ONE of the world’s great independent labels, Flying Nun Records was founded in 1981 by Christchurch-based Roger Shepherd. But the locus of the emerging New Zealand punk and post-punk scene and many of its key players were further south, in Dunedin: all bar one of the following bands, Christchurch’s JPS Experience, hail from the university town in the region of Otago. At its peak, the label was home to dozens of bands and 10 of the best is exactly that (with apologies to Bailter Space, Alastair Galbraith and Peter Gutteridge, all storied figures in the New Zealand pop history). Shepherd walked away from the label in 1999, selling it to Warner; in 2010, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, who owns a quarter-share, helped him buy it back again. Large chunks of the label’s catalogue are being reissued by Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks, with the Clean, the Chills and the Bats – who release their seventh album, The Deep Set, today – remaining active to this day.
The Clean Anything Could Happen
Formed in 1978 in Dunedin, the Clean’s first single Tally Ho!, released a few years later, put the fledgling Flying Nun Records label on the map, reaching the top 20 with its nagging keyboard riff. (Disclaimer: it probably wouldn’t have taken a huge number of sales to reach the New Zealand top 20.) From there the band, formed by brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and future Bats leader Robert Scott, carved a reputation as probably the most influential band on the label with a sound heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. But their best song, Anything Could Happen, would do Bob Dylan proud with its folk-rock chord changes and dry, deadpan lyrics.
The Verlaines Death And The Maiden
Another key figure in Flying Nun’s early history, Dr Graham Downes – he heads the department of music at the University of Otago – would bring classical influences to the Flying Nun sound on their 1987 album Bird-Dog. You wouldn’t have seen that coming on their first single four years earlier, which had Downes ecstatically chanting the name of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, from whom they took their name (not, as is sometimes thought, Television’s Tom Verlaine). Features the immortal lines “You shouldn’t talk to me / Find better company / There’s better things to know / You’ll only end up like Rimbaud.”
The Chills Pink Frost
It was Martin Phillipps that played that nagging riff in Tally Ho!, but he already had the Chills who, over well over a dozen line-up changes, became the greatest singles band New Zealand produced after Split Enz, achieving enduring success with a sound that was alternately pitch dark and lighter than air. Released in 1984, Pink Frost combined both in the same song, shifting abruptly from a spry opening guitar hook to a haunting, bass-driven pulse, as Phillipps tells a deeply unsettling story of loss and survivor’s guilt.
Look Blue Go Purple Cactus Cat
It’s tiresome to point to Look Blue Go Purple’s gender – something that followed the five-piece wherever they went, much to their justified irritation. But the fact remains there weren’t too many women on Flying Nun, and the band’s three EPs are a critical and often unsung part of its legacy. Cactus Cat is from the second of them, released in 1986. This joyously nonsensical paean to Denise Roughan’s moggy rides along on a couple of chords, punctuated by two backwards guitar solos played by former Chill Terry Moore.
The Bats Made Up In Blue
After four years in the Clean, bass player Robert Scott realised he needed a new vehicle for his own prolific songwriting. With the Bats, he has explored endless variations on an instantly identifiable sound. They nailed that sound on this ebullient 1986 single: bright, mid-tempo guitar pop, with the stinging lead work of Kaye Woodward and Paul Kean’s rumbling bass over the top giving a harder edge to Scott’s nasal, wistful vocals.
Jean-Paul Sartre Experience Inside And Out
There were more critical bands in Flying Nun discography than the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, but I can’t ignore the hypnotic opening cut from this often overlooked band’s excellent second album The Size Of Food, from 1990. Incredibly, soon after a lawsuit was served by the estate of Jean-Paul Sartre, forcing them to change their name to the JPS Experience and, while it almost certainly had nothing to do with it, they were never quite the same again.
Straitjacket Fits Down In Splendour
By the turn of the 1990s, the Chills and the Straitjacket Fits looked like the bands most likely to cross over to major success, with American record deals and more polished – dare one say cleaner-sounding – studio recordings. It didn’t hurt that the Straitjacket Fits were the best-looking band on the label, either. Written by Andrew Brough, the breathtaking Down In Splendour, from the band’s second and best album Melt, shows off the band’s exquisite vocal harmonies and twin-guitar interplay without losing any of the tension that would ultimately destroy the group.
Straitjacket Fits APS
The Straitjacket Fits are privileged with two entries on account of them being blessed with two very different songwriters. The prettiness of Down In Splendour was the jewel in a crown of thorns: the Fits’ spikier side was dominated by brooding leader Shayne Carter. This live recording of APS (also from Melt) demonstrates their explosive power on stage; at its conclusion Carter checks: “are everyone’s strings intact?” But in barely the next breath, he cattily introduces Down In Splendour “for all you grandmas out there”; soon after Brough was unceremoniously ejected from the band, announced with a gleeful press release: “No more slow songs!” Unfortunately, it destroyed the band’s delicate balance; their final album Blow was a disappointment.
3Ds Beautiful Things
The 3Ds – Dominic Stones, Denise Roughan and David Saunders – emerged late in the 1980s, quickly added another D, David Mitchell for good measure and, like the Straitjacket Fits, based their considerable attack on a twin-guitar sound. But where the Fits exuded menace, the 3Ds were as bright, playful and often unhinged as their lurid cover artwork. Beautiful Things (from 1993’s The Venus Trail and sung by Roughan, previously of Look Blue Go Purple) caught them at a rare tranquil moment, with a gliding chord progression and beatific lyrics: “Don’t you see, beautiful things can be / Waiting outside your door, for all to see.” A famous story about the band goes that during a support slot on U2’s ZooTV tour, an associate nicked a bottle of wine from U2’s dressing room, leading the promoter to inform the band they would not be paid. Bono intervened, gave them another bottle of wine and told the promoter they would be paid double.
Chris Knox Not Given Lightly
Talisman, spiritual heartbeat and conscience of New Zealand punk, Chris Knox all but started the movement in Dunedin with his bands the Enemy, then Toy Love. He later maintained a prolific career as one-half of the Tall Dwarfs, as a soloist, and as a newspaper columnist and cartoonist. His best-known tune, released in 1989, was a plain-spoken love song to “John and Liesha’s mother”, and featured just a percussion loop and fuzz guitar. Tragically Knox was cut down by a severe stroke in 2009 that has left him unable to say more than a few words; a tribute album to raise funds for his ongoing rehabilitation featured Yo La Tengo, the late Jay Reatard, Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan, as well as many of the bands mentioned above.
Originally published in The Guardian, 28 January 2017