Bernard Zuel: “When an artist shows certainty in a song, that’s what stops me”

We sat down with music journalist and Needle In The Hay judge Bernard Zuel to break down what makes a winning track.

This year’s annual Needle In The Hay Competition was bigger than ever and, as such, we needed to enlist some of Australia’s biggest names in music to help us out. Our first call was, of course, the legendary Bernard Zuel. With over 25 years of experience across Rolling Stone, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age, Zuel is one of Australia’s most decorated and renowned music journalists.

With the competition right around the corner, we sat down for a chat with Zuel about his career, the music industry, and his catalyst for a standout track.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here

bernard zuel

HAPPY: Bernard, thanks for joining me and making yourself available to judge on the panel for Needle In The Hay Vinyl Competition.

BERNARD: Well, you know me, I have to have an opinion.

HAPPY: I guess a lot of our participants will be wondering what pricks your ears when you listen to a song?

BERNARD: Ah, there isn’t one answer, there aren’t even five answers. I guess one thing that catches me, irrespective of the quality of what I’m hearing, is if there is a sense of certainty about what they are doing. If they know what they want and know what they’re doing, at least know what they are trying to do. Whether I like it or not, if they know what they want, at least know what they’re trying to do. For me, it’s more of a case of I can see what you’re doing, I can see what you’re trying to do and that’s what stops me or has me going, let me hear that again.

HAPPY: I’m quite interested in the concept of high rotation. I was told by a big music executive that you never really hear a song on the first listen, it’s actually on the third or fourth listen that we realise whether we like a song or not. Can you tell me how many times you need to listen to a song before you can tell if you’re appreciating it?

BERNARD: I think, generally speaking, that’s true and certainly if you’re not tuning in to listen. If you just hear a song on the radio in the background, it will be a couple of times before you really get it. But when I’m listening with intent, I can generally tell the first time around if there is something there, not necessarily if I like it or whether I’m going to like it long term, more that there is something to hear. When I’m listening to an album to review, for example, I will generally listen to it three or four times before I start thinking about what I’m doing with it, start thinking about what my full thoughts of it are. But, I’ve almost always got some sense of it from that first listen and it’s a little less certain with a single song because, of course, with an album, you’re hearing a succession of things and you’re building up an idea even if it’s only listening in the background. With a single song, I generally can tell, or maybe I fool myself into thinking, I can generally tell enough from the first listen to get a sense if there’s more to come.

HAPPY: Do you listen out for production and conventional song structure or are you more interested in those rules being broken at this stage?

BERNARD: I’m not fixed on either of those positions because I think if you go in with that assumption you’re cutting off any number of responses and reducing the potential for anything you’re listening to. Production has a place and really good production can work to attract you, but really good production can detract because you’re hearing the sound and it can be a particular producer’s sound or a familiar trope. So, I think if you make a hard and fast call on I want to hear somebody subvert the dominant paradigm or if this sounds like you’re a bit of an arty wanker, I don’t want to hear you. If you make a judgement based on either of those extremes then you’re making a judgement based on something other than the song and other than the recording. You’re making a judgement on something that is independent of the song that you’re hearing but to ignore it is to pretend that none of those things matter which is false.

HAPPY: Do you think there is something to be said about a song needing to exist despite the genre it is dressed up in? A good song can be re-produced as a dance track, a country song, a reggae song, or a rock song because, in essence, it’s a great song and it can exist in any format.

BERNARD: That’s true, except, sometimes, the production is what makes it work. The song may be neither here nor there but it’s the arrangement and the production that makes it work. That’s fine because we’re talking about recording, just like if you hear a band play live and the song’s fantastic and then you hear the recording and you think, it’s not there, it’s lacking the personality of the performance, the energy of the performance, or the atmosphere in that room. If there’s no song there then you’re going to have to work really hard in the other areas.

HAPPY: Agreed, and it tends to be the particular way that that performance is captured. One take of a song can just have some magic in it that the take before or after simply doesn’t have.

BERNARD: We also need to be fair to the people making the music that sometimes it’s the magic that’s happening or sometimes it’s the failure that’s happening in the listener’s atmosphere. Going back to judgements you make. You make these assumptions about what you will and won’t listen to and that blocks your ability to hear the magic that’s happening in the record. Like, people who don’t like Dylan’s voice or who say whomever. Things can be going wrong at the listening end that undercut the effectiveness of the recording of the song and it’s completely out of their control, it’s completely unfair. But, it’s a fact of life. For example, you’re in charge of a competition and that day you’re hearing a song, that day you’re making a judgement, that day you’re feeling like shit and you think, I never want to hear this particular sound again. And the band comes out with that particular sound and that’s it, I’m out of here.

HAPPY: I wonder how many artists haven’t been added to rotation on the radio because of that?

BERNARD: Lots, plenty. Even just being a bit more reasonable about it. If, back in the days of Richard Kingsmill or any other programmer…

HAPPY: Is that Sir Richard Kingsmill?

BERNARD: Sir Richard, yes. If Sir Richard didn’t like that sound for whatever reason, he wouldn’t automatically rule it out because there were other voices. But realistically, if he didn’t like it, you’re pretty tough getting it past his desk to somebody else. And even worse, at radio stations that are programmed by remote control essentially, centralised planning, if you don’t hit that man and it’s the man’s sweet spot… he’s got some prejudice against women, he’s got some prejudice against an Australian accent. How often did that happen? Australian hip-hop for years struggled with the idea that if you had an Australian accent, you didn’t sound like a hip-hop artist and therefore would automatically get jettisoned by people who were making those kinds of decisions. Even if you hit every single target, you might just hit the bad day and you’re stuffed. Or you might just hit the wrong day, and it’s the day after they’d already taken on two artists who sound something similar to what you do. It’s still amazing when you read stories of ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s, we’ve got our three women for this week, we don’t need any more bands in our roster, we’re looking for solo artists. That kind of stupid thinking and that still happens. It might be disguised in some way. Now they’ll talk about it as “the market’s a bit saturated at the moment” or “this isn’t quite what our listeners are wanting.” It’s just another way of saying, “we don’t want another act that sounds like this at the moment.” And the quality of the act is irrelevant.

HAPPY: When it comes to lyrics as well, where do you think you sit with that? Because that’s a hard thing too. Often, I’ll listen to Oasis and I’ll be like, what does that even mean? But somehow, it captures a time and has you swaggering along. It’s interesting and then, of course, we listen to things like A Day in the Life or something and you listen to those lyrics. Where do you stand on lyrics and is simplicity key or is it just a case of being sincere?

BERNARD: Being sincere, it’s like saying if your production is bare and you’re singing slightly off-key then that’s more real than a produced singer. Simplicity, the problem is when you look at lyrics you’re hearing in combination, so sometimes simplicity, for me, is perfect. I’m perfectly fine with okay lyrics. I struggle with bad lyrics, but I’m fine with okay lyrics that aren’t doing the doctor’s philosophy of do no harm. If the lyric is doing no harm and it’s just a series of words that sound okay, I’m fine with that if all the other things are working. If the other things aren’t working particularly well or aren’t that special, and you’ve got these lyrics which are telling me absolutely nothing or nothing new, then I’m failing you and my judgement of you will be a fail. But, you can have the best lyrics and if the rest of it is rubbish, then what have you achieved? You’ve got some really interesting words and I’m glad to hear them, I probably won’t play them that often again. But what if that’s not working? Is it because you’re saying there’s no melody or there’s very little melody? That’s perfectly fine as well. I’ve got people I like who don’t have particularly melodic moves, they don’t have particularly attractive voices and their lyrics are good, or very good. And that’s good enough at that point. There’s no single thing. All of those things might be fantastic and still fail for some other reason.

HAPPY: Finally, our winner will get their single pressed to seven-inch. Why do you think vinyl is still such an important medium?

BERNARD: Well, having just spent a couple of hundred dollars this morning ordering my Gillian Welch box-set and having received yesterday $150 worth of PJ Harvey records that have been reissued, I’d say it’s because we’re stupid enough to pay money for it, more money than we should. There’s an element of it that’s different, that it’s not the dominant form. It’s interesting for its difference and it has a connection to an older world. Particularly for 12-inches, for albums. For people who still think of themselves as making a collection of songs and who grew up with their parent’s record collection, even if they weren’t themselves buying those things, there’s still this multi-generational view of the album as the substantial piece of work, as the thing that grown-up artists do. So all those associations mean that releasing something on vinyl connects to a bunch of things. Connects to the past, connects to respectability, adulthood in musical terms.

Now, a lot of people buy the vinyl version of things as an artefact, as a bit of a reward for the artists they like. They’ll get the download and they’ll play that, or they won’t bother with the download. They’ll play it on the stream or whatever, but they’ve made a contribution to the artist they like and they’ve got a little cultural, physical artefact. I think that’s a significant part of why people buy these things as well. I bought a lot of records because I want to make sure that that artist actually gets some money. If I’ve been playing their music on a streaming service, I want them to get something and so I buy a record.

I’m glad that you get to put your record out on a seven-inch if you win this because it’s something that you can actually hold and say this is what we did, rather than you can hear this song if you dig through a playlist on Spotify and you’ll find a song of ours there. Big deal.


Find out more about Needle In The Hay 2020 here.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here