Book Review: Pull Down the Shades

From the perspective of a North American alt-rock fan of the 1980s, there was a general sense that some interesting things were happening musically Down Under. At the highest level, one likely knew that Australia and New Zealand were home to the likes of INXS, Midnight Oil and a few others of high merit. If one’s tastes ran deeper, groups like Split Enz plus the whole Flying Nun stable of artists might have made an impression. An excellent book – slim but jam-packed with enough information to whet one’s appetite for more – was 1980’s The New Music by Glenn A. Baker and Stuart Coupe (I still have my copy, though – like its owner – it’s coming apart at the seams). And if one dug a bit into history, there were the likes of Skyhooks to discover.

But in most cases, that’s as far as things went. In those pre-internet years (boy, I use that phrase far too often) there were limited opportunities to learn more outside of booking a pricey ticket on Qantas and learning for oneself. “Scenes” — such as they were — existed discrete from other scenes, so while we might have had a general sense that there was more to know, we simply didn’t know it.

And in fact there was a lot going on in NZ. And as it happens, documenting all of it in real time was a task that fell to the creators of fanzines. One such fanzine – relatively short-lived, as was usually the case – was Garage, a handmade, DIY, homespun photocopied magazine that managed to bring together everything that was exciting and edgy about the outside-the-mainstream alt-rock of the era. Though it existed for a mere six issues, Garage captured the zeitgeist of that period, through defiantly opinionated reviewed, wonderfully agenda- and bias-filled interviews, and passionate championing of whatever music or movements its writers felt was important.

And while Garage served as an important documentor of the stories of groups like The Clean, The Chills, Toy Love and others, the ‘zine’s scope extended beyond Australasia. In its pages one could learn about Alex Chilton and Big Star, whose work was (at the time) even more obscure there than in the U.S.

Happily, Richard Langston, writer/editor of Garage, has compiled Pull Down the Shades: Garage Fanzine 1984-1986. A trade paperback-sized book (because nothing else would do justice to its subject), Langston’s volume reproduces every page of those six issues. But it does much more, featuring essays – by those who were there – that provide important perspective and context. And nearly the entire second half of the 282pp book is given over to Q&As with musical artists and other relevant figures of the period.

Time spent with Pull Down the Shades gives the reader a true sense of what it was like then and there, refreshingly free of the revisionist perspective that inevitably comes along with most historical accounts. Sharp and clear reproductions of the original ‘zine pages – large enough to actually read them – allows the reader to immerse themselves as fully as possible in the mid 1980s of Australia and New Zealand’s underground and semi-underground music scene. For anyone with more than a passing interest in what was going on then and there, Pull Down the Shades is a must-read. Be advised, though: start reading and you’ll be giving yourself assignments to dig deeper and check out the actual music, of which there is quite a lot. Happy reading will be followed in quick succession by rewarding listening.