31 January 2009

You can walk everywhere, 'cos nowhere's very far

(Wellington, 04.01.09)

I lived in Wellington for seven years.

It's a vibrant, sociable place, with a beautiful harbour, funky cafes and a jealously-guarded reputation as a small city with many of the benefits of big city lifestyles. I always enjoyed the proximity of wilderness and the rugged coastlines. Hop in the car and in ten minutes you can be atop a windswept hill, in the midst of a bush-clad reserve or hunting for polished glass on wave-lapped stony beaches, often without another soul around.

It's a perfect place to have a night out on the town with friends, starting down Lambton Quay or the Terrace where most people work and ending up in the late-night bars and pubs of Courtenay Place. There are great cinemas including the splendidly refurbished Embassy, which hosted the famed Lord of the Rings and King Kong premieres. (For a report on the latter, see my Scoop article from 2005).

Wellington boasts the national museum, Te Papa, which often hosts interesting travelling exhibitions (although admittedly it is quite an eyesore from the outside). Wellington is well organised too: the buses run more frequently than in (much larger) Auckland, and the construction of the Stadium next to the train and bus stations means that getting to and from major sporting events is a breeze.

In January I paid my first visit to the capital since I departed for England in early 2007. It was very enjoyable to catch up with friends, revisit old haunts and enjoy the summer sunshine. Returning to Wellington after two years living in a city of seven million people reminded me how compact and uncrowded New Zealand cities are. I'd forgotten the glimmer of amusement that always struck me when attempting to cross Lambton Quay at lunchtime: there's invariably no need to reduce one's pace to avoid oncoming traffic because there simply isn't very much of it. And if the pedestrian traffic on Lambton Quay gets your goat there's a simple solution: just cross to the other ('harbour') side, because there's generally hardly anyone walking there. This also works if you're being rather un-Wellington-y and trying to avoid running into people that you know on the way back to the office at lunchtime.

Savouring the refreshing Wellington breezes - hell, who am I kidding, the gusting, balance-affecting, patience-trying gales - I was reminded of a particular song from the 1990s. Specifically, the year in question was 1993, the year in which the Mutton Birds released Salty, their second album. The Mutton Birds, led by tunesmith Don McGlashan, kept alive the dream that there could be more than one guitar pop band in New Zealand aside from Crowded House. They played snappy singles and moody album tracks alike adorned with blissful harmonies and a keen sense of the internal workings of a great song.

The lead single from Salty, 'The Heater', was a bleak yet intriguing glimpse into a paranoiac worldview... and despite the dire state of New Zealand radio programming at the time, it still topped the charts. Perhaps the Mutton Birds could save New Zealand from soulless manufactured pop music and the dreary mediocrity of grunge? Just briefly, all was right in the world.

The diversity of the music on Salty contributed significantly to its successes. The Heater was followed by the awesome Byrdsian jangle-pop of 'In My Room', while 'Anchor Me' remains a popular song to this day. The more outre album tracks like Queens English impressed with their inventiveness. Even the three songs written by Mutton Birds bassist Alan Gregg added to the feel of the album, rather than undermined its overall sense of quality.

Gregg, a former member of New Zealand indie bands Dribbling Darts of Love and Sneaky Feelings, specialised in quirky numbers that in other contexts could be mistaken for joke songs - the sort of material that the Beatles allowed Ringo Starr to sing, once an album, both for a bit of light relief and to allow them to slip out the back of the recording studio for a crafty Woodbine. To be fair, Gregg's song 'There's A Limit', sung by McGlashan, fits in perfectly well with the rest of the album. Its mean-spiritedness is couched in a seductive melody, and it contains the memorable couplet:

You can charm the birds out of the trees
Till the cows come home
But my patience is sure put to the test
When I return and in return for trying to help out
Find someone else is shitting in my nest

Another Gregg composition, 'Esther', is more straightforwardly a silly throwaway number, with an endearingly daft chorus rhyming 'Esther' with 'best of':

Esther I've known you for ages
And I've watched you through all the changes
Esther, we used to be the best of friends
But now we're becoming strangers

But it's the other Alan Gregg composition on Salty that was bumped way up the batting order. His song 'Wellington' appeared as track 4, with its bouncy optimism lightening the mood after the moody 'You Will Return' and setting the scene for the lovely choruses of 'In My Room'. It fitted into the mould of the consciously domestic focus of some of the songs on the Mutton Birds' debut album, particularly the classic 'Dominion Road'. Back in 1993 when New Zealand music was barely on the radar on radio and TV, explicitly parochial songs like 'Wellington' were somehow frowned upon. The assumption was that New Zealand bands' generally futile attempts to conquer the American or British charts shouldn't be 'undermined' by songs with local references. Which is one way to produce boring identikit copies of American bands, although in defence of the concept it didn't seem to do Silverchair much harm in Australia.

'Wellington' is so enjoyable to listen to, it merits a blow-by-blow account. Think of it as liveblogging, assuming you can describe the act of blogging about listening to a song recorded a decade and a half ago as a 'live' experience.

(Alan Gregg)

0:00 Nice gallumphing intro there. No nonsense, no messing about, no fiddly chords. A good sensible 25 seconds with only a few acoustic flourishes to dilute the honest stodge.

0:25 Cut to the chase - "I wish I was in Wellington, the weather's not so good / The wind it cuts right through you and it rains more than it should". Commendable candidness up front there, Mr Gregg. Because he's right, you know. The weather in Wellington is quite crappy. But wait!

0:38 "But I'd be there tomorrow, if I only could / Oh I wish I was in Wellington". Ah, he was softening us up there with his tale of meteorological woe, only to floor us with his heart-warming loyalty! God bless you, Alan Gregg.

0:51 Big chorus! Rhyming 'bureaucracy' with 'along Lambton Quay'! What more could you ask for in a song lauding the qualities of medium-sized conurbations? Nothing, that's what.

1:17 Ah now we're discovering hitherto undiscovered depths to the lyrical content. For now it is revealed that this isn't a love song to the fair capital city, but rather this is a narrative disguise to the real message behind the song, which is to a woman living in Wellington; a lament to a long-distance relationship:

It just isn't practical, you down in the capital
And me at the other end of the island
The problem is the gap - between us on the map
And there's no easy way to reconcile it

Hmm, rhyming 'practical' with 'capital', eh? Well, I suppose we can let him get away with that one. 'Gap' and 'map' we're fine with, and he scores major points for deploying the word 'reconcile' in a pop song. Readers of a sensitive disposition or who are from Christchurch may be alarmed that the above lyric leads me to infer that Mr Gregg is writing from the perspective of someone living in Auckland. (This is akin to heresy in some circles).

1:42 Take it to the bridge! Again, no frippery here. You can buy these bridges in packs of six from Mitre 10.

2:01 Ah, he returns to safer territory, praising the nightlife in the capital. What about the girl, Alan? Forgotten her already?

I wish I was in Wellington, the cafes and the bars
The music and the theatre, and the old Cable Car
And you can walk everywhere 'cause nowhere's very far
Oh I wish I was in Wellington
Oh I wish...

If you listen closely you can hear the point where Don McGlashan is so moved by the sentiments endorsed therein that he joins in to trill the 'and you can walk everywhere' line. It's true, you know. Don't just take Don McGlashan's word for it.

2:30 Quick Beatles rhythm fill! The spirit of George Harrison fills the room to kick off the last verse. Mind you, George Harrison once said that visiting New Zealand in 1964 reminded him of visiting the 15th century, so what would he know?

2:31 Big finish! Nice McGlashan b.vox there. It was his band, you know.

Oh I wish I was in Wellington, the wind it cuts right through
I wish I was in Wellington, there's so much more to do
I wish I was in Wellington, and you wish I was too
Oh I wish I was in Wellington, 'cause then I'd be with you
Oh I wish I was in Wellington, 'cause then I'd be with you...

8mm footage of Wellington, 1963 [2:19]

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