volume. Smithies’ work, however, was not a solo, as other writers were invited to offer evaluations alongside his own. Sweetman’s regular work as an online music reviewer, constantly called upon to evaluate and explain his quibbles and likes and dislikes to opinionated correspondents, has served him well to produce a book that alienates neither the academically-minded reader nor the mosh-pit fan, and in this way, as a text for opening up discussion, his work is a success.
The writing style is engaging and bears the clear imprint of a knowledgeable rock journalist, though it should be noted that day-in-and-day-out writing about rock music can be a double-edged sword. The text has the clarity of reportage one would associate with newspaper reviewing, but at times this leaves it a little dispassionate; it occasionally misses the quirky leap of sparks that would take the work to the next level. Thankfully, those sparks are there, if sporadically, bringing the obvious passion and delight that the writer takes in the music. Interviews with songwriters and creators touch all the relevant points, and facts are presented appropriately and accurately.
The book is a handsome volume, from the sturdy, glossily-embossed cover through to the pages of text generously supported with photographs and backed up by interviews with the artists concerned. The conceit of dividing the thirty songs into two “sides” of fifteen tracks works well, and, at 200-plus pages, each song is allowed enough space and attention for writer and reader to get beneath the surface and establish the dynamics of compositions, albeit in sketch-form. There is little attempt to thoroughly investigate the songs’ theoretical mechanics – their structures, chord-patterns, instrumentation — but that is not the book’s primary aim and, as the author implies at various points, over-analysis runs the risk of dissecting the songs to death. Instead, we are lightly given insight into the backgrounds of the songwriters and the specific influences which led to each song’s creation. As such, we get thirty brisk presentations of New Zealand musical highlights, providing jewellery-box style framing and setting for the chosen rock gems.
If the book has a major shortcoming, it is the lack of any appendices and follow-up references. Each song’s chapter may have the date of release below its title, but a timeline or similar summary would have been most useful, especially given that the chapters are not presented in chronological order. A summary of recording, personnel, and — where appropriate — chart position would also have been helpful, and an index would have been most welcome. Names spottily appear and reappear in the text, yet without repeatedly thumbing through the pages, it is difficult to make the connections and spot the usual suspects to provide a little more context to the back-room and behind-the-scenes faces.
The arguments over which songs are or are not present will surely create an opportunity for a second volume. This much is hinted at by the author in his introduction. If there were to be a second volume, it would be welcomed – many of the stories to songs missing from this book (‘Dance All Around the World’, ‘Violent’, and ‘My Delirium’, to pick just three and restart the arguments) are still waiting to be told in a format less ephemeral than that of a magazine column. If On Song is any indication, Sweetman’s name would be high on the list of those able to present those stories well.
JAMES DIGNAN is an English-born freelance writer, musician, and artist who has lived for many years in Dunedin. He is also an art critic, and his reviews of art exhibitions are regularly published in the Otago Daily Times.
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