Tagged: Neil Finn

Crowded House: Dreamers Are Waiting

It’s not easy to connect the four albums Crowded House made in their first life (from their formation in 1985 to their dissolution in 1996) to the three released since the traumatic passing of drummer Paul Hester in 2005. Although still the main and most popular vehicle for Neil Finn and original bass player Nick Seymour, there’s a clear musical divide that makes them feel like the works of very different bands.

Which is true, at least up to a point. A crucial part of Crowded House’s identity was lost with Hester besides his deft percussive touch, and that is throwing no shade on drummer Elroy Finn (Neil’s youngest son) or his predecessor Matt Sherrod. Crowded House was never going to be the same after that tragedy, and some of the band’s natural joie de vivre – along with the tightly wound pop hooks and effortless anthems – went with him.

Dreamers Are Waiting is the first Crowded House album since 2010, and the band has expanded to a full-blown family affair. Alongside Elroy, older brother Liam is now a full-time multi-instrumental member, while Tim Finn (whose name last appeared on a Crowded House album on Together Alone, in 1993) gets a co-writing credit on Too Good For This World. Mitchell Froom, who produced the band’s first three albums, replaces Mark Hart on keyboards.

A further scan of the songwriting credits shows Liam has two songs here, Show Me The Way and Goodnight Everyone, which sit squarely in the middle of the album. Love Isn’t Hard At All is a co-write between Elroy and Neil, with Sharon Finn (married to Neil since 1982) on backing vocals. The first two songs, Bad Times Good and lead single Playing With Fire, are group compositions.

Somehow all of it feels seamless, but be warned: as with Time On Earth (2007) and Intriguer (2010), you won’t find anything approaching Don’t Dream It’s Over here, or anything that sounds much like the Crowded House Generation X grew up with. Like Neil Finn’s sometimes esoteric solo work, these songs – a dozen, all less than four minutes – are more detailed, more subtle, and take more time to reveal themselves.

But it’s worth making the effort, because the beauty of this record is in the detail and deceptive tonal shifts, like the way Bad Times Good begins with an understated three-line chorus before quietly blending into its first verse. There’s no instant gratification, but like much of Dreamers Are Waiting, the song gets under your skin like an itch you just have to scratch, almost subliminally addictive.

Much of the album is about trying to hold on to hope amid squalor and discord. To The Island could be a paean to the safety of a long-term relationship, or to the Finns’ native New Zealand: “The world is beyond us (shit just got real) / It’s too enormous (fell under the wheel) / But the island is just right / It’s the perfect size,” Neil sings, before the coda pushes the song from a bedtime lullaby into gentle paisley psychedelia.

Playing With Fire is more direct, with Neil excoriating his own age bracket: “The next generation’s talking / We’re behind the wheel / We’re driving straight into the wall,” before concluding “some may say we’ll turn it round / If you believe such a thing, I’ll believe such a thing.” He sounds more fatalistic than optimistic, but it’s a good choice as single, with just a hint of the old snap, crackle and pop of Split Enz, parping horns in the chorus.

And when the next generation is allowed behind the wheel – Liam’s Show Me The Way and Goodnight Everyone – the results are the equal of anything else here, not just in quality but in their hypnotic, edge-of-delirium feel. At these moments, it feels like Crowded House is now less Neil’s vehicle than a multi-headed hydra for this extraordinary musical family. Again, check those credits: you’ll be hard-pressed guessing who’s doing what.

That said, Neil’s name is still the only one on half the tracks here, and it’s that voice, still one of the most sensitive and alluring instruments in pop, leading the way. He’s a little sadder, and world-wearier, but his craft is as good as ever. Sweet Tooth is the nagging pop nugget its title suggests, the closest thing here to a vintage Crowded House song, while the final track, Deeper Down, indulges one of his favourite lyrical obsessions: a place to hide.

That’s what makes this, in the end, still a Crowded House record. It doesn’t just retain the intimacy that made them so cherished, but makes it their signature sound. They exist on their own island now: a place to take refuge from the rest of the world, when it all becomes too enormous and terrifying to bear thinking about.

First published in the Guardian, 4 June 2021

Bones Hillman 1958-2020

The first time I saw Wayne Stevens – better known by his stage name Bones Hillman – was at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on 26 September 1987, making his debut as Midnight Oil’s new bass player. Tall and upright, he was standing to the left of the band’s even taller singer, Peter Garrett, who introduced him as “the next best thing in the stratosphere” to the man Hillman replaced, Peter Gifford.

It was true that Hillman didn’t drive the Oils quite as hard as Gifford, an ex-carpenter who wore overalls on stage and played bass like a competition woodchopper. Hillman took over as the Oils were hitting their commercial peak, for the Diesel And Dust tour, and with his pitch-perfect singing and nimble fingers, he was the man for the more melodic and mature phase of the band that followed.

Yesterday, via a tweet, the band announced Hillman’s passing from cancer at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, aged 62: “He was the bassist with the beautiful voice, the band member with the wicked sense of humour, and our brilliant musical comrade.” Hillman had played on every Midnight Oil recording from Blue Sky Mining (1990) to their just-released The Makarrata Project, which debuted at No. 1 in the Australian chart the day before his death.

Born in New Zealand in 1958, Hillman was active in the country’s nascent punk scene in the late 1970s, playing in a band called the Suburban Reptiles. He first came to wider notice as a member of new wave three-piece the Swingers, formed by former Split Enz co-founder Phil Judd. Their song Counting The Beat, anchored by Hillman’s heavy-rolling bass sound, was a No. 1 hit in Australia and New Zealand in early 1981.

By 1987, he was living in Melbourne with Neil Finn, who recommended him to Midnight Oil’s drummer Rob Hirst. When Hirst first called, Hillman, who was working in a covers band in between painting houses to get by, thought it was a prank and didn’t call back. But Hirst followed up, sending him a tape of the then unreleased Diesel And Dust and inviting him to Sydney to rehearse.

Hirst later described Hillman as “one of the most remarkable vocalists in the country. When Bones goes up to a microphone he hits the note right-on every time, 365 days of the year, a beautifully formed, rounded note”. Garrett was a character singer, with his own inimitable style, but the combination of Hirst’s and Hillman’s backing vocals added high harmonies, depth and even a sweetness to the band’s sound.

That sweetness was first heard on Blue Sky Mine: that’s Hirst and Hillman together singing “There’ll be food on the table tonight / There’ll be pay in your pocket tonight”, the vocal hook leading off the song. And it’s Hillman singing the high backing vocals in One Country, too. From that album on, Hillman’s voice became an intrinsic part of the band’s sound that will be hard to replace.

But Hillman’s personality is irreplaceable. When he first joined the band, Hirst told band biographer Michael Lawrence, “the brief was one-third bass player, one-third singer and one-third all-round easy-going guy who you’d want on the bus telling jokes and making what is essentially a serious band laugh … Bones has the ability to meet strangers and within seconds they just love him to death. I have never seen him make an enemy with anyone.”

Likewise, in his own memoir, Garrett said Hillman “lightened the mood in the camp. Unlike the rest of us, Bones – single and without kids – was happiest on tour”. Occasionally, Hirst said, Bones’ lighter side could manifest as another character known as Terry: “Terry is the guy with his trousers around his ankles in a Finnish nightclub, gyrating and singing.” Without his warmth and humour, Midnight Oil may not have stayed together as long as they did.

After the band’s long hiatus following Garrett’s departure to pursue a career in federal politics, Hillman returned to New Zealand for five years. He later relocated to Nashville, becoming a highly regarded session player, contributing to albums by Sheryl Crow and many others before rejoining Midnight Oil upon their resumption in 2017. He is survived by his partner Denise.

First published in the Guardian, 9 November 2020

Something To Believe In: A Playlist

I was driving alongside the Brisbane River not far from home, with a Ramones anthology playing at full volume, when it hit me. I was trying to piece myself back together after a difficult couple of years. My mother had been transferred into care with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and my marriage had broken up. Something To Believe In was the song that did it – an almost-forgotten single from the Ramones’ troubled mid-’80s era. It was about losing your grip on yourself, on life, then rediscovering your sense of purpose. I knew I wasn’t going to be the same person but, then again, I didn’t want to be.

It was March 2018. I’d written a few pieces that began to sketch out a story of a life on the margins of music but from the perspective of a fan, a wannabe, rather than a player. Over the next two months, a music memoir poured out: the first 30,000 words in three weeks. It was finished by Mother’s Day. Something To Believe In was the obvious title, music being that something that had kept me sane, kept me going and, at times, kept me alive.

What follows is a playlist of 10 songs – most sublime, at least one ridiculous – that signposted that journey.

1. The Ramones – Something To Believe In (1986)

For whatever reason, the title track of Something To Believe In isn’t on Spotify, so you’ll have to go to YouTube for it. It’s a Dee Dee Ramone song; he wrote most of the band’s really dark stuff. This is one of his saddest but it’s also uplifting. Joey’s vocal will put a lump in your throat. In the first half, he wishes he was someone else. After Johnny’s solo – one of very few solos by the guitarist – there’s a bridge where he grabs life by the throat: he decides he’s going to accept himself instead.

2. The Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll (1970)

3. Iggy & The Stooges – Raw Power (original mix, 1973)

To me, this is the greatest song about the power and the glory of rock & roll ever written. The chorus – “Don’t you try, don’t you try to tell me what to do” – is what it’s all about. So is this lyric: “Raw power’s got a healing hand / Raw power can destroy a man.” Who knows how Iggy is one of the last true originals left standing but you only have to count the bodies to know he’s right, and his next stop after recording this album was a psych ward. It’s a classic now but, at the time, Raw Power was so far ahead of the curve no one even knew there was one up ahead. David Bowie’s mix buried the rhythm section but it’s still punk as almighty fuck.

4. Do Re Mi – Man Overboard (1985)

This came out when I was 14 years old. At that time I knew nothing about women, let alone feminism, and I didn’t really understand this song but connected with it anyway. I was a tiny kid and got bullied a fair bit in the playground, and I think I just related to Deborah Conway’s rage and hurt more than anything. It’s a post-punk song and a lot of punk spoke to people who had been marginalised in some way. These days I identify more with the object of Conway’s disdain in ways I’d rather not – I know I’m addicted to attention and, as a music writer, I’ve been wallowing in a swamp of trivia for most of my adult life.

5. Patti Smith – Free Money (1975)

Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group and compiler of the great ’60s anthology Nuggets, once said garage music reminded people of why they wanted to rock & roll in the first place, which was pure desire. And we always want what we can’t have. Another key concept of rock & roll is transcendence, the conceit that it can take us outside ourselves and so set us free. Smith embodied both in this song about escaping the prison of poverty. What really gets it over is the intensity of her performance. She sounds as though she’s clawing out of your speakers. It starts slow, with just Smith and Richard Sohl on piano, then the band shifts through the gears until they’re at maximum horsepower.

6. Kate Bush – The Big Sky (1985)

This is similar to Free Money in that what makes it leap out is Bush’s wild performance. Hounds Of Love, the album that it’s from, is really special to me; it seems to keep reappearing at key times. This song is about moving on – the idea is that we’re all just specks in the cosmos. It’s all big tribal drumming and stacked vocals, arranged for maximum impact. It gets louder the longer it goes as more elements are added to the mix but at the centre of it is Bush’s voice. From about the three-minute mark she completely loses it – she sounds as though she’s talking in tongues, then from 3.45 she unleashes a series of heart-stopping shrieks. She was possessed.

7. Liz Phair – Johnny Sunshine (1993)

A lot of these songs are about the self-mythologising of rock & roll, something the Rolling Stones were pretty adept at. Liz Phair was in love with that ideal too – and the Stones – but understandably she had a problem with a lot of the lyrics. So she decided to write a song-by-song feminist response to the Stones’ Exile On Main St. That was her first album, Exile In Guyville, and it upended all those old cliches. I write about Divorce Song in the book (because, well, divorce) but Johnny Sunshine is closer to the theme I’m getting at here. It’s Phair’s response to All Down The Line, where the protagonist takes off with a “sanctified girl”. In Johnny Sunshine, Phair replies from the perspective of the woman he’s left behind. Living in an adolescent fantasy world usually means that someone, somewhere is getting hurt.

8. Jen Cloher – Hold My Hand (2013)

My mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease; she has been bedridden and unable to communicate for more than 18 months now. But the years before that were harder for her emotionally, and for her family and friends, as her illness stripped her identity from her, piece by incremental piece. She got it young, too, when she was in her mid-50s (she’s 71 now). When Jen’s song appeared, it reduced me to ash. Her mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s too and the song describes a circular conversation between her parents: her dad explains to her mum how they met but she forgets instantly, so she asks him again. I had lots of conversations with my mum like that. The message of the song is that “love is more than a reward or balm we use to soothe”. It’s an ongoing test of patience and loyalty.

9. Neil Finn – Chameleon Days (2017)

In early September 2017 I was in Auckland for a music conference when I should have been in hospital. I was in a hotel room and had enough tablets on hand, plus booze, to kill a horse. I was in a really serious, unstable condition. But I had one thing left to do: I had to review Neil Finn’s album. It sounds absurd but it was important to me to finish this one task. I listened to Chameleon Days about a dozen times in a row and it stayed my hand. It’s a very gentle song about fate, change and radical acceptance. The next day I was up at Roundhead Studios where Neil had livestreamed cutting the song.

10. Kiss – God Gave Rock & Roll To You II (1991)

It’s worth finishing with something big and dumb and silly, and they don’t get bigger, dumber or sillier than Kiss. Originally this song was a hit for Argent in 1973. Kiss covered it in 1991, long after the face paint had come off. I love it, partly because it’s so ridiculous, but also because it posits rock & roll as a primal life force in and of itself. Paul Stanley’s rave at the end is hilarious: “I know life sometimes can get tough! And I know life sometimes can be a drag. But people! We have been given a gift. We have been given a road. And that road’s name is … rock & roll!” He was a true believer.

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First published in The Guardian, 28 June 2019

The Triumph And Tragedy Of The Chills

The independent scene that emerged from Dunedin, New Zealand, in the early 1980s had all the strange qualities musical trainspotters around the world associate with isolation. Hamish Kilgour from the Clean describes the city as a cauldron, with the low-hanging sky its lid. It’s a creative pressure cooker from which artists must escape.

In the decades since, the bands that steamed from the top of that cauldron have gone global. Next to the Clean, the biggest name is Martin Phillipps, the legendary leader – of 21 different lineups – of the Chills. They were the definitive Dunedin band, with a strange, light, airy, eerie, breezy magic that both matched the city’s geography and transcended it.

But they were cursed. The subtitle of The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy of Martin Phillipps – a new documentary by Julia Parnell and Rob Curry – tells you that this is, first and foremost, a portrait of the artist. A consummate songwriter, Phillipps appears as both a driven man and a lost boy, emotionally cut off from those drawn into his orbit to help him realise his vision.

The film opens in the interior of Phillipps’ home. Over the haunted opening notes of Pink Frost (“That’s fine art, according to me,” we hear Iggy Pop say, on a radio show), Phillipps pulls out his keyboard – then breaks into Heavenly Pop Hit, which wasn’t so much his biggest hit as his nearest miss.

Spliced amid scenes of festival crowds, ecstatic gigs and the video clip of the song, Phillipps climbs into a decrepit car and drives himself to hospital to receive the results of his liver function tests. Phillipps has hepatitis C. He is told, with medical precision, that he has a 31 percent chance of dying within 12 months.

Then he is given a guarantee: “If you do keep drinking, Martin, you will die,” the physician says.

There is so much about the Chills’ story that is, on the face of it, cliched. After a number of acclaimed singles and EPs, Phillipps, whose best songs are touched with a sense of wonder, signs his band to a multi-album deal with a US label, Slash. When the hits fail to materialise, he sinks into a fog of heroin addiction, alcoholism, depression and withdrawal.

But Parnell and Curry treat their subject with unusual sensitivity, helped by Phillipps’ extraordinary candour. He allows them access to every step of his treatment process, as well as to his archives (he is an obsessive collector). Around him, other band members, each of them individually numbered, step forward to speak.

What they have to say is just as unfiltered. The former drummer Caroline Easther (Chill No. 12) says Phillipps made her feel anxious. The bassist Justin Harwood (Chill No. 14) comments that he didn’t know if he was needed or expendable. He came to the latter conclusion after Phillipps told him he planned to write the bass parts on the band’s next album himself.

Another bass player, Terry Moore (No. 6), who played in two stints with the band, wonders if he’s going to be next. The drummer Jimmy Stephenson (No. 15) has been left traumatised. In tears, he pulls out a gold record of the band’s biggest album, Submarine Bells, the glass cracked after falling off his wall in an earthquake: to him it’s symbol of both “great success and shattered dreams”.

In between, we watch Phillipps going through piles of junk as he reassesses his life, sorting the detritus from the essentials. Preparing for an art exhibition – while spray-painting a mummified cat – he muses that “it’s much more fun working as a team on anything. But I’m not going to sacrifice the quality for just a bit of team spirit.” Phillipps remained Chill No. 1.

Over it all, Dunedin hovers. “The black cloud rolled in and it was there for a good long stay,” says Chill No. 26, Phil Kusabs. He’s speaking of Phillipps but he may as well be talking about the city, for its combination of suburban blandness and gothic grandeur. We see trees bent out of shape by the elements and the forest in which Pink Frost was shot behind the town.

It’s beautifully filmed, suffusing the documentary with an atmosphere to match the Chills’ glorious music, and we get to hear much of that, too. But it’s never allowed to get in the way of the story – there’s no recounting of the band’s discography and, other than Neil Finn and the aforementioned Iggy Pop, no higher luminaries are called on to affirm the band’s standing.

Phillipps’ story resonates because despite his self-involvement, it’s bigger than he is. It’s about artistic integrity, self-realisation, self-acceptance and a reflection on mortality. Towards the end of this sad, lovely film, the emotional rush is equivalent to the Dunedin surf washing on to the cold beaches – it finishes far more optimistically than it promises to.

As a fan, I wanted to punch the air. And of course, it will be fans of the Chills who queue up first to see this documentary. If you’ve not yet had the distinctive pleasure of hearing his band, the triumph and tragedy of Phillipps’ story will make you one for life.

First published in The Guardian, 14 June 2019

Neil Finn: Out Of Silence review

Perhaps the first thing the listener needs to do with Out Of Silence is forget about the circumstances in which it was created. For four consecutive Fridays in August, Neil Finn has live-streamed the making of his fourth solo album via his Facebook page, releasing the singles More Than One Of You and Second Nature on the 11th and 18th respectively. The recording was completed in a final four-hour session on the 25th.

Clearly, this approach excited Finn and his fans. But when the process is forgotten, all that is left behind is the music itself: piano-based orchestral pop, with a minimum of drums and percussion. The album is compact at 35 minutes, and complex in its instrumentation and arrangements, scored by composer Victoria Kelly. It is beautiful on the surface and yet seemingly bottomless: these songs are too subtle and densely textured to take in all at once.

But it feels like easy listening; as natural as breathing. Finn’s last album Dizzy Heights, produced by Dave Fridmann with Kelly also on board, was unusually hard work by comparison. And it’s here that you appreciate the craft in these songs and the manner in which they’ve been executed. The songs were recorded quickly, but tightly rehearsed: you may have been a fly on the wall, but that doesn’t mean Out Of Silence was made on the fly.

Chameleon Days exemplifies how Finn can make the most sophisticated pop music sound like the simplest thing in the world. Opening with ghostly vibraphone and strings, it’s joined by Finn on piano, singing in a high falsetto, and one of the album’s few drum tracks. The lyrics shapeshift with the melody: “That must be how the music is meant to be played / The colours change in our lives / We all have our own chameleon days.”

There is so much going on in this song that it feels almost unstable, especially when it hits a surging bridge, with backing vocals doubling down heavily on the beat. But Finn’s piano keeps returning to the hook that keeps it anchored, at least until its final, breathtaking coda, where it’s finally cut loose and allowed to float away. It’s one of his loveliest creations, as good as Fall At Your Feet or Private Universe.

Second Nature is the other track with drums, played at a brisk gallop, and the most familiar in style to Finn’s work with Crowded House. But, as a steady quiver of violin and cello keep pace, male and female backing vocals alternately blend and diverge. It’s the most baroque of pop songs, reminiscent of Andy Partridge’s later work with XTC, but a deserving single, immediate in its appeal.

Other songs are much darker, as Finn goes into territory he’s rarely explored lyrically. The Law Is Always On Your Side is a short but moving piano ballad about a police killing. Terrorise Me is a song inspired by the horrible events at the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, Finn looking terror straight in the eye and refusing to be cowed: “If you want to terrorise me / Make me hate you in return / Love is stronger when it hurts.”

Finn has often been compared to Paul McCartney – famously the former Beatle deferred to Finn when asked how it felt to be the greatest songwriter alive – but at moments like this, he’s closer to George Harrison: a mystic determined to appeal to our better angels. “I think that we can fight and still be friends / Words are hard to control, and some better left unspoken,” he sings in the opening song, Love Is Emotional.

At the top of it all is Finn’s voice. Of all his outstanding qualities, perhaps it’s his singing that’s the most undersold: completely distinctive, unforced and gentle, whispering melodies only he could conjure in your ear. Out Of Silence sees him at his most contemplative and tender, at the most troubled of times. If you missed out on watching this album being born, rest assured the songs will wait for you.

First published in The Guardian, 2 September 2017

NB. Apparently the McCartney story is a myth!

10 of the best: Flying Nun Records

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 Guardian28 January 2017