Graham Reid | | 4 min read
Herbs, one of this country's most important bands, certainly deserve their box set: all five albums on coloured vinyl with liner notes in a limited edition box.
Aside from being in the vanguard of Pacific reggae – which they could fairly claim to have invented and refined on their debut EP Whats' Be Happen? and the album Light of the Pacific – Herbs were also that rarity: an overtly political band at a time when most musicians believed – shades of the politics and sport divide – politics and music shouldn't mix.
Herbs' Whats' Be Happen? – in recent years described as an album but back in '81 definitely defined as an EP – was, and remains a landmark, recording.
In 2015 it won the Independent Music NZ Classic Recording award.
On that collection, Herbs looked outward at South Africa on Azania and aligned themselves with the anti-apartheid movement (“power to the freedom fighters”) but also into their own communities on Dragons and Demons which addressed the power the church held over Pasifika people (“let me tell you a tale . . . it's told by the church, to keep you on earth . . . never get far if you stay where you are”).
They lamented what had become of this promised land (One Brotherhood) and went straight to the harassment of young brown kids on the street by police for Whistling in the Dark which ended with a warning: “warriors will rumble and blue boys will tumble”.
On the title track they again spoke to their own people, questioning if the migration to Aotearoa (a word they used on One Brotherhood, uncommon at the time) had been worth it, and they sang lines in Samoan, Tongan and Maori.
This was a remarkable collection of songs about divisive issues. But with their song French Letter – added to Whats' Be Happen? when the EP was given vinyl reissue in recent years – they captured mainstream sentiment about French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Suddenly Herbs -- which had been on the margins with Whats' Be Happen? although popular at festivals -- were speaking for the country.
Aotearoa New Zealand claimed them: French Letter and their Light of the Pacific album (with a Pacific medley Meteli) were hits.
As someone who taught in the School of Music at the University of Auckland for more than a decade, it was always a pleasure to introduce students to Herbs.
Not just because their music was so good, but that in order to understand their context required a potted social and political history of Aotearoa New Zealand: Nga Tamatoa, Polynesian Panthers, dawn raids, the 1975 hikoi, the history of Bastion Point which lead to the occupation there (and at the Raglan Golf Course) and, of course the Springbok Tour in 1981 . . . exactly when Whats' Be Happen? was released.
Most students were unaware of many – or any – of these issues. Even fewer knew of the Rainbow Warrior, the testing at Mururoa Atoll and New Zealand sending a frigate there to observe.
Herbs opened a door into our recent history and to the rise of reggae as a voice of the dispossessed, disenfranchised and marginalised.
Hard to believe, but half a dozen memorable songs by a local band could actually cover all those issues. Even today former students I meet talk about discovering Herbs, local reggae and recentl history through that music paper.
Over the years following those two releases however Herbs seemed to be shedding and gaining members. More than 20 passed through, Eagle Joe Walsh in the mix, and when they were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in 2012 there were an awful lot of people on the stage.
Their songs – with the notable exception of them guesting on Dave Dobbyn's Slice of Heaven – never had quite the same traction. There were some fine ones (Long Ago, Sensitive to a Smile and so on) but . . .
You did wonder if many were calling out for a reggae version of Walk Away Rene or the mainstream rock of Talkback Radio (on the Walsh-produced Homegrown album of 1990).
Over time it became hard to know if Herbs were even a going concern: for a decade they'd been the go-to band for every fundraising concert and opening for touring international artists.
Once, when told who was opening in Auckland for a particular artist, the Australian entrepreneur Michael Gudinski laughed loudly and said, “What? Herbs not available?”
They had toured internationally but their profile slipped and they recorded their last studio album Homegrown just nine years after Whats' Be Happen? changed the landscape of music in this country.
It had been quite a decade for them.
Subsequently there were “best of” repackages of poor quality, a shapeless documentary Songs of Freedom which couldn't quite decide if it was a history or a film about a reunion and . . .
So Herbs now, get the five album box set they deserve.
But being priced somewhere around $400 is a big ask, even for the most loyal.
Fortunately some stores are making the albums available individually.
So, Whats' Be Happen?
Every home should have one.