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Various Artists Various Artists
Album: How Is The Air Up There?
Label: RPM
Tracks: 27+27+26

Subtitled “80 Mod, Soul, Freakbeat Nuggets From Down Under”, this new compilation brings into focus a hitherto relatively uncharted field – that of singles recorded during the years 1965 to 1969 by acts from New Zealand who responded to the cultural influences from British bands, at first especially those who’d actually got round to touring that far-flung outpost (like the Stones, Kinks and Manfred Mann). Being so far across the globe from the UK, its releases took longer to permeate NZ sensibilities, but it’s no understatement to say that the products of the British beat scene reshaped the musical landscape of NZ very powerfully indeed, as young NZ residents “responded to the grungier callings of R&B and later soul”. This well-stocked and well-presented three-disc box-set, shows that musically the NZ bands possessed a driving force and musical quality such that they could never be accused of being merely pale imitations or cheesy sound-alikes of the groups from which they took their inspirations. Far from it… and although from time to time you’ll hear resonances and pre-echoes from groups like the Who, Small Faces, Spencer Davis Group, Yardbirds and Pretty Things to the Foundations, and Blondie even, well hey, that’s not exactly a bad thing!

Lest the thought of 80 tracks from largely unknown names fill even the keenest explorer of uncomped obscure mod/psych with a degree of foreboding or disbelief, rest assured that there’s plenty of great music on offer here. OK, you don’t expect any obvious would-be-hit fodder (these songs aren’t always memorable in the usual “strong melodic or commercial potential” sense, and some tracks may sound a touch half-formed in terms of ideas). This is because most of these singles were tailored for the mid-60s NZ club scene rather than the charts or any bid for mainstream success. In their own context, then, the vast majority of the tracks here aren’t far off the top drawer in terms either of sheer energy and conviction or quality of the original writing. Even the most well-known of the NZ beat groups comped herein are almost unknown over here, not even barely recognised as names, but the white-heat energy they produce is tangible. The lesser-known and obscure acts similarly. I might even write that this set could stand comparison with the iconic original Nuggets and brings a comparable sense of discovery. Lovers of hard beat, fuzz guitar and grinding riffs will be in heaven on the first disc in particular – it’s tough, upfront raw production stuff, with no excess studio trappings – and all the better for it. Several of the acts on the third disc have more of a pronounced soul-beat party feel. But it’s all solid stuff, and it’s really impossible to cherrypick here just by listing litanies of group names – just buy your ticket and strap yourself in for the ride!

Finally, then, the stats. Included on this compilation are over 50 of the NZ bands active during those key years, Of the 80 tracks, nearly a quarter are appearing on CD for the first time, and six are previously unreleased. Labels represented range from the “local” HMV, RCA and Philips to NZ’s own (eg Action, Impact and Zodiac) – and odds are that you’ll not have heard any of their releases except by sheer chance. For the 60s collector, this set is a unique and fascinating snapshot of a mirrored scene, a parallel universe of musical creation, and for those outside of the Australasian sub-continent a first chance to own a copy of most of the recordings. Our mission to get to know the NZ 60s recording scene is much aided by the invaluable, and immensely detailed booklet. So this primer can be thoroughly recommended (following which you can immerse yourself in some of the full-album comps from the RPM and Frenzy imprints that feature individual NZ acts).

David Kindman