Be­hind the scenes of a land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brat­ing six decades of New Zealand mu­sic.


Gra­ham Reid goes be­hind the scenes of a land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion mark­ing six decades of New Zealand mu­sic.

Peo­ple say it a lot: As you get older, you can’t re­mem­ber last week, but your child­hood comes rolling in with great clar­ity. As some­one in peril of be­ing de­scribed as “el­derly”, I can tell you that in my case this isn’t true.

I have de­cent re­call of a week ago but my dis­tant past re­mains out of fo­cus, fuzzy. Some­times the screen is blank but, oddly, the sound­track comes through clearly. I know ex­actly when I first heard Auck­land’s all-girl band Fair Sect Plus One (the “one” be­ing the male drum­mer) com­ing out of my Sanyo tran­sis­tor. Their ver­sion of “I Love How You Love Me” was ar­rest­ing. It was prob­a­bly the bag­pipes. Not a lot of pop songs in the 60s — or in­deed any era be­fore or since — de­ployed bag­pipes.

I re­mem­ber the Keil Isles, the Chicks open­ing for Aus­tralian pop star Normie Rowe at the Crys­tal Palace, Ray Colum­bus and the In­vaders on tour with the Stones, Mr Lee Grant on tele­vi­sion. My first New Zealand mu­sic ex­pe­ri­ence was my older sis­ter’s Johnny Devlin EP Hit Tunes from the late 50s. The song that grabbed me was “Mata­dor Baby”, one he’d writ­ten about the fash­ion of high­waisted mata­dor pants for women.

Even to­day, the record’s cover — Johnny hold­ing a Coke bot­tle, the spon­sor’s prod­uct — brings back mem­o­ries: the fam­ily ra­dio­gram, the print of the rag­ing sea above the fire­place.

I sus­pect many peo­ple are like me: A few bars of a song al­most for­got­ten or a bat­tered record in a sec­ond-hand store can be a Prous­tian prompt to mem­ory. Mu­sic is like that, it sneaks into the sub­con­scious or — be­cause a song was some­thing we fell in, or out, of love to — we im­pose per­sonal mean­ing on

it. Songs are the sound­track of our au­to­bi­ogra­phies and mu­si­cians of­ten ar­tic­u­late in­ti­mate, so­cial, po­lit­i­cal or cul­tural con­cerns in a way oth­ers can’t.

Which is why the ex­hi­bi­tion Vol­ume: Mak­ing Mu­sic in Aotearoa at Auck­land Mu­seum will oc­ca­sion many “Oh, I had one of those” mo­ments — es­pe­cially in the re­con­struc­tion of an 80s record store with al­most 200 al­bum cov­ers com­plete with band cred­its and record­ing de­tails.

But there are ob­jects about which no one could make that claim. Gold discs, artists’ pri­vate note­books and hand-writ­ten lyrics, stage cos­tumes (in­clud­ing some of Noel Crom­bie’s hand­made Split Enz out­fits), mu­si­cians’ mem­o­ra­bilia, rare in­stru­ments and art­works (among them Chris Knox’s mas­sive dot-paint­ing cover for his 1991 al­bum, Croaker), archival video clips. Lorde has been very gen­er­ous and, yes, there are 10 gui­tars. But not just any 10.

Through more than 200 ob­jects from more than 60 lenders and more than 450 images and pho­tos, Vol­ume embraces New Zealand pop­u­lar mu­sic from Johnny Cooper’s en­joy­ably in­ept ver­sion of “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955 (this coun­try’s first rock’n’roll record­ing) to beau­ti­fully shot films of newer artists such as Louis Baker, Ge­or­gia Camp­bell and Raiza Biza per­form­ing in mu­seum lo­ca­tions.

The ex­hi­bi­tion presents what might be the shock of the new along­side the fris­son of the fa­mil­iar. And be­cause Vol­ume — a neatly am­bigu­ous ti­tle — cov­ers such a long time­line, in re­verse chronol­ogy from the present back to our rock’n’roll rebels of the 50s, it has been years in the mak­ing.

For Mark Roach of Recorded Mu­sic NZ — an um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion which, among other things, col­lates the weekly sales charts, or­gan­ises the an­nual mu­sic awards and launched the New Zealand Mu­sic Hall of Fame award in 2007 — the path to Vol­ume be­gan in Novem­ber 2012 when he started re­search­ing and con­cep­tu­al­is­ing the idea for a phys­i­cal Hall of Fame, be­cause no ac­tual “hall” cur­rently ex­ists.

A year later, Roach — who heads mar­ket­ing and spe­cial projects for Recorded Mu­sic NZ and is a spokesman for the NZ Mu­sic Hall of Fame Trust — pitched the idea of an ex­hi­bi­tion of New Zealand pop­u­lar mu­sic to the mu­seum.

“In that in­terim pe­riod, it be­came ap­par­ent that to do a mu­sic mu­seum you needed

Mu­si­cians of­ten ar­tic­u­late in­ti­mate, so­cial, po­lit­i­cal or cul­tural con­cerns in a way oth­ers can’t.

to start smaller and test the waters, so an ex­hi­bi­tion was an ob­vi­ous choice,” he says. “Ba­si­cally I just cold-called the mu­seum in Septem­ber 2013, met with them in Novem­ber and they agreed to it in prin­ci­ple al­most straight away.”

Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion de­vel­oper Es­ther Tobin says she knew “it was go­ing to be huge and the scope would be in­cred­i­bly wide. It was suit­ably over­whelm­ing, but I knew how big the story needed to be.”

It was also a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery for her and oth­ers in­volved: “There were pock­ets of things that, through your age and when you grew up, I felt com­fort­able with. . . like the hip-hop story, which felt very fa­mil­iar. But then there were other ar­eas which were com­pletely new.”

Tobin is now a mas­sive Sharon O’Neill fan af­ter dis­cov­er­ing her mu­sic through the project.

I came on board in early 2015 as the ex­hi­bi­tion’s con­tent ad­viser. What that con­tent might be was thrashed out by a dozen or so peo­ple in­ti­mately con­nected with New Zealand mu­sic. It was im­por­tant Vol­ume not just be ob­jects in cases but have com­po­nents which of­fered hands-on en­gage­ment and al­lowed vis­i­tors to get some sense of what it was like to be “there”.

Wher­ever that “there” was. So yes, there are dis­play cases of mem­o­ra­bilia, video mon­tages en­cap­su­lat­ing decades, compiled by Paul Casserly and his team, and plenty of mem­ory-jolt­ing eye candy. But vis­i­tors can also get be­hind the mix­ing desk of a mocked-up record­ing stu­dio, play the DJ, learn an iconic Kiwi song in a 1970s pub venue, or dance on a replica set of the 60s tele­vi­sion show C’mon.

And with so few ac­tual record shops around these days, brows­ing in the store may elicit that Prous­tian re­sponse: “Oh, I had one of those.”

In the count­down to open­ing night, Tobin says if she had to choose one area to take guests to get the feel of the show it would be the pub.

“Ob­vi­ously there are the four ma­jor in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments but for me the most im­por­tant is in the 1970s and the live band set-up. Be­cause vis­i­tors have a chance to get their hands on a bass gui­tar, elec­tric gui­tar, drums or synth — some­times for the first time.

“It’s not an easy choice for the mu­seum to set up a live-band sit­u­a­tion but it’s where peo­ple can have a go.”

And her selfie spot?

“The C’mon stu­dio, be­cause it has a pro­jec­tion of ac­tual dancers in full colour, bright or­ange, bob­bing away. That’s a strik­ing part of the show.”

Vol­ume also has an agenda beyond the plea­sure prin­ci­ple. It is de­signed to ac­knowl­edge and hon­our the breadth and depth of New Zealand mu­sic, es­pe­cially in­ductees into the New Zealand Hall of Fame and those whose songs and sto­ries have spo­ken to and from us in Aotearoa New Zealand.

That is a huge con­stituency over 60 years and al­though we adopted a pol­icy of in­clu­sion — the sec­ond of my guid­ing doc­u­ments was a whop­ping 30,000 words de­tail­ing artists, the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con--

text of the decades, time­lines and themes — Vol­ume is also con­strained by the ex­hi­bi­tion space, al­beit clev­erly de­signed by Les­ley Fowler with vis­ual al­lu­sions to records, CDs and speak­ers.

The po­ten­tial vol­ume of Vol­ume meant con­sid­er­able dis­till­ing and culling. Much as I might have liked, per­versely, to in­clude South­land’s Pretty Wicked Head and the Des­per­ate Men, that was never go­ing to hap­pen.

“The will­ing­ness of peo­ple in the in­dus­try to share their ob­jects and images with such grace and whole­heart­ed­ness was amaz­ing,” says Tobin.

Some mu­si­cians were sur­prised and flat­tered to be in­cluded, she says. For oth­ers, it ac­knowl­edged they are still out there work­ing. Some saw it as ex­po­sure, and for a few there was “a deep-seated frus­tra­tion with how they hadn’t been ac­cepted over the years — this was a chance to get it right”.

The long game, af­ter Vol­ume closes, is a perma- nent ex­hi­bi­tion space wor­thy of these cre­ative artists, just as we have gal­leries for our vis­ual and plas­tic arts. Vol­ume isn’t an end, but rather a pos­si­ble be­gin­ning.

Roach — who, like me, has been through many in­ter­na­tional mu­se­ums of mu­sic — says he’s al­ready think­ing “how to max­imise the mo­men­tum Vol­ume will bring, so there isn’t a lag be­tween this fin­ish­ing, but the im­pe­tus and good­will gen­er­ated will al­low us to move ahead”.

Roach en­vi­sions an in­clu- sive mu­seum chart­ing the his­tory of pop­u­lar mu­sic, in­clud­ing space for a ded­i­cated Hall of Fame, with some­thing akin to Vol­ume as its bedrock.

“It could be a whole new in­sti­tu­tion where you could run an ex­hi­bi­tion about purely Maori show­bands, for in­stance, and have space ded­i­cated to a spe­cific story in more depth than we cur­rently have in this ex­hi­bi­tion.”

Such an in­sti­tu­tion could also bring in touring ex­hi­bi­tions like the re­cent David Bowie Is, which made it to Mel­bourne but not here.

“No one has said, ‘That’s a re­ally dozy idea,’ and when I talk big-pic­ture stuff, I en­vi­sion it with a record­ing stu­dio, re­hearsal space, a busi­ness in­cu­ba­tor, a per­for­mance space... a gen­eral HQ of New Zealand mu­sic.”

That’s a lofty but not un­re­al­is­tic vi­sion, and one wor­thy of the hun­dreds of artists whose work has helped de­fine us as a peo­ple, given us plea­sure and mem­o­ries, and cre­ated a na­tion with a unique mu­si­cal iden­tity and his­tory.

Like a song re­leased into the world, Vol­ume is the cul­mi­na­tion of ideas and ef­fort... but the au­di­ence will make of it what it will.

Much as I might have liked to in­clude South­land’s Pretty Wicked Head, that wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen.



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