May 24, 2012

Machine songs

I’m not the biggest Shihad fan but I can recognise that "Home Again" is a great song. Partly for its very New Zealand sentiments: the expression of homesickness, the lure of overseas and the tension of coming back, the awareness of sheer distance, of different time zones and seasons (put your clock back for the winter). In a way, these are the recurring sentiments of the surprisingly excellent Shihad documentary Beautiful Machine, which tracks their 23 years, from starting as a teenage heavy metal band in Wellington to their slightly uncertain position now: living in different cities, less ambitious, wiser but not yet cynical. New Zealand OE stories should always be stories of innocence and experience, as this is: the temptations of heroin in Berlin (Shihad tried it and didn’t like it; their manager, Gerald Dwyer, and the band Head Like a Hole, tried it and really liked it) and the temptations of commercial compromise in the bigger and more ruthless US industry (singer Jon Toogood was more tempted than the others).

About ten years ago, I watched the Flying Nun documentary series Heavenly Pop Hits and thought that New Zealand rock history was continually presenting itself as a series of failures for which someone else was to blame (radio wouldn’t play us, the label wouldn’t back us, someone left the bass guitar track off the mix …). In that sense, the current bFM series Extended Play is doing a better job than most retrospectives by going deeply into the moment of creation and not dealing too much with the usually disappointing aftermath. But the Shihad story is rare in that this is a New Zealand rock band whose story is not a failure – not yet, anyway. The band is still together and making a living and if they never conquered America and Europe, they weren’t destroyed by the effort either. So the film shows us the usual series of music industry trials, and some unusual ones – the death by overdose of their manager, the poor (in hindsight) decision to change their name from Shihad to Pacifier after September 11, the ill-fated joke in the Viper Room – through which the band have emerged with a kind of maturity and even insight.
The emphasis on family and home is a very New Zealand feature (we meet all of the living Shihad parents, plus partners and children). So is a lack of ruthlessness, which was ultimately a drawback, at least in international “career” terms. Prior to the film’s opening last week, there was coverage of its directorial problems – it was starting to sound like yet another rock business cliché, as though the Shihad doco was set to become an Alan Smithee film – but you wouldn’t pick up any of those issues in the final product. The interviews are candid and emotional, and the editing, by Cushla Dillon, is remarkable, considering how much material there must have been to work through – including some video footage of the band in late 80s and early 90s Wellington, and footage of the late Gerald Dwyer. It’s touching to see how much of Dwyer is in the story and how he is remembered (by contrast, I’m sure there was more to the Jaz Coleman episode than the film tells us) and, for me at least, it evoked that time and place, a moment when it was considered acceptable or even fashionable by long-distance NME readers and student radio tastemakers to listen to Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth (we’d only admit to Slayer now), the only possible moment that a teenage metal band could have emerged from the suburbs and had broader credibility. When Jon Toogood talks about a “droog” with a stab wound at an early Shihad gig, he’s referring to a tribe of vicious Wellington skinheads who mostly ended up dead, in prison or both. You try to tell the kids these days – that’s what gigs were like back then.