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Silver Scroll Awards: Why 1981 was such an astonishing year for Kiwi music

Silver Scroll Awards: Why 1981 was such an astonishing year for Kiwi music

According to the Silver Scroll Awards, 1981 just doesn’t exist. Until now, that is. The “missing scroll” will be presented retrospectively at this year’s award ceremony. Gary Steel looks at how 1981 became a defining year for Kiwi pop.

It’s obscene, unthinkable. That the very year New Zealand pop confirmed it was back in rude health with a clutch of the cleverest, most memorable songs we’d seen in years and years, there was no reception committee, no shiny obelisks to put on the mantelpieces of our humble abodes. In short, no Silver Scroll award. At all.

It’s no secret that the NZ music scene went through a slump in the mid-to-late ‘70s. While the modest international success of a few trailblazers like Split Enz met some fanfare at home, there was little support or infrastructure for those who remained here, trapped in a parochial country that suffered such enormous self-loathing that we wouldn’t take or treat our own seriously until they made it overseas. Dragon and even Mi-sex were okay, because they hit the big time in Australia, confirming that we needed someone, somewhere else to tell us we were good enough.

We’d been hampered by years of poor quality recording and production and lack of investment in our own, and the result was the typical view that if it came from another country, it had to be better than local. That perpetuated a nation of bar bands rewarded for performing cover versions, with little encouragement to tell our own stories, or find our own voice. And then disco came along and almost put paid to live music.

The success of Split Enz helped change that, with their idiosyncratic presentation and quaint Kiwi pronunciations. A few local – if fleeting – teen sensations like Hello Sailor and Th’Dudes also raised the bar, creating an encouraging undertone and a swell of interest in what we had to say and play. Our own songs, our own way.

1981 was the watershed: suddenly, we were listening to our music, and it was fucking ace, man.

When punk happened in NZ, the effect was seismic, but it took a few years of evolution to infiltrate the populist mindset. 1981 was the watershed: the year that a new generation of punk-influenced bands hit the nation’s pop charts, even as they were spurned by radio. Suddenly, we were listening to our music, and it was fucking ace, man. Is there any other year in NZ history that can claim a clutch of pop pieces as fine as The Swingers’ Counting The Beat, Blam Blam Blam’s No Depression In New Zealand, Split Enz’s One Step Ahead, The Screaming Meemees’ See Me Go, and The Clean’s Tally Ho?

Those are the five songs retrospectively chosen as finalists by APRA in 2015 for their missing 1981 songwriting award, the Silver Scroll, the winner to be announced on September 17. But why was there no Silver Scroll event that year? There seems to be some collective memory loss, but the general consensus is that the organisation that holds the awards was weathering huge structural change at the time, and that caused the awards that year to be cancelled. One former committee member believes that because of the administrative ruptures, no cash had been set aside for the Silver Scroll that year. Had they occurred, it’s interesting to conjecture how different the finalist list might have been to the retrospectively selected one.

They may have chosen Dean Waretini’s The Bridge, the biggest local single that year, except that it wasn’t a new song, but a Maori lyric set to a classical melody. There’s History Never Repeats by Split Enz/Neil Finn, which APRA previously placed on its Top 100 New Zealand Songs list at number 57. Or the Blam Blam Blam/Don McGlashan composition, Don’t Fight It Marsha, It’s Bigger Than Both Of Us (number 66 on the same list), or Graham Brazier’s Billy Bold (number 72 on the same list), or Pop Mechanix’ Jumping Out A Window. I can certainly imagine a likely candidate of the time being Sharon O’Neill’s horribly saccharine “Maybe”.

There were lots of great releases in 1981, but most of them were from left of centre, and represented the first stirrings of what later became known as alternative, and then “indie” rock: independent 7-inch singles with no clear distribution path by bands with names like Smelly Feet, The Mockers, Danse Macabre, NewMatics.

Given the gulf in the 1980s between how the music industry perceived our music culture – represented by unfailingly conservative and often cringe-inducing Music Awards winners – and the burgeoning creative thrust of talents like Phil Judd (The Swingers), Don McGlashan (Blam Blam Blam) together with a force that would soon have to be reckoned with (Christchurch-based Flying Nun’s repertoire) – we can surmise that the retrospective list would have been vastly different if chosen that year, and so would the winner.

Just take a look at the few years either side of 1981 to support this view: in 1978, the winner was cabaret singer Steve Allen (Why Do They?) while Sharon O’Neill picked up the 1979 award for the dire Face In The Rainbow, and someone called Paul Schreuder won in 1980 with You’ve Got Me Loving You. Huh? Even more improbably, Dunedin novelty band Mother Goose’s Stephen Young won the 1982 award for I Can’t Sing Very Well, and the 1983 award was snapped up by that superstar Stephen Bell-Booth (who?), with All I Want Is You.

Regardless of how APRA’s anonymous “panel of judges” came up with their retrospective list of Best Of 1981, they’ve done well, although I would have swapped out a couple of their choices. It’s important to remember that the Silver Scroll award is all about the song, not the singer, or the performance, or the way the organ sounds. So, how do the 1981 finalists stand up as compositions, and more importantly, which one deserves to win?

In 1981, Flying Nun was still in its infancy, and The Clean’s Tally Ho was one of the label’s first singles. And it sounds like it. The recording is cheap and cheerful, and although the song is performed with an infectious enthusiasm, it’s really not much of a song. Try singing it in the shower, and it’s a repetitive three-note melody that barely passes muster as anything more than a fragment of a children’s nursery rhyme. Flying Nun’s, and The Clean’s, greatest hour was yet to come.

Blam Blam Blam’s No Depression In New Zealand (co-written by Richard Von Sturmer and Don McGlashan) is a memorable slice of sarcasm that worked well in a year that pitted communities (and churches, and families) against each other as they battled out the ethics of the Springbok tour. These felt like dark days, and the song was a bouncy bit of activism in disguise. For all that, however, it always felt a little clunky, and a little obvious, and a much better choice from the same year would have been McGlashan’s Don’t Fight It Marsha, It’s Bigger Than Both Of Us, with its oblique but meaningful lyric, incredible soaring guitar refrain, and an unusual structure that repaid many repeat plays.

The Screaming Meemees were another product of Auckland’s underrated Propeller label (as were Blam Blam Blam) and these North Shore boys were a bit of a teen phenomenon of the time. See Me Go is a memorable pop song and the group did well to catch the new romantic wave out of England, with its slightly funked-up edge working well on the then new 12-inch single phenomenon, and they scored a rare number one hit with the song. But for all that, as a song it’s slight, and for that reason, I wouldn’t vote for it.

One Step Ahead features a rerubbed version of Split Enz with younger brother Neil Finn joining Tim Finn to add a more accessible pop touch to the group. It’s a solid piece of pop songwriting co-authored by the younger Finn and Enz keyboardist Eddie Raynor, and like so many of Neil Finn’s early sides, cannily grafting a moody chord sequence to an earworm chorus on this theme of conflicted romance. For all that, somehow it fits in with the body of Split Enz’s great work without standing alone as the best song of 1981.

That honour goes to Phil Judd and his band of the time, The Swingers. It’s increasingly more difficult to separate Counting The Beat from its over-familiarity via its use in advertising and hold music, but when it appeared out of nowhere in 1981, it was a bolt from the blue. Counting The Beat has everything: an innovative tick-tock intro, a smart (and funny) lyric that captures the very essence of being totally in love/lust, and a party sing-along chorus. “I’m gonna drift into that void/I’m flying through space, I’m an asteroid/Time doesn’t take place when you’re paranoid/I’m thinking about you, you’re thinking about me”: lyrics like that just don’t get old. In many ways, Counting The Beat is one of the great pop songs of all time, as it captures both the awe and angst of young lust on a song that once heard, is utterly unforgettable. Will it win? Maybe not.

In many ways, Counting The Beat is one of the great pop songs of all time, as it captures both the awe and angst of young lust on a song that once heard, is utterly unforgettable.

Comparing the 2015 Silver Scroll contenders with the 1981 finalists? What a difference 34 years makes. In a nutshell, the 2015 selections illustrate both the best and worst aspects of the continuing evolution of the NZ music scene, and its pop songwriters. There’s no song on the list with anything like the instant pop smarts or earworm potential of Counting The Beat, and there’s much less of a brazen assertion of the Kiwi way. The pronounced vowel inflections of 1981 are much less obvious now, the songs and sounds much more “international” and assimilable in the world marketplace, and in real terms, that’s a loss.

At the same time, songs by artists as diverse as Lorde, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Marlon Williams show that we’re mature enough now to just get ahead and do it on the world stage. There’s no cultural cringe to fight against, so someone like Marlon Williams can ply his country-inflected songs and sound as natural as the wind, while Ruban Nielson can work on his homemade musical transgressions in Portland and still be counted as a Kiwi. So while it’s sad that in the process of internationalising our pop, we’ve lost something that made our sounds intrinsically our own, we’ve gained an assertiveness that imbues our songs with a certain naturalism. That has to be a good thing.

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