Richard James

Richard JamesRichard James is a singer and guitarist who has been writing and recording songs for more time than he cares to remember. He recorded for the Flying Nun label with a variety of different bands: Mainly Spaniards, The Pterodactyls and The Letter 5. In 2007 he wrote this opinion piece on the changing times in New Zealand music.

Richard James’s music

Some examples of Richard’s music from his latest album:

Tracks are the copyright of Richard James and may not be reproduced without his consent.

NZ music: from ‘it sucked’ to ‘awesome’ in a generation

Flashback to 1977 or so. I was seventeen, and it was a very different climate for New Zealand music. We did a concert in the school hall at lunchtime: built the 30-watt PA ourselves, paid for everything, and charged the audience 10 cents a pop. We played only covers. No adult attended except Pete’s mum, who sat with her hands over her ears. We were fifty metres from the staffroom, where the godawful racket must have been absolutely unavoidable, but no teachers came. Students from two schools were there, two bands played, all without the slightest supervision or flicker of adult interest.

Even in the mid-80s, the climate for original music was pretty unreceptive. The kids at the schools where I taught were interested in music, but mostly Hendrix and The Doors. If you asked them what they thought of New Zealand music they’d tell you it sucked, though they’d be hard pressed to name a song or an artist. I remember keeping it quiet that I was a musician of any kind, let alone one who wrote songs or was involved with something called Flying Nun.

Ironic, because these were the palmy days of the label, when it regularly placed records in the charts and still had years of innovative music left before it became a branch of a major international corporate; a victim of its own early success. But New Zealand music was still very definitely not a mainstream taste. Later still, Neil Finn would complain that New Zealand radio was killing New Zealand music. It’s a documented fact that they wouldn’t play “Don’t Dream It’s Over” until the song was already a hit overseas.

Flash forward to 2007. In a classroom at Cashmere High I was talking to one of my students about a topic for a radio show he’s going to do. He commented that New Zealand Music Month was coming up, and it would be good to do something that tied in with that. “Why don’t you do a portrait of Flying Nun?” I said. “They’ve just released a box set.” The kid’s eyes lit up.

“That’d be AWESOME!” he said. “I’ve got that special issue of Real Groove they did.” Spot the difference? I know what happened, but I don’t know how or why. Even when I came back into teaching in 1999, kids were still very down on New Zealand music. There were some signs of a change though. I remember several students telling me they couldn’t wait for the new Che Fu album.

Since then, there’s been a startling and sudden change of climate. Now they wear the T-shirts, buy the discs and go see the bands, who often actually tour to schools. There the kids have to fight the teachers who also want to get in. Maybe it’s NZOnAir, maybe it’s the Music Commission. Maybe it’s the new professionalism of the young musicians, maybe it’s RockQuest, maybe the reform of drink licensing laws or the growth of decent underage venues. I just don’t know. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the music, which has always been high.

That’s the one thing that’s stayed constant round here.