The one true force for musical good in New Zealand has been the wizardly
Chris Knox, who helped found the New Zealand punk scene in the late 70’s
and still holds an important place more than fifteen years later. Since
stepping away from potential global fame in Toy Love, he has gone his own
way entirely, writing and performing music both manifestly bizarre and
hopelessly irresistible. Even more than the very talented 3D’s, he blends
the competing impulses toward seductive pop and eloquent junk. But his
wildly paradoxical songs seem like nothing more than projections of his own
personality. Immune to cycles of success and failure, attention and
obscurity, he has stuck to the same strange, brilliant thing no matter how
many or how few are listening. He has made pop music into what many say it
can never be, an entirely private creative act.

The very first Toy Love songs showed an instinctive melodic knack that has
not failed Knox since. He is not afraid to copy august models in rock and
pop history. “Not Given Lightly,” a grandiose love ballad that made it
onto New Zealand’s singles charts and has since been covered by the
rock-jazz outfit Frente!, owes much to Phil Spector. At least a few songs
on every album directly echo the Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney’s
blissful pop mode. One of his favorite song structures is based on “All
You Need Is Love”: a mesmerizing hook is set in motion and then gains
volume and heft with each repetition. Knox matches the resources of a
studio-based foursome with a collection of brilliant home-studio tricks; in
place of drums, he loops together found-object sounds that give each of his
songs a crazily distinctive texture and unstoppable mechanical rhythm.

Knox is mindful of rock history, but he does nothing by the book. On stage
he delivers his songs with practiced perfection, but he undercuts their
effect with sly asides, cutting self-mockery, and a sharp distrust of rock
populism. His lyrics tend to take an idiosyncratic feminist stance. On
the second-to-last Tall Dwarfs album, Fork Songs, a song called “Boys”
holds up an unflattering mirror image of its audience: “More is less than
it used to be / But we watch it back on the bar’s TV / In the hope it will
look like reality / For boys / Here we come through your fields of flesh /
Ploughing deep all that’s fine and fresh / Sowing death is the fondest wish
of boys.” The dark images unroll over a pleasurable drone (think George
Harrison’s “Love You To”), inviting a self-alienating kind of audience
participation. “Liberal Backlash Angst,” on the solo album Croaker, works
on the same principle–although Knox was disappointed to discover that
hardcore kids in his audiences didn’t catch the irony and cheered his
put-on xenophobia and misogyny.

In 1984, Knox suspended his solitary basement tinkering for a moment and
re-recorded his classic “Nothing’s Going to Happen” with a small
guitar-heavy orchestra, paying homage to grandiose Spector and Beatles
orchestrations. The rhythmic surge is enormous, the lyrics divinely
demented: “Maybe all the children in small rooms will fall silent at a wall
or window and forget to breathe for just one minute because of some beauty
that has not been altered, damned, or pointed out by the clumsy dark oafs
that train them.” At the climax, the swirl of words dissolves into mere
letters of the alphabet, borrowing a word trick from Glenn Miller’s “I’ve
Got a Girl in Kalamazoo,” strangely enough–“b c d e f g h i think …
nothing’s going to happen!”–at which point the chorus of guitars rises to
its highest pitch of passion and then begins a long winding down. Knox’s
tone of triumphant irrelevance somehow reminds me of Stephen Dedalus in
Ulysses, shouting Nothung! and brandishing his walking stick like
Siegfried’s sword.

“Nothing’s going to happen”–the anthem of New Zealand rock, which has
thrived in part because it has no expectation or need of international
fame. The contented inwardness of this music has found many echoes in
American indie rock, increasingly dominated by lonely boys strumming their
guitars in musty bedrooms. “Close your eyes and close your mind,” Knox
sings in another of his homemade chants. An entire sub-continent of rock
is drifting away from the genre’s supposed historic mission of populism and
mass appeal. Which is not to say that some of the bands haven’t fallen
into same traps swallowing talented “alternative” groups over here–the
paradoxical and destructive marketing of the alternative as the new
mainstream. Groups like the Bats, the Verlaines, and the Straitjacket
Fits, recording with larger budgets for Flying Nun, are putting out less
striking records than they did a decade ago. But many of the others,
especially those who have stayed in the south, are intelligently oblivious.
Like the Maoris in their canoes, they would rather play us their music
once or twice and then pass away into the mist.