Photo: Robbie Yeats, Jane Dodd and Graeme Downes. Photographer unknown.
'Death And The Maiden' 7" Single | 1983
Graeme Downes had come through Dunedin’s Logan Park High School a year or so ahead of many of the others that would crowd into the bands that were contemporary with his own. Classical music had been his principal musical interest, apart from some select scraps of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. While he could appreciate the sense of excitement and the democratising of music that the Sex Pistols generated, it was seeing The Clean in 1979 that inspired him to form The Verlaines the following year.
Graeme was at university studying classical music, a course that would take him through to the completion of his doctorate and ultimately a career as an academic at Otago University. Classical music always informed his writing for The Verlaines. Songs could be complex with elaborate arrangements and instrumentation, but there was always structure. A musical system with well-considered melody, harmony, rhythm, and all-important lyrics. It was difficult to construct; sometimes it showed and sometimes it seemed seamless. ‘Death and the Maiden’ is one of the triumphs.
The Verlaines were a three-piece, so they had to work extra hard to create the volume and presence to convincingly fill a room with sound. Alan Haig had been the original drummer in The Chills (and later Snapper) playing alongside Jane Dodd who would go on to play bass in the Able Tasmans. But live, The Verlaines were a machine. Graeme Downes seized the limitations of the three-piece and turned it all on its head by working harder with ever more complex material. When it came together, as it did with ‘Death and the Maiden’, the result was stunning.
There was talent and musical organisation and there was also an adventurous work ethic. The Verlaines had already been up to Christchurch for early week gigs at The Gladstone in 1981, and then again in March 1982 for the Dunedin Double recording sessions with Doug Hood, Chris Knox and alongside fellow Dunedinites - The Chills, The Stones, and Sneaky Feelings. In August 1982 they hit Auckland for gigs and recording at Lab Studios, once again with Doug Hood and Chris Knox, where they managed to record two songs for a 7” single.
The Verlaines 'Death And The Maiden' Poster.
‘Death and the Maiden’ is unusually long for a single at 4 minutes and 30 seconds. It’s made up of several discreetly different time signature sections with a structure beyond the usual verse and chorus norm. It is a construction that could potentially jar, but Graeme Downes was technically adept enough to make the inherent tension enhance the experience. There are the relatively straight-ahead, reverb-heavy guitar-driven verses, the chorus sing-along “Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine” that everyone remembers and loves, and then the change of direction, pace, and sound with the inserted waltz segment. The different parts seem totally incompatible, but they do work together musically to create a satisfying and dynamic piece of music. We feel it shouldn’t work, that it is a crazy unworkable piece of pop music, but the actual listening experience tells us otherwise. ‘Death and the Maiden’ is one of New Zealand's most loved songs.
The B-side, ‘C.D., Jimmy Jazz and Me’, continues to reference the literary and intellectual. Paul Verlaine and his lover Arthur Rimbaud are discussed on the A-side, and here we have Claude Debussy (C.D.) and James Joyce (Jimmy Jazz). The arrangements are standouts on this side; dynamic and colourful if not delightfully exuberant. This is The Verlaines at their best: quality lyrics, shifting rhythms, and bright arrangements set against the blistering guitar.
Death And The Maiden 7" Insert
The critics loved the record with Russell Brown in July's Rip It Up writing “It’s a bloody great sound… thinking man’s pop” while also commenting on the high quality of the lyrics. In the August Rip It Up edition, S.J.Townshend, reviewing the band’s live show at Canterbury University, noted “a great melodic wall of sound… clever too”. And specifically regarding ‘Death and the Maiden’, which is “often simple and primitive, a rumpus of discordant guitar”. The Rip It Up critics such as Karyn Hay and Barry Jenkins (present and ex Radio With Pictures presenters), George Kay (older Dunedin Rip It Up guy), and Rob White (Christchurch Star) all voted it as their New Zealand Single Of The Year. The popular vote? The New Zealand single of 1983.
Death And The Maiden 7" Cover
The front of the 7” photo picture sleeve is a clever band shot. The three Verlaines are “hiding” behind a mess of foliage. A piece of flax dominates the forefront of the image with light behind it. Alan Haig and Jane Dodd peer out from the undergrowth, while Graeme Downes stands mysteriously holding a leaf over his face. The “Verlaines - ‘Death and the Maiden’” lettering is in a hand-drawn gothic style, a good 30 years before their city would adopt the gothic look for its new Dunedin branding. The back cover has a musical manuscript with a coffee cup stain and a photo of Graeme Downes' father playing the piano when younger; smoking a fag, hat skew-whiff, and with his leg up on the keyboard.
Death And The Maiden 7" back cover
The video deserves a mention. The single release had inexplicably generated virtually no chart action, but through the sheer force of its aural personality, it managed to establish the band as the inheritors of The Clean’s role as Dunedin's leading light and hope; the “Dunedin band most likely”. A big part of this state of affairs was the video for ‘Death and the Maiden’. Peter Janes made it in a “student flat” like environment. The band plays to a party audience of fellow Dunedin music scenesters: Lesley Paris, Kath Webster and Denise Roughan of Look Blue Go Purple, Jeff Batts of The Stones, Shayne Carter of the DoubleHappys and Bored Games, Caroline Easther and Martin Phillipps of The Chills and many others, blurred amongst the action with a whole herd of rabbits. It is a video that perfectly captures a sense of what it might be like to enjoy an idealised musical Dunedin lifestyle. Musically intriguing, romantic but intense, absolutely fun, and even cute - there weren't many videos that matched a song's magic so well. When music and video work together this successfully, sales multiply (like rabbits) and the band's popularity and live pulling power grows exponentially.
The Verlaines had some momentum; they were on a roll that would keep on rolling its own course all the way to a deal with a significant American record company and a crack at the big time. This is with songs built like serious pieces of classical music heavy on the meaningfully literary poetry that it showcases. Wilfully complex - and at times awkward - this was music that Graeme Downes had the talent to create and the determination to make work. It started here with the release of ‘Death and the Maiden’.
Man On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown is a blog written by Roger Shepherd, founder of Flying Nun Records. Recounting tales from the early days. Updated weekly.