Music

Serious moonlight

I came across a short video with highlights from the 1990 New Zealand Music Awards. There were three nominees in the Top Album category. The first was Straitjacket Fits’ second album, Melt, which perfectly captured the band’s tense combination of noisy and gentle pop-rock. The second nominee was the Chills’ popular album, Submarine Bells, with a diverse track list kicked off by the magnificent “Heavenly Pop Hit”. The third nominee was… Moonlight Sax.

Oh, that’s right. Moonlight Sax used to be a thing. Performed by saxman Brian Smith, it was an album of easy listening saxophone covers of pop classics. Songs to get the Moonlight Sax treatment included “Just the Way You Are”, the Moonlighting theme and “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Are you feelin’ it? Yeah.

The album was released right at the tail end of the trend for the sax in popular music (as previously examined here), but that didn’t make a difference. It was a successful popular album. Not only did it peak at number one in the chart, it was certified platinum. (Bri’s website has a pic of the platinum award, based around a framed CD).

Moonlight Sax followed Carl Doy’s similarly mega successful Piano By Candlelight series of the late ’80s, which established a hungry market for easy listening instrumental CDs. And it’s very important that these were CDs – not LPs or tapes. Fully embracing the fancy new format, letting the sax notes ring soft and clear. Moonlight Sax was followed by Moonlight Sax 2 in 1991, and the Moonlight Sax Collection in 1993.

If cafes had been a thing in New Zealand in 1990, I’m sure Moonlight Sax would have been the ubiquitous cafe soundtrack. Instead I like to think that no dinner party of 1990 could have taken place without the hostess popping the Moonlight Sax CD into the family compact disc player.

There were others in the genre. In 1996, the instrumental albums Beautiful Panflute 1 (there was no sequel) by Max Lines and Romantic Strings by the Starlight String Quartet were both nominated for best album, losing to Shihad’s perfectly named Killjoy, but neither of those album had the impact of Moonlight Sax. Since then, easy listening instrumental albums have been absent from the Tuis.

It’s easy to think of Moonlight Sax as a remnant of the ’90s that would never survive today. But the nominees for Album of the Year at the 2014 New Zealand Music Awards tell a different story. Amid the cool girls of Tiny Ruins, Lorde, The Naked and Famous, and Ladi6, there’s also the trio Sole Mio and their nominated debut album SOL3 MIO. That album contains popera covers of easy-listening classics, including the Fleetwood Mac tune “Songbird” – the very same song that kicks off Moonlight Sax. Therefore, one can only conclude that the dinner party hostesses of the early ’90s are the seniors of today who enjoy going to matinee performances of Sole Mio.

As it happens, it was the Chills who won Album of the Year in 1990, and along with the Fits, they’re lovingly remembered as part of Flying Nun Records’ golden age. But I think the shiny compact disc of Moonlight Sax deserves to be remembered as well. There’s always going to be an audience for music like this.

Here is the final track from Moonlight Sax, the show-stopping medley of saxophonic pop classics from “Careless Whisper” to “Baker Street” with all the boring bits removed so you can totally mainline that cosy, familiar groove.

Bonus! Of course the internet has to be weird about “Moonlight Sax Medley”. Here’s an except from the track – the intro of “Careless Whisper” – seamlessly looped into an epic 16-minute masterpiece. If you listen to the whole thing, by the end of it you will have seduced yourself.

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Music

Beards, a moustache, a fiddle and a butter churn

So, while most New Zealanders were enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in (or getting up to go to church?), I was having a Eurovision party in my pyjamas on the couch with tea and toast.

It was a great competition, a giant celebration of music and good times and false eyelashes, with the added bonus of the fair certainty that Mr Putin will have been annoyed by the fact that an Austrian drag queen won with her song of strength and tolerance. (Seriously – Russia was desperate to win Eurovision in 2008 and Putin personally oversaw Russia’s hosting of the competition in 2009.)

But it wasn’t all beardy ladies. Along with Ms Wurst’s “Phoenix”, here are my other faves from the competition, all quality tunes and grand performances.

Conchita Wurst “Rise like a Phoenix”

Conchita’s win wasn’t expected, but it wasn’t exactly an upset either. It’s just that no one really thought she’d get all that many points from the more conservative countries of Eastern Europe. As it happened, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia all awarded points, as did Russia. In fact, Austria came third in the Russian phone vote showing that the real Russia is a bit different to Putin’s #nohomo fantasy.

Pollapönk “No Prejudice”

Also bring a message of tolerance to the stage was Pollapönk, a bearded Icelandic band that makes rock music for kids. Like the Wiggles, they dress colourfully, but unlike the Wiggles, their music sounds more like fun indie rock than kids’ music. As it happens, the red and blue Pollapönks were in an indie band in the ’90s who were mates with Blur. Also of note: the groups’ two backing singers are metallers, one of whom is also an Icelandic MP.

Twin Twin “Moustache”

This is the strange voodoo of Eurovision: France placed last (deux points!), but “Moustache” was the third most tweeted performance, the YouTube video is the fifth most popular of the grand finalists, and the single is in iTunes charts all over Europe. But perhaps it’s true that hip hop never does well at Eurovision, and it didn’t help that they followed the show-stopping Swedish ballad. Anyway, Twin Twin brought the fun.

Sebalter “Hunter of Stars”

A week ago I was browsing the #eurovision tag on Tumblr and there were all these girls (and a few boys) fangirling over Sebalter. He is totes adorbs with ridiculous quantities of charisma. But – and this is the most important part – “Hunter of Stars” is a great tune. The slightly enigmatic lyrics are about trying to woo someone but struggling with self-confidence. And it turns out if you sing a hook-laden folksy song with a Swiss-Italian accent, you can get away with lyrics like “I am so wet, I’m dirty”.

Donatan & Cleo “My Słowianie – We Are Slavic”

Heaving bosoms. Heeeeeaving bosoms. This song is a bit of a pisstake – mocking Polish nationalism, but also reinventing and celebrating it on their own terms. It’s a lively song with modern hip hop and R&B themes, but the thing everyone’s talking about is the heaving bosoms of the non-dancing dancers. This sort of performance is known in the world of Eurovision as a “dad pleaser”. It is boobtastic, but also celebrates the skills of butter-churning and clothes-washing. Oh, how it celebrates.

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Music

Protest song

In remembering Nelson Mandela, people are sharing links to their favourite memories of his life. One of these things is the video for the song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA. I discovered that New Zealand was the only country where the song reached #1 in the pop chart. It was a top 10 hit in the UK, Ireland and a few European countries, but New Zealand was the only country that managed #1 – three weeks straight in the winter of ’84.

The song was the first time I became aware of Nelson Mandela. I was only nine at the time, and even though I lived in Hamilton and had been aware of the Springbok tour protests (and how it was making some of the local dads really angry), I still didn’t know what it was all about.

“Free Nelson Mandela” made me more aware of things. Amid the upbeat music, it painted a picture of someone who was in a bad state.

Twenty-one years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?

Was I? I wasn’t sure. But then a year later another protest song came along. The American supergroup Artists United Against Apartheid kept the momentum going and filled in a few more gaps with “Sun City”. Like “Free Nelson Mandela”, the upbeat music contained angry lyrics, criticising the Sun City resort, the cruel fake “homelands” of South Africa and the American government’s response to South Africa. It also urged a boycott of entertainers playing at Sun City – another chink in the decaying armour of apartheid. (The song is also noteworthy as being the first mainstream hip hop and rock collaboration – predating “Walk this Way”.)

It’s easy to think about the 1960s as a golden age of political and protest songs, but the ’80s didn’t do a bad job where it counted, slowly chipping away at the badness.

Also – it says a lot about New Zealand that “Free Nelson Mandela” was followed at number one by “One Love” by Bob Marley.

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Music

A journey through saxophone in New Zealand pop in the 1980s

Jerry Rafferty's sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on "Baker Street

Jerry Rafferty’s sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on “Baker Street


In 2011, American popstress Lady Gaga released “Edge of Glory” which was notable for its saxophone solo by Bruce Springsteen’s legendary sax man Clarence Clemons. “The sax solo is back,” declared the world of music. Except that didn’t happen. (Or maybe Lady Gaga was so ahead of her time that it’s taking everyone else a while to catch up.)

But this brief rebirth of the sax solo is a good enough excuse to look back at the history of the sax in pop. Patient zero was Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” whose 1978 hit found a new place for the sax solo in popular music.

This kicked off a decade-long trend for sax in pop. Notable works included “Who Can It Be Now” by Men At Work (1981), the sun, surf and sax of Duran Duran’s “Rio” (1983), the smooth sax of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (1984), through to INXS’s epic “Never Tear Us Apart” (1988).

Coinciding with the rise of the music video, I can’t help think that the popularity of the saxophone was in part due to how cool it looked. It was not uncommon for the sax player being the only musician shown playing his instrument in a video. The sax is a great big shiny brass instrument that is played with full body emotion. Put the saxophonist in a jacket with the sleeves pushed up and you’ve got instant cool.

But what of the sax in New Zealand pop? Were the musicians of Aotearoa immune from such trends? Of course not. So to celebrate this bold, brassy period, here is a history of the saxophone in New Zealand pop videos of the 1980s.

Jon Stevens “Montego Bay” (1980)

jon-stevens

When the saxophonist only plays on a small part of the song, what do you do with him for the rest of the video? Jon Stevens’ band solves this problem by putting the sax man on cow bell duty, before he stealthily ditches it and lets loose on his sax for the second chorus. Also, the sax cuts a better silhouette than the cardboard palm trees.
NZ On Screen

Screaming Meemees “Stars In My Eyes” (1982)

screaming-mee-mees

The Screaming Meemees were the most indie of all the acts to succumb to the lure of the sax, so it’s not your typical sax appearance. “Stars In My Eyes” has more of a funk brass thing going on, but the video goes all out with this silhouette of the double sax attack. See how the saxes tower over the trumpet, asserting their superiority.
YouTube

Monte Video and the Cassettes “Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang” (1982)

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Neither the innuendo-laden song nor the video includes a saxophone, but the video is set at a bar that features a neon saxophone light. Proof that by the early ’80s, the sax was a visual icon of cool. You can’t quite see it in this shot, but there are musical notes coming out of the sax.
NZ On Screen

Sharon O’Neill “Maxine” (1983)

sharon-oneill

This is almost as classic as a 1980s video sax solo gets. But as the vid is all about Sharon (and Maxine), the video isn’t interested in who the saxophonist is. We never see his head, only his hands and his sax, playing in a dark bar. (And we know it’s a bar because there is a neon sign reading “BAR”.) This is cut with footage of Shaz looking sensually relaxed, no doubt being soothed by the sax.
NZ On Screen

Tim Finn “Fraction Too Much Friction” (1983)

tim-finn

The song is full of sax, but I initially thought the video had taken the bold step of being saxless, instead just focusing on Tim strutting his stuff while holding a ghettoblaster. But the lure of the sax was too strong. While the rest of the band might remain invisible, the video can’t resist a few shots of the saxophonist overlaid with smoky, sparkling fireworks.
NZ On Screen

DD Smash “Outlook For Thursday” (1983)

dd-smash

DD Smash have a lot of fun with the ridiculousness of the sax, using it as both a tool of good and evil. So powerful is the DD Smash brass section that it mortally wounds Dave Dobbyn. Later in the video, we see the gentle side of the brass, gently soothing the hottie drummer as he relaxes in the sun. Perhaps he and Sharon can compare notes on the power of sax relax.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Room That Echoes” (1985)

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A saxophone features in this alternate video for “Room That Echoes”, but here’s the kicker: no one plays it. It just rests on its stand at the back of the room (that echoes), looking all cool while the Urlich siblings dance around it. It’s almost like some sort of pagan ritual, in which the god of ’80s cool is invoked. And for a song that is more about style over substance, that’s a perfectly logical and successful choice.
YouTube

Left, Right and Centre “Don’t Go” (1985)

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When the sax is joined by another member of the brass family, it’s usually a trumpet. But not when Don McGlashan is involved. This protest song against the planned 1985 All Black tour of South Africa features Don on his euphonium and Rick Bryant on sax. In any other video, this might be enough to stand out, but the joyous heart of the “Don’t Go” video is Chris Knox with a giant mullet and denim cut-offs.
NZ On Screen

Netherworld Dancing Toys “For Today” (1985)

netherworld

For a song that’s jam-packed full of brass, the “For Today” video exercises great restraint, with only a few brief shots of the brass section. Even during the big climatic build-up, the brass players are seen in the background cautiously jumping around with their instruments. The focus is wisely given to the stars of the video – Annie Crummer and the Interislander ferry.
NZ On Screen

Sonny Day “Savin’ Up” (1985)

sonny-day

“Savin’ Up” was a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song originally recorded by his (and Lady Gaga’s) saxophonist Clarence Clemons, so it’s no wonder that the sax player in the video gets the star treatment. Sonny Day’s line-up of backing singers (including Annie Crummer) parts and the tight-trousered saxophonist steps forward to deliver his bitchin’ solo, accentuating the piece with strategic hip thrusts. The backing singers are so impressed they give him jazz hands.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Good Luck to You” (1986)

peking-man-luck

peking-man

This pouty, urban love letter to pre-crash Auckland begins with an amazing shot. Margaret Urlich sits in the window of the much loved cafe DKD. Below her at the cafe’s entrance, the saxophonist poses in the doorway, while playing the song’s introduction. Despite the bitter lyrics of the song, there’s something rather romantic about this shot.
YouTube

Tex Pistol “The Game of Love” (1987)

tex-pistol

I’m not sure, but the brass on this synth-heavy song also sounds electronic, so it’s further testament to visual power of the sax that it was included in the video. The slick, minimalist video keeps it simple with Ian Morris and Callie Blood having a side-on his-n-hers brass-off (that’s a showbiz term) on the wet, black set.
NZ On Screen

Herbs “Sensitive to a Smile” (1987)

herbs

“Sensitive to a Smile” is largely a tribute to the people and environment of Ruatoria. But even the old kuias, the cheeky kids and the dreadlocked bros must step aside for a while to let the sax man have his moment of glory.
NZ On Screen

80 in the Shade “Heatwave” (1987)

heatwave

This all-star pop extravaganza came together not for charity but to make an ad for L&P with a scorching cover of the Martha and the Vandellas hit. There’s sax all through it, but the saxophonist appears just once near the end. I suspect this is partly because sax was become a bit uncool, and partly because the sax player wasn’t anyone famous, so they drafted in a model to play the part.
YouTube

When the Cat’s Away “Melting Pot” (1988)

cats-away

By the late ’80s, the pop sax was on its last legs, with the instrument instead lurking in the background, underscoring the other instruments. But the visual lure of sax was still strong. Near the end of the video, the Cats are seen with three saxophones and two trumpets, showing a much bigger brass sound than what is actually heard. They’re clearly having a ball mucking around with the instruments, which makes me wonder what it would have sounded like during the video shoot.
NZ On Screen

Dave Dobbyn “Love You Like I Should” (1988)

dave-dobbyn

Margaret Urlich makes yet another appearance, this time shimmying around Dave Dobbyn in a midriff exposing bolero jacket. But lurking in the background behind Marg and Dave are two sax dudes, playing the bass honks on cue. They are given a couple of shots early on, but the video’s focus is on Urlich and Dobbyn’s folk dancing.
NZ On Screen

Holidaymakers “Sweet Lovers” (1988)

holidaymakers

By the time I came to watch this video, I’d developed an instinct for sax spotting. I didn’t remember there being a saxophonist in this video, but something told me otherwise. And there it was – less than a minute before the song’s end, the fellow who had previously been shaking some maracas suddenly appears with a sax and squeezes out some barely audible notes. By this stage it seems like the sax was well on its way out, being kept in only for its strong visual appeal.
NZ On Screen

Maybe the sax was part of the bright, exciting, affluent part of the ’80s that started to wither with the 1987 stockmarket crash. It’s not so economical to have a band member who spends a lot of the time standing around, swaying from side to side, waiting for his few seconds of glory. The economical grunge era had no room for such excesses.

The sax didn’t totally die out, but rather than being the cool thing that everyone did, it was left to acts who understood the power of the sax and could harness its power. It lived on in the kids of the ’80s who grew up immersed in the sax pop. Acts like the effervescent Supergroove, jazz master Nathan Haines, and genre mixers Fat Freddys Drop all found a place for sax.

So while the full-on sax solo may have tooted its last toot, that bold brass instrument will always have a place in the world of New Zealand pop. *Honk*

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Music

All I want for Christmas is [_______]

All I want for Christmas is [_____]

All I want for Christmas is a giant bedazzled green triangle

Five days before Christmas (and one day before the end of the world) I went to The Base, the mega mall on the outskirts of Hamilton that’s played a significant part in sucking the life out of downtown Hamilton, which is such a mid-20th-century thing to do. So retro.

Anyway, it was right in the middle of the pre-Christmas crazy period, when the stress starts with finding a car park and ends with wondering what sort of consolation present makes up for not being able to buy an iPad Mini as they’re all sold out. Not that such issues plagued me, but I like to empathise with the middle-classes, etc.

My issue was the music. As to be expected, Christmas songs were on high rotate. But here’s the thing – I heard four different versions of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. At one point, I could position myself near the bath bomb selection of Lush and simultaneously hear the Michael Buble version in the store and the original Mariah version in the main mall. It even followed me outside, with a third version playing on the PA in the car park, and another one aurally ruffling me as I passed by a shop.

“All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a great song. As a gift of the ’90s, it’s a far better contribution to Christmas pop than anything the ’60s or ’70s managed. But when it’s coming at me as a quadrophonic retail extravaganza, this does not lead to a pleasing experience.

But here’s the thing. I wasn’t at the mall to buy Christmas presents, but yet I found myself getting a $2 bag of candy canes because it felt like the correct seasonal thing to do. Ach, Mariah – you’ve sucked me into your vortex of glad tidings and good pop.

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Music

The passing of time and all of its crimes

A few months ago I learned a new term – heritage rock. It’s the business of old bands who still tour and sell their back catalogue and make a decent sum decades after their initial burst of youthful creativity and success. (I also discovered that heritage rock sounds like a diss, possibly to people who still think Pavement are young, cutting-edge dudes and don’t like the memento mori implications that things have changed.)

So I’ve been thinking about old Morrissey. He’s playing in Auckland tonight. I thought about going because, you know, I really like Morrissey, particularly for the Smiths years. I was thrilled to see Johnny Marr perform as part of Neil Finn’s Seven Worlds rockstravaganza back in ’01, but somehow that enthusiasm hasn’t transferred to 2012. You know what’s changed? I’m older; I’m tireder.

I noticed this in others. The last-minute ticket-for-sale tweets from people who’d excitedly bought Morrissey tickets months ago, but then along comes the week before the concert. It’s December. Work is wrapping up. There are Christmas parties to attend. There’s Christmas stuff to organise. Holidays to plan. Oh God, there’s so much stuff. And then a tweet would appear offering two Morrissey tickets, at face value, because we would love to go but we are so very very tired.

And that’s the terrible thing. When you’re older, you can easily afford the concert tickets, but suddenly going out becomes this ordeal. Tiredness kicks in and even after half an hour, the most uplifting of pop concerts starts to feel like an epic three-hour prog rock torture fest. It’s a lot easier listening to Moz at home, where it’s ok if you doze off mid-miserable.

From the comfort and privacy of my couch, I was looking for some video clips of last night’s Wellington concert. I found a couple, but they had pretty crunchy sound – not what I’ve come to expect from the modern world of concert vids. But instead here’s a rather good quality vid from Moz’s previous New Zealand concert 21 years ago, back in the time where there was youthful energy.

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Film & TV, Music

X marks the spot

The X Factor New Zealand has a FAQ. One question asks…

How will The X Factor winner be distinguished from other talent contest winners?

The music industry has changed since the days of shows such as NZ Idol.

Winners of The X Factor have long-running international careers – think Reece Mastin, Stan Walker, One Direction, Guy Sebastian and Chris Rene etc.

Simon Cowell has been developing this talent show format for years; The X Factor is the result of everything he’s learned from earlier formats.

So X Factor NZ is getting it straight: if you win the X Factor, you won’t end up like Michael Murphy, working in road gang, wearing a high-viz vest.

But let’s take a closer look at their hall of fame. Yes, Reece Mastin won his year in Australian X Factor, but One Direction only came third in the UK X Factor. Chris Rene also came third on the US X Factor, but has only enjoyed major chart success in New Zealand (weird, huh?) Guy Sebastian wasn’t even an X Factor contestant – he won the first series of Australian Idol (so ’00s) and was only on the X Factor as a judge. Ditto for Stan Walker – he won the final series of Australian Idol but is on the X Factor NZ as a judge.

For every one of these high-profile success stories, there are the winners who don’t do so well – like Matt Cardle, Random, Leon Jackson, Altiyan Childs and ol’ misery guts Steve Brookstein.

Then there are the ones who don’t win the X Factor still but manage to forge a decent showbiz career from (or in spite of) their X Factor experience, like Olly Murs, Cher Lloyd or my beloved Jedward. And I’m keeping an eye on the extravagant Rylan from the latest UK series.

That’s what makes a series of X Factor work – it’s not just the brilliant singers who deliver every week, it’s also the battlers and the weirdos, the ones who can’t cruise through on talent alone. And that’s why they call it the X Factor.

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Music

Let me be your supervisor

For two periods in the past, Eurovision has only permitted songs to be sung in an official language of the entrant country. But since 1999, countries can enter in whatever language they feel like. Most choose English.

There’s a kind of glorious poetry to the way that some non-native speakers of English use it. Even songwriters from a country like Sweden, where 89% of the population speaks English, still have their own ways of expressing themselves.

So I present some of my favourite lyrics from this year’s Eurovision.

Would You? by Iris (Belgium)
Lyrics: Nina Sampermans, Jean Bosco Safari, Walter Mannaerts

But what would you do when my house was empty?

I will cried and was felt sad.

Lautar by Pasha Parfeny (Moldova)
Lyrics: Pasha Parfeny

You have never been at my show
You haven’t seen before how looks the trumpet

How looks it? It looks splendid!

I’m a Joker by Anri Jokhadze (Georgia)
Lyrics: Bibi Kvachadze

But the most amazing lyrics of all come from Anri Jokhadze of Georgia, with his song “I’m a Joker”. The song was originally titled “I’m a Jocker”, which seemed to be play on his surname until someone realised it wasn’t really a word.

Anri makes these claims:

I’m a joker
I’m a rocker
I’m a shocker
I’m a poker
I’m a talker
And straight-walker
I’m a broker
Evil-blocker
I’m a slaker
Trouble-breaker
Fortune-maker
Care-taker

And here’s the thing – all these words rhyme.

But here’s the best couplet:

I’m just a womanizer
Let me be your supervisor

Go on, then. I’ll leave my timesheet on your desk.

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Film & TV, Music

Euro neuro

It’s hard being a New Zealand fan of Eurovision. I’ve been interested in the annual competitive songstravaganza since 2003 when UK entry Gemini infamously scored nil points for their song “Cry Baby”. But I was born in distant 1974, the year that Swedish Abba won with “Waterloo”, one of the greatest pop songs ever written. And I’ve grown up with snippets of Eurovision filtering through to New Zealand – a bit of “Making Your Mind Up”, some “Hard Rock Hallelujah”, but hopefully not that Cliff Richard song.

The trouble is, Eurovision doesn’t doesn’t screen on the telly here any more. Triangle Stratos did screen it for a while, but since it switched off last year, there is – as far as I can tell – no New Zealand broadcaster for one of the greatest shows in the world. Even Australia does it properly, with a dedicated broadcast on SBS, complete with local commentary and an informal vote for Australia’s favourites.

Fortunately the internet has made it possible for a lone New Zealander to join in the fun. This year the Eurovision experience started for me in around February, with the national selection competitions all around Europe, all of which were available to watch online. The biggest of these is Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, accurately described as a cross between the Olympics and American Idol, only bigger.

Soon the line-up took shape and a couple of weeks ago, the 42 entrants headed to Baku, Azerbaijan to rehearse, rehearse, rehease and reduce that initial group of 42 down to 26 via the semi-finals.

There are serious contenders (Loreen from Sweden with “Euphoria”. Sweden, of course, being to pop what New Zealand is to rugby), the show-stopping novelties (Buranovskiye Babushki, a group of Russian grannies who just wanted to fundraise to rebuild their local church that Stalin knocked down 70 years ago), and of course the Eurovision staple, the OMGWTF songs.

In a way, it’s the crazy entries that are the most fun. They don’t tend to make it through the semi-finals, but they get a few moments of fame and subsequent YouTube immortality. One of my faves this year was Rambo Amadeaus, the Montenegrin jazz poet whose song “Euro Neuro” was a direct commentary on the eurozone crisis – “Monetary breakdance! Give me chance to refinance!”. And there’s San Marino songstress Valentina Monetta, with “The Social Network Song (Oh Oh – Uh – Oh Oh)”, originally titled “Facebook Uh, Oh, Oh” until Eurovision rules on commercialism required a rewrite, but fortunately this didn’t affect the lyric “If you wanna come to my house then click me with your mouse.”

In the middle of all this are the quite-good entries. I was delighted to discover Israel’s entry Izabo, with their song “Time”. They’re a cool indie band with ’70s funk, psychedelic rock and Middle-Eastern flavours. “Time”, with its English verses and falsetto Hebrew chorus, wasn’t serious enough to get the serious votes nor weird enough to get the novelty vote and so missed out on the final. But still, I’ve delved into their previous albums and have a new favourite band.

But the talented underachivers of the semi-finals don’t matter. What counts is the 26 finalists, who’ll battle it out for supremecy at the final on Saturday night. I have my faves. There’s Italy’s stylish swing, the highly danceable tune from Cyprus, Ireland’s explosive pop charms, Moldova’s musical romp and Iceland’s dramatic duet.

Eurovision was created in 1956, less than a decade after the end of World War II. Like the Family of Man photography exhibition, it was an attempt to bring people together, to help ensure there’d never be another world war again. Has it worked? Yeah, sort of.

Politics still skims around the edges. It’s doubtful that Eleftheria Eleftheriou will do well for Greece this year, no matter how seductively she sings “You make me want your aphrodisiac.” There are always accusations of political bloc voting, but I figure that’s no more remarkable than how Australian pop does well in New Zealand. Neighbouring countries tend to be more culturally similar than distant countries.

Since the fall of communism, Eastern European countries came flooding into Eurovision. And here’s the interesting thing – due to the policies of their communist governments, a lot of those countries didn’t grow up listening to the same pop music that Western Europe did. No Elvis, no Beatles, no Abba, no Duran Duran. So today, popular music in those countries tends to be a mash-up of current Western trends and more traditional Eastern sounds. Try writing a song that ticks those boxes and will still appeal to Dutch grandmas.

Eurovision is mainly ignored by the New Zeaaland media. If it gets a mention, it’s either of the “Look at these wacky Europeanz!!!” weird news variety, focusing only on the crazy; or – like the BBC report that One News screened on Friday – it’s a sombre look at the impact of the Azerbaijani political situation on hosting Eurovision this year. But coverage of Eurovision never seems to make it in the regular entertainment news section.

So instead I make my own Eurovision experience. I’ve been watching footage of rehearsals in Baku courtesy of Eurovision bloggers, I’ve watched live streams of the thrilling semi-finals from the Eurovision website, and I’ll be waking up far too early for a Sunday to watch the epic live final, ready for some quality televisual entertainment.

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Music

Smashed

smash-hits
This is a page from Australian Smash Hits magazine, as reproduced in the book “Pop Life: Inside Smash Hits Australia 1984-2007” along with the “David lies about his age” annotation. I remember this page well. It was published in around 1987, which would have made lying journalist David Nichols about 15 years old, had he really been born in 1972. That made him only a few years older than me, and I thought, “Crap, if it’s normal for 15-year-olds to be features editors at pop magazines, I’d better hurry up and get really good at writing so I don’t miss out.” A while later I realised he was a lying liar and that he was probably closer to 25 than 15, but it actually did me good, inspiring me to delve deeper into the world of pop.

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