More Noisyland Music – My 2023 New Zealand Music Month playlist

From left, OMC’s Pauly Fuemana, Marlon Williams, Devilskin.

Once again, it’s nearly the end of another New Zealand Music Month, where all kiwis get up and dance to kiwi music all the month long. 

People who were born here and those who came to live here from far away will all tell you that the music of New Zealand – from rough garage punk to delicate singer-songwriters to rich Māori waiata – feels special, somehow. We’re a small country, and yet, we make a mark on the global music scene. We’re the bottom of the world, so maybe we try harder. 

Up in the hills of California, I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of the more obscure New Zealand music, and part of the fun of living here is constantly discovering fantastic songs that never made a splash in America, spanning gritty alternative rock to South Auckland soul. 

Darcy Clay.

I dug making a playlist of 30 or so of my favourite New Zealand songs last year, and figured I’d give it another go this year picking out work by another bunch of great local musicians – celebrating everyone from Flying Nun legends like the Chills to rich young talents like Vera Ellen and Kane Strang or classic old-school psych-pop nuggets from The Fourmyula and Larry’s Rebels.

I love a song list that can encompass both the elegantly formal craft of Don McGlashan and the chaotic anarchy of the late Darcy Clay, so get ready for a wild ride through NZ sound. It really just scratches the surface of the talent, weirdness and beauty to be found in Aotearoa music. Here’s my playlist More Noisyland Music: NZ Music Month 2023 which you can hear over on Spotify:

Why I can’t wait for the new album by Sparks

They’ve been doing this since the 1970s, and they’re totally old dudes now, but there’s not a lot of music I’m more excited for in 2023 than a new album by Sparks. 

Sparks have led a beautifully eclectic career for more than 50 years now, straddling the line between pop, rock and art and becoming popular, but never quite that popular.

Brothers Ron and Russell Mael (Russell sings with an operatic energy, Ron writes the music, mostly) are Californian natives who only really made it big when they went to Europe, and who somehow have kept a career rolling along as the entire music industry has changed several times over in their lifetimes.

I mean, who else makes a great music video I actually care about watching in 2023? There’s something joyfully enigmatic about their video for “The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte” starring Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, the first single from the album of the same name coming out later in May. It’s an insinuating earworm, but it’s also weirdly sad and funny, making catchy music out of the modern world’s murky, jittery uncertainty. And Cate’s got moves:

In my journalism career, I’ve read a zillion bad press releases from bad bands that started off with some variation of saying “Our sound can’t really be described” or “Our music defies classification, man.” For Sparks, that description is actually true. 

Their song titles alone are often perfectly formed little comic vignettes – “Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is,” “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” “What The Hell Is It This Time?”, “Lighten Up, Morrissey,” “Dancing Is Dangerous” or this gem — “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song.” And don’t get me started on their album covers, which frequently are works of genius. 

Their peculiar stage presence in the 1970s and ’80s was just oddball enough to seem rather subversive – Russell the long-haired, swinging frontman, Ron the leering, somewhat sinister keyboard presence, with that “Hitler mustache” that gave the whole band a macabre air. Who were they trying to be, anyway? 

Their earliest work, 1971’s Sparks album, had a bit of a hippie-pop hangover going on with funkily falsetto singles like “Wonder Girl.” But they refined their sound fully with the dazzling Kimono My House in 1973 and bombastic single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.” It’s almost like a Queen song reimagined by aliens who had never actually been to Earth: 

Queen, of course, were bombastic too, but in a milder, more crowd-pleasing way. Sparks were defiantly weird, and put the onus on you to go along with them rather than just sit back and be entertained. An unexpected hit, “This Town” led to a series of goofily smart pop tunes all through the ‘70s and ‘80s. At one point, they wrote a song simply about the joys of eating pineapple

With 1979’s synth-pop electronic collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, No. 1 In Heaven, it feels like they invented the new wave of the 1980s – turning repetitive beats and surging futuristic chords into something almost ecstatic, strange and wonderful. 

Periodically, they’d go away and return as an entirely different band, but they never really left, even if their work was more of a cult pleasure than mega-seller. Circa 2000 their work took a more orchestral, elaborate turn on albums like Lil’ Beethoven and Hippopotamus, with a renewed focus on the power of repetition with such mantra-like tracks as “My Baby’s Taking Me Home.” 

Yet while the later songs have an older, wiser perspective than some of their earlier work, they’re still shot through with that very Sparks sense of humour. They’ve even written one of the weirdest movie musicals in recent years, the incredibly bizarre story of a murdering comedian and his magical puppet baby (!!!), Annette. I loved it, but it’s about as far from the mainstream as you can get.

Sparks contain the qualities of most of the musicians I admire the most, from the Beatles to Bowie – a determination to always move forward and not keep repeating themselves. Their 26th studio album sounds almost nothing like their first more than 50 years ago, and yet at the same time it’s unmistakably the work of the same vision. 

The excellent documentary by Edgar Wright, The Sparks Brothers, which I’ve written about before, has played a big part in the autumnal appreciation for Sparks and is a terrific tour through their idiosyncratic career for beginners.  

Witty and weird, Sparks are a band that for 50 years has been boldly nothing but themselves, never chasing fads nor fashion, but sometimes creating it. In a world where everybody seems obsessed with fame and going viral, there’s something comforting in a cult hit favourite band that’s never been anything but themselves.

Whatever they do next, it’s worth listening to. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #23: Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)

What is it? What a time to be alive. The country was riveted by the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale. The plucky cassette Walkman was in everyone’s home. We all woke up each day asking, “Where’s the beef?” And looming above it all, breakdancing fever burned through America like a raging inferno in those halcyon days of 1984, 39 years ago now. Not one, not two, but three movies dedicated to the dance sensation hit the big screens. First came Breakin’ in May, followed by competitor Beat Street in June, culminating in the December 1984 release of the Avengers: Endgame of poppin’ and lockin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. 

Breakin’ and its sequels joined a long line of teen-oriented dance movies from Beach Blanket Bingo to Bring It On to Step Up, all frothy pop culture trend-chasing at its height.  The first Breakin’ wraps up all its dance numbers around the story of rich white girl dancer Kelly (Lucinda Dickey) who becomes friends with a couple of streetwise breakdancers, Ozone (“Shabba-Doo” Quinones) and Turbo (“Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers). For the sequel, the producers at Cannon Films turned to the time-worn concept of “puttin’ on a show,” as a beloved youth centre is being threatened by a cartoonish evil yuppie developer and the only way to save it is… with dance! The awkward yet oddly unforgettable title of Breakin’ 2 ensured it would endure in film history. But as a movie… well… 

Why I never saw it: Weirdly, I saw Breakin’ on the preferred medium, VHS tape, sometime during its original 1980s heyday, but about 30 seconds after it was released, Breakin’ 2 and its insane subtitle became a punchline. To see it would have been complicit in its very lameness. It got referred to in the title of a terrific documentary about the ‘80s delights of the parent film companyElectric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. More disturbing, because we can’t have nice things in this life, somehow the word ‘boogaloo’ got hijacked by a bunch of racist idiots, too. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Look – this is a ridiculous movie. With a title like that, how could it not be? But it’s kind of charming, too in a completely inane way. A gaudy, Hollywood snapshot of early hip-hop culture, it’s not quite as grounded in reality as the first Breakin’ (which was hardly a Bergman film by any means). Like most sequels it’s bigger, brasher and louder, immediately kicking off with a giant dance number where an entire multi-racial neighbourhood gyrates and dances down the streets, from construction workers to old ladies to traffic officers. Truly, Breakin’ 2 kind of defies words. It’s a movie one has to describe in YouTube clips:

It also features an utterly non-violent “breakdance battle” which might just be the greatest thing you’ll ever see: 

And that’s not even getting into the stunning ’80s fashions, the compelling bro-mance between its two leading men, the scene where young Boogaloo Shrimp is healed by the very power of dance, the entirely random puppet scene. I can’t pretend it’s a good movie by any means. The actors are all stiff and weirdly aware of the camera. The late “Shabba Doo” is a strangely charismatic awkward presence, eyeballing the camera with Brando-esque intensity, while Lucinda Dickey – who starred in both Breakin’ and the utterly magical Ninja III: The Domination and then vanished from screens – has a perky charm of her own, even if you don’t buy the reality of her “character” for a second. But you watch a movie like Breakin’ 2 for the dance numbers, and they’re elaborate, campy and colourful nonsense, and yet somehow, I smiled at every one of them. 

Worth seeing? Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo is cheese through and through, of course. How could it not be? And yet, while it may seem like damning with faint praise, it’s got a good heart. Far more diverse than many movies of the time, it gently teases its very chaste interracial romance and fundamentally has a message of inclusiveness and acceptance, which I dig. There’s a place for this kind of airy escapism in cinema. Sure, you can pop it on the screen of your choice and laugh at it the entire time, at the fashions, the dance moves, the glorious camp of it all, but you know – for all its corporate synergy fad-hopping origins and essentially clumsy filmmaking, it’s weirdly sincere.

Somehow, watching one of these goofy teen movies where all the world’s problems can just be solved with silly dancing is a bit life-affirming. To quote the deeply profound lyrics of the soundtrack song, “When I’m dancin’ / It seems like everything’s all right / Everything’s all right / I believe in the beat.” There are worse things to believe in. 

Concert Review: Pavement, Auckland, March 7

Look, we’re all a bit nostalgic for the 1990s these days, right? It’s a cliche, but it’s almost relaxing to recall an era where pop culture’s greatest fear was “selling out” rather than worrying about climate apocalypse, social media overload, misinformation and creeping fascism. It was hardly perfect but we like to imagine it was.

Not every ’90s band is the same. I can’t remember the last time I listened to Pearl Jam, but I put on a Pavement song every week or two at the very least. For a band whose full albums precisely spanned the 1990s, from 1992’s Slanted And Enchanted to 1999’s Terror Twilight, they feel far less bound to their era than others. Pavement returned to New Zealand for a fantastic show at the Civic Theatre last night and reminded us all why they still matter, decades after their final album. 

I saw Pavement play their first reunion tour in 2010 (reviewed on Version 1.0 of my website) and it was marvellous fun, but 13 years on, even though they’ve never put out any new music, they felt even more contemporary somehow – all the angst and weirdness of the last few years just seem to make them more relevant than ever. 

The band were a bit looser and more playful than in 2010, stretching out nicely in extended spacey jams on songs like “Type Slowly” that built on the hazy vibe, with frontman Stephen Malkmus’ spiky guitar solos evoking the late great Tom Verlaine of Television and his own relaxed and sprawling solo albums. 

Pavement have often been misleadingly described as “slacker rock,” including probably by myself at some point, but it occurred to me that lazy label obscures the amiable craftwork behind their songs – earworm nuggets like “Gold Soundz,” “Summer Babe” or the surprising viral hit B-side “Harness Your Hopes” have a tight power pop catchiness at their core. 

Malkmus’ lyrics have always had a charmingly casual quality to them, sounding like a super-relaxed rapper. But no matter how surreal the songs may get with their asides about Geddy Lee’s voice or how sexy Stone Temple Pilots are, Malkmus always managed to sound disarmingly sincere. “I’m an island of such great complexity,” he sings in one of my top 10 Pavement songs, “Shady Lane,” and the key is he never makes that seem like hard work. 

They had the blissful upbeat tunes like “Cut Your Hair” and “Stereo,” but there’s always been a gently melancholy core to the band, too, a quality which helps their music endure in numbers like “Here” or “Stop Breathing.” I’ve listened to my favourite of their albums, 1997’s Brighten The Corners, about a zillion times and still manage to come away with new things from each song. 

Last week I had the pleasure of “writing up” – as they say in the biz – an interview Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich gave to Radio New Zealand’s Music 101 before their show, talking about how NZ’s classic Flying Nun bands like The Clean and Chris Knox influenced their sound. Maybe that’s why they sounded faintly alien in the flannel 1990s. They hailed from Stockton, California, and were an ordinary-looking group of dudes, but at their core Pavement were inspired more by bands like Can and The Fall than KISS and Led Zeppelin. They have always been a rather unique brew of American casual and avant-garde surrealism. 

Everyone seemed to have a different favourite song last night, as Pavement dipped between their “hits” and more obscure numbers. That’s kind of the beauty of their work – it’s whatever you want it to be.

I’m sorry if I ever called them slacker rock – they’re their own beast, really. Maybe it’s the dream of the 1990s, hazy and irresistible like that summer babe in the distance, unforgettable and you’ve always just missed her. 

The best Beatle and nine other Hot Takes About Music

I always wanted to be a real music critic. A hardboiled, unshaven take-no-prisoners wordsmith like Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau or Jim DeRogatis. I wanted to be William Miller in Almost Famous.

But I never really quite managed to make that a full-time gig among the many hats I’ve worn in my journalism career, really. I’ve been editor of alternative weekly newspapers back when they still existed, written lots and lots of music reviews and talked about music on the radio and covered concerts, I’ve interviewed Alice Cooper and once had someone from the band Phish call me and yell at my answering machine over a snarky dumb article I wrote about them, and I started this whole crazy writing career off with an internship at music mag Billboard way back in the day, but still… I’m no Lester Bangs. I just sometimes write about music I like.

And now that I’m a gentleman of a certain age, I accept that I’ve lost touch with what the kids are into with their TikToks and suchlike. Although I do try to still discover new stuff now and again, in my heart of hearts, my musical lodestone still remains roughly 1972-1988, I guess. Accept who you are, at a certain point, I reckon.

That doesn’t stop me from having the opinions on music, but I also recognise that at a certain point, yet another middle-aged white guy rambling on about nerdy obsessions about albums that came out decades ago is a bit well, cliche. But sometimes, you gotta let your opinions out or they fester in your brain and cause an aneurysm. None of them are quite worth a post on their own, but the frustrated music writer in me insists on laying them down like it was 1987 and this was a bad column in Spin magazine.

Thus, here’s 10 Hot Takes About Rock Music I Will Not Be Explaining Any Further. Please feel free to discuss and debunk. 

1. George Harrison had the best and most interesting solo career of the Beatles. 

2. I will always choose to listen to The Sex Pistols over The Clash.

3. Almost every Guns N’ Roses song would be better with the final 60-90 seconds cut off. (Seriously, listen to “November Rain” sometime.) 

4. The Rolling Stones should have broken up when Charlie Watts died.

5. I prefer Phil Collins as lead singer of Genesis.

6. I think David Bowie’s techno-jungle 1997 midlife crisis album Earthling is one of his five best albums.

7. I have switched back and forth between loving and hating the Doors at least five times in my music listening lifetime. I still can’t figure out which side I land on. 

8. Frank Zappa was the better musician technically, but Captain Beefheart’s croaky stomps were more sincere and hold up better. 

9. I’ve listened to Prince’s delightfully silly Batman album more times than any of his records other than Purple Rain. 

10. I don’t really care for Pink Floyd

Year in Review: The Songs To Survive 2022 mixtape

Are we here again, at the end of another year? I’m not quite sure how this happened. The number “2023” sounds, to me, like some far futuristic utopia or dystopia, rather than the time I’m actually living in. I think I really stopped counting around 2012, anyway.

As I’ve previous said in these last two chaos-filled years, music helps keep me same. Whether it’s 6k walks around the neighbourhood or while I’m beavering away making journalism, there’s often a song nearby.

I have to say, 2022 has been, well, pretty shit in a lot of ways, on a personal level. Too much bad news in my life and the world seems to be getting stupider every day. It’s hard, sometimes, not to become the bitter sort of person you swore you wouldn’t become in your 20s. 

So, music. And new music! I’m trying a little harder, like my mate Bob, not to become one of those old guys who always complains that music was better in the 1990s or whenever. I actively sought out some of the young folk making music this year, as well as my favourite old folks still making music, rather than just listening to the same Ramones and Prince albums over and over.

The Songs That Helped Me Survive 2022 Playlist is almost entirely music that came out this year (there’s a couple of perennial songs I listened to a lot that are a bit older). I listened to groovy young (or younger) folks like Wet Leg (who made the most joyously fun album of the year) and Orville Peck and Tove Lo, to awesome kiwi musicians like Marlon Williams and Troy Kingi and Aldous Harding, to old faves like Freedy Johnston and Midnight Oil and Don McGlashan who put out great new stuff this year. 

And here’s my playlist. So here’s two hours of eclectic alt-rock, jazz, kiwi pop, afro-noise, songwriting genius, angry rants and wistful laments! Once upon a time it might’ve been a mixtape I mailed a dear friend or two from across the country or across the world. These days, it’s a collection of bits and bytes and well, anyone can listen. That’s music for you. It’s what keeps us going, when the going gets tough. Listen up, I made you a mixtape:

More music: Songs To Survive 2020 Playlist

Songs To Survive 2021 Playlist

It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there: My top 10 albums of 1997

A few years back I looked at my top 25 albums of 1994, 25 years later. Now, as if by infernal design, the clock has rolled forward a few more years, and somehow it’s 25 years since 1997, another great year for music in the eyes of the young Nik.

Through the increasingly blurry eyes of middle age, I think of 1997 now as the end of my youth – I finally moved on from my old college town in Mississippi after working at the local paper for a few years after graduation, packing up my battered ’89 Toyota and driving back across America to my native California. It was a leap in the dark, the kind most of us can only make when we’re too young to know how hard it can be to change everything about your life overnight. By the end of 1997 I was in a completely different place than where I started. 

Here are my 10 favourite albums that guided and haunted me as the soundtrack to a year of chaotic upheaval. I still love them all today.  (*I know, I know, it’s a very white, male alternative list of musicians, but in all honesty, that’s what I was listening to in 1997 in a world that was a lot less diverse and inclusive than it is now. Things have definitely changed for the better in that regard in 25 years.)

In alphabetical order by artist:

Ben Folds Five, Whatever And Ever Amen – Like a geekier Elton John and Bernie Taupin at their peak, Ben Folds combines hummable melody with little character-filled vignettes in song. Bouncy and sad all at the same time, Whatever And Ever is his best album, which manages to combine silly pop romps like “Ballad of Who Could Care Less” and “Song For The Dumped” with brittle ballads about abortion (“Brick”) and breakups (“Selfless, Cold and Composed”).

Blue Mountain, Homegrown – Old friends of mine from Mississippi who’ve done a gorgeous job of mining alt-country over the years, this is absolutely one of their best albums and a slice of genuine heartland Americana that holds up well. Twangy anthems and lovesick laments with just a hint of punk-rock rebellion and a reminder of how great the alt-country scene and fellow travellers like Uncle Tupelo and The Old 97’s were at their peak. 

David Bowie, Earthling – I guess few Bowie fans would put this in their top 10 of his remarkable career, but I absolutely love this drift into jungle and techno sounds that is menacing, fierce and dangerous, released the year Bowie turned 50, and it feels like a rage, rage against the dying of the light. A lot of artists embarrass themselves by jumping on trendy new music but for Bowie, it just felt like more of the curious magpie eye that drove his entire career. A raucous rave of an album. 

Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind – It feels like the words of a thousand-year-old man on a mountaintop, but if I want to feel old now, I’ll realise that Bob Dylan was only five or six years older than I am today when he recorded this gorgeous, drifting reverie of an album. It was the beginning of a critical comeback that’s never really dimmed for the great bard of modern song. “Not Dark Yet” is a song I listen to more and more as the days drift by faster and faster. 

Everclear, So Much For The AfterglowI’ve written about this album itself pretty recently. Suffice to say it’s one of the last great slabs of the grunge ethos to me, loud and angry and more than a little bit scared.

Green Day, nimrod. – I’d only call myself a medium fan of this band, but for some reason, this album really got to me, combining their punk-pop brattiness with an ecclectic energy and plenty of goofy wit. I remember hearing the uncharacteristically mellow ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” played at a high school graduation ceremony I covered for a small-town newspaper that year, and somehow, that felt like the perfect song for the moment. 

Guided By Voices, Mag Earwhig! – This all-time power pop bashes marks the end of an absolutely stellar run by the Dayton, Ohio band who, led by genius Robert Pollard, have been bashing out prolific tunes for decades now. Almost every GBV album has great songs on it, but Mag Earwhig! is one of the last where every single song feels like an earworm #1 single from an alternate universe. 

Freedy Johnston, Never Home – Another gent I wrote about recently, his hugely underrated fourth album is full of his trademark story-telling lyrics, an angsty edge and songs that keep unfolding themselves the more you listen to him. 

Pavement, Brighten The Corners – Hold a gun to my head, but this just inches ahead of Earthling and OK Computer as my favourite album of 1997. Pavement at their surreal, whimsically witty peak, but filtered through a haze of melancholy that makes this album feel like their most sincere slice of gently askew rock. It’s an album that mourns a vibe, a time and place, without ever being quite sure why it’s sad that it’s ending. As my world changed so much in 1997, Malkmus’ songs like “Shady Lane” and “Starlings of the Slipstream” seemed to sum up something I was feeling, even if nobody was really sure what it was. It was the 1990s, mate.

Radiohead, OK Computer – It would be heresy to leave this off any list of great alt-rock of 1997 (even if it’s slightly pipped for me by Kid A as Radiohead’s best album). Thom Yorke’s yearning moan, the rock riffs that float between anthemic and drifting, the vaguely elusive lyrics… at the time, OK Computer’s dire visions of a lonely world fraught with conflict and isolating technologies seemed like a dark warning. Now, it just seems like what much of the world became. 

Bubbling under the top 10: Björk, Homogenic; Cornershop, When I was Born For The 7th Time; Michael Penn, Resigned; The Old ’97s, Too Far To Care; Prodigy, The Fat of the Land; The Simpsons, Songs In The Key of Springfield; Depeche Mode, Ultra; Whiskeytown, Strangers’ Almanac; Elliot Smith, Either/Or; Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out.

My friend Freedy Johnston and me

OK, we’re not actually friends. I’ve never met the man. Never even seen him play. But in the way you sometimes bond with a singer/songwriter, it feels like I’ve been friends with Freedy Johnston, a tremendously underrated musician who’s helped provide the soundtrack to my life for nearly 30 years now. 

Johnston’s latest album, Back On The Road To You, just came out, and it’s already added several distinctive earworms to my brain. Freedy’s songs are like that to me – they sneak into your bloodstream, with a poignant chord or a cutting lyric that you find you can’t stop listening to. 

Born in Kansas, he’s hardly a household name, and had his biggest brush with mainstream fame with his 1994 album This Perfect World, which is where I first discovered him, too. I was working at Billboard magazine as an intern for the summer, and his disc was one of a pile of albums the editors were passing along once they were reviewed. (It seems weird to think, now, but piles of free CDs were like liquid gold then, and I ended up having boxes of them to ship back after my Billboard stint.) Freedy stood out from the Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish soundalikes. Always, he’s seemed slightly a man apart from his time. 

The single “Bad Reputation” was a brief gorgeous outlier in the summer of peak grunge in ’94, and This Perfect World is a melancholy gem of heartbreak and insight, like most of Freedy’s work. He’s not a flashy guy, more in the mold of singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, John Prine or Ray Davies – observational. He’s got a sweet voice with a slightly rough edge, always tinged with just a bit of yearning. 

My attachment to Freedy is personal, because so many of his songs felt like they were tailored for my life at the time – or maybe that’s just the universal seeping through his work. In the late 1990s, when I was doing lots of the moving around and unsettled romantic chaos that comes with your late 20s, his albums Can You Fly, Never Home and Perfect World were in constant rotation. 

Each song meant something to me.  I moved back to California, and listened again and again to the ringing chords of “California Thing” hoping for an optimistic fate – “High off the roof we rise / Flying to a hand up in the sky.”  “The Mortician’s Daughter” was about every girl I stuffed up a relationship with and the stolen moments you never forgot – “I used to love the mortician’s daughter / We rolled in the warm grass by the bone yard fence.” 

At times, Freedy’s work has gotten a little too dour and melancholy, but for the most part he’s had a remarkably consistent sound over the years. I tend to like the slightly rockier numbers the most, where at times he sounds like he’s about to erupt. 

He paints a picture with spare words – “I just told her that’s she’s my number one / And she went ‘maybe’” tells you everything to know about the relationship in “There Goes A Brooklyn Girl.” 

At his best, in a song like “He Wasn’t Murdered,” a few short sentences tell a short story – “It was a roadside stop with a broken name / And he sat there all alone / In the used-up mirror he saw his ghost come slowly walking over.”

Freedy Johnston is still plugging away in the trenches of the music business and I’m happy to be a fan. His latest album shows he’s still got it, and it’s got a gentler, optimistic edge that we kind of all need right now – I’m particularly fond of the killer harmonies of “That’s Life,” “The Power Of Love” and “Tryin’ To Move On,” which suits this uncertain time we’re all somehow, getting through. 

Anyway, listening to him all of these years, it’s felt like a secret friendship of sorts, which is perhaps the highest goal any creator can have – that their work was meant for your ears alone. His songs have kept me company through the good and the bad.

Like all of us, Freedy’s getting older, and the world is getting weirder, but there’s a comfort to know he’s around, singing songs for his friends. Cheers, mate. 

Please enjoy a playlist of bespoke Freedy Johnston tunes curated by yours truly:

Review: Midnight Oil, Auckland, September 3

Midnight Oil, Auckland, September 3. Photo: Me

There’s a great book about ground-breaking ’80s punk bands called Our Band Could Be Your Life. For me, Midnight Oil is one of those bands.

As the Aussie enviro-rockers shook up a nearly full Spark Arena last night on the Auckland stop of their farewell tour, I thought a lot about how the band has been part of the soundtrack of my life for more than 30 years, and helped shape how I think about the world.

I wrote a review and appreciation of one of my favourite bands as they zipped through town – go read the full piece right now over at Radio New Zealand!

Farewell tours: The show must go on – until it doesn’t

When your musical tastes lean toward the retro, as mine tend to, you find yourself attending a lot of farewell tours. You don’t always know it will be the last/only time to see a band. But as someone who loves an awful lot of bands that were at their peak in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you never know what fate and time will bring. 

Performers in their 70s or even older aren’t always at their best, but sometimes they’re amazing. You sometimes find well-honed machines who may not be quite as fast on their guitar solos as they once were, but who make up for that with the breezy skill that only comes from playing the same song thousands of times over. 

The announcement that 75-year-old Elton John is coming back to New Zealand for his long, long Covid-postponed farewell tour in early 2023 and that Billy Joel, 73, is coming here for the first time in decades reminded me that many of my favourite older acts who make it all the way down to Aotearoa probably aren’t going to be coming back again. I’m undecided on seeing Elton just yet, but I’m already down for Midnight Oil’s farewell tour in September, pandemic willing. 

I managed to see Brian Wilson deliver a surprisingly affecting tribute to the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds a few years back. He was seated for most of the show and did sometimes seem a bit off in the clouds, but still delivered some of those dazzling harmonies on “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” beautifully. Younger band members handled the high notes, and yeah, it was an audience of gray hairs, but as reunions go, it was more sweet than bittersweet. I’m glad I went. 

The Monkees, 2016

And then there was getting to see The Monkees twice before the deaths of Peter Tork in 2019 and Michael Nesmith last year. Head cheerleader Mickey Dolenz led the charge at both shows, making up for some of the slack energy of the clearly fading Tork or Nesmith, and while it was most definitely a valedictory lap, there was a charge of energy at hearing the old frothy pop songs by the original band one last time. Because now, all but one of those Monkees are gone.

Or take an 80-year-old Mavis Staples, who was fierce, fiery and loud in a delightful show a couple years back that showed one of the great gospel singers could still bring the house down. Or Nick Lowe, who might’ve been white-haired and hardly the young power pop star of the 1970s, but who put on a great show. 

On the other hand, I’m glad I decided not to fork out for one of the octogenarian B.B. King’s final shows here in Auckland back in 2011, which sounded like it was a pretty grim affair with the 85-year-old King basically propped up on stage far beyond the point where he could really live up to his legend. A show where the artist is barely able to perform is kind of grotesque. 

Sometimes you don’t know how lucky you are. Seeing a dazzling Prince a mere two months before he died will always be one of my live music highlights, and The Rolling Stones were everything they could have been in a packed stadium in 2014 before Charlie Watts passed away. I’ve crammed in three Bob Dylan shows in the 15+ years I’ve been in New Zealand and am grateful for every note I got to hear.

Bob Dylan takes a bow, 2018

Because sometimes, you miss out. I’ve still got enormous regrets over missing the late Leonard Cohen on what turned out to be his final show anywhere in the world in Auckland in 2013, and having a trip overseas conflict with what probably is Sir Paul McCartney’s final trip down under back in 2017 still stings. 

I do still listen to some music by people under 40, don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to a chance to see a legend, I’ll probably take a punt on seeing them while I can. Every tour has an ending date, and you never quite know when the final curtain call might come, do you?