And though I say it myself, you couldn’t have better help
November 20, 2006 8:10 PM   Subscribe

New Zealand song filter: I love the Mutton Birds' haunting "White Valiant," but I have no idea what it means. Can any Kiwis (or Kiwi-music enthusiasts) tell me what the song is about?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A Valiant is a Chrysler Valiant, a large and popular model here in my 1970s childhood, and a desirable car for petrol-headed young people into the 1980s before cheap powerful Japanese cars became common.

The rest of it seems like fairly standard English in a nostalgic lyric about driving to an event in the country. There may be a particular event McGlashan has in mind that I'm not aware of, not being a huge fan.

Is there a particular thing that puzzles you about this song?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:34 PM on November 20, 2006

Just from reading it, it's a song about a hitch-hiker who's been picked up by someone (driving a white valiant!) and they're going to some event and the driver takes a shortcut accross the countryside.

In this snippet from an interview he describes it as "another one of these ‘fear of the countryside’ things" so I guess it's about the fear that the driver is going to take the hitcher somewhere secluded and, what, attack him/her?, all the while saying "don't worry I know a short cut".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:17 PM on November 20, 2006

Even more detail here -- apparently the song inspired an episode of "Mercy Peak", an NZ drama series, and the description of the action gives you even more of an idea:
When Nicky's (Sara Wiseman) car breaks down in the back of beyond, her biggest worry is getting to Gabrielle's (Claire Waldron) baby-naming ceremony on time. But when she accepts a lift from sinister Anton Devcich (Peter Daube), the stakes are raised and being punctual is far from her main problem.

Mercy Peak executive producer, co-creator and co-writer Rachel Lang says tonight's episode became nicknamed "White Valiant", despite being called "Good, Bad, Ugly".

"I like Don McGlashan's songs a lot. A lot of them are like short films or short stories with great mood and characters," she says. "'White Valiant' taps into the great New Zealand hitch-hiking myth, being picked up by the strange guy who may or may not have bad intentions."
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:27 PM on November 20, 2006

Hee, I was listening to this song as I walked in the door this evening. Looking at the lyrics and reading about the Mercy Peak inspiration certainly adds to the slightly creepy/otherwordlyness of the song and fits very well with my reading of it. There have been a few cases over the years of hitchhikers being killed in NZ, so the idea of a creepy guy taking you who-knows-where in some backcountry part of NZ works somehow.
posted by shelleycat at 10:44 PM on November 20, 2006

Best answer: I remember reading a fuller version of the interview mentioned above. McGlashan said the inspiration for this song came from a dream. He says many songs have come to him in this manner.

In the dream he was on his way to put on a performance in the country. He was picked up by a stranger who seemed to know exactly who he was and where he was going.

The song is about city-dweller's discomfort in the countryside where the mores and lores are strange. McGlashan plays with the idea the narrator may be dangerous, leaving the interpretation up to the listener. It could be something as innocuous as an A & P show or it could be more sinister.

The song concludes with the refrain "Remember where we left the car" and "White Valiant" is reminiscent of police reports and Crimewatch shows where car makes are regularly noted.

It also refers to basic survival techniques of a hitchhiker. Remember the details. I always found it creepy, because even though it is "remember where we left the car in the parking lot" it is also maybe one of the last things some of those missing hitchhikers may have thought. For me the song turns creepy when the driver announces "We'll have to turn inland, there's been a landslide at the quarry." If I were in a car and someone did that, my heart would sink.

Land is a recurring theme in New Zealand music, film and literature. It is almost a character unto itself. The land is alien, unforgiving. It reproaches and gives off a sense of unease and unbelonging. Madness, particuarly in rural settings, is a very old and common trope in NZ. Muttonbirds refer to the land a lot: Envy of Angels, Like this Train, Jackie's Song just to name a few.

McGlashan is also interested in the fetishization of NZ things, places and placenames. (The Front Lawn's "It started on Queen St" is an obvious jab at NZers' fascination with themselves. MB's Dominion Road is another good example). Although the Valiant is an American car this make resonates with NZers. It's the kind of car a good ole kiwi bloke might drive.

If you like this song I really recommend "Miracle Sun" from Don's latest album "Warm Hard". Many NZ songs are about cars, the road, the journey etc.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:43 AM on November 21, 2006

Best answer: Here's an exerpt from the interview:
"It's based on a dream I had about being a hitchhiker and being picked up by somebody and then being a part of a long queue of cars that were on their way to something like an outdoor concert which I was supposed to be playing at. I knew that and the driver knew that, but neither of us would mention this. It was one of those dreams of frustration, of not being able to get where you are, but then it turned into one of those meet the Devil type stories, that are everywhere in folk music and the blues. What I was trying to play with was the idea that you meet someone and you chat away and they know the landscape you're passing through intimately and then it turns out they know you intimately as well and you're going somewhere though you didn't think you were going anywhere and where you're going to is a place of ritual. I wanted to leave it really open-ended."

(I was going to post this same question a few months ago, because I thought the song was about a specific real incident, but then I found the interview above and decided not to)

If you want to hear Miracle Sun, Don Mcglashan has it on his Myspace page
posted by slightlybewildered at 1:49 AM on November 21, 2006

Response by poster: Wow--thanks to all. I knew (and probably should have stated) that a Valiant was a make of car and, more generally, that I understood the foreboding story of the hitchhiker picked up by the local with possibly ulterior motives. Like some others here, I assumed the song portrayed real life events, but I am just as happy to hear it was a dream--it resonates with the otherworldliness of the song. It is somewhat uncanny that a song that I find so beautiful leaves me with such dis-ease when I think about the lyrics (although I'm a city boy wary of back roads).

I will definitely be giving Miracle Sun a listen; McGlashan is a great songwriter. Other than Flock, does anyone have any recommendations for MB albums for a new listener?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:16 AM on November 21, 2006

I haven't listened to Flock, although am now considering at as a Christmas present for someone. Instead we have their first album, The Mutton Birds. It was the album of theirs that most registered with me when first published and is possibly the best known. There's a lot of redundancy between the two albums so you're not getting that many new songs, but Big Fish and Giant Friend are excellent, so I think it's worth having both.

(note I link Amplifier because they're great, not because I have any ties to them)
posted by shelleycat at 10:00 PM on November 21, 2006

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