I managed to escape from the maximum security institution known as Auckland University several months ago, but I still visit often enough to keep an eye on Craccum, the congenitally shambolic student magazine. The last issue I saw contained the usual mixture of unfunny pseudonymous letters to the editor, typo-ridden opinion pieces, promising but half-finished feature articles, and too-short book and movie reviews. Snuggled in the midst of all this was a short but profoundly depressing piece by Aroha Harawira, the Programme and Operations Manager for bFM, the university-based radio station.
Harawira is concerned about the quality of the unsolicited demos that bFM has been receiving from unsigned Auckland bands. There's nothing new about that sort of complaint, of course - this city's garages and garden sheds have always hidden their share of geniuses, but they also harboured plenty of bands that put more thought into their names than their songs, and prefer cranking up the volume to changing chords (check out these jokers, for examples of both sins).
What's depressing about Harawira's article is that it focuses not on the quality of the music being submitted to bFM, but on the packaging of that music. She complains about low-fi demos, and warns young bands to make sure their songs are 'mastered well' and 'tonally balanced'. She's got some sobering advice for that punk band in a Pakuranga garage, and the free noise outfit shaking the walls of a Helensville boat- shed:
Listen to a professionally mastered commercial recording from a similar genre and then pop your track on next. Ask yourself, 'will this stand up on the airwaves?' If not, then go back to the drawing board...
And it's not only the music that has to be gift-wrapped for Aroha - she warns young musos against sending their demo in with a 'scrappy note on refill for liner notes', and suggests that bands need a 'whiz on photoshop', as well as a slick producer.
I know what you're thinking. So what if Aroha wants a little professionalism from musicians? What's so hard about packaging your product nicely? Aren't I being petty, even by my standards, in criticising poor Aroha, who has at least taken the time to write to young musicians who might otherwise fail to get that big bFM break?
I want to reply to these objections by proposing a little thought experiment. Like many of my increasingly aged readership, I suspect, I grew up listening to a generation of great Kiwi bands on bFM, bands with great names as well as great songs, bands that made labels like Flying Nun, South Indies, and Xpressway cult favourites around the world. I challenge anyone who remembers hearing The Clean or Tall Dwarfs or The Builders or The Bird's Nest Roys or The 3D's or the first incarnation of the Headless Chickens for the first time on bFM to ask themselves whether the song they heard was 'tonally balanced' and 'well mastered'. Hell, was it mastered at all?
What about the physical qualities of the first releases by many great Kiwi bands? Would those covers and sleeves have met Aroha's lofty standards? I doubt it, remembering Chris Knox's frantically scrawled and almost illegible track listing on the back of the Tall Dwarfs' early EPs, or the prominent typo on the cover of one of the first albums by The 3D's.
In its 1980s and early '90s heyday bFM was a revelation. It turned a generation of young whippersnappers like myself off the middle of the road tosh of Top 40 radio and turned them on to a whole new universe of sound. Although it was perhaps best-known for promoting the guitar-based bands I've been namechecking, the station was gloriously ecelectic, playing everything from the industrial noise of Throbbing Gristle to the old school hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaata to the dodgy seventies psychedelia of Kiwi hippy Krishna outfit Space Farm. The station had a show for country music fans, which kicked off with a recommendation from George Bush senior, and a show which played nothing but field recordings made by ethnomusicologists in the mountains and jungles of the Third World. There was a rather sick comedy show for kids on Sunday mornings, and an awful heavy metal show.
The old bFM was famous for playing unsigned as well as famous bands. A couple of dodgy blokes from my high school, who spent most of their time either stealing cars or playing guitars, got organised to record a reggae version of that old South Auckland classic 'Stairway to Heaven' on antique four-track recording gear. When bFM deigned to play it on their Monday night Freak the Sheep show, which was dedicated to new Kiwi music, the budding rock stars became instant celebrities. (There were, of course, limits to bFM's generosity - when Glen and Matthew phoned the station and asked a DJ to play the song again, because 'some pretty hot chicks are listening expecting to hear it', they were politely declined, and their careers ground to a halt.)
I know, I know, I sound like a bitter old bugger living on the memories of his youth. bFM had to change, to grow, and today's corporate operation, with its carefully chosen playlists and lavish ads, brings in valuable cash for the student association, even if students don't seem much involved in actually managing the station. The trouble for me is that bFM still seems to try, now and then, to play on the image of its underground past, when to all intents and purposes it has left that past behind.
The station has plenty of cash, but it lures young DJs into unpaid internships with the promise of career advancement. The station justifies this superexploitation by pretending that is still some sort of shoestring, underground operation, but it can find the money to pay a handsome salary to that much-hated breakfast slob-jock Mikey Havoc.
Luckily, there are people around willing to rekindle the flame bFM seems to have quenched some time in the '90s. One of them is Andrew 'the love machine' Maitai, the proprietor of Powertool Records, who continues to pump out a bewildering and exhilerating variety of low-fi musical treats. One of the more venerable figures on Maitai's label is Bill Direen, frontman of '80s Flying Nun legends The Builders. Bill's 2007 Powertools album Human Kindness was hailed as a masterpiece by the Sunday Star-Times' Grant Smithies.
Bill has spent the last few months in his second home of Paris, but he's jetting back to these shores soon. To celebrate Bill's return, Powertools is planning to release his recordings of a suite of songs written by the equally legendary Alan Brunton for a play about Michael Joseph Savage. Bill hasn't stopped writing songs of his own, of course. Here's some footage of him performing something new, in his cosy Paris apartment:
Along with his jamming buddy Brett Cross, Bill has been preparing a music-themed issue of the long-running literary journal brief. The issue will come with a free CD which matches the voices of brief writers with the grooves of a wide variety of musos, most of whom seem to have found inspiration in spontaneity and extremely low-tech recording gear. Brett and Bill have put a few teasers on the Titus Books website, just in case you can't contain your curiousity. Aroha Harawira would not be impressed.