Hard News by Russell Brown


Friday Music: Bar None, and all the disco

We spent New Year's Eve down at Silo Park for the second Wondergarden festival and had a great time. I thought the event production  – staging, light and sound – was a significant step up from the year before, and it was a treat hearing the local dance-pop of Leisure and Chelsea Jade so well-presented.

Chelsea's time in Los Angeles really seems to have focused her music, and Leisure's lolling funk sounds heavier and deeper live than it does on their album. And SWIDT were a riot: the single funniest moment of the evening was when they got a bit carried away with riffing on the letter "C" and declared "We're a Christian rap group." The Pasifika ladies standing next to us just about died laughing. I gathered they knew the boys.

Silo Park is also, we were reminded at midnight, a great place to watch the Sky Tower fireworks.

But quite a few people were not so happy with their evening, and were quite vocal about saying so. The reason? That perennial bogey for festival promoters – the bars.

I think it needs clarifying that the queues weren't really a problem for most of the event, which began at 2pm. We arrived at 7.45pm, didn't queue at all to buy bar tokens and waited an entirely manageable (indeed, amiable) 10 minutes to buy drinks.

But those were the only drinks we bought. Some time in the next hour, perhaps a third of of the eventual 3500-strong crowd arrived, it seemed, all at once. I looked around, saw long, long queues snaking slowly toward the two onsite bars and decided that the plentiful free water would do. People who did queue for drinks reckoned they waited up to an hour.

There were two problems here. One was simply a lot of thirsty people arriving at the same time. Remember the first two or three hours of past Laneway festivals on the same site? Like that, probably a little worse.

The other problem, and it has undone a number of events in recent years, was the requirements of the temporary liquor licence. The conditions included a limit of two drinks per person – which probably put 50% more people in the queues straight off the bat. Licensing conditions also tend to weigh against bars working too well (that was certainly what happened at Oro Festival last year, when what the production managers thought was a super-efficient design was vetoed by the licensing authority).  I don't know exactly what happened at Wondergarden, but the relatively constrained site and the fact that it was an all-ages festival may have been a factor.

Now, sure, no one needs booze to have a good time, but there's a certain cultural conditioning around having a drink on New Year's Eve. I imagine everyone in a bar queue as midnight struck will have had mixed feelings. On the other hand, making it hard to get a drink probably did make for a safer event, which is significant when there are kids around.

What can be done? I guess, trying again for more and better bar space next year, and trying to get the drinks-per-person limit lifted. And – oh the irony – it would make sense for late arrivers to preload in a reasonable fashion. Perhaps the pass-out regime could be more liberal, so the very thirsty could dart over to the Wynyard bars – but that creates issues in itself. The police tend to take a dim view of "sideloading" from that stash of beer in the car.

But it would be also be sensible to make non-alcoholic drinks available away from the overtaxed bars. Late in the event, the food stalls were almost idle, yet apart from coffee and the dreaded kombucha, none sold drinks. Why not put in a juice bar?

In terms of the music itself, my only complaint would be that the named DJs between acts (because there was only one stage, the breaks were relatively long) were something of a non-event. It might as well have been someone's Spotify playlist. Why not build a DJ pod out on the grass, to put a bit more focus on the selectors?

In the event, our son was pretty exhausted by midnight (he copes very well for a person with autism, but there are limits), so we didn't watch much of the headliners, UMO. It was a balmy night, and it seemed most appealing to head home, relax on the deck and enjoy, yes ... a drink.


Megan Whelan, who's been covering the summer shift for RNZ, did a lovely  interview with Mark Williams, who has two tracks on the Aotearoa funk and disco compilation Heed the Call, to talk about the old days.

Williams, who seems to be one of the nicest men in music, was philosophical about the uproar generated in Old Zealand by his disruptively androgynous style in the 1970s, noting that he was as likely to be embraced as reviled: "I was derided on the one hand and loved on the other – I couldn’t walk down the street without one thing or the other happening."

The good news is that Alan Perrott and John Baker's little project has caused much more of a splash then they ever expected – to the extent that there will be a Heed the Call launch show in late March, featuring many of the original artists. Be assured I will keep you posted on that.

Williams noted that although there wasn't a lot of funky disco music produced here in the 1970s, the music was embraced, particularly by young Māori and Pasifika. That reminded me of an exercise I did a little while ago, just to kill time on Twitter.

You may not know it, but New Zealand's music sales charts from 1965 onwards are in a searchable archive at charts.org.nz. I searched for a few of the greatest hits of disco, and most of them did register here. Most notably, the greatest dance record ever, Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love', spent 14 weeks in the New Zealand charts in 1977, peaking at No.2 – her best chart placement in this country. 'Love to Love You Baby', her first hit in, in 1975, reached No.8.

Chic's 'Le Freak' hit No.1 here in 1978 – better than it did in most countries. (In France, by contrast, it peaked at No. 140 in only three weeks on chart. What was wrong with you, France?)

Some tunes were bigger here than anywhere else, most notably Heatwave's 'Boogie Nights', which we sent to No.1. (It only made No. 13 in Germany, where Heatwave were actually from.)

Sister Sledge's 'We Are Family' made No.6 in 1979, Gloria Gaynor's gay anthem 'I Will Survive' made No.10, Jimmy 'Bo' Horne's 'Dance Aross the Floor' reached No.4, and Van McCoy's slinky 'The Hustle' made No.5 way back in 1975.

We kept it up into the 1980s, when Grandmaster Flash's 'The Message' reached No.2 in the singles chart in 1982 (the album peaked at a respectable No.14). And even the cool clubland anthem that was Indeep's 'Last Night a DJ Saved My Life' reached No.25.

The industry may not have been set up well to produce the music in New Zealand, but there seems little doubt that we, the people, loved to boogie.

There was, of course, a layer of music that barely reached New Zeaand from the clubs of New York– and that's what's captured in the brilliant new compilation Reach Up: Disco Wonderland, put together by Portishead's DJ Andy Smith. Some of the songs are a little naive, but most of them are slinky, sensual and strikingly predictive of the dance music that took over the world a decade or more later.

None more than this banger by Tamiko Jones:

Reach Up is available as a triple LP (I got mine at Southbound Records) and in digital formats. The digital links (including high-quality files to buy on Bandcamp) are all listed here.

For an even more adventurous trip, allow me to recommend the Africa Seven label's new afro-disco compilation Africa Airways Four (Disco Funk Touchdown 1976 - 1983) for $15 on Bandcamp.

And if you just can't get enough of this stuff, come on down to Golden Dawn after work today. Sandy Mill and I are playing a sweet sunset set in the courtyard from 5pm-8pm and there will be a lot of disco.


I discovered only yesterday that, in perhaps the most unexpected collaboration you could imagine, Nona Hendryx teamed up with former member Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas to record a Captain Beefheart tribute album. No, really: the Village Voice story is here.

I haven't had a chance to give the album a proper listen, but I do like this:

It turns out that Nona has been performing Beefheart songs since 2013. This was a warm-up for some showd with an orchestra in the Netherlands:

This is an intriguing – and from what I've heard so far – rewarding project. The album, The World of Captain Beefheart, is available in the usual places.

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