The sweet, sentimental sounds of Orthodontist Office Music

I spent an awful lot of my early teenage years stuck in a chair, staring at the ceiling, while an orthodontist laboured mightily to straighten out my cursed teeth.

Soft rock music piped through on the office stereo as my bicuspids were shifted and molars manipulated at great cost to my parents, and the greatest inoffensive hits of the early 1980s drifted through my brain. 

Some of it was blandly saccharine – Christopher Cross, Air Supply, Toto – some of it was grand pop – Hall and Oates, Sade, Phil Collins. I was just a wee young lad who listened obsessively to FM102 in the glory days of Prince, Madonna and Jacko, who was only beginning to figure out his own musical tastes. So as anodyne as Orthodontist Music was, it still left an impression in my sponge-like ears. 

I never particularly cared for Cross’ so-soft-rock-it’s-liquid hit “Sailing,” but it’s permanently tattooed on my brain because of Orthodontist Music. A comics nerd even then, I got a nerdy kick out of whenever Joey Scarbury’s inspirational “Believe It Or Not” theme song to The Greatest American Hero came on in rotation. I heard it all, again and again, from Spandau Ballet’s “True” to Starship’s “Sara.” 

Nothing too manic or antic on this forgotten radio station, lest the dentists’ tools slip. Even the soaring drum kicks of Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” were a bit too fist-pumping.

I wore braces or headgear or some awful contraption for a good 5-6 years of the early 1980s, and even as my tastes matured into slightly edgier Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel, every time I went back to the orthodontist I got a good dose of the soft, sweet stuff.  

I pat myself on the back for my omnivorous musical taste now, but I’ll admit years of Orthodontist Music at such an impressionable age left its mark. The quavering tones of Peter Cetera evoke the ‘80s gloss of pre-teen first love, I’ve got a soft spot for a little bit of Journey’s power balladry, and look – I bow in my unironic love for ‘80s Phil Collins to nobody, no matter how much time I might listen to Can and Captain Beefheart and The Fall now. 

Decades later, my teeth are more or less straight, but every time I hear one of these damned songs, I’m right back there in the chair. It’s not the worst place to be – rarely painful, the endless orthodontist visits were just boring and tedious, and I sort of entered a zen state of calm staring at the same ceiling over and over. Even now, I close my eyes, and far in the distance I hear Christopher Cross, on a ship somewhere, crooning… “Saaaaaaaaailing / Takes me aaaaaaway to where I’ve always heard it could be / Just a dream and the wind to carry me / And soon I will be free.”

And I know, I will never be free of Orthodontist Music. 

The sounds of Aotearoa – a New Zealand Music Month playlist

Aldous Harding, Neil Finn, Reb Fountain

It’s the final few days of New Zealand Music Month, an annual celebration of all that makes Aotearoa music great. 

I’ve lived here more than 15 years now, and I’m still amazed by the depth of NZ music, from the melancholy beauty of Crowded House to the hugely influential post-punk sound of Flying Nun’s The Chills and The Clean to the rousing waiata of Māori anthems to the Kiwi-fried country of artists like Tami Neilson and Delaney Davidson. There’s the inescapable strength of amazing New Zealand women like Aldous Harding, Reb Fountain and Lorde or the madcap adventurousness of folks like Troy Kingi and SJD. 

Troy Kingi.

In this pandemic world, borders have been pretty well closed to international music, so the few concerts I have seen lately have been homegrown – a wonderful Crowded House show between Covid surges, Reb Fountain and Marlon Williams tearing up the stage, a celebration of Flying Nun Records’ 40th anniversary. 

Every country has its own sounds, and there’s something wonderful about becoming an immigrant to another land and learning about its own unique sounds. New Zealand is a melting pot of Māoritanga, British influences, Pacific emotions, the echo of the vast seas and the echoes of a few dozen other cultures who’ve also ended up calling these lands home. 

The first New Zealand music I ever heard was more than 30 years ago, a fuzzy dubbed cassette of Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men given to me by a long-vanished girlfriend. The music sunk deep into my genes, although I had no idea then I’d ever end up living in the place that band came from. 

I can’t make a definitive list of the “best” New Zealand songs, but these are 30 that make me happy every time I hear them, and represent a pretty broad cross-section of Aotearoa sounds, tilted toward my own listening preferences, of course.

Some are old, some are new, some of them are bloody obvious choices that are embedded deep into the kiwi brain, others are a bit more obscure but just say something essential about this strange little oasis at the bottom of the world where I’ve somehow ended up living a big chunk of my life. Another 30 songs could easily have been added, but let’s save some for another year!

Have a listen to my eccentric playlist Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2022, and celebrate the sounds of Kiwiana!

Everclear: So Much For The Afterglow at 25

In the 1990s, in my twenties, I would get a bit obsessive about music. I’d hit on a band I liked from the current scene – Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Wilco – and I’d listen to their albums over and over, mapping them out to give myself meaning. I’d put their songs on mix tapes, trying hard to create a soundtrack for my imagined life. 

And for a few years between 1996-1999 or so, there were few bands I listened to more obsessively than Everclear, whose great 1997 album So Much For The Afterglow turns 25 this year. I know I shouldn’t obsess too much over the tick-tick-ticking of the clock hands, but the fact it came out a quarter-century ago now kind of melts my delicate mind. 

Sometimes, what music reminds you of feels more important than the music itself. A great album can capture a moment in your life in amber, frozen but alive, so that each chord and chorus can instantly summon up a vanished world. So Much For The Afterglow is one of those albums for me … even if objectively I’ve heard greater albums, better songs, I’ve had few that felt like they meant so much to me in the moment. 

I was 25 the year So Much For The Afterglow came out, torn between staying in my college town and starting all over in another place.

Everclear were a Portland, Oregon band led by Art Alexakis, who turned his troubled broken-home youth and drug addictions into his muse. Their first three albums – World of Noise, 1995’s loud and defiant Sparkle and Fade and its briefly ubiquitous doom anthem “Santa Monica,” and Afterglow – were a kind of trilogy mining Alexakis’ pain into catchy rock songs. They were a very ’90s act, post-peak grunge, but heaps above the standard of bands like Creed or Bush.

There was no shortage of bands, grunge and otherwise, turning personal pathos into pop hits in the 1990s of course, from Nirvana to Alice In Chains to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yet Alexakis married his demons with rock for raw, confessional tunes that somehow felt honest to me, even if they were views from a world I rarely visited. “Normal Like You,” “I Will You Buy You A New Life” and “Father of Mine” all yearned for a world where he didn’t feel like an outcast, where you could try and find a happy ending.

We imagine connections to albums we love. The heroine of “Amphetamine” shared a name with a woman I was madly obsessed with at the time, while the narrator in “White Men In Black Suits” “moved to San Francisco just to see what I could be,” almost perfectly mirroring my own life changes at the time. (OK, I couldn’t afford San Francisco proper, but I did move back to the sultry Central Valley.)

In Everclear’s best songs, everyone is broken, yet hopeful in a battered way. At my worst moments in the chaotic 1990s, just knowing that someone out there felt the same as me mattered. So I bonded with Everclear, hard. 

Unfortunately, it kind of felt like Alexakis said the most important things he had to say with the first few Everclear albums. All the other original band members left, and by the early 2000s, the songs turned from angsty to preachy and the same themes kept being hit over and over. When a band starts unnecessarily re-recording old songs, you know they’ve hit a bit of a wall.

None of that takes away from how much I love Everclear’s 90s work. 

It is rich with the promise and peril of being suspended at a point in life where you could be anything, even if you won’t actually end up being most things – when you are Everything Everywhere All At Once, to quote the amazing new movie I saw the other night.

And now it is 25 years later, and perhaps much of the raw edge I felt at 25 upon listening to Everclear has been burnished off by the weight – and sometimes, the cruelties – of time. But I pop on “Santa Monica” or “I Will Buy You A New Life” and for a moment I am there again, jittery with potential and ready for all the world’s bruises and brief joys to knock me around all over again. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #16: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

What is it: Long before she directed Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known as a pioneering documentary filmmaker for her chronicling of the gritty reality of LA’s music scenes. Over three films from 1981 to 1998, she covered punk and metal stars and never-weres, fans and bands with an unsparing eye. The first of her movies, 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization, looked at bands like Black Flag, Germs, X, the Circle Jerks and Fear in squalid, sweaty detail, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best music documentaries ever made. 

Why I never saw it: Despite its cult status, Decline and its two sequels were barely released and almost impossible to watch for decades. Long ago, when I worked at video stores and paged through ink-stained fanzines, I’d hear about these movies a lot, but pre-YouTube or eBay, good luck ever actually watching them. Finally, a few years back, the entire series was released on DVD with a bunch of cool bonuses, and I finally sat down recently to watch them. Can punk still shock more than four decades on?

Does it measure up to its rep? Music documentaries are one of my favourite genres, whether they’re behind the scenes concert footage, making-of histories, birth-to-death storytelling or day-in-the-life voyeurism. Decline  is a little bit of all of the above. These aren’t superstars – X and Black Flag are probably the best known of the bands here, and this is a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag at that. Even by 1979 and 1980, punk was a bit past its first wave, and so you’ve got a variety of fiery young bands trying to figure out who they are – whether it’s the bludgeoning rage of Circle Jerks and Fear, the angst of Germs and Black Flag or the more arty, performative work of almost-forgotten bands like Catholic Discipline, this is a snapshot of a moment in time but an anger that’s still understandable today. We see heaps of roiling, brutal men in mosh pits, slamming against each other in an intimate way that seems even more invasive in a pandemic world. Spheeris has a knack for capturing the propulsive motion of punk, with a visceral touch that makes you feel like you’re back in these crowded, grotty rooms decades ago. We see the bands off stage – Black Flag in an insanely over-graffitied squalid crash pad, The Germs’ doomed, mumbly lead singer Darby Crash cooking eggs and playing with his pet tarantula. (Crash would be dead at 22 of a drug overdose suicide before this movie even came out.) There’s a tinge of hopelessness to Decline, especially when Spheeris talks to the fans like nihilistic skinhead Eugene, but that’s balanced out by some incredibly passionate performances, like young Black Flag singer Ron Reyes screaming out “Depression’s gonna kill me.” It’s strange to think that now, 40+ years on, most of these angry young men and women are either nearly senior citizens – or gone. Unlike slick, polished reality TV versions of life, the squalor and power of Decline never feels fake. 

Worth seeing? Decline of Western Civilization isn’t for those with gentler musical tastes – while some of the bands like X are excellent musicians whose snappy tunes still hold up well today, all of them are loud and confrontational. The Germs are barely holding a tune, with the chaotic power of their only album turned into a muddy, jagged roar. Spheeris closes Decline with a terrifying, mesmerising set by Fear, whose lead singer is shown as a bare-chested, swaggering Johnny Rotten on steroids spitting out homophobic and sexist taunts as the kids in the mosh pit smash into each other. It’s like a vision of Dante’s inferno, and it’s awful, yet at the same time, it’s amazing – the power of punk at its most primal, with a chorus screaming “I don’t care about you / F— you!” Fear’s thundering, cruel set seems to sum up everything that’s come before it. Punk could be awesome and it could be ugly and it could often be both at the same time, and Spheeris’ magnificent documentary captures it in all its complicated sprawl. I’m definitely moving on next to check out 1988’s equally cult but slightly more absurd hair-metal saga Decline of Western Civilization II and the reportedly even darker street kids-focused Part III, but the first Decline movie still packs the punch of a brawl in a mosh pit. It isn’t meant to make you feel good, but like punk itself, it’s meant to make you feel something. 

Mark Lanegan, grunge, and the gone generation

Photo Steve Gullick

Mark Lanegan was not a household name. But when I think of grunge – that Seattle sound, that briefly hip ‘90s trend – I often think first of Lanegan’s husky baritone with the Screaming Trees, and all the ache and strength it conveyed.

Lanegan died suddenly at 57 this week, and for a certain brand of music lover, it was a painful blow to lose this troubled, damaged yet powerful figure.

Lanegan showed a way out of just being a grunge star. The bands that are left intact are mostly ones like Pearl Jam or Mudhoney, who’ve settled into amiable patterns where their music isn’t a heck of a lot different in 2022 than it was in 1992.

When Kurt Cobain died, half my lifetime ago, the thing that struck me hardest was that we’d never know what he might have done next, never follow up on the intriguing directions things like In Utero and MTV Unplugged hinted at. Lanegan, more than any other musician in the grunge era, picked up his longtime friend Cobain’s challenge and continued exploring and innovating until the day he died. 

I loved Screaming Trees, who bubbled under the superstar level of bands like Nirvana. Their single “Nearly Lost You” was their biggest popular hit, but the band – all towering, lumberjack like characters who seemed as ominious as their cartoony threat of a name – were a powerful machine that were driven by Lanegan’s urge to be more than just a screamer. Like TAD, another band a bit too raw to make it big, they felt like whispers and ghosts of the Northwest backwoods, sasquatch with guitars. 

The Trees combusted, and Lanegan was different when he branched out into underrated, heavily diverse solo work. Always a looming, dangerous figure, haunted by addictions and violence he wrote compellingly about in recent memoirs, Lanegan’s very voice let you know he had seen the darkness and stared deep. Many obituaries focused on how with the punishment he inflicted on himself, Lanegan should’ve been dead years ago.

As he aged, he became a kind of Seattle fusion of Nick Cave and Johnny Cash, charged with Old Testament authority and willing to experiment, collaborate and cast his sound far outside a narrow grunge template. He swerved from the dusty country-fried songwriting of Whiskey For The Holy Ghost to the sweet-and-sour collaborations with Isobel Campbell, the ‘70s hard rock stomp of his work with Queens Of The Stone Age, to dabbling in dark synth-pop in Blues Funeral. His final album, Straight Songs of Sorrow, seemed to amalgamate all of his interests to craft a dark, autobiographical mini-masterpiece. 

It was also reminded me of how so many of the great voices of his peers have left far too early, turning grunge – a term many couldn’t stand, but it’s stuck like glue – into kind of a lost generation. There will be no big the-whole-band-gets-back-together reunion tours for Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains or Screaming Trees. 

The list is long – Kurt Cobain, of course (suicide, 27), Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland (drugs, 48), Chris Cornell (suicide, 52), pre-grunge/glam act Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Patrick Wood (heroin, just 24), Gits singer Mia Zapata (murdered, 27); Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley (heroin/cocaine, 34) and Mike Starr (prescription overdose, 44), Hole’s Kristin Pfaff (overdose, 27); poppier act Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon (cocaine, 28). 

Music and young death are no strangers, of course, and there’s been “lost generations” before, from the deaths of Janis, Jimi and Jim (you don’t even need to say their last names, do you?) to the rap slayings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. to the present, in the deaths of those like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep. 

But grunge was my soundtrack to an age where you listen to music more obsessively than other, and nobody wants to watch their own generation slowly be washed away.

I lived a boring, drama-free 1990s compared to the antics of Lanegan, Cobain and their peers – rare binges of tequila and vodka were my peak indulgence – but the appeal of grunge to me was that the yearning of singers like Lanegan felt universal. We all ache in different ways. We all have addictions. I realised a long time ago that I’d easily get hooked on some of the temptations of the world given half a chance. I was an amateur at addiction, but something in me responded to Lanegan’s deep, groaning voice. 

Friend Bob got to see him in his elemental power a few years back, and I’m very jealous. Lanegan overcame his demons and was clean for years, but a bout with COVID-19 last year nearly killed him and I wouldn’t surprised if it led directly to his early death. 

Once upon a time, I would’ve said that making it to 57 was a decent run. But it doesn’t seem that way when you get close to it. Mark Lanegan was a guide through some of the darkness of life, wrapped heavily in all its shadows himself. He might have been the last lingering reminder of the power of grunge behind the hype and sadness, and that generation is gone and never coming back. 

Book Review: Chuck Klosterman and figuring out The Nineties

It’s weird to see your past become mythology. Part of me is certain the 1990s were just a few years back, instead of more than three decades ago. Surely it’s too early to start talking about what it all meant? 

But in Chuck Klosterman’s engaging new collection of pop-culture writing, The Nineties, he attempts to use the controversies and celebrities of the past to explain how we became whatever us mixed-up humans are today. 

Klosterman himself is a very ‘90s kind of voice who made it big starting in the 2000s with essays that went down like a surprisingly smart, funny stranger holding forth at the bar – slightly overbearing, but worth the listen. 

His essay collections like Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs sparkle with off-kilter insights and a respect for even the most disdained of pop culture like Guns N’ Roses tribute bands, while earlier works like Fargo Rock City, about loving hair metal while living in rural America, have a sincerity that can’t be hidden by all the snarky wit. 

Known for writing lengthy pieces on things like the relative merits of KISS members’ solo albums, in more recent years Klosterman has tried to branch out into broader cultural criticism. But to be honest, excavating the contradictions and curiousities of pop culture is where his voice is strongest. 

I like Klosterman quite a lot, but The Nineties doesn’t quite manage to be a defining statement despite his best efforts. “It was, in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive,” he writes. Which is only really true if you came, like Klosterman and I, from pretty comfortable white middle class American existences. 

The Nineties is a strong essay collection burdened with the expectation of defining a decade. The central thesis of The Nineties is that it was a time when everything was about to make a huge paradigm shift, with the looming shadows of the internet, 9/11 and extreme partisanship spawned by the Clinton years and Bush/Gore election that came to dominate US politics.  

Klosterman is chatty, digressive, trivia-filled and open-minded, which means The Nineties is an easy read, but sprawling and inconclusive about whatever the 1990s even meant other than that things were about to change. And that’s pretty much his point. “It was a period of ambivalence, defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and particularly American life, was underwhelming.”

Generation X was perched in a weird spot in space-time, before the internet fully emerged and yet smothered in a mass-media bubble of celebrity culture in old-school magazines and TV shows that foreshadowed many of today’s influencer obsessions. 

The monoculture that once was splintered into pieces with the advent of social media. As much as we like to imagine it was all flannel, riot grrls and grunge from Sub Pop and people reading Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club,” the ‘90s was also an awful lot of people watching Friends and Titanic and listening to Garth Brooks, by far the decade’s biggest musical star. 

Wrestling with an entire decade is difficult work – Klosterman rightly points out decades are only about “cultural perception,” when you get down to it. He hits all the expected high points – Nirvana’s Nevermind, the rise of AOL, Bill Clinton, Pulp Fiction and Clarence Thomas. He mostly avoids tiresome “remember this?” type nostalgia and instead focuses on giving broader context.

Klosterman likes to equivocate, rarely coming down firmly on an issue and sometimes passing off some pretty dire zen cliches as insight. “Things changed, but not really,” the nineties were “a good time that happened long ago, although not nearly as long ago as it seems,” and “The future can’t exist until the present is the past.” These vague sentences clunk awkwardly against his better observations. 

What’s best about The Nineties is where Klosterman pinpoints precisely how the culture has changed. The very way we tend to think has mutated an awful lot in 30 years. A culture based on ‘likes’ and never having to go further than your pocket to look information up is really as futuristic as rocket ships and hoverboards would have been. 

“Selling out,” for example, is a concept that seemed to consume much of the decade, with the agonised fears of stars like Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix about what it might mean and entire movies like Reality Bites based around it. “Selling out” barely even exists as the same concept anymore in a world filled with TikToks, YouTubers and influencers all selling themselves as hard as possible. 

The OJ Simpson case has been written about ad infinitum, but Klosterman paints a convincing through line to the mindset that dominates today’s fractured, everyone-has-a-hot-take internet. Watching the crowds cheer on OJ on his bizarre slow-motion car chase through LA, waving signs, Klosterman sees “what would eventually drive the mechanism of social media – the desire of uninformed people to be involved with the news … because it was exhilarating to participate in an experience all of society was experiencing at once.” 

The Nineties is best enjoyed less as a final, definitive statement and more as a frequently amusing and thought-provoking addition to the ongoing conversation. I kind of think that Klosterman, who I’ll always picture as the guy holding forth at the bar, would prefer it that way anyway. 

My top pop-culture moments of 2021

And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.

Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasisMy experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.

The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.

When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.

Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.

Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, but Edgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers triggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.

Meeting Neil Gaiman, in strange days – I’ve always loved the Auckland Writers Festival, and like many things I loved it’s had rocky days during the Covid era. Fortunately, this year’s festival went off just fine in May, and a big highlight was getting a chance to meet one of the world’s biggest writers, Neil Gaiman, who’s been a bit of a New Zealand resident himself with his wife Amanda Palmer during the pandemic. I waited an hour or so to briefly meet Neil and have him sign a few of my favourite books after listening to some excellent talks he gave, but that was nothing compared to some who waited up to six hours. Neil was apparently as much a gentleman with the last person in line as he was with the first. They say never meet your idols, but getting a chance to tell them how much their work means to you is sometimes worth the wait.

Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?

The Beatles Get Back, and why it’s worth slowing down sometimes

Who knew that watching nearly 8 hours of the Beatles noodling around in a studio could be so addictive?

Yes, Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary is long. It’s rambling and has very little “plot” to speak of. But as a window into the creative process of one of the greatest bands of all time, it’s absolutely amazing to watch hours and hours of footage unearthed during the making of the Let It Be album

Watching the crystal-clear footage of the Fab Four and their friends unspool, I felt like I was watching a time machine portal open up in front of me. It’s immersive and both poignant and celebratory for Beatle-maniacs – which, to be clear, is an awful lot of us. 

Let It Be isn’t even my favourite Beatles album by a long shot – I find it too polished with Phil Spector’s later orchestral additions, Paul McCartney’s sappy side a little too prevalent and John Lennon’s surreal wit and bite mostly missing in action. Eight hours on the making of Sgt. Pepper, good god, yes, but Let It Be? The album that took so long to put together that it came out after the band’s actual final album, Abbey Road?

I’ve still never seen the original Let It Be movie, a mere 80 minutes long, but I’ve seen enough segments from it to get the idea it’s viewed as a dour portrait of a band’s dissolution, the end of a dream. Jackson dove into the 60 hours or so of video taken at the time and crafted an entirely new take on the sessions. Contrary to some of the hype, Get Back doesn’t rewrite history – but it expands our view of it. 

It’s being hyped hard by the Disney Corporate EmpireTM as entertainment for all, but Jackson has rather sneakily made what almost is a Beatles art film. Like one of Andy Warhol’s endless panoramas of the Empire State Building or people sleeping, Jackson’s slow, relaxed pace with Get Back forces us into its own rhythm, the world of jobbing musicians trying to find the right chord or lyric. For a society used to quick fixes and instantly accessible content, that might seem too plodding. Others of us welcome the chance to unplug a bit. 

The problem with the making of the album Let It Be is clear from the start – the Beatles are wiped out, exhausted and grumpy, except for Paul, whose incessant cheerleading in the first episode never stops. The Beatles had already conquered the world a few times over. Lennon’s zoned out with Yoko, my favourite Beatle George is clearly filled with his own quiet anger, and Ringo is… well, he’s Ringo. Get Back starts with a dark time for the Beatles, but as it unfolds and the group starts to come together, you appreciate their rich history – these kids, still not even 30, had been through so much together already. 

Get Back encourages us to slow down, to zone out like Yoko Ono reading magazines, to get lost in the minutiae of Paul and John working out lyrics, or Ringo smoking cigarettes. To take in fully the glorious fashions of Glyn Johns, the slow creep of George’s facial hair over the weeks it chronicles, the endless cups of tea and toast. Nobody is staring at their phone during the lulls in Get Back, obviously, which now more than ever makes it seem like a portal into a very different world. A musician’s life isn’t all drugs and parties and live gigs, and the leisurely stroll through a few weeks in the life of the Beatles demystifies them a bit. It rescues them from that gold-plated celebrity icon status a bit to see them reading the morning papers, having morning chit-chat about what they watched on the telly the night before.

And many times over Get Back‘s languorous eight hours, you have sudden moments of sheer magic, like watching a song you’ve known for practically your whole life come into the world for the very first time: 

For Beatlemaniacs – and yea, we are legion – it’s akin to watching the holy grail be forged to see songs like “Get Back” or Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” slowly take shape out of a few strummed chords. Perhaps for me the most beautiful moment was watching Ringo shyly debut his goofy little “Octopus’ Garden” to George, and the two of them amicably noodling away, shaping it. They were mates, having a go at making some art. Or a scene where Paul’s adopted daughter Heather joins in with the band jamming, playing like any little kid would, but with THE BEATLES. Or any scene when Billy Preston bops into the room, bringing a welcome energy and fanboy’s good cheer. Or any one of the dozens of song fragments, covers and unfinished works that Get Back reveals. 

Time haunts Get Back, right from the earworm title song’s chorus – “Get back to where you once belonged.”  There is a wistfulness to it all, watching these vividly alive people and knowing how many of them died too young – Lennon and Mal Evans by gunfire, Harrison and Linda McCartney to cancer.  The documentary is so immersive that when you lift your head out of it, you feel like you’ve lost something and some time that’s irreplaceable. 

Get Back is long, maybe too long for many, but I could also have watched it forever from the vantage point of weird old 2021, hoping that somehow, from 50 years in the past, the Beatles might help everyone in the whole world get back to where they once belonged. 

Sparks, Velvet and Harlem: Comfort viewing for when you miss that live concert buzz

Do you remember music? Three recent terrific music documentaries might not have been quite the same as going to a sweaty concert back in the day, but they still gave me quite a buzz – one fondly visiting some old friends, one giving me a deep dive into a band I’ve barely explored, and a third simply exploding with the sheer joy of live music, humans together in crowds and all the things we can’t quite do like we used to. All three are well worth your viewing time.

The very first time I remember listening to The Velvet Underground was in university, at a friend’s house, and there might have been alcohol involved. My cool friend put on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and somewhere between “Heroin” and “European Son,” I got lost. It didn’t sound quite like anything else I’d listened to, mean and lo-fi and rambling and full of jagged edges. I was hooked for life. The first big ol’ CD box set I ever bought was the Velvet Underground’s 1995 Peel Slowly And See containing pretty much everything they’d ever done. I’m a fan of all the solo work of Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, even Mo Tucker. I even have a tattoo of a Lou Reed lyric on my arm. 

So I’m a fan, which means that any documentary about the Velvet Underground has to pass my nerdy standards. Fortunately, Todd HaynesThe Velvet Underground documentary gets the job done, despite a kind of unimaginative title. When you love a band so much that you kind of know their story by rote it’s hard for a documentary to stun you, but I found myself caught up in Haynes’ approach, mixing split screens, plenty of footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory and rare scenes of the band at work. It’s a movie that kind of washes over you, like the propulsive debauchery of Sister Ray in its never-ending live jam form. 

Haynes talks a lot to the band’s surviving members Cale and Tucker, and plenty of Factory scenesters and hip fans like Johnathan Richman, but he tries to keep The Velvet Underground from being one of those endless parades of talking heads. Yet I don’t know how well the movie might work for Velvet novices, as it’s so impressionistic at times that it occasionally flits past a narrative. But then again, when I think of the Velvets, I think of them as an experience, something to dive into, possibly while sitting at a friend’s house with a head full of beer at 2am, wondering what that clatter and buzz coming from the stereo could possibly be. Watching The Velvet Underground and letting it suck you into their shadowy world is well worth it.

On the other hand, sometimes you want a documentary to show you something new. Sparks is a band I have been kind of generally aware of (I always loved their “Eaten By The Monster of Love”) without being a huge or knowledgeable fan. Edgar Wright’s delightful The Sparks Brothers made me a fan for life, which is the ultimate sign of success for a music documentary. Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve bubbled around in music circles for more than 50 years. From their early rock that teetered between pop and prog to their embrace of synth with songs like “The Number One Song In Heaven,” they marry some insanely catchy melodies with wry, sarcastic lyrics. 

Their story spans from their first big hit, the bombastic 1974 “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” all the way up to writing the music and story for Leo Carax’s beautifully strange musical Annette starring Adam Driver this year. 

Wright tells their story with humour and creativity, using animated interludes, plenty of great vintage footage (I’ll never get tired of watching Ron Mael’s stern scowl at the camera) and candid current interviews with the brothers. The Sparks Brothers manages to touch at least briefly on every one of their 26 albums, rather than just sticking to the biggest hits. It’s a nice idea that makes the documentary feel much more authoritative in its approach. 

Wright leaves in just enough mystery about the Maels – you finish realising you don’t actually know much about their private lives, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the music and their creativity, as they’ve charted a path somewhere between pop stars and cult acts and defiantly followed their muse the entire time. You can’t ask for a better career than that.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) might be one of most joyous movies of a rather joyless year. It’s a documentary about the nearly forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a kind of Black Woodstock that took place over several weeks at a Harlem park and featured huge crowds jamming to legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone and much more.

I love documentaries that introduce you to something a bit hidden – the Harlem festival drew tens of thousands and was filmed, but the footage was abandoned and forgotten for decades. The Roots’ Questlove has done a remarkable job directing this feature which juxtaposes stunning footage from the concerts with broader context about the turbulence late ‘60s and the Black experience in America. It’s deep when it wants to be, but more importantly Summer of Soul is sheer cathartic bliss, with beautiful crowds and remarkable music. 

Some concert movies have one or two stand-up-and-cheer moments – Summer of Soul is packed with them, from Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples duetting to 19-year-old Stevie Wonder getting his funk on. For some reason the moment that stuck with me most was seeing the somewhat uncool Black band The Fifth Dimension blow the crowd away with their none-more-hippie anthem “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” pumping with uncomplicated positivity onstage and the same singers much older, watching back their performances 50 years later, grins on their faces. “Let the sunshine in,” indeed. It’s hard to imagine I’ll watch a more uplifting movie all year. 

Songs To Help Me Survive 2021

It’s a tough time out there. Auckland’s been in lockdown for just over two months now and New Zealand’s finally coming to grips with the coronavirus in the community. We’ve had great success compared to an awful lot of places, but right now we’re in a battle to vaccinate and stamp things out so it doesn’t get as bad as so many other places.

Still, like most of the last two years in this troubled world, it’s weird and stressful and I think we’re all kind of over it at this point.

In the end, when life starts to feel like a Groundhog Day of working and sleeping and walks around the neighbourhood and masks and health alerts and the increasing insanity of what feels like a good portion of the online world … well, music is one of the few things that makes sense, right?

I made a playlist nearly a year ago of Songs That Helped Me Survive 2020. For a while there, this year looked like it would be more cheerful, but it turns out this thing has a while to go yet.

But we’ve got songs, we’ve always got songs. Happy songs that remind us what it’s like to be human, angry songs that remind us it’s OK to feel freaked out and frustrated, lovely songs that remind us the grace in between the bad times. Here are some of those songs that are helping me survive 2021. I hope you might dig it too if you need a way to get away from it all.