I was in Wellington during the week, attending to day job duties. For those of you who don’t know, Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand. But no fear – this entry is not eight reasons you should visit Cuba St’s infamous Bucket Fountain, or eight places in the windy city I once partied at, back in the days I did cool things like go to parties.
It’s the eight greatest songs by Wellington’s greatest musical export: Shihad.
8. CHEAP AS
Not one that’s safe to play around the kids. Don’t get me wrong – I’m absolutely all for getting kids to hear Shihad’s meanest riffs, but the language? Amazing in song, not so much in the playground.
Shihad albums have a tendency to tail off badly in the second half, and late-career classic FVEY is no exception. But like its aural inspiration, 1995’s Killjoy, Shihad save one of the absolute best for the end – except instead of the blissed-out drone that was Deb’s Night Out, Cheap As delivers a kick straight to the guts, musically as well as lyrically.
The first line features what a friend and I came to define as ‘the Shihad rhyme’: ‘Don’t tell me just where you’ve been, ’cause I know just where you’ve been.’ Been. Been. Been. Been. Been.
Still, a great song. Landing in the mid ’90s, I’m pretty sure I was aware of who Shihad were, but they weren’t a household name. This track, a building, droning loop-driven guitar equivalent to what New Order were doing before the breakout success of Blue Monday, was nothing like anything the band had done before – and paved the way for their later moves into electronic rock. But before that came a slight detour – one they’d revisit later, with reduced critical success – into the poppier end of their take on heavy rock.
6. HOME AGAIN
Pretty much every country in the world at this stage has some form of daylight saving, but somehow it’s still treated in perhaps Shihad’s best-known song as a defining feature of home – which is Wellington, or more broadly, New Zealand (aka Middle Earth! Don’t forget – our economy depends on it. No, seriously.)
Does where you live have unofficial national anthems that stand in for the complete dirge that’s the official one they play when you win bronze at the Commonwealth Games? Well, Home Again has that status in New Zealand.
Firstly, it has the words ‘home again’ in it, and most of the country, when they’re at home, aren’t that far from Shihad’s actual home of Wellington.
Secondly, there’s this chorus bit where no one really knows what singer Jon Toogood’s really on about, except that he wasn’t at home and it made him write this great song.
After the album where they changed their name for an ultimately doomed attempt to break the US because of September 11 (no, really – google it), they did a few more records which bought them commercial success at home, but ultimately kind of sucked. Then came FVEY.
FVEY was recorded in the wake of ongoing revelations to do with New Zealand’s part in the ‘Five Eyes’ spying network, which are far too detailed to go into here. It’s a fascinating read that involves not just Shihad – a bunch of bogans from Wellington who made it very, very big – but Kim Dotcom, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, et cetera. Again, google it. This is a music lesson, not a political one.
Anyway, this was the first single, and from the opening two-note riff, it was clear the Shihad of old were back. And then the drums kick in and holy shit you just want to blow up a spy station and cut the Southern Cross internet cable with a giant pair of garden scissors. For four minutes, at least.
I lived with this guy back in ’99 when this record came out, and he would endlessly play along to this song, as well as half the other tracks on the album of the same name. But the main reason it fucked me off was that he was a great guitarist and completely wasting his time on two-chord Shihad riffs even I could play.
But what a great two-chord riff – it has to be, to be this far up my Shihad song rankings, right? E and G. I think.
Ah, the obligatory ‘not on any album’ song.
This rockin’ tune came out in ’98, I think. It was on an EP called Blue Light Disco, which from memory also had an early recording of Wait and See, a highlight from the following year’s The General Electric album (was that… a spoiler?). I’m listening to it now, and even streaming over these crappy 2mm-sized speakers on an Android tablet, it rules.
2. WAIT AND SEE
Sometimes rock bands try to go synth, and end up sounding like every other band that decided to ‘go modern’ in the last 40 years – ie. shit. Other times they veer off into Radiohead-land, which only Radiohead have ever pulled off.
But very occasionally, a band will nail it. Only a few years earlier it seemed unlikely Shihad would be one of those bands, but check this out.
Yeah, it’s pretty much a heavy rock song with a looping beat… but an echoing, dominant synth surging through it? Genius move. Sum = greater than the parts.
I guess now it’s time for number one, which fans probably would have picked by now…
1. YOU AGAIN
Like many riffs before it on this list, You Again is based around a guitar figure that barely requires even writing down. Like the ‘ooh!’ vocal interjections that punctuate the verses, it just is.
To borrow an infamous Kiwi phrase, its riff is so powerful, it’s not necessary to debate it. For example: is there an actual song beneath that riff? Don’t know, don’t care. There’s not even a chorus. There is a middle part where it goes quiet, then a bit louder but kind of strange, but it exists only to make the riff sound even more fucking awesome than it did before, when it inevitably returns. But this is the song’s best trick of all – it doesn’t.
The Mother of All Riffs doesn’t even make an appearance past the exact halfway point of the song, of which its presence makes so goddamn holy.
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