In this article series, drawn from her guest segment on bFM called ‘Genre Rules’, Dr. Kirsten Zemke, Ethnomusicologist from the University of Auckland, exposes us to interesting and varied popular music genre from across time and place.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015


The craziest most interesting genre you’ve never heard of. And that’s not because you haven’t heard of the artists or some of the songs, but because the genre itself did not spring up organically from the artists, or a community, or a place based scene. The genre name was invented by a radio show host, Terry Sharkie, in 1995, at a Portland, Oregon “college” radio station, KPSU. The word came from a colourful kid’s toy. Sharkie’s programme, the "Zany Zolo Muzik Hour" featured songs from the sixties, seventies and eighties which he felt shared similar aesthetics and approaches to music. The debut show featured Godley and Creme, the Residents, XTC, Stump, Split Enz, Pere Ubu, Gentle Giant, and Bill Nelson. Other bands that have released Zolo music are: the B-52’s, Devo, Talking Heads, and Frank Zappa. If you know some of these bands then a sonic and visual picture might be forming in your mind of what characterises this genre.

Oblong Boys

Zolo music existed scattered across decades and styles (obscure musics from different time periods) but had not been named, collated, or assembled until the radio programme. Zolo music is an aural expression of the abstract, asymmetric, multi-coloured imagery which comes with it. Picture eccentric zany behaviour with clothing that is pastel, neon, or checkerboard black and white, topped with outlandish hairdos. The music features lopsided rhythms, synthesized bleeps and boings, “polka-dot percussion”, fantasia, autonomy, falsetto, wacky imagery, frolic and whimsy, and a bold attitude. One writer calls it an “untapped realm of musical capriccioso”. Another describes Zolo as “a treasure trove of cosmic musical discovery” with “bands as boldly bizarre as they are elusively obscure”.

Sharkie asserts that Zolo contains elements of both Progressive Rock and New Wave, but Zolo is a “creative thread” that runs both independent of, and most importantly, between, both of the genres. He insists that Zolo is the “latest manifestation” along a theatrical, art rock, and cabaret genealogy of the last century. Its timelessness is a part of its aesthetic, it is connected to no particular time period, instead, it is the “music of a future era”. One enthusiast asserts that genres like Punk, Ska, and Rockabilly see their times come and go - their inspiration tied to the politics and people of a particular generation. But he claims that Zolo remains as “fresh as the day it was conceived” because it points “perpetually towards the future”.

Zom Zoms

One writer places Zolo in the centre of a spectrum of musical and ideological approaches. He cites the mainstream pop at one end, which is about streamlining and accessibility. At the other end is the anti-pop approach, which encompasses improvisation, bruitism, ambient, industrial, and gloom. He argues that the missing link is a fun but “arty” approach, one that lifts, embellishes and “re-upholsters” music (as opposed to “minimizing and mutilating”) from its “stale and tired basics”. He sees Zolo as the natural outcome of a battle between straightforward vs. elitist. This narrative argues that early nineties grunge with its self-pity and ambiguity, wiped out the musical flamboyancy and creativity of Zolo: “the freaks went into hiding and the arty approach to music fell off the face of the Earth”.

The history of the genre is more like sourcing and putting together puzzle pieces. The starting point is the late sixties but with nods to vaudeville, Spike Jones, Carl Stalling, Harry Partch, and Dr. Demento. Zolo was birthed not out of the churning politics of the Sixties, but out of musical experimentation and the development of the synthesizer. Bands who performed Zolo music in this decade were Perry and Kingsley, White Noise, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Bonzo Dog Band, and even The Who with their album The Who Sell Out (1968). Sharkie claims that the album, in the “consumer averse late sixties counterculture”, was a “comic dagger through the spirit of hippy purity”.

In the Seventies “Progressive Rock” brought classical music into rock (after being told to “Roll Over” by Chuck Berry in the 1950’s). Long songs, symphonic textures and timbre, baroque ostinato and intricacy, and difficult lyrics were part of Prog Rock’s tool box. The genre also featured what were to be the key components of Zolo: theatricality, grandiosity, odd time signatures, layers, and epic structures. One of the important Zolo bands of this decade was Gentle Giant with a number of albums in the genre. The other important band is our own Split Enz. Their highly influential style is pure Zolo with their suits, make up, angles, colours, and voluminous hair. Their albums and early recordings are central to the Zolo canon. Australians, influenced by the Enz, had the band Airlord, and Sharkie cites Roxy Music’s 1972 debut album as also significant.

Picky Picnic

Still in the Seventies, Sharkie’s canon cites punk band The Stranglers as having “Zolo quirks”. Then towards the end of the decade, the genre “New Wave” saw rock bands using synthesisers and wearing colourful clothes, with a slightly playful punk attitude. “New Wave” produced many bands, albums and tracks that can be considered Zolo, finding its zenith in the Eighties. The most Zolo of all were XTC who Sharkie asserts “defined the aural anatomy of Zolo left, right, and center”. Other Zolo contributors in this phase were Bill Nelson, Godley and Creme, The Buggles, Lene Lovich, Pere Ubu, Oingo Boingo and Stump. Zolo tracks from Talking heads and Devo found mainstream success. An interesting inclusion to this chronicle is John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy (1980) album, with the Zolo tracks coming from Yoko: "Kiss Kiss Kiss" and "Give Me Something".

Zolo as a concept and a name was coined by a single person with a regional radio show, and it hasn’t received comprehensive acceptance or recognition. Sharkie’s Nineties radio show garnered a cross section of fans, some relating to the sounds as novelty, some as escape, but others embraced the genre fully as “a way of life”. In the 2000’s the Oblong Boys formed specifically as a Zolo band.
I found a few others who posited names for a similar collection of works and aesthetics: a few people tried to introduce the idea of “Quirk” and another writer in 1978 tried the title: "geometric, jerky quickstep".

The story of Zolo provides us with a further example of the myriad ways genre are formed and named: in this case ‘after the fact’ a number of artists, bands, albums and sometimes individual tracks, from multiple genre and decades, were curated and found to contain a cohesive aesthetic, ideology, fashion, and musical style. I don’t know if any of the musicians mentioned would have even heard of the word. Yet, Zolo before it was named, was potent enough to find proponents across the globe with Zolo sounds coming from Japan, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Germany, Australia and, of course, New Zealand.

So bring out your kazoo and your xylophone, put on your fuchsia shoulder padded jacket, and rock out to New Wave’s mutant older sibling.

My Introductory Zolo Playlist:

Wazmo Nariz “The Mind Is Willing, But the Flesh Is Weak”

XTC “Dance with Me, Germany”

Godley and Creme “Sandwiches of You”

Sparks “Biology 2”

Stump “Buffalo”

The Residents “Loser Is Weed”

The Oblong Boys “Dopre Ba Do”

Picky Picnic "Picnic Land"

Bombay Ducks “Life for Christine”

Chi-Pig "Waves of Disgust"

Zom Zoms “Hyper Lenny”

Split Enz “Stranger than Fiction”

Tyrant Tula 1997 “Zoloprobe”, ZoLoScope blog, Terry Sharkie “Zolo Synthesis” 1997


In this article series, drawn from her guest segment on bFM called ‘Genre Rules’, Dr. Kirsten Zemke, Ethnomusicologist from the University of Auckland, exposes us to interesting and varied popular music genre from across time and place. Besides potentially adding to musicians’ diverse palette of musical influences and inspirations, she hopes this segment will also spark discourse and understandings around popular music itself, how it responds and reacts to global and localised creativities. Many bands and artists may think they find genre tags limiting, but genre is important for bands to find their audiences and vice versa. They also often come with incumbent scenes, aesthetics and social movements, besides just musical differentiation. Genre are important for marketing and promotion strategies, and have bearing on finding suitable types of venues and record labels for bands and artists. Don’t hide from genre… embrace it!

Site Menu

Search the Website