These chicks rock

The Chicks. Photos supplied.
The Chicks. Photos supplied.
Gin Wigmore
Gin Wigmore
Hollie Smith
Hollie Smith

Dunedin pop culture specialist Ian Chapman has released a well-overdue tribute to some of New Zealand's leading female musicians, writes Shane Gilchrist.

As the first words for this piece begin to form so, too, do the words of another.

Spell, the forthcoming debut album by Dear Time's Waste, aka Claire Duncan, is slotted into the computer's drive, filling the office with its ethereal, alternative rock.

Duncan is one of 54 New Zealand women to feature in Kiwi Rock Chicks, Pop Stars & Trailblazers, Dunedin academic and author Ian Chapman's celebration of female performers who have contributed to the current healthy state of our pop music industry.

Arguably, given the pedigree of many of the artists in Chapman's book, Duncan is one of several who might count themselves lucky to be included.

That is meant as no insult to Duncan's obvious talents.

The point is, she has just released her debut album, yet her chapter sits alongside artists who have released multiple records, topped the charts and toured the world.

Spanning 50 years, Kiwi Rock Chicks, Pop Stars & Trailblazers features a broad range of artists, including Gin Wigmore, Alannah Currie, Sharon O'Neill, Margaret Urlich, Bic and Boh Runga, Hollie Smith, Anika Moa, The Yandall Sisters, Moana Maniapoto, Beaver and punk singer Zero, all of whom provide first-hand insights on everything from industry frustrations and highlights to songwriting methodologies.

Each chapter is completed by a discography and awards list.

"They are a very diverse lot," Chapman says.

"Go back to the 1970s and the likes of the Yandall Sisters, the more cabaret, middle-of-the-road people; there are The Chicks, from the 1960s; then there are the out-and-out rockers and punks of the 1970s.

"There is no easy bag to throw them into.

"But I think a lot of the coverage other publications have given to New Zealand popular music acts has tended to not quite give women the credit they deserve.

"So I thought a stand-alone book that just looks at their work would be quite a timely thing to do."

Though he sticks largely to performers who fall within the boundaries of rock, pop or "crossover" (a blend of musical styles, including jazz), Chapman admits his criteria for selection were less than scientific.

Some gained entry on the strength of their achievements in an industry renowned for its bullying, belittling and exploitative attitude to female artists; others simply because Chapman chose to change his approach: out went the voice of authoritative academic, to be replaced by the music fan.

"When the book was first mooted, I was going to have a lot more authorship of it," Chapman explains.

"I would have been writing about the women and I would have had far less direct input.

When I received all this enthusiasm from the women I had approached, I thought the focus should change, making it less of me and more about them writing about their own experiences.

"I'm a music academic but, first and foremost, I'm a fan.

"I thought 'if I was reading this book who would I want to hear from most - a music academic or the women themselves?'.

"I tried to keep value judgements out of it.

"I didn't favour someone who sings cover versions of other people's songs over someone who sings their own; I didn't favour one particular style over another in the realms of popular music.

"Sometimes the boundaries are very blurry and it is quite a difficult distinction to make.

"Acts like the Topp Twins fall between genres but are so vital and important to have in there.

"There are other artists who perform in different styles and it was a hard call to make," Chapman says.

"I feel there should be a book dedicated to New Zealand women country artists and another to classical artists as these other styles of music are so strong in their own right.

"There are so many deserving names who could have been in there but are not."

Given the inclusion of more recent arrivals on the New Zealand music scene, the absence of Ladyhawke, aka Pip Brown, who last year won six categories at the New Zealand Music Awards, is notable.

Yet it wasn't for lack of trying, Chapman says.

"She initially agreed but eventually had to pull out.

She just got too busy," he explains, agreeing with the suggestion there is a certain irony in the fact a hectic schedule should preclude an artist from appearing in a book celebrating musical success.

Chapman, an executant lecturer in contemporary music at the University of Otago, specialises in popular culture of the 1970s.

His particular field of interest is the iconography (the look) of popular music.

Thus it is not surprising Kiwi Rock Chicks, Pop Stars & Trailblazers benefits from a selection of excellent photographs.

Significantly, Chapman asked the artists involved to choose or supply the images.

The result is a representation of strength rather than any reinforcing of sexualised stereotypes.

In short, the pictures support the thoughts expressed by the various women.

By decree of alphabetical listing, the career of The Thompson Twins' reluctant star, Alannah Currie, is the first to be celebrated.

Currie discloses her battles with major label staff as her band rose to the heights of its success in the 1980s.

Asked to conform to a more feminine image, she fought back in a variety of ways, including extending the radius of her already wide-brimmed hats, before eventually turning her back on the music industry.

Chapman regards Currie's involvement as the "biggest coup" in his project.

"She doesn't want to talk about her Thompson Twins days; she doesn't think particularly fondly back on it.

"She initially declined, but I suppose I did wear her down. It was a huge thrill.

"She has really gone under the radar.

"In terms of being a successful New Zealand woman artist, there is no one bigger than Alannah Currie and the Thompson Twins; they were big around the world."

(Three of The Thompson Twins' albums made the UK top five, with 1984's Into The Gap topping the charts there; the band also enjoyed significant album and singles success in the US, NZ and Australia.)

In other recollections, Tadpole's Renee Brennan talks of the pressure to lose weight; while Minuit's Ruth Carr questions the likelihood of a female version of the (rather plain) Proclaimers or (plain ugly) Pogues finding success.

"It is a pressure that is really borne by women," Chapman says.

"Those factors don't come into it for men. Yeah, men are encouraged to cultivate an image, but not based on availability and sexuality.

"Women are cajoled or outright bullied into conforming in that way. All power to those who don't.

"And if that's what it takes to get their heads above the heap, it's hard to blame them.

"Sometimes I have students who will be very disparaging about the likes of Britney Spears but I say to them, 'you are not subject to the pressures that they are'."

Chapman has dedicated the book to Beaver, aka Beverley Jean Morrison, who died in May.

She may have been a member of the Country Flyers, Red Mole and a range of other bands, but the performance of Beaver and her Blerta band-mates at a Hamilton intermediate school in 1971 brought about something approaching a cultural epiphany for an 11-year-old Chapman.

"That moment is seared into my memory," Chapman recalls.

Hence his thrill when, on being approached for his project, Beaver passionately suggested a range of other artists.

"She was so enthusiastic about the project, even though she was so sick at the time.

"She'd say, 'oh, you've got to put this artist in; you've got to put that artist in'.

"She passed away before the book came out but I thought it would be nice to dedicate it to her as she had such an influence on it."

Yet there are some who might not even know of Beaver. All the more reason for such a book, Chapman asserts.

"At university, we are trying to equip our students as best as possible for a career in the music industry.

"Although they come in with a good awareness of what has influenced them directly, they generally don't have a good awareness of what has gone before them.

"It is vital for them to know why the industry is the way it is.

"They come to university with no knowledge that through the 1960s, '70s and '80s New Zealand was battling with this whole cultural cringe thing.

"That was hard for any musician, but I think even more so for women musicians, who were a minority and faced other issues as well."

The book
Kiwi Rock Chicks, Pop Stars & Trailblazers
($44.99, HarperCollins) is out now.


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