Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Forget the '70s, its better days for Aotearoa

Jimi Hendrix. Photo / Supplied
Jimi Hendrix. Photo / Supplied

Rolling Stone magazine's nomination of Jimi Hendrix as the greatest guitarist ever harks back to a time when popular music was essentially guitar-based and no rock concert complete without an extended guitar solo, all too often the musical equivalent of disappearing up your own arse.

This country has changed a great deal since the days when arguments raged over the merits of guitar heroes such as Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.

In 1973, three years after Hendrix died aged 27, Britain joined the European Economic Community signalling an end to the cosy trading arrangement which had sustained New Zealand for almost a century and setting the stage for the economic liberalisation of the 1980s.

The great wave of transformative social change was already under way. As historian James Belich wrote in Paradise Reforged, there were "seven major issues of contestation and protest in the 1967-85 period: homosexual law reform, Vietnam, abortion, nuclear power, Maori, environment, rugby with South Africa".

The status quo came second in all seven.

The baby boomer generation was in the vanguard of the push for change. The fact that bands such as the Rolling Stones (whose drummer Charlie Watts turned 70 this year) are still in lucrative business suggests baby boomers prefer "their" music to that of their children and grandchildren. What else from that era is worth clinging to?

A common complaint among people of a certain age is that "there's nothing worth watching on TV anymore". This is often followed by a lament for the golden age of British television which generated brilliant programmes ranging from I, Claudius to Monty Python's Flying Circus via The Avengers, along with monumental documentaries like Kenneth Clark's Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man.

It's tempting to conclude that this televisual fine dining has given way to a diet of junk food ranging from Two and a Half Men to The Biggest Loser, via Jersey Shore. That would ignore the manner in which US television has taken up the challenge of creating high quality entertainment with no concessions to escapism, such as The Sopranos and The Wire, and the fact that we can now witness history as it unfolds, anywhere in the world.

And these days there's so much international sport on TV that it comes as a shock when something worth watching, like the recent Australia-South Africa cricket series, isn't shown live, as well as being repeated at a more convenient time and bundled into highlights.

When it comes to the big screen, however, there's a lot to be said for nostalgia. Whereas back then both Hollywood and Europe were churning out great movies, the term "dumbing down" scarcely conveys the extent to which infantilism has taken over mainstream cinema.

But that's about it. In 1970 our national cuisine was meat and veg cooked to the point where they were devoid of flavour, then cooked a bit more just to be on the safe side; our national tipple was soapy beer so weak it could be - and was - consumed by the gallon.

As a student I worked for a liquor outlet at the foot of Khyber Pass Rd. The arrival of the annual allocation of McWilliams cabernet sauvignon caused great excitement due to its status as the only local red that wasn't rough. But there was so little it was limited to two bottles per customer.

Our much-vaunted racial harmony was something of a sham since it relied on Maori quiescence and an acceptance that the Treaty of Waitangi was firmly in the long and cynical tradition of agreements between an imperial power and the inhabitants of a territory it was in the process of acquiring: a means to an end that would be more honoured in the breach than the observance.

A more accurate measure of Pakeha New Zealand's tolerance was the hysteria over Polynesian over-stayers.

Technological advance has improved our standard of living in innumerable ways. In 1973 I got my first car, a fourth or fifth hand Fiat Bambina which had the impact resistance of a shopping trolley and stopped whenever it rained. If you wanted to read a foreign newspaper, you went to the public library reading room and found out what was making headlines in London and New York five weeks earlier.

Of course some changes came at a cost and many were subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Even so, only a hidebound reactionary with a highly selective memory could believe that New Zealand then was a better place to live than New Zealand now.

As for music, every generation's pop music is the previous generation's aural torture. It's nature's way of telling us we're becoming old farts.

- NZ Herald

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