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Local Indicators and Issues of Style

5.   Discussion


5.3.1   Local Indicators and Issues of Style

selection of songs in terms of harmonic techniques, such as the appearance of V-I structural cadences or the use of functional harmonies.39 Although requiring some methodological adjustments, such a task could prove highly fruitful in this context.


commitment from the 1980s onwards as a leading nation in the South Pacific.

Four songs use Māori language.41 ‘Poi E’ is entirely in Māori, ‘E Ipo’ is mostly so; ‘Cheryl Moana Marie’ contains the Māori word “Moana” in the title, while

‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ opens with the word, “Aotearoa.” Dave

Dobbyn’s ‘Outlook For Thursday’ references a New Zealand attitude; the song is literally about the weather forecast because, as the joke goes, this is the only part of the news New Zealanders care about.42

Instrumentation is also important. The Hawaiian slide guitar in ‘Blue Smoke’

and the Pacific log drums in the Herbs’ ‘French Letter’ and ‘Long Ago’ locate the songs in a Pacific context. The accordion and flute invoke a sea-shanty in

‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat,’ encouraging New Zealand’s sense of

geographical isolation — the fact it took the pioneers “six months” to sail from Britain. ‘Slice Of Heaven’ features a Māori flute, also contributing to the local flavour.

It is possible to view other musical features in relation to local contexts. The Herbs’ vocalists, for example, sing in three-part harmony in the chorus of

‘French Letter.’ Often the voice-leading is minimal; on the line, “I’m making nuclear tests,” each singer stays on the same chordal note, before descending on the word “test” down the triad (i.e. the third drops to the tonic, the fifth to the third etc.). The lines “No nukes” and the subsequent “aahs” are in four-part harmony with the major ninth added. The layered harmonies can be heard prominently in ‘Slice Of Heaven’ and, albeit to a lesser extent, in ‘Sensitive To A Smile’ and ‘Long Ago.’ In each song, the vocal delivery and attack is crisp which creates a unified, chorale-like texture.43 This feature would appear to derive from Pacific Island and Maori church music; as Dilworth Karaka said,

“we always looked into sounds from our different cultural backgrounds…and where possible we put them into the tracks.”44 Thus, even if the vocal harmonies

41 Māori is the language of New Zealand’s indigineous inhabitants.

42 The origins of this joke may lie in New Zealand’s economic dependence on agriculture;

alternatively, it may be a dig at New Zealanders’ tendency to take more trivial matters seriously.

43 This trait is exemplified on another Herbs song, ‘E Papa,’ an a cappella waiata from their 1987 album Sensitive To A Smile.

44 Email.

themselves are not unique to New Zealand, their use relates to the specific context in which the Herbs’ music was created.

Although these details are important, the songs form a minority within the Nature’s Best corpus. As Mike Harding pointed out twenty years ago, “very few rock songs… feature anything of a local [New Zealand] content.”45

Furthermore, identifying the local indicators above may only paint half the picture. For example, ‘Poi E’ references Māori culture through language, the group singing and the kapa haka gestures; these features evoke the communal setting of the marae. On the other hand, the synthesizers, drum machine and

“truck-driver” modulation in the final chorus place ‘Poi E’ firmly in a 1980s international pop style. There is a temptation to label ‘Poi E’ either unique to New Zealand, on account of the Māori components, or “derivative,” on account of the accompaniment. Neither approach is satisfactory; rather, it is necessary to balance local and global indicators.

At this point, issues of styles and genres are raised; these terms are problematic because of the variance in meaning and connotations.46 The two concepts can be split along the lines of social construction (genre) and technical articulation (style). Thus, in Walser’s words, “genres are defined not only through the internal features of the artists or the texts but also through commercial strategies and the conflicting valorizations of audiences”47; and in Moore’s words, “I shall treat ‘progressive rock’ as a series of related but separate styles, each with their own internal consistencies,” although he is careful to note that styles are also socially grounded.48 By comparison, Middleton defines genre as the type of song, such as a single, dance-song or ballad.49 This seems closer to Samson’s conception of genre in nineteenth-century concert music, when the title of the work, such as sonata, prélude or étude, invoked certain musical characteristics.50

45 Mike Harding, When The Pakeha Sings Of Home (Auckland: Godwit Press, 1992), 7.

46 See Allan F. Moore, “Categorical Conventions in Music Discourse: Style and Genre,” Music

& Letters 82, no. 3 (2001), pp. 432-442.

47 Robert Walser, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Hannover: University Press of New England, 1992), 7

48 Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, 64.

49 Middleton, Studying Popular Music, 174.

50 See Jim Samson, “Chopin and Genre,” Music Analysis 8, no. 3 (1989), pp. 215-217.

The common theme in this debate is that different musical elements operate according to various “levels of code,”51 an idea derived from structural

linguistics. Middleton proposes nine levels, more or less hierarchically arranged, including langue, dialect, style, sub-code and idiolect.52 From linguistics, the structural langue, which Middleton considers a “general Western musical code,”

can give rise to an infinite number of surface features across different styles and sub-codes.53 For Middleton, “sub-code” is similar to what others, such as

Moore, refer to as “style.” In line with this common usage, “style” will be used here as an equivalent to “sub-code.”

Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls Of Fire,’ for example, can be analysed rather crudely on different levels. The use of primary triads are central to functional tonality and thus operate at the langue level; their arrangement into a 12-bar blues form could be considered a feature of the rock and roll “style”; Lewis’

stride piano technique with frequent glissandi may form part of his idiolect, the details associated with a particular artist. In general, it seems the former codes refer to structural elements and the latter codes to surface features, although this is not always the case. As Moore and Ibrahim point out, the use of AAB form could be considered part of Radiohead’s idiolect.54

From this introduction, one can locate the current analytical results within the levels of code. It has been noted in Chapters 4 and 5 that neither the harmonic nor melodic analysis revealed unusual tendencies. But this should be expected because the analytical methods uncovered those details at the deeper levels of musical coding. The harmonic distributions confirmed that popular music blends functional tonality and blues principles; the prevalence of perfect and plagal cadences further confirms this amalgamation. Identifying the most common types of chromatic harmonies — applied, secondary and mixed — similarly

51 Middleton, Studying Popular Music, 174.

52 Ibid., 174.

53 Ibid., 174.

54 See Allan F. Moore and Anwar Ibrahim, “‘Sounds Like Teen Spirit’: Identifying Radiohead’s Idiolect,” in The Music and Art of Radiohead, ed. Joseph Tate (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp.


reflects a structural element, although the chromatic scores move closer to surface details. The melodic analysis reveals structural relationships in terms of contour and relative vocal range.

Furthermore, most songs had a verse-chorus structure, as is the norm for popular music since the mid-1960s. Even those that did not correspond closely to verse-chorus form, such as ‘Dominion Road’ or ‘Cruise Control,’ were built on repeated and contrasting sections. Similarly, the common 4/4 time signatures and the songs’ lengths, mostly between three and four minutes, are typical foundations of popular songs. What the analysis therefore shows is that New Zealand songwriters are using the same musical building blocks as international popular songwriters.

The question is whether these observations render New Zealand popular songs heterogeneous spin-offs of overseas models. If one were to give an affirmative answer, based on the present results, then one would have to admit all popular music is derivative. It is to a certain extent with a set of relatively constant deep structures. But the issue here, from Lealand, is the sound of New Zealand music, or how the deeper structures are articulated at surface levels. This is seemingly the process whereby styles come into existence — for example, when functional harmonies are arranged into a twelve-bar form with an upbeat tempo, one may be in the rock and roll style; when they are arranged into a I-vi-IV-V pattern, one lands in doo-wop territory.

This research cannot satisfactorily answer the question of a New Zealand style because the songs’ surfaces have not been scrutinized closely enough; this is a viable area of future research. That said, it is debatable if such a style exists.

This claim is based first on general listening and awareness — the fact that many of the songs can be heard in relation to overseas songs, such as Bon Jovi and Coconut Rough’s ‘Sierra Leone,’ early Massive Attack and Strawpeople, or the music hall piano in The Exponents’ ‘I’ll Say Goodbye’ which, courtesy of the music hall piano, recalls ‘Penny Lane.’

Furthermore, the songwriters interviewed took their musical bearings from international artists, looking outside New Zealand for inspiration and trends.

This was stated in explicit terms by Larry Morris, quoted in Chapter 4, and more implicitly by others. Julia Deans, for example, on the possibility of grunge influences, replied, “it was the nineties!” Mitchell, without any supporting evidence, argues that the Pop Mechanix and The Dance Exponents were important bands in 1980s Christchurch55, yet neither Andrew McLennan nor Jordan Luck identified with this scene or any notions of a local style. Finally, Sean Sturm said his early band, The Nixons (pre-EyeTV), avoided New Zealand references or identification. Although influenced by similar artists, such as the Velvet Underground, The Nixons wanted to disassociate themselves with the low fidelity production aesthetic that distinguished Flying Nun records in the 1980s, and aimed to emulate artists, such as Jane’s Addiction, from the American independent scene.