Call to Arms
The Verlaines, from Dunedin, New Zealand, play as if God is in the audience. If you like music, you will love the Verlaines. Graeme Downes, the singer, guitarist and songwriter at the center of the Verlaines' orbit, is a gifted composer and lyricist with a great sense of drama and a distinctive pop voice that sometimes sounds anguished but never whines; besides which my friend Jessica thinks he is dead sexy. Downes' songs build up musical tension like nobody's business and produce gulfs of pleasure just like he was riding a bike. The band has been around in one form or another for 25 years and there is not a bad album among the six it has released (not counting Juvenilia, which collects the Verlaines' early singles and compiliation tracks, and a greatest hits compilation on Flying Nun, both of which are also excellent). Yet, of those that have been released in the United States, all of the Verlaines' albums are out of print. Do today's captains of industry really expect us to believe that the same market that has made room for a reissue of G.B.H.'s 1983 Leather, Bristles, No Survivors and Sick Boys,lovingly committed to 180-gram, audiophile-quality vinyl, with deluxe packaging, cannot support the Verlaines' heavenly catalog? Free market, my ass.
The situation in New Zealand is, Downes writes in our e-mail interview, "The same. The only Verlaines record you could probably buy in the shops is the Best Of thing we put out a couple of years back (You're Just Too Obscure For Me) and probably my solo album [2001's Hammers and Anvils,released by Matador in the US]. Obviously Flying Nun sees no market for the back catalogue internally (New Zealand is still a very small country) and no one has expressed any interest internationally. On a good note, however, we're in the final stages of mixing a new Verlaines album that will come out sometime in the year on Flying Nun here. Have not sorted release elsewhere as yet. So who knows—if the new one gets some attention it may spark interest in the older stuff." This new Verlaines album will be the band's first in a decade.
In 1983, the band announced itself with "Death and the Maiden," a perfect pop single with a drunken, nauseous waltz section stuck in the penultimate place. You can see the video for "Death and the Maiden" on YouTube, and while you're there you ought to look up the Verlaines' "Doomsday," too. "The band existed in name only for 18 months or so prior but we started playing seriously in late 1981," Downes writes. "I taught myself the guitar in early 1980 (or was it 1979?) and wrote my first song inside a couple of weeks ("Slow Sad Love Song"). So in effect I came to it quite late—up until then it was playing oboe in the youth orchestra and on a diet of classical music only."
When I ask Downes what made Dunedin so musically productive in the '80s and what it's like there now, he mentions the Tweeks and the Tomahawks, two bands comprising some of Downes's former students at the University of Otago, where he teaches performance classes in classical music and contemporary rock. He writes, "This is kind of like how it was in the early '80s, a tight community that swaps skills, gear, expertise and most importantly constructive criticism. Back in the '80s it was a combination of factors: isolation, both geographical and cultural, combined with a profound boredom—there wasn't much to do with your time if you weren't in mainstream NZ culture, or rugby, racing and beer, as it was once known. This is what we did to entertain ourselves. The Verlaines' practice room was in a warehouse in the centre of town in the industrial area. We'd practice on Friday and Saturday nights. People would throw stones at the window as a signal they wanted to come in and there'd end up being 20 or 30 people there, all from other bands mainly.
"We'd just play for each other. In the wake of the punk thing of 'any one can have a go' a lot of us decided we could [have a go] around the same time. What happened from then is hard to tease out, but essentially it became rather competitive (in a very positive way). Like when Martin [Phillipps] played me [the Chills'] "Rolling Moon" for the first time it was a real wake-up call ("man that is so good, I better pull my socks up"). I think we mutually inspired each other. I've been writing a book on the period 1980-1983, which hopefully I'll finish this year. It traces how very subtle techniques passed from one band to another in very short space of time."
Downes holds a doctorate in classical music, and much writing about the band has struggled to reconcile the Verlaines' music with Downes's training. It is true that many Verlaines songs—those that build and fall like Sonic Youth or the Velvet Underground—have more elaborate structures than ordinary pop songs and make use of fancy chord voicings and gorgeous arrangements. But the Verlaines are unmistakeably a rock & roll band. According to All Music Guide, for instance, the first album, Hallelujah All The Way Home,"was originally submitted as part of a composition project for Downes' honors-level music class; he received an 'A' grade for the record, which bore the heavy influence of his classical background in its exacting compositions, as well as its orchestral and brass flourishes." "This," writes Downes, "is one of those myths that you spend a lifetime dispelling. I was doing composition at Uni at the time. I composed classical music. I did throw [the Verlaines' first two albums, Hallelujah All The Way Homeand Bird Dog] into the portfolio in year two and three, respectively, so they contributed in part, though I reckon my composition teachers saw them as little more than evidence of versatility and productivity. (I did get chastised for parallel octaves between the voice and bass, however.) The grade was mainly achieved on the classical compositions. Having said that," he adds, "the songs on Hallelujah in particular are harmonically and structurally sophisticated and utilize sonata form principles (the typical way of proceeding in a classical symphony first movement)." Do you see what I'm talking about? The dude is a straight-up musical genius. You all got to quit huffing those stale old Brian Wilson fumes in your dad's garage and get a whiff of this here.
We must not rest until the Verlaines' music is available everywhere, to all, at fair prices. Write your representative in Congress and make it known that you will boycott everything, including breathing the air, until their records return to print.
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