Beat Rhythm Fashion: Bring Real Freedom

 NZ Listener

BRING REAL FREEDOM, Beat Rhythm Fashion (Failsafe)    

Wellington in the early 1980s was a ferment of new bands, bubbling with post-punk possibilities. Amidst it all, Dan and Nino Birch stood out. It was the way they carried themselves. With their posh English accents, they sauntered through the scene like a couple of decadent dandies. Someone explained to me that the Birch brothers were actually New Zealanders but had grown up in Hong Kong, which made sense. They acted like they had seen something the rest of us hadn’t, and were going to show the provincials a thing or two.

The first time I met them they tried to take me to a jam session at an after-hours haunt called the Musician’s Club. I assumed they were jazzers, so I was surprised a few months later when, seeing Dan in the street, I was informed that he and Nino had been writing pop songs and that Nino was now playing guitar “just like Robert Smith of the Cure”.

The name they gave their band seemed to reflect the loftiness I had always sensed: Beat Rhythm Fashion. It was as though they couldn’t play pop music without passing an ironic comment on its simplicity and disposability. And yet the music BRF made was neither simple nor disposable, as a recent collection of recordings goes to show.

More than a quarter century after their first release, Christchurch indie Failsafe has gathered and restored their three singles for the first time on CD, sandwiching between them another ten songs recorded at a live 1981 show at Christchurch’s Gladstone Hotel.

Though clearly inspired by the Cure and Joy Division, two pivotal bands of early 80s post-punk, BRF were too smart, full of ideas, and aware of their own significance to simply mimic existing models. Nino may have used the same kind of effects pedal as Robert Smith, but with quite different results. Listen to the early Cure now and they sound nervy and rushed, their chords still rooted in rock ‘n’ roll rudiments. BRF, by comparison, are cool and languid, with a harmonic sophistication that hints of the jazz background I had always suspected.

The sound is both stark and complete. Nino’s swirling chords are secured by Dan’s almost subsonic basslines, while the drum parts - played by either Glen Stewart or his replacement Caroline Easther – are compositional rather than metronomic.

Bring Real Freedom opens with BRF’s finest moment. “Turn Of The Century” was the second of the group’s singles. Its opening line “There are no dissidents/in the homeland…” is strikingly similar to Blam Blam Blam’s contemporaneous anthem “There Is No Depression In New Zealand”. But where the Blams underline the irony of their observation with mock jauntiness, BRF’s song is desperately mournful, as though the singer is genuinely afraid for a society he sees as suffocating on its own complacency.

And yet there is a keyhole of hope offered in the rising chords of the chorus, when Dan Birch sings, through a wall of reverb, “It’s a long project/ without any prospects/but I’d still like the see the turning of the century”.

The remaining singles and their B-sides are almost as good; “Beings Rest Finally” with its stately, hymn-like piano intro, the acerbic social analysis of “Song Of The Hairless Apes”, and their swansong, the uneasily upbeat “No Great Oaks (In China)”.

While the live selections reveal some fine lost songs (“The Decision”, “War Worlds”) they also expose limitations. Their singing, appropriately ethereal and disembodied when saturated in studio echo, often seems flat onstage. At times one longs for another tone, an added instrumental voice.

Yet taken as a whole, Bring Real Freedom stands up surprisingly well and the current wave of young retro-rockers exploring Joy Division and the Cure would do well to check it out.

BRF were around for a mere couple of years. One always got the feeling the Birch brothers were only passing through, and one day they just up and left. Gone to Melbourne, I was told. But Bring Real Freedom brings them back, at least in spirit; an unexpectedly potent reminder of a band that burned briefly yet brightly enough to glow across the decades.

FOOTNOTE: Dan Birch died in September 2011.

Tags: new zealandbeat rhythm fashionthe curewellingtonpunk

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