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or those of us currently residing in the Northern Hemisphere, New Zealand can seem like an impossibly far away and mysterious locale. Aside from the inevitable jokes concerning the lack of women and easy access to sheep, it’s a safe bet to say that the average Joe, if pressed, would find it difficult to come up with anything particularly insightful to say about the country. And even if they did, it’s likely that they’d confuse it with Australia. This theory was ably demonstrated by Cherie Blair (wife of Tony) when, during a recent visit to NZ, she managed to refer to her hosts as Australians. Twice.
But one has to have a little sympathy for her. Face it—before you saw The Lord of The Rings at the local multiplex, you too considered New Zealand to be a place of beaches, surf bums, endless sun, and soap operas of questionable quality: in other words, just like Australia, but smaller. Both culturally and meteorologically, you’d be wrong: equating New Zealand and Australia on those terms smacks of laziness. Yet biogeographically, Australia and New Zealand share some interesting similarities. Before the beginning of human settlement (only 700 years ago in NZ), both locales lacked indigenous terrestrial placental mammals: which meant no cats, no dogs, no horses—nada. Instead, other species decided to muscle in on the turf, causing the evolution of species that have no taxonomic equivalents in the rest of world today.
As a result, there’s a sense of isolation permeating much of NZ. Yet this needn’t be pejorative: just as biological segregation begat unique species, cultural segregation would come into play when the time came for the first nascent memes of punk to begin gobbing their way across the Pacific. In this case, the isolation was informational: NZ’s small size, coupled with the strength of conservative mainstream culture in the 70s meant that ‘the kids’ were unlikely to ever feel a sense of unity with their brethren across the waters: if the seeds of punk managed to find a memetic foothold in NZ, they’d be on their own. And thus, for the second time in its history, NZ began to diverge from the rest of the world…
“There wasn't a Dunedin Sound, except that the bands recorded on the same equipment and possessed the same feel. We all shared a love of good songs and a loathing of stage personas and such.” -- Martin Phillips, Southern Skys magazine, 1991.
“…at the tail end of the seventies The Enemy played at our school dance. Chris Knox was the evilest person I'd seen. From the start I was dreading the moment he might come off the stage, and, like, tap me on the shoulder or something. I thought I was punk but inside I was cowering. Thank god they only lasted two songs before [the principal] ran onto the stage and kicked them off.” -- Shayne Carter, Mysterex: Kiwi Punk and Beyond, #3.Knox had arrived in Dunedin from the even wetter Invercargill in 1977, and, eerily paralleling the career of another guy called Knox, immediately began to fuck shit up. By all accounts, Knox was somewhat frustrated at what he saw as the lack of a creative spark in the local music scene.
“The Cook [local Dunedin pub] is more importantly where Chris Knox used to sit night in night out, grinding his teeth at the succession of mediocre to malfunctionary bands that passed across its tiny stage. He used to break things from time to time.” -- Roy Colbert, from the article “Toy Love Week in Dunedin,” late 70s.He formed The Enemy, possibly NZ’s first great punk band, and began channeling Iggy Pop to an extent that he became as well-known for his self-mutilation on stage as for his music. Leaving Dunedin for bigger things, Knox moved to Auckland and formed Toy Love in 1980, a new-wave-esque combo who tried to break into the Australian market, but didn’t manage to gain a foothold. Knox was an extremely talented songwriter (his main writing partner Alec Bathgate was no slouch, either), but musically, Toy Love sounded little different to their Northern Hemispheric punk peers; for example, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Toy Love’s “I Don’t Mind” for The Ruts “Babylon’s Burning” if you met it in a dark alley late one night. Yet that would be missing the point: what Knox’s early bands should be recognized for is their addition of some much-needed local colour to the local musical mimetic pool. The legacy of The Enemy’s relentless gigging around Dunedin meant that there was now a younger generation of prospective musicians, eager to pick up from where Knox and co. had left off. But the influence of experiencing The Enemy as their punk touchstone, their personal year zero, indeed the founder of this mimetic line would mean that this generation’s music would be startlingly different.
“Punk was big for sure but in Dunedin we were extremely isolated and it took a long time for musical trends to filter down this far. You have to appreciate the pre-globalisation technological environment that existed back then (at least for us). A record released in the UK may have taken up to two years before a copy of the master was shipped out here and the pressing plant in Wellington produced the record. Case in point, Ian Curtis was dead and buried before any JD records were released here. They were awaited with great anticipation because people had read about the band in NME or whatever, but the actual records took an age to filter through. Being something of a backwater meant there was something of a disincentive to follow trends (why bother when they were moribund at their source by the time we knew about them). This allowed or fostered inclusive listening habits, anything from the 60's up to punk. (hence my rather conservative record collection was not frowned upon in any way as being uncool).” -- Graeme Downes, by email, 2005.And yet Knox would end up playing midwife to this new scene, whether he liked it or not.
“Radio in Dunedin and throughout New Zealand was terrible in the seventies. We had a few thrills like the Dr Demento’s Show late at night and some DJs who were a little adventurous but apart from that it was relentless top 40 and golden oldies. [They played] New Zealand music only if they really had to, and only if it was very mainstream. The programmers predicted the end of society as we knew it if they were forced to play that terribly amateur NZ stuff.” -- Martin Phillips, by e-mail, 2005.
‘The generation that followed, the so-called Dunedin Sound bands, borrowed punks DIY ethos and some of its aggression, but not a lot stylistically. And because the only live music we tended to hear were the other bands in the city we tended to borrow from each other probably more than from outside sources. The Clean were the best band and most of us younger ones used them as a model. This insularity that created the situation where a group of bands absorbed influences from local rather than global influences was bound to create stylistic similarity.’ -- Graeme Downes, by e-mail, 2005.Whatever the answer, the groups inhabiting Dunedin in the wake of The Enemy’s departure up north were a veritable swingers’ club of musician-swappers. Everyone seemed to be playing in each others bands, and side projects were nigh-on compulsory: the air must’ve reeked with promiscuity. Here’s a quick example: future NZ rock God Shayne Carter formed the punkish Bored Games while 15 and still at school in Dunedin, drawing inspiration from both the Sex Pistols and The Enemy. Around the same time, a young Martin Phillips (no slouch in the future deity-like stakes either) formed The Same, although Phillips’ influences were more wide-ranging.
“[When I first started out] I had only just begun buying records and the early ones were David Bowie, The Sweet, Alice Cooper etc. Unfortunately I didn't have an elder sibling or friend to introduce me to The Beatles and The Stones etc so I really had no conception of the history of popular music, unlike most of my peers in the local music scene. I very quickly started devouring all the music that was recommended to me so I tried out things like Rick Wakeman, Kiss, Queen, Led Zeppelin etc before the punk thing came along and I got into that. Initially it was just the thrill of being part of a rebellious scene that disturbed older people that attracted me to it and it was a while before I understood where punk had come from musically and why it had had to happen. I'd always listened to music though. Peter And The Wolf and The Carnival Of The Animals were big favourites when I was very young and then, for some strange reason, I used to love The Black And White Minstrel Show on television when I was about four. I also remember my mother having the radio on pop stations so I heard a lot of those classic sixties songs and, of course, I was a big fan of The Monkees, The Banana Splits and The Archies etc on T.V. so I got to hear all that bubble gum stuff too.” -- Martin Phillips, by e-mail, 2005.When Bored Games broke up, half of the members ended up in The Chills, Phillip’s follow-up to The Same. With Wayne Elsey from Bored Games, Shayne Carter went on to form The Doublehappys, even though Elsey continued to have a parallel career in his own band, The Stones. Carter later played with Peter Jefferies, another local music luminary who had played with his brother Grahame in the band Cakekitchen, Grahame having just finished with his previous project, This Kind of Punishment. Clearly, as the 70s slouched into the 80s in Dunedin the question on everyone’s lips was who wasn’t playing in each others’ bands, rather than vice versa.
“…with NZ being so small you tend to get to know most people eventually, somehow. The late 70's and a lot of the 80's were great fun and really exciting. Amongst the camaradery there was (and still is) always a healthy undercurrent of competition in the creative stakes.” -- David Kilgour, by e-mail, 2005.However, there was another home-grown band who occupied an unusual niche between the Enemy/Toy Love scene and the new bands beginning to appear. Forming in Dunedin in 1977, and playing their first gig supporting The Enemy soon after that, The Clean rapidly became one of the town’s most popular live acts. A three-piece featuring brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and a succession of Spinal Tapesque bass players, reports of the sound of their early gigs mentions their penchant for generating vast geomagnetic storms of violent feedback, but little else. Yet the Kilgours were searching for a sound that would take the energy and enthusiasm of punk, and yet pay homage to the past, too.
“Hamish and I were listening to a lot of different music, lots of 60's stuff and of course early punk coming out of the UK and NYC. Usual reference points like the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Velvet Underground, Psychedelic garage from the 60's, etc.....we were vinyl junkies before picking up instruments… We started recording ourselves on a Revox 2 track as early as 1980.” -- David Kilgour, by e-mail 2005.Does this put paid to any notions of the seclusion of the fledgling NZ scene? Far from it: David Kilgour was an atypical NZ teenager, as he had access to something that allowed him to dip into a deeper end of the mimetic pool than his peers were could: a family trust fund, which he gleefully utilized to amass a sizable collection of shiningly-wrapped import vinyl.
Meanwhile, Toy Love had gone north, tried the Australian market, recorded an album that they felt didn’t really capture their live sound, and split. Just as regional British bands from the same era would often struggle to translate their rabid local appeal into national success, many Dunedin bands struggled in the larger markets of Auckland and Oz. The biggest problem was that there was no sense of an independent scene: recording an album meant either going with a major label or taking a deep breath, cashing in those Premium bonds, and publishing it yourself.
“I guess their had been the odd self-financed record here or there and there was a label called Ode Records who recorded some of the jazz artists…but the representatives of the overseas major labels in NZ were mainly here to market overseas product and they weren't interested in signing local acts. When it did happen with commercially viable acts like the Dance Exponents and DD Smash the labels really had little idea on how to make it work beyond New Zealand. They would force their artists to go down that same old track of heading to Australia—in theory to tighten up and learn the ropes in preparation for the next step in world conquest! Except no-one ever went any further as they all got burnt out and disillusioned by the extremely grueling nature of touring the massive distances in Australia. Not to mention some of the worst crowds and venues in the world. Even the champions of NZ's alternative scene, Chris Knox's band Toy Love, were run into the ground leaving Chris even MORE cynical and biting.” -- Martin Phillips, by email, 2005.Consequently, by 1981, Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate had formed The Tall Dwarfs, an experiment into home recording that used Chris’ latest pride and joy: a TEAC four track. Along with ex-The Enemy/Toy Love Doug Hood they recorded the first Tall Dwarfs EP 3 Songs in 1981. It sounded remarkable. Hisses, crackles and echoey found sounds were just as much of a part of the record as the faux-naïve pop songs played by Chris and Alec. Here, if anyone involved in mainstream NZ music was listening, was music being composed, recorded, and marketed on a beer-money budget. Luckily for Chris and Alec, someone was listening…
Roger Shepard. As a music store worker and major-league music fan, he was eager to create a true local NZ indie label modeled after success stories from the UK like Rough Trade. Living in Christchurch, the setting for director Peter Jackson’s first mainstream film, Heavenly Creatures, popular opinion has it that Shepard primarily set up his new label Flying Nun to record that city’s burgeoning local scene. The first release on the new label was by The Pin Group, featuring future lo-fi legend Roy Montgomery.
“…the band were nicknamed ‘Roy Division’ for their like of dark moody music a la Joy Division. Singer Roy worked in Christchurch's main record store—EMI, and the shop was notoriously vandalised overnight with the words roy division spray-painted across the shop front, apparently not the work of the band and greatly embarrassing Montgomery.” -- Rob Mayes, http://www.thebigcity.co.nz.However, it was to be the label’s second release that turned heads. The Clean, having survived moves to Auckland by Hamish Kilgour and frequent line-up changes, trooped dutifully into Christchurch’s Nightshift studios to record their very first seven-inch single, accompanied by Martin Phillips on organ. Nightshift was an eight-track studio, and despite having a history that included recording local noise heroes The Gordons, the Clean’s session couldn’t really be described as a meeting of minds between the studio engineer and the band.
“I remember not having any lyrics for the song…well maybe a couple of lines, and writing them out at breakfast on a napkin. The engineer was kind of a metalhead who had a studio built into his house, very primitive. The main room was basically his lounge, we thought he gave us a pretty bad drum sound. Also around this time most people couldn’t deal with my trebly [guitar sound] and I was always being hounded for it, esp. from people like this so that was always another battle. Like—"we WANT it to sound like that," "don’t try and fix (equalize) anything, WE don’t think it’s broke." -- David Kilgour, by email, 2005.The pistols-at-dawn vibe in the studio aside, “Tally Ho!” was the first salvo of Flying Nun that hit its target square centre. Recorded for only $50 NZ (roughly 10p in today’s money) and distributed by a loyal network of friends, it nevertheless managed to reach #19 on the NZ singles chart. As might be expected, this boosted interest in Flying Nun to no end, which was no doubt bolstered by the Chris Knox directed video. Knox, quickly becoming the label’s answer to Jonathan Miller, picked up a 16mm camera and made “Tally Ho!”’s video, managing along the way to accidentally expose half of the film stock. Later confessing that he had “no ideas” as to what he was actually doing, the video was an inspiringly-deranged masterpiece: just the thing to go along with the day-glo psychedelia of the track itself. It was unique: while much of the raw energy of punk had been exhausted in Europe and been replaced by the dark, skittering rhythms and existential lyrics exemplified by Factory Records bands, “Tally Ho!” pointed backwards towards a future populated by super-charged garage bands who only wanted to have fun. A potent mix of 60s bubblegum and 70s attitude sustained by the positive-feedback loop formed by the Dunedin scene’s somewhat insular nature, “Tally Ho!”’s sun-drenched shadow would be felt across many Flying Nun releases for years to come.
When it came time for The Clean to record their first collection of songs, they decided to go with Chris Knox and Doug Hood producing, and recorded the record on Knox’s four track. The subsequent six-song EP, Boodle Boodle Boodle went to #4 in the charts, stayed in the top 50 for six months, and went on to sell over 10,000 copies.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once memorably stated that “concept’ is a vague concept”. Fair play to him, but epistemological uncertainty isn’t limited to the arts. In cramped and under-funded labs the world over people are currently wielding pipettes and haranguing each other over the meanings of various bits and bobs of obscure terminology.
For example, the term ‘speciation’ is probably one of the most hotly contested and wrangled over in modern biology. It’s one of those words that everyone has no problem with—until you actually ask them to explain it. Here, for the record, is my attempt: ‘speciation’ occurs when a bunch of individuals from a population wake up after a particularly rough night chugging back their beverage of choice only to find that they’re completely cut off from everyone else. After a few generations one of two things happens: either everyone ends up looking remarkably similar to each other (in which case this particular population won’t be around for long) or we find that good old selection has managed to accentuate the originals’ indigenous genetic variability and bang!—a new population complete with its own distinct quirks is gradually formed from the original. I should point out at this juncture that the whirring noise you can hear is Stephen J. Gould, turning in his grave.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayer put it a little better: ‘A species is an actually or potentially interbreeding population that does not interbreed with other such populations when there is opportunity to do so.’ In other words, having survived that initial event of isolation, the new population is sufficiently established to rely on its one genetic pool, and flick the V’s at everyone else. In the increasingly more self-assured indie music scene of NZ in 1981/82, such a description was eerily accurate.
“…bands like The Verlaines, [The] Chills, [The] Stones all had similar guitar sounds early on, trebly and reverbed, maybe a basic 4/4 beat, a love of melody,.....but yes also an uncomprimising approach which we all shared and I would dare to say we were all strong minded young people!” -- David Kilgour, by e-mail, 2005.March 1982. Four bands entered Paul Kean’s dingy flat in Christchurch to subject themselves to Chris Knox and Doug Hood’s ‘trial by four-track’. All four had formed in the wake of seeing The Clean play live, and had varying degrees of musical talent and experience between them. Martin Phillips (he of “Tally Ho”’s cheeky organ line) had formed The Chills after his first band The Same had broke up, and had managed to already get through one line-up when he decided to go on tour with The Clean. Arriving back in Dunedin in summer 1981 Phillips trawled around for new blood and re-formed The Chills with three other like-minded individuals.
“Started playing (with any regularity) when I was around 19…I was listening to a range of stuff, from Sex Pistols to Springsteen, Dylan, Randy Newman, van Morrison, VU and of course heaps of classical still, a lot of Mahler, Brahms and a recent pet love at that time Martinu. Most of my enthusiasm for playing music was generated internally, by seeing bands like the Clean and the Same play.” -- Graeme Downes, by email, 2005.While The Chills had the experience of Phillips, Graeme Downes’ The Verlaines brought some interesting influences into the fold, primarily fostered by his love of classical music and the effect that studying for a degree in music would have in his approach to songwriting. The Stones and The Sneaky Feelings completed the four, standing at opposite corners stylistically: while The Stones (fronted by Shayne Carter’s old sparring partner from Bored Games, Wayne Elsey) approach to music put the ‘der’ into ‘neanderthal’, Sneaky Feelings would have fitted into the pub-rock scene of Britain in the late 70s without anyone batting an eyelid. Nevertheless, all four bands had been seen live by Roger Shepard around NZ’s South Island, and he decided to give them all their first chance at recorded fame by releasing a double EP: four sides, four bands, three songs each. It was called ‘The Dunedin Double’.
“It was a pretty grotty little flat it and it was all strung up. One room was the studio and the next room was the control room....Katherine was playing a tambourine as well but every take we did, the tambourine was so bloody loud that they couldn't get it low enough in the mix because it was all pretty much being recorded acoustically so they ended up burying her under a mattress in the corner of the room. It was absolutely primitive. We were just wallowing in inexperience all over the place really. It was a pretty crazy thing to be doing.” -- Graeme Downes, interviewed by Dave Fisher, Filler Magazine, 1999.The Dunedin Double EP was a strong statement of intent for the nascent label: Flying Nun may have had offices in Christchurch, but Dunedin was where its heart lay. Across the four sides of the EP a variety of stylistic approaches to the basic primitivism of the Dunedin Sound were explored. Sneaky Feelings were perhaps the most sophisticated of the four bands in their approach to songwriting, yet paradoxically fared the worst: wearing their 60s influences on their sleeves, they sounded utterly unremarkable. In stark contrast, The Verlaines sound like a band filled with ideas, yet one struggling to realize them on tape. Of their three tracks, ‘Crisis after Crisis’ hints best at the future glories to come: two minutes of a simple chord progression that suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a completely different song for the last three minutes of the track. Such experimentation with tempos and key changes would come to characterize Downes’ early work with the Verlaines, a stylistic approach exemplified by the Hallelujah All the Way Home track ‘The Lady and the Lizard’. The Stones, on the other hand, managed to take simple song structures and embellish them with all sorts of bizarre effects, espousing a pragmatic approach to sound manipulation that would stand them in good stead for future releases. To provide that all important sound effect, Elsey organized his merry men to peel an innocent piano like a tomato and stroke its strings for ‘Down and Round’. Somehow, it worked.
Yet it would be Martin Phillips’ Chills that won the battle of the sides. Their three tracks, ‘Kaleidoscope World’, ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘Frantic Drift’ are frankly astonishing: rich, full pop symphonies whose gorgeous sound belies their 4-track origins. This wasn’t The Enemy’s punk, it wasn’t The Clean’s VU-influenced drones, and it wasn’t the bubblegum pop of Martin Phillips’ youth. Yet the discerning listener could hear all of these influences buried deep within the tracks: the NZ scene was taking its influences, and budding off in to unexpected directions.
“Making a record was not even in the realms of fantasy when we started and without Flying Nun everyone would probably have got'n over it and moved on. Other similar indie labels turned up around the same time but, being based in Auckland, I doubt they would have concerned themselves with Dunedin bands. So yes, any parallel universe without Flying Nun would mean a whole lot of songs probably would not even have been written, let alone recorded.” -- Graeme Downes, by email, 2005.With the release of the Dunedin Double there was no longer any discussion in the NZ music press, to wit: there WAS a ‘Dunedin Sound’, it resided on Flying Nun, and it required records to be made in the most appalling of locales on the most primitive of equipment. And, somehow, the magic happened. But don’t take my word for it: just ask Dr. Graeme Downes, Verlaines frontman and Univeristy of Otago lecturer, on whether he thinks that there really was a ‘Dunedin Sound’:
“I'm three quarters way writing a book on the subject at the moment… suffice to say that the insular and isolated nature of the Dunedin scene around 1980-83 meant that bands tended to learn from each other, both technically and in terms of how to write songs, one might even argue that a shared aesthetic of what constituted a good or original song was generated largely internally. Every good song set a benchmark that others tried to emulate or outdo. Not only is the sound similar in some cases but they share compositional techniques, choices of harmonic and melodic materials and structurally go about songwriting in a way quite removed from external norms.” -- Graeme Downes, by e-mail, 2005.But the new scene had to perform one important ritual, one that would have been familiar to acolytes of Joseph Campbell. The old had to be sacrificed to let the new order go on. And the nearest that the Flying Nun scene had to canon was The Clean. They broke up in 1982. But their memes lived on.
“…it has always been a big regret of mine that there weren't, say, a couple of semi-retired famous music producers from the sixties British scene or something who had come out to NZ to retire but instead found themselves caught up in a truly exciting and often almost magical era of musical creativity and passion. Because although there are some excellent sounding recordings from those early Nun days there are far more records which really didn't do justice to the power and energy of the bands in question. Someone who had worked with the early Who or The Kinks or something could perhaps have helped make records that could have made much more of an impact worldwide. It is very frustrating that whatever happens here in New Zealand - even when people have anticipated by some years a musical movement or style that becomes big internationally (which has certainly occurred a few times) it never really gets noted by those who subsequently compile the big books on music history. It 's always largely England and America and a handful of references to artists from Africa, Jamaica, Germany, Iceland!, sometimes a few Australians sneak in but usually only if they've relocated to London or Los Angeles. You would really think by now that the major music magazines would have a writer permanently posted in Australasia keeping track of what's going on. It could be the future!” -- Martin Phillips, by e-mail, 2005.
Flying Nun built on their original successes with The Clean, The Chills and The Verlaines to become NZ’s foremost indie label. In the twenty-three years that have passed since they formed, they’ve grown in size, become part of the Mushroom records empire, recorded an album to mark their 21st birthday (that was recorded in 21 hours), and managed to release more idiosyncratic collections of pure pop and ragged noise than almost any other label on the planet. Ever. Here, then, is what I’ve loved about the label since first hearing The Clean’s ‘Getting Older’ on a scratchy cassette some fifteen years ago.
‘Flying Nun’s very own Pixies’. Never was a band so damned in a single sentence, and The 3Ds would find this description haunting them at almost every juncture of their career. However, with hindsight, you could see where the critics were coming from: four-piece guitar band; three guys, one lassie; genius lead guitarist; an ability to choose some tremendously warped subject matter for their songs; and a habit for taking sweet pop songs and turning them into lip-curling, moshed-out monsters. In a trend that would be repeated again and again for Flying Nun bands, they were at their best on their singles: they had a knack of promoting their albums with 7-inch packets of such ferocious excellence that the albums never had a hope of competing. Track down ‘Outer Space’, which preceded 1992’s ‘Hellzapoppin’’, but most of all try to find ‘Hey Seuss’, the debut single from 1993’s ‘The Venus Trail’. It’s a fantastic scuzzed-up pop song of a track built around a simple descending guitar riff, but for all the sophistication of its recording, it still sound like it was done on Chris Knox’s four track. And I can think of no higher praise to give it.
FN 241 3Ds - Outer Space (7-inch single, backed with a cover of ‘Baby’s on Fire’)
FN 297 3Ds - Hey Seuss (7-inch single)
The Able Tasmans started off life as a jamming party band. Their early releases sounded like a band having a lot of fun in the studio: ‘Nelson The Cat’, from their debut EP in 1985, was 25 seconds of what sounded like the jingle to a kids television series…recorded by The Doors. On their first album ‘Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down’ they veered from more Doors-influenced 60s pop (‘New Sheriff’ is ‘Break On Through’) to the sparse and melancholic (the piano-led ‘And We Swam the Magic Bay’). The experience was often like listening to a CDR from a dear friend: the band lacked the sense of identity that other FN bands could stamp on their releases. Nevertheless, their diversity gives them a kind of strength, and while they managed to consolidate their sound somewhat on later releases, ‘Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down’ remains my favourite. The ‘Tired Sun’ EP is hard to track down, but it’s worth it for the daft and charming ‘Nelson The Cat’.
FN 043 – Able Tasmans – Tired Sun (EP)
FN 075 – Able Tasmans – Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down (LP)
Formed in 1987 from the remains of The Gordons, Christchurch’s premier exponents of machine-shop rock, Bailterspace (originally Nelsh Bailterspace) were a noise-rock band who understood pop conventions. When they were loud, they were loud: reading reports of their early gigs, you can almost feel the tinnitus bleeding from the page. Yet the band walked a tightrope: NZ already had a beautific noise label in Bruce Russell’s Xpressway, where bands like The Dead C were exploring the outer reaches of sound. Bailterspace were always more interested in mining the rich seams to be found between traditional pop/rock styles and the kind of unforgiving waves of feedback that their contemporaries Sonic Youth were exploring. The Fall were an important influence, too, and traces of Mark E. Smith’s sneering delivery can be clearly heard in Alister Parker’s incensed rant on their early work and sporadically on later tracks, like ‘Projects’ from 1994’s album ‘Vortura’. A three-piece that sounded like a thirty-piece on record, the band are probably best heard on the recent compliation ‘Bailterspace’, released in 2004. While this has selections from almost all of the stages of their career (their sound didn’t fundamentally change as the band matured, but their ability to realise it in the studio did), fanatics should make sure they pick up ‘Tanker Nelsh’ too, which combines their first EP Nelsh (best track: ‘In Love With these Times’, which gives this piece its title) and their first album ‘Tanker’. Good luck tracking down an original, but it can be purchased as MP3s online from emusic (www.emusic.com) without too many problems.
OLE-136-2 Bailterspace - Tanker/Nelsh (Matador re-issue EP+LP)
FN CD484 Bailterspace - Bailterspace (compilation)
Sigh. I know I’m going to get hate mail, but I just never got turned onto The Bats. The same simple three minute chug-alongs that broke them on college radio in the US never really made much of an impression on me. Formed by bass-player Robert Scott when The Clean broke up for their first extended hiatus in 1982, Scott switched over to guitar and began writing songs. Lots of songs. When interviewed in the late 80s he claimed to have written well over 1000, the indie singer-songwriter’s equivalent of notches on the bedpost. Still playing, writing new material, and playing the odd live gig (the last I know of was in 2004), The Bats have certainly stayed the course. If you want to check them out, the 2000 compilation ‘Thousands of Tiny Luminous Spheres’ is definitely worth your while; of their individual albums, I like their debut ‘Daddy’s Highway’ best, which features possibly their best song, ‘North by North’.
FN079 – The Bats – Daddys Highway (LP)
FN413 – The Bats – Thousands of Tiny Luminous Spheres
Bird Nest Roys
A full 5 years before Ride released their definitive statement of shoegazerdom (the ‘Today Forever’ EP) The Bird Nest Roys released their self-titled album. Its second track ‘Alien’ sounds with uncanny exactitude to be a template for the future career of the Oxford-based moptops, right down to the three-part ‘ahhhh…ahhhhh!’ harmonies in the chorus. It’s unlikely that Mark Gardener’s band ever heard it, though: the Auckland-based six-piece Roys (featuring Big Ross and Little Ross on guitar and vocals) never released anything beyond their debut album. Like early Abel Tasmans, this record never stands still stylistically but tends towards the darker and denser edge of the spectrum. I can hear echoes of mid-period Straitjacket Fits here: the Roys eschewed the baroque, folky arrangements of some of their contemporaries to concentrate on driving home guitar-drenched rock songs. The first album might still be available on Flying Nun Europe; it’s long been out of print down under.
FN 065 The Bird Nest Roys – The Bird Nest Roys (LP)
It’s hard to believe it, but The Clean didn’t release a full length album during their first incarnation. Consisting of David and Hamish Kilgour and Robert Scott, after their first *definitive* split in 1982 Scott decamped to form the jingley-jangley Bats while the Kilgours got back together with Peter Gutteridge (Scott’s predecessor on bass in The Clean) to form The Great Unwashed (track down the ‘Collection’ on FN203 to hear their recorded history: like a more lo-fi Clean, basically (!)). More band swapping went on in the 80s, until The Kilgours and Scott met up in London in 1989 and decided a bit of recording was on the cards. They banged out Vehicle (their first ‘real’ album), setting a pattern that would be repeated over the next fifteen years: meet up, record album, release album, bugger off. At the time of writing The Clean have released four ‘post-split’ albums, ‘Vehicle’ (1989), ‘Modern Rock’ (1995), ‘Unknown Country’ (1996), and ‘Getaway’ (2001). If I had to choose one, I’d go for Vehicle: while the later albums might boast better individual tracks (‘Stars’, a woozy gem from ‘Getaway’, is a particular fave of mine), Vehicle is the sound of three friends finding that, while they may be apart most of the time, they work best together. It has a sound and an identity that they’ve never managed to replicate since; in retrospect, it sounds like a warm up for David Kilgour’s solo career (track down everything by Kilgour that you can get your hands on: he’s yet to make anything approaching a bad album. My favourite is the warm and confidential self-produced ‘A Feather in the Engine’ from 2002. Perfect post-hangover listening).
But if you’re limited to The Clean’s albums you’re not really experiencing their true career. ‘Anthology’ (2003) is a cracking 46 track 2CD collection that includes the bulk of The Clean’s pre-1982 recorded output on its first disk. Really, every home requires the Boodle Boodle Boodle EP on CD, and all five of its tracks are on ‘Anthology’. Fire up ‘Point That Thing Somewhere Else’, and ruminate on what would have happened if Peter Gutteridge had stayed in the band.
FN 147 The Clean – Vehicle – (LP)
FN 468 The Clean – Anthology – (Double LP compilation)
The Chills were another Flying Nun band that managed to churn out quality EP after quality EP in the 80s, but always managed to escape making that ‘difficult first album’. Martin Phillips did have some excuses, though: through a combination of personal tragedies and artistic differences, The Chills were onto their tenth line-up by 1987, when the band recorded their first album, ‘Brave Words’, in London. Good album, bad production: the songs sound muffled by the production, and where shiny pop surfaces dominated the bands’ earlier work, here the sound was dulled and blunted. No matter: the Chills had really already recorded their first album – they just hadn’t realised it. ‘Kaleidoscope World’ was a collection of EPs including the band’s contributions to the Dunedin Double EP. 18 tracks in all, it covers rollicking folk-pop (‘Rolling Moon’), raw garage noise (‘Flame Thrower’ – check out the closing 90s) and epic drama (‘Dream By Dream’/’Pink Frost’) with equal grace and poise. The changing line-up around him bears testament to Phillips’ talent as a leader, songwriter and arranger: the Chills had got through NINE different line ups by the end of these 18 tracks. More albums would follow: ‘Submarine Bells’ was licensed through Warners subsidiary Slash to the rest of the world, while remaining an FN domestic release, and managed to produce a hit single in ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’. ‘Submarine Bells’ is probably The Chills best album to date, with the title track in particular benefiting from some of Phillips most sonorous lyrics to date: ‘…Gold and groaning, sunlit tonings, submerged sound sublime.’ It’s still quite easy to find, and ‘Kaleidoscope World’ can be tracked down pretty easily too. Phillips has just reformed The Chills again, and has just released a cracking new seven song EP, ‘Stand By’, which can be ordered through http://www.softbomb.com/.
FNE13 The Chills – Kaleidoscope World (Compilation)
Slash/Liberation30342 The Chills – Submarine Bells (LP)
Not a Flying Nun band per se, but included here because their work is reissued on FN, The Gordons released 1000 copies of the ‘Future Shock’ EP in 1980. At a pinch, it sounded like someone scuba-diving in a sea of tar: what hope did The Gordons’ offer for the future? Precious little, it seemed; the title track is a terrifying amalgam of future, past and present, welded together by a blind mechanic. I can hear both technofear and a sense of excitement at the possibility of the new in the track; singer Alistair Galbraith fights vainly to have his voice heard over the white heat of technological progression until his popping vocal chords can take no more and he picks up his guitar around the two minute mark, fighting back with harmonics and feedback. On the strength of this release, Alvin Tofler would’ve loved them.
Their first album was a surprise. Still loud, still abrasive, still fantastic, but the sea of tar was gone forever. It was recorded in a single 22 hour recording session, and apparently released with a press release that said simply: “If you don't buy our album, we will blow you up. Love, 'The Gordons'“. They needn’t have worried: The Gordons Vol. 1 is a masterpiece. Dripping with ideas about how to meld noise and melody, played with absolute conviction and energy, it still sounds extraordinary. In 1984 the band released their second album. Popular opinion is that it’s a bit shit. Popular opinion, in this case, is right. Get the volume one + future shock reissue on FN and compare it to Sonic Youth of the same period, just for a laugh.
FNCD099 The Gordons (reissue of ‘Future Shock’ and ‘Volume 1’)
In 1994, Flying Nun finally got its first NZ number one single. It was called ‘George’, it was by The Headless Chickens, and not only was it one of the most unlikely hit records ever, it sounded utterly unlike anything on FN before or since. Startlingly well-produced, with a shiny sheen that belied its location on FN, the single sounded a little like Curve, a little like Skunk Anansie, and a lot like someone who knew exactly which buttons to punch in the studio to guarantee a hit. But it wasn’t like the band were a bunch of one-hit wonders: The Chickens had been together since 1985 and had been through a number of lin-ups and changes to their sound before hitdom beckoned with ‘George’. Their early work brings to mind early 90s British bands like EMF and Jesus Jones; fumbling attempts to combine samplers, drum machines, and traditional rock. They succeeded more often than they failed, though, and, while most of their catalogue is far from essential, make sure you hear ‘Cruise Control’ at least once. Released in 1991, it’s a breezy pop delight, and funky in a spastic Devo/Talking Heads-kinda way. It can be found on their compilation, ‘ChickensHits’, released in 2002. It has enough good tracks on it to justify purchase, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever feel the need to purchase one of their albums.
FN467 Headless Chickens – Chickens Hits (Double Compilation LP)
John Paul Sartre Experience
…or the band that had to change their name to the JPS Experience/JPSE after Mnsr. Sartre’s estate made a transatlantic trunk call. JPSE made three of Flying Nun’s best examples of straight up, no messing indie-rock during their time on the label from 1986 to 1993. While their sound slowly morphed from the plaintive, semi-acoustic fair on their debut ‘Love Songs’ to their discovery of the joy of guitar SFX on their last album, ‘Bleeding Star’, there was always a consistency to their songwriting that survied the stylistic changes. Yet their strengths would end up being their weaknesses: not many bands can stay together when they have two songwriters pulling them in different directions, and the JPSE had three (Dave Yetton, David Mulcahy, and Jim Laing). Things came to a head, Mulcahy left just after ‘Bleeding Star’ was released in 1993, and the rest of the band called it quits soon after that. But what a legacy: ‘Bleeding Star’ is a fantastic slab of the sound that the Jesus and Mary Chain had unveiled on ‘Honey’s Dead’ the previous year; while ‘Bleeding Star’ sounds like it needed the Mary Chain to show the band the way, it’s still a fabulous fuzz-pop masterpiece. And, since the JAMC would never make another loud album, it’s like the big brother that ‘Honey’s Dead’ never had. Bless. Get it and ‘The JPSE’, a re-issue of their debut album and EP.
FNCD078 JPS Experience – The JPS Experience (1st LP+ 1st EP)
FN246 JPS Experience – Bleeding Star (LP)
I first heard Peter Gutteridge’s band Snapper on the Flying Nun retrospective ‘Getting Older’ (still a great compilation to pick up, and recently remastered). Their song ‘Buddy’ was an ugly little pop song that took you by the lapels, slammed you against the wall, and asked if you liked hospital food; no messing around, it stuck out somewhat amongst the pastoral sounds dominating the compilation. However, ‘Buddy’ was by no means Gutteridge’s first stab at recording; he was the original bass player in The Clean, started up The Chills with Martin Phillips, and had reunited with the Kilgours on the ‘Great Unwashed’ project. Yet Snapper sounds utterly unlike any of his previous work: leaving more traditional songwriting behind, Snapper’s ultra-distorted work had a motoric chug that brought to the smell of engine oil on leather, rebellion, and a youth misspent watching ‘Easy Rider’. Its best heard on the album ‘A.D.M.’, where the deceptively simple verse/chorus/verse structure of the songs masks Gutteridge’s fearless experimentation into background distortion. He’d soon do away with the surface lip-service to pop altogether, and begin releasing work on Bruce Russell’s Xpressway label: A.D.M. represents a time when he was still inbetween the two camps, deciding on his allegiances.
FN294 Snapper – A.D.M (LP)
Straitjacket Fits debut ’Life In One Chord’ EP from 1987 was four songs that took the somewhat sexless sound of FN guitar bands and injected a healthy dose of swaggering cool, provided primarily by their frontman Shayne Carter. After Bored Games dissolved Carter had been in The DoubleHappys (great, poppy guitar band whose recorded output is almost impossible to track down nowadays) until the tragic death of his bandmate Wayne Elsey (who’d been in Bored Games with Carter and also had led The Stones through their Dunedin Double appearance). Carter took the basics of the DoubleHappys sound and made it widescreen: Straitjacket Fits was the result. Although their later work (their second LP ‘Melt’ in particular) saw comparisons with My Bloody Valentine and numerous US bands from Sonic Youth to Dinosaur Jnr., Straitjacket Fits were always primarily a guitar band who weren’t afraid to use pedals (lots of pedals), and a shoegazer-esque band who paradoxically stared the audience right in the face. Along with The Bats and The JPSE they embarked upon a world tour in 1993 that brought them perilously close to recognition in the US: they split up soon afterwards (as did the JPSE). All of their recorded material is worth tracking down, although the compilation published by FN in 1998 misses out too much material to be really essential. Pick up ‘Hail’, ‘Melt’ and ‘Blow’, and quiver in anticipation of their reunion gigs in NZ in April/May 2005.
FN142 Hail – Straitjacket Fits (LP)
FN174 Melt – Straitjacket Fits (LP)
FN251 Blow – Straitjacket Fits (LP)
Formed before the FN began, Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate’s Tall Dwarfs kicked off with the Three Songs EP back in 1981. Over twenty three years later, they’re still knocking out the non-hits like a bedroom Brill building; and, while 2002’s album ‘The Sky Above The Mud Below’ was their first experience of digital recording, things haven’t changed much in the world of the Tall Dwarfs in all that time. In Chris and Alec’s hands, the humble 4-track became a springboard to launch their timewarped pop symphonies into orbit; the recording aesthetic of the Tall Dwarfs may be proudly lo-fi, but their compositional techniques are anything but. A typical Tall Dwarfs song might feature a combination of tape manipulations, weird sound effects, or charity shop percussion instruments; then again, it might just sound as simple, lovely and uncomplicated as something like the pathos-drenched ‘Senile Dementia’ from 3EPs (1994). Chris Knox has explored similar territory in his solo work, but I’ll always prefer the Dwarfs: I have a funny feeling that he needs Alec to apply some much needed quality-control to his material (although his track ‘Not Given Lightly’, from 1990’s solo ‘Seizure’ is an absolute gem). Seek out the Dwarf’s first album ‘Weeville’ from 1990, and track down the compilation of their early work, ‘Hello Cruel World’. But if you have to buy only one, get 3EPs. Silly, touching, angry, fun: it’s a great introduction to the dynamic duo of Chris and Alec.
FN166 Tall Dwarfs – Weeville (LP)
FN296 Tall Dwarfs – 3EPS (LP)
FNE15 Tall Dwarfs – Hello Cruel World (EP compilation)
And so, finally, to the Verlaines. Always a band pushing at the edges of what was possible in the three-minute pop song (yet managing to circumvent the cul-de-sac labelled ‘pretentious bores’), The Verlaines made some of the most thrilling and romantic music of the 80s that you never heard played on the radio. Downes was the main compositional force in the band, and while he has admitted in interviews that his academic studies in music (conducted in parallel with the band’s early career) influenced his song-writing, they did so in a wonderfully implicit fashion: there’s very little that’s obviously showy about the band’s material, although the intricate details are there under the surface if one cares to look. In ‘Death and the Maiden’ (the definitive version is on 1985’s ‘Hallelujah All The Way Home’ album) they perfected the art of casually name-dropping French poets into joyous guitar music; by the time of 1987’s ‘Bird Dog’ they were cranking out the orchestral delights of the six-minute long ‘C.D., Jimmy Jazz and Me’; and while 1993’s album on Slash, ‘Way Out Where’ boasted a back-to-basics guitar, bass n’drums sound, Downes’ skyscraping approach to building chord progressions was still in evidence on the title track’s frantic rush. No longer a gigging band, they reformed briefly in 2003 to accompany the excellent career retrospective ‘You’re Just Too Obscure For Me’. It’s a good introduction to the band, but you really need to have ‘Hallelujah…’ and ‘Bird Dog’ to appreciate their many different sides. Downes recently released a solo album, ‘Hammers and Anvils’, where he demonstrated that he hasn’t lost his knack with smart lyrics and unexpected minor chord flourishes. The album’s closing song (the wry, wistful ‘Mastercontrol’) is the equal of anything he did with The Verlaines.
FN040 The Verlaines – Hallelujah All The Way Home (LP)
FN077 The Verlaines – Bird Dog (LP)
FN476 The Verlaines – You’re Just Too Obscure For Me (Compilation LP)
Too many to mention, but try to find room for one of the many reissues of Bill Direens ‘Bilders’ on FN (another too-prolific lo-fi pop genius); anything by the bands Bike and Dimmer (both formed after Straitjacket Fits split); the lovely noise-pop of Superette (formed by Dave Mulchay of JPSE: FN will reissue their complete works on April 25, 2005); HDU’s space-rock will satisfy a generation raised on Slint and Mogwai; and, finally, The Dead C and This Kind of Punishment’s experimental noise showed that a dark heart beat amongst the pure pop.
A Primer: Dave’s Top Thirty FN Tunes In No Order Whatsoever
01. The Clean – Getting Older, Anthology
02. Shayne Carter and Peter Jeffries - Randolph’s Going Home, Getting Older Compilation
03. The Gordons – Spik and Span, Volume 1
04. The JPSE – Block, Bleeding Star
05. The Chills – The Great Escape, Kaleidoscope World
06. Dimmer – Dawn’s Coming In, Crystalator 7”
07. The Clean – Point That Thing Somewhere Else, Anthology
08. Bailerspace – X, Vortura
09. Straitjacket Fits – She Speeds, Hail
10. The Chills – Rolling Moon, Kaleidoscope World
11. The 3Ds – Hey Seuss! , 7”
12. The Bilders – Alligator Song, Pyx
13. Bird Nest Roys – Alien, Bird Nest Roys
14. Abel Tasmans – And We Swam The Magic Bay, Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down
15. The 3Ds – Man On The Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Venus Trail
16. DoubleHappys – Needles and Plastic, Cut it Out EP
17. Bailterspace – Shine, The Aim EP
18. Superette – Touch Me, Tiger
19. The Bats – North By North, Daddy’s Highway
20. Headless Chickens – Cruise Control, 12 Hours Fast UK Compilation
21. The Verlaines – Death and the Maiden, Hallelujah All the Way Home
22. The Stones – Down and Round, Dunedin Double EP
23. This Kind of Punishment – Trepidation, A Beard of Bees
24. Tall Dwarfs – Senile Dementia, 3EPs
25. The Verlaines – C.D, Jimmy Jazz, and Me, Bird Dog
26. Straitjacket Fits – Melt Against Yourself, Melt
27. David Kilgour – Sept.98, A Feather in the Engine
28. Chris Knox – Not Given Lightly, Seizure
29. The Gordons – Future Shock, Future Shock EP
30. The Clean – Tally Ho!, Anthology
With all this nostalgia, a film of the label seems well overdue. Who better to cast this film than Dave Mulcahy, ex-JPSE songwriter and guitarist, currently playing in both Eskimo and Spider. Christ knows how he has the time, as he’s also working on scripting a cartoon series, one that he describes as “a parody of all things NZ; a little like the Garry Shandling Show”). Who better to help when putting the call out to central casting for ‘Chris Knox-alikes’? Here, for future generations, is the proposed cast for In Love With Those Times: The Movie, or, as one colleague put it 12hrs Fast Party People: The Flying Nun Story.
Chris Knox – Harvey Keitel (with ponytail and jandals: Mr. Sleazy)
Roger Shepard – David Lynch (starring, directing, drinking)
Lesley Paris – Jennifer Saunders (the sardonic floozy)
Doug Hood – Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth from Coronation St.)
Martin Phillips – Rowan Atkinson (ala Mr. Bean, with guitar)
Big Ross – Will Sampson (The Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Shayne Carter - Gavin Rossdale (Mr. Cheekbones)
Mathew Bannister – Dylan Moran (from Black Books)
Chris Mathews – Jack Black (Manic short guy)
Alister Parker - Michael Imperioli (Christopher in Sopranos)
Peter Gutteridge – William Defoe (Drug-crazed enigma)
Graeme Downes – Daniel Day-Lewis (Mr. Intense)
David Mulcahy – Mick Hucknall (The ginge know-it-all)
Gary Cope – Bruce Willas (Balding smart-ass)
David Kilgour – Bob Dylan (The serious young man)
Dave Yetton – Michael J Fox (Eternal youth)
Nick Roughan – Willaim H Macy (The worrier)
Gary Sullivan – Pete Postlethwaite (Character face)
So how’s Flying Nun doing in 2005? Well, it’s a moot point that the real glory days are far behind them: while they’re doing just fine with bands like The Mint Chicks, the days when FN lead and the rest of NZ followed are long gone. Maybe a little time out of the limelight is just what they need, though—time to find a new batch of bands, time to dream it all up again, time for another label to pick up the gauntlet. There’s never been a better time for it than now: Straitjacket Fits have reformed, Toy Love’s entire back catalogue has been remastered and will be released on April 25th in a massive 40 track compilation, and The Chills have resurfaced with their first EP in a very long time. Getting older, maybe, but doing it disgracefully.
Many thanks to David Kilgour, Graeme Downes, Martin Phillips, and Dave Mulcahy, all of whom have recently released great albums (Frozen Orange, Hammers and Anvils, Stand By; Mulchay’s Eskimo have just released their debut Loverbatim). Special thanks for Mulchay for the image depicting the musician/actor combos from In Love With Those Times: The Movie. Kudos to Chris Andrews’ website the big city, which is an exhaustive shrine to NZ music. If this article wetted your appetite, get over there ASAP.
By: Dave McGonigle
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