Steve Braunias goes back in time
The 1980s had a good week. Two very long and absorbing stories about New Zealand culture as it was back then appeared at the end of Easter, one by a guy in Christchurch, another by a guy in Baylys Beach – there were a lot of guys all over the place writing up the 1980s as it happened, and I was as inky as any of them, spending every year of that strange, morbid, exciting decade spooling typewriter ribbons and hammering on keys in response to various noisy attempts to create New Zealand culture out of a vacuum.
The 1980s contributed a lot of exciting music made by idiots and a lot of unlistenable music made by the smartest people in the room, and sometimes it all got mixed up. Christchurch journalist Philip Matthews (ex-Listener, ex-Capital Times) published 20,000 words on Blogspot on Easter Sunday in a piece titled "On not writing a book called Turn off the Disco: The Birthday Party in New Zealand 1983", and Baylys Beach journalist Gary Steel (ex-The Other Magazine, ex-RTR Countdown) published 2000 words on Witchdoctor on Easter Monday in a piece titled "The resurrection of The Body Electric – NZ's first all-electronic band". Everyone who survived 1980s journalism is an ex of something, and I am more ex than most, as ex-Listener, ex-Capital Times, ex-The Other Magazine, ex-RTR Countdown, ex-et cetera. My final ambition in journalism is not to be summoned into an office and told I am ex-Herald.
The 1980s was a time of social collapse and bad robots. The Birthday Party (Melbourne, lead singer Nick Cave) played the former, with insane amounts of noise and rage, and Body Electric (Wellington, songwriter Alan Jansson who later co-wrote How Bizarre with Pauly Fuemana) played the latter, with synthesisers and drum machines. The experts in the respective fields are Philip, who provides a thrilling and knowledgeable compendium of Birthday Partyania, and Gary, who reviewed and interviewed Body Electric at the time. I liked both bands but not really all that much, and could often be found at home throughout the 1980s playing records by Neil Diamond.
The 1980s was a time of drugs and alcohol. Every decade is a time of drugs and alcohol but there was a particular 1980s style to it – quite dark, on close terms with nihilism. Philip's epic piece is as much about a pervading gloom in 1980s New Zealand as it is The Birthday Party, and at one point he writes about John Cooper Clarke's search for heroin during his tour of New Zealand in 1982. Clarke said he "had to deal with all sorts of f***ing terrible people to get hold of even the tiniest amounts". I kind of like introduced him to some of those people. Gary's Body Electric piece includes a story of the first time he met the band: "I don't remember any of the details because they got me so stoned I could barely remember my own name…Their marijuana was especially and legendarily strong." Can confirm.
The 1980s always seemed to have so little in it. Everything was closed. 3am hadn't been invented. People drove long distances not to get anywhere but to escape. Gary tells a version of the much-repeated classic New Zealand music story about the time Alan Jansson had a car crash. "His car had overturned, leaving him hanging upside-down. He told me that a big chunk of flesh fell off his face and through the broken windscreen on to the ground, whereupon a dog had come along and eaten it." Philip tells a road story too, less spectacular but somehow more resonant. "Promoter Ken West had apparently hired two station wagons, and the drunk band [The Birthday Party] left one of them on the Desert Road on the drive from Auckland to Palmerston North. The rental car company heard about it a few days later." A deserted car on the Desert Road: New Zealand life in the 1980s.
The 1980s in New Zealand were awesome. Gary's story is set in 1982. He writes, "I lived on the top floor of a box-like circa-1900 house with my then-girlfriend and her rat-catching black cat Malinus. I was 23, publishing no-budget independent music magazines and house parties were the thing, because back then in Wellington there wasn't much to do on a Saturday night except hunt the inner city suburbs for some party action." True; and it was fun. Philip looks at 1983 from multiple angles. He quotes from an interview with Nick Cave. "Q: So you didn't like going to New Zealand? A: No. I think it is the worst place I've ever been to." New Zealand was the only place I'd ever been to and I loved what little there was of it. It was good to return this week.
Next week: Diana Wichtel