Speaker by Various Artists


Singing g against the E chord

by Graeme Downes

Late November 1981, Saturday, the day the hit parade aired on TV. A brisker than usual walk down Pine Hill road to the Governor's coffee shop because that's where we hung out and everyone would be there to discuss the momentous event: Boodle, Boodle, Boodle reaching number 5.

I can't remember whom exactly but a gaggle of Clean acolytes had gathered to celebrate and even though we had no right to, it felt like our success too. It's probably a standard thing with music fans that when "your" band does well, you can at least take pride that your own good taste has been vindicated.

The conversation, I seem to remember, vacillated between how deserving they were and derisory comments directed at the four songs placed above it. Morons were obviously still in the majority- otherwise it would have been number one!

It was a darned special record to own because it seemed to me to so beautifully capture and celebrate our unglamorous existence- the suburban ennui of 'Sad Eyed Lady' (which I had just escaped) with its angular harmonies and oddball simplicity accompanied my trek down Pine Hill Road.

So what if David Kilgour sings g against the E chord's g# at 0.43, his inability to sing the "right" note (or better still his not bothering to) adds a delicious layer of sloth and torpor upon which the song depends. To sing the right note would have been utterly wrong. A bunch of Clean fans painted the lyrics on the outside of their Clyde street flat such that it was colloquially known as the 'Time to Go' house for the best part of a decade.

Most special was finally having possession of the song that had become, for many of us, something of a talisman, 'Point that Thing Somewhere Else'. Not that the band had intended it to be taken in this way but many of their audience hijacked it as an anti-violence anthem.

Violence was a big thing in our lives at that time. There was a lot of scarfie bashing, punk bashing and with the Springbok tour, bashing of anyone who was anti tour. To the fluffy-dice, Valiant-driving bogans that would lie in wait at midnight outside the public gigs where bands like the Clean played, we were all three.

At one gig, Wayne Elsey (of the Stones) and myself were approached by two such young men, both with biceps the size of our thighs, inviting us outside for a fight.

"No fists", he said, which might have been slightly reassuring were he not holding a doubled over length of wharf rope and his mate's forearm was in a cast.

Although 'Point that Thing' was so obviously a song about a defunct relationship, the refrain line, "don't point me out in the crowd, don't point that thing at me" accrued an obvious, if unintended, resonance in light of incidents such as these.

But it wasn't just the lyrics of that song of course, it was foremost the music. Someone said to me recently that they didn't think the recorded version was particularly good. Perhaps it isn't. It was doubtless a hard thing to capture, 'Point that Thing' being more a procedure than a fixed song, one that would be marginally different at each live performance. It would have been nigh-on impossible to capture the miraculous effect of there being two guitars in the music but only one guitarist on stage, an impression that David Kilgour could bring off live in a large reverberant hall, but felt compelled to somehow replicate here with an overdub.

The recording at least captured what the song typically did in any given performance, proceeding from a minimal emptiness of the guitar ruminating on the three pitches of the bass riff (d-c-b) and incrementally filling this void by adding e, g and finally f# (at 2.45). It is this gradual process whereby an implied minor-key emptiness (one that seems to me to communicate a suppressed malevolence that the lyric makes explicit) transforms to a fuller, brighter major-key musical landscape that sweeps its own past away. It carried with it, or at least to me, a sense of overcoming, of moving beyond (whichever of the two lyrical scenarios you chose to adopt).

To the bogans who stalked the Coronation Hall, this music was probably alienating and insufferable (it was obvious they weren't there to listen to it!), but as much as they could grievously assault us on the way home they could not penetrate or do this music any violence. It was as if to say, "this music is above your petty, violent world, it totally ignores you". It gave many of us the courage to stand our ground- the artfulness of its musical processes a triumph over the barbarity that lay in wait outside.

Malevolence is to be found elsewhere on the record, namely in "Billy Two". The boisterous energy of the song combined with the more direct moments in the lyrics paint a portrait of a sullen bully.

Billy didn't have a lot to say, he never ever spoke
I looked him in the eye just once and then I looked away.

As we all knew as guys, direct eye contact with any of our Coronation Hall antagonists was likely to be taken as a pretext for a thorough bashing. You simply avoided it no matter what the provocation (often an elbow to the ribs as they walked past you).

As a musical depiction of violence and mental derangement, the bridge or middle 8 of "Billy" is one of the Clean's more inspired moments it seems to me. It takes place on only one chord, E minor, but like Billy himself one is led to think, is profoundly unstable. The backwards guitar enters on the second bar of the section creating its own ambiguity in the process (Where does the section properly start, at the beginning of the E minor chords, or the advent of this melodic event one bar later?). It implies a time signature contrary to the 4/4 backing of the rhythm section, namely 3/2 (count a half time 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 against the six notes).

This is all somewhat disorientating such that it becomes very difficult to know where you are in the phrase, to predict when (or even if) the section will end. Rock music tends to move in predictable four-bar units, but in the end the Clean's bridge is only seven-bars long, such that, in combination with the earlier disruptions and disorientation, the return of the verse section is precipitous and violent, impervious to prediction.

It is as if this section enters Billy's turbulent universe (Hamish's drumming almost boiling over) to see the world how he sees it. Of course the song is a multi-levelled response to the character of Billy; as much as it captures and depicts his violence it has a humanitarian angle, the cajoling and encouraging chanting of his name in the chorus suggests he is more to be pitied than reviled (it is as if to say "come on, it doesn't have to be this way. Come out of your angry shell and the world will be a better place for both of us").

In contrast to Billy Two's intensity, 'Thumbs Off' turns to the mundane subject of leaving home and setting up a flat. It always brought to mind for me the flat on the corner of London and Filleul streets where the Clean lived and practiced, a rambling, dishevelled sort of place, with dishes in the sink and the unpaid bills on the wall, while deep in the bowels of the building was their practice room, a little sanctuary away from the all that. And finally there is the EP's centrepiece 'Anything Could Happen' a gentle ditty of optimism and encouragement.

Anything that could happen was happening as far the Clean were concerned and could easily happen for the rest of us (with the release of the Dunedin Double to a certain extent it already had). In little over a year the Dunedin scene had evolved from a bunch of bands essentially playing for the fun of it and to each other as an audience, to now having the ability to make records and tour the country.

'Anything Could Happen' may as well have been Flying Nun's corporate anthem. In the Governor's coffee shop that early summer's evening what mingled in the air was the exquisite excitement of possibility. The Clean had broken through and the rest of us were going to be scrambling through the rubble hard on their heels to take on the world.


Graeme Downes was born and raised in Dunedin. He formed the Verlaines sometime around 1980 and has released seven albums in the period up to 1997 and one solo album (Hammers and Anvils) in 2001. He is now a senior lecturer in Music at the University of Otago.

So what's your golden New Zealand album or EP? This week, you can craft us some prose about it, post it here and be in to win one of five copies of Grant Smithies' Soundtrack, the new book by Nelson's finest and a horde of guests -- from Karen Walker to Chris Knox -- that covers 118 great records with wit, feeling and insight.

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