Oral gratification

I once sat next to a friend as he looked through a recently published history of the local rock scene. From time to time he shook his head. Eventually he sighed deeply and muttered, "The amount of times I could insert the word heroin into this thing." He had a point. There is a tendency in local publications to sanitize the reality of the local music scene.

It is not just the recreational habits of musicians that this applies to. Band politics and creative differences also receive a back seat. Too little attention is paid to personality and circumstance, the character traits that make for great performances and fantastic music, are sidelined.

If that sounds like advocating for publication of salacious gossip then I guess I am, but in the service of more compelling and honest books. Check out David Thomson's The big screen: the story of the movies. The doyen of contemporary movie criticism has produced a volume which is a history of film, an examination of how we watch and an intelligent and frightening argument about how this has impacted on the world and our consciousness. It's also a book which is stuffed with anecdotes and racy stories all of which reflect on Thomson's very series concerns.

David Thomson (doyen)

Part of the problem with many books is that the authors were not present when the events they describe took place. Oral histories neatly sidestep this problem. Made up of interviews from dozens, sometimes hundreds, of sources, these books have integrity, being the recollections of those who were on the ground when it was all happening.

Another part of their attraction is that they allow for a more complicated, at times contradictory, story. The voices are not just those of the musicians and the managers but the promoters, the engineers, the producers, the club owners and the fans. On those pages is a sense of the energy and excitement that makes a scene, often so elusive in a book made up of facts and dates that have been researched not lived.

As John Robb put it in the introduction to, The north will rise again: Manchester music city 1976-1996:

"Manchester is full of gonzoid bullshitters, crazed loons, brilliant musicians, innovative bands, 24-hour freaky party people dancing around the post-industrial cityscape, soundtracking its transformation to post-Hacienda steel and glass. It’s a city of poets and outsiders, romantics and lunatics; it’s a city of high drama and great songs, bedsit poets and opinionated gobshites shouting from everychanging rooftop. From punk to postpunk to baggy, the Hacienda, the Smiths, the Roses, the Mondays to Oasis, it’s soundtracked generation after generation. And that’s just the big bands; there is also an endless collection of mavericks whose musical brilliance has been equally important. This is their story."
The book that follows is those gonzoid bullshitters telling their own story and it’s well worth a look.

While there is no local book in print that uses this format there are a few multimedia options. Radio New Zealand and bFM have been running excellent audio documentaries about the various EPs issued by Flying Nun. Part of what is appealing about these recordings is that the personalities involved come through. Who wouldn’t want to hear Peter Gutheridge reminisce?

Simon Grigg has also undertaken a massive project to create an online archive of the New Zealand music scene. Titled Audio Culture, the site has not yet been launched but judging by Griggs own online archives of the Auckland punk and club scenes everything bodes well. He has recently spoken about his plans on Radio New Zealand.

Some suggested reading from the library collection:
- Please kill me:the uncensored history of punk by Legs Mcneil
- Yes yes y’all : oral history of hip-hop’s first decade by Jim Fricke & Charlie Ahearn
- The north will rise again: Manchester music city 1976-1996 by John Robb
- Dance of days: two decades of punk in the nation's capital by Mark Andersen & Mark Jenkins
- Rotten: no Irish, no blacks, no dogs : the authorized autobiography, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols by John Lydon; with Keith and Kent Zimmerman

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