New Zealand has always been conditioned by its solitude. The two huge
islands, North and South, are an archetypal lost world, untouched by global
trends since the underlying mini-plate lost touch with the original
supercontinent of Gondwanaland 80 million years ago. When the Maori people
arrived 1200 years ago–the first mammals to walk the land–they found
living artifacts of the deep past: enormous insects, weird reptilian ancestors
of the dinosaurs, decadent birds incapable of flight. This exotic environment
was, of course, transformed and trampled underfoot by English and
particularly Scottish settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. But New
Zealanders have kept up the habit of doing things differently, as their
highly sporadic and peculiar appearances on the world stage testify. (The
lastest was Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s announcement in 1985 that the
islands would become a nuclear-free zone, which raised great consternation
in the Reagan administration.)

Musical history in New Zealand began with a typically weird encounter. A
Dutch expedition led by Abel Janszoon Tansman reached the South Island of
New Zealand in 1642; as the alien ships drew into a bay off the South
Island, Maoris in canoes approached and called out in loud voices.
According to an eyewitness account quoted in John Mansfield Thomson’s
Oxford History of New Zealand Music, “[the Maoris] blew many times on an
instrument which gave sound like the moors’ Trumpets. We had one of our
sailors (who could play somewhat on the Trumpet) blow back to them in
answer…: after this was done several times on both sides, and the dark
evening was falling more and more, those in the vessels finally stopped and
paddled away….” This strange music was a droning chant with flute
accompaniment; the melodies consisted of slight microtonal deviations from
a single note. Captain Cook, surveying the islands in 1769 and poaching
them for the British Empire, found the music “harmonious enough but very
dolefull to a European Ear.”

As the British settled in substantial numbers at the beginning of the
nineteenth century, they brought with them the saturating clutter of
Victorian culture. The Oxford history describes scenes on the Wellington
beaches much like those in Jane Campion’s film The Piano: “In confused
heaps lay casks and bales, beds and pianos, clocks, cruet stands,
warming-pans, family portraits and packages, some of them washing about on
the sand.” Once these second-generation settlers made their way over the
hills, they came upon a bustling neo-Scottish community offering salons,
balls, and a full season of entertainment at the gaslit Royal Victoria
theaterÑnot exactly the primitive jungle depicted in The Piano. High
culture arrived in the form of Donizetti’s tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor
in 1863, though without orchestra or chorus. By the end of the nineteenth
century, a European-trained composer named Alfred Hill was leading
performances in Wellington of his own grandiose choral-orchestral
inspirations, many of them tastefully derived from Maori elements.

So, for the most part, New Zealand’s musical history mirrored patterns of
colonial dependency well into the twentieth century. Through the late
1970’s, you could say the same of New Zealand rock ‘n’ roll. At this
point, the estimable but narrow-minded Oxford volume falls silent; the main
account becomes John Dix’s Stranded in Paradise: New Zealand Rock ‘n’ Roll
1955-1988, which painstakingly documents each Anglo-American pop wave
and its consequent ripple down under. The local Elvis was Johnny Devlin,
scoring a local hit with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”; Ray Columbus and the Invaders
strove to be the Kiwi Beatles, breaking into the Australian charts with
“She’s a Mod.” The La De Das took after the Rolling Stones, except in
plaid pants, and Fourmyula imitated early 70’s heavy rock. The first band
to attract real international attention were the sometimes inspired Split
Enz (a precursor of Crowded House), followed by the rousing blues-rock of
Hello Sailor. When the Sailors visited Los Angeles in 1978, no less a
personage than Ray Manzarek grooved to them; apparently, he floated the
notion that lead singer Graham Brazier could fill the shoes of the late Jim
Morrison in a reincarnation of the Doors. Brazier waited in a Hollywood
bungalow, doing lots of drugs, but nothing happened.

At this very moment, back home in New Zealand, the commonwealth’s musical
destiny was arriving in the form of punk rock. By 1978, the Sex Pistols
had reached the height of their fame, inspiring overnight imitations in
almost every sector of the globe; New Zealand was no exception. At first
it looked like any other punk sceneÑpost-adolescents new to their
instruments, yelling out raw covers of three-chord classics. There were
the inevitable poseurs and shockmeisters, bands called the Suburban
Reptiles and the Scavengers, punk ringleaders with names like John Atrocity
and Mike Lesbian. Most of them vanished after a year or two. But
something else took root at the southern end of the islands. A band called
the Enemy, fired by the genius of a weirdo named Chris Knox, began playing
in the southern city of Dunedin, and from it rose a whole teeming
indie-rock subcontinent that presently encompasses dozens of veteran bands
and two ideologically opposed record labels.