Our latest post is another guest post. This is the second piece we have posted from Mick O’Dwyer. Mick lives in Brussels and works as a librarian in the European Council. His first guest post for The Blackpool Sentinel was a great, widely read, piece on The Sultans of Ping This time round he writes about seminal New Zealand label Flying Nun Records. Over to Mick now …
It all started with a keyboard riff. Simple and raw and under produced.
I moved to New Zealand in early 2011. My knowledge of their music scene was only Crowded House, Bic Runga and the unquestionable classic, “How Bizarre”.
Not an overly inspiring list.
I had been living in Australia at the time, in Melbourne. I loved Melbourne; Sydney Road and Brunswick, all the dingy punk venues, The Nova, Lord of the Fries and the Tote. It killed me to leave. I landed in Christchurch just after the earthquake and got out of there as fast as I could, taking the ferry across the Tasmin Sea. The sea was so rough people fainted on the trip over. Finally we arrived in Wellington. In windy Wellington. I disembarked the boat in the midst of a gale, battered with that sideways rain that’s impossible to walk in.
My ambivalence was fleeting.
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, and nicknamed the “coolest little capital in the world”. Its a pretty apt description. Its undoubtedly cool, bursting with hipster coffee shops and independent cinemas showing movies like ‘The Room’ on a regular basis. But its also definitely ‘little’. Its sorta half way between Cork and Galway in size. Its prettier than both, but devoid of Buckfast. Like Galway, when something happens in Wellington everyone knows about it. Walking down Cuba Mall on a Saturday is much like walking through Shop Street ; it takes forever as you’re constantly bumping into people every few yards.
I moved there to buzz around for a bit. I didn’t feel like going back to Ireland and had heard Wellington was like the Melbourne of Aotearoa. I moved into a hostel where I looked for a job and an apartment and had the craic with the other guests. Shortly after moving there, I awoke to find the city covered in posters for a monthly post-punk night called Atomic. All of my hostel ended up going to it, everyone in good spirits, everyone drunk. ‘Echo Beach’ was belted out one minute, ‘Damaged Goods’ the next. At some ungodly hour I was shaken out of my senses by a keyboard riff. It sounded like it was played on a child’s Casio and the only lyric I could make out was ‘Tally Ho, Tally Ho’. The reaction it got took me aback ; the dancefloor swamped with cool Kiwis shouting along. Everyone who knew it seemed to love it. It was almost like a badge of honour being able to dance to it, a NZ ‘Where’s Me Jumper’. I had no idea who it was, I just knew it was perfect in every way.
Later, as I was leaving, I remembered the flyers for the night had included a listing of all the bands featured in it. So my eyes scoured the room before honing in on a well-trodden one that I rescued, putting it in my pocket. As I didn’t have a laptop or smart phone, the next day I went to an internet café and played all the acts named on the flyer that I didn’t know, going through them one by one. Eventually I hit the jackpot.
I landed on The Clean, and opened a door to Flying Nun.
Flying Nun is more than just a record label, it’s a Kiwi institution.
Launched on a shoestring by record store employee Roger Shepherd, its renowned as the label of the much fabled ‘Dunedin sound’ ; the term used to describe the acts emerging from Dunedin for most of the 80s. The scene took the ethos of punk, post-punk, jangle, folk, garage and DIY culture, and used those influences to forge original, independent music that has had continuing reverberations internationally for over 30 years. Be it Sub Pop, Creation or Rough Trade, the early Flying Nun collection holds its own against any of them.
What was it about Dunedin that spawned this ‘sound’ ? I spent a weekend there once, during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and it’s not a wholly remarkable place. Being a student town, it has plenty of bars and venues. It has a Cadburys factory and a beach. In my hostel I was told one of the main tourist attractions was the really, really steep hill.
Though in fairness, you should see this hill!
The town was founded by Scottish Presbyterian settlers, and I can see why they chose Dunedin. It’s cold and green, like their homeland. The music coming out of Dunedin bore a similar vein to that which came out of Glasgow in the 80’s, a definite jangle twang is evident in both places [Glasgow even had its own iconic indie record label – Postcard]. The joke in Dunedin is that the reason there was so many bands there was because the weather was so cold that students formed bands just to keep warm. I’d say there is a degree of truth in that.
Its an isolated city, but geographic isolation did not mean cultural isolation. NME was sold there, record stores imported vinyl from the UK, US and Europe. Punk and post-punk had an impact. This geographical isolation manifested itself in a yearning, a recognition of what was happening in the rest of the world and a yearning to be part of something bigger. If anything I think it is more accurate to describe a shared Dunedin feeling than a common sound. Many of the songs have a magical jangle, but the range of music released is too broad to be lumped in together under the one heading.
After listening to ‘Tally Ho’ on repeat, I watched the video for The Clean’s ‘Anything Could Happen’. I loved everything about it. I’m not sure whether it was the perfect pop-sing-along chorus or the jangly melody or the fact that the video looks like something Bob Dylan made during his 1966 London press conferences, it’s amazing! After listening to it on repeat I was desperate to discover more!
YouTube is great and all, but if you want a real understanding, you go to the library, and Wellington has the one of the most marvellous public libraries I’ve stepped foot in. Wedged in the bosom of Wellington harbour, its warm with high ceilings and ample natural light. It has a zine collection, a really nice coffee shop and, most importantly for this story, an extensive CD collection with loads of Flying Nun. I spent hours in there, immersing myself in Flying Nun Records, educating myself about Kiwi culture.
I first attacked the heavyweights of the label: The Clean, The Chills and The Bats.
No band embodies the ‘Dunedin Sound’ quite like The Clean. They are the cornerstone of Flying Nun and it’s most influential act. And they’re just so effortlessly cool. From the release of their iconic debut EP, ‘Boodle Boodle Boodle’, right throughout their career, they have never conformed. Most of their early stuff was released as EPs rather than full length albums [as was the Flying Nun policy at the time]. Just as they were beginning to make waves, they split up, only to reform and release albums sporadically, whenever they feel like it. It was on the back of The Clean’s early commercial success that Flying Nun was able to provide a platform for countless independent Kiwi acts. Their influence is apparent in and referenced across the spectrum, from indie royalty like Sonic Youth and Pavement to Irish garage punks Sissy and the #1s [who even have a savage cover of Oddity]. I don’t know how there’s not statues of the band built all over the Land of the Long White Cloud. There should at least be a statue placed at the top of the really, really steep hill.
Out of all the Flying Nun bands the Chills came closest to making it internationally. They almost did with their song ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, which had a good stab at the US charts. Their song ‘Pink Frost’ is a masterpiece. It has a timeless quality to it. It could have been made 20 years ago – or 20 years from now – and it always sounds fresh. They wrote perfect pop songs and it’s good to see that in Europe they seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve, having toured here several times over the past few years, including a gig in The Button Factory.
I saw The Bats play the San Francisco Bathhouse during the Flying Nun 30th anniversary celebrations. Kinda looking like a bunch of cool teachers in your school who formed a band, they were wonderful. Although I love the Orange Juice-esque strum of their early stuff, like ‘Claudine’ or ‘Made Up in Blue’, 2011’s ‘Free All Monsters’ album is up there with anything they have made.
Arguably there is no one more important to the Flying Nun label than Chris Knox. A legendary figure on the Kiwi punk scene, it was after watching Chris’s punk band, The Enemy, that members of early Flying Nun bands decided to form their own groups, much in the same way The Sex Pistols’ Manchester gigs spawned a million bands. There’s something about him ; an underlying air of a troublemaker, a shroud of menace of a man who would be wild after a few beers. Knox had a bad experience recording in a studio in Australia early on in his career, which he never shook. When he returned to New Zealand, he purchased a 4 track. It was the best decision he ever made. It was on this 4 track that he would produce most of the early Flying Nun output, and become synonymous with DIY recording with his band, The Tall Dwarfs.
While Flying Nun’s output is not necessarily punk, it’s a punk label – DIY in its purest sense! Roger Shepherd formed the label because he recognised something was happening that needed to be recorded and no major labels would touch the acts. Most of the bands didn’t have contracts. It was run out of a tiny little office in Christchurch, with the work done by a handful of friends. The artwork had a fanzine, cut and paste feel to it. No one made much money at the time, though they released sheer gold.
This DIY element is even apparent in their videos. The early Flying Nun videos are great. You can clearly tell there wasn’t much money put into them. Despite looking endearingly amateurish, they’ve stood the test of time, and look far superior to most big budget videos being made today. I think my favourite is ‘Death and the Maiden’ by The Verlaines. The concept is just the band playing in a house, as their mates drink while a few rabbits hop around. It’s perfect.
Delving through the Flying Nun catalogue, you constantly seem to unearth hidden gems, like ‘Coat’ by The Pin Group. Though having the honour of being the premier release of the label when it was launched, The Pin Group are often written off as a Joy Division covers band. To me this is just too obvious a criticism. Do they sound like Joy Division – yes. But are their songs incredible in their own right? Fucking sure !
Sounding like a Garage punk warp spasm, The Stones are criminally overlooked. Their compilation album, ‘Three Blind Mice’, is magnificent, in particular the song ‘Down and around’. It’s easily one of the greatest pieces of music in the whole Flying Nun catalogue. Vocals are spat out with a sneering contempt for the listener. Vibrant, aggressive and exciting, The Gordons are the same. One listen to ‘Coalminer’s song’ shows they were making grunge music over 10 years before it became popular in Seattle.
Of all the Flying Nun acts, no one holds as much mystery to me as Dunedin’s tragic, unsung hero, Peter Gutteridge. Gutteridge’s story is heart-breaking. He was a founding member of The Clean and The Chills but left early on in both their careers. He battled through years of addictions and substance abuse before finally killing himself just after he played his first ever gigs in America. He was a raw talent that got lost, though he burned ever so brightly on numerous occasions. At just 17, he co-wrote The Clean’s motorik classic ‘Point that thing somewhere else’. His post-Clean band with the Kilgour brothers – The Great Unwashed – moved the dial even further for what was acceptable in New Zealand as experimental, commercial pop-music. But it’s his work with Snapper that really stands out.
Snapper were years ahead of their time. Though released in 1988, their debut EP was built on the blueprint laid by Krautrock to form the repetitive, heavy drone sound bands like Moon Duo and Folkazoid became renowned for, 25 years later. Listening to it is like being hit repeatedly by waves of noise, every song a classic. My favourite story I heard about him is how during gigs he would bark things like “SEND OUT THE SNAKES” to his band-mates. They would then have to try and work out what the hell type of a sound he was on about!
If Snapper had been around today they would be headlining psychfests around the globe. Unfortunately they are not, though they did leave us with ‘Gentle Hour’. ‘Gentle Hour’ is a wonder. It’s got none of the heavy drone of their later albums or the sonic DIY ambiance of some of Gutteridge’s solo stuff. It’s crafted from beautiful, lo-fi distortion and hushed noise, like early Jesus and Mary Chain. Simple, powerful lyrics showcase his understated genius. Lines like ‘you’re in my mind all the time’, ‘its such a pleasure to touch your heart, I can hardly breath’ or ‘I couldn’t have done anything else’, have never felt so desperate or so pure.
The first time I heard the song was as a cover version by Yo La Tengo on the charity album ‘Dark was the night’. On an otherwise utterly forgettable compilation, ‘Gentle Hour’ stuck out like a sore thumb. Gone was Snapper’s beautiful fuzz, replaced by an ethereal, haunting yearn. It sounds almost otherworldly!
If I was on Desert Island Discs, The Clean’s cover of ‘Gentle Hour’ would be one of my picks. They completely reinvent the song again, upping the tempo, morphing it into a jangle guitar record that has attached itself to my very core. It never leaves me, just lays there dormant, waiting to be summoned when a certain mood moves me.
Since leaving New Zealand, I’ve preached the Flying Nuns gospel to anyone who will listen. It’s become easier to do so with Spotify, having ample full albums by most of the bands. In 2009, Rodger Shepherd was able to buy back the label and began re-mastering and re-releasing it’s eclectic back catalogue and unleashing a whole new wave of acts. Fazerdaze is particularly exciting ;- sounding a bit like a shoegaze Cat Power, her debut EP is sublime.
But when I think of Flying Nun Records, I am always reminded of the year I spent in Wellington. To me it’s as synonymous with New Zealand as Jonah Lomu or The Lord of the Rings. Whenever I listen to The Chills or The Stones it takes me back to the hours I spent in Wellington public library, digging through treasure. Or the time I convinced a big, Mauri bouncer to let me into a sold-out show by The Clean, just so I could buy a t-shirt for my brother, and then asking the bouncer for fashion advice on which t-shirt to buy [‘that one looks sweet-as, mate’].
But mostly I think of a keyboard riff.
Simple and raw and under produced.
Tally ho tally ho!
Mick will have a fanzine about Peter Gutteridge – “Turning to the Grave”, released in the near future.
[Want more of the music? Check out this Mick-compiled playlist on YouTube]