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Flying Nun History 1980-1995

Anything Could Happen - Flying Nun History 1980-1995

By Matthew Bannister

In the aftermath of punk, many independent record labels sprung up around NZ, mainly in Auckland, for example Ripper and Propeller. Most of them didn't last long, but Flying Nun Records is still around today. Flying Nun Records was the first South Island "indie", formed in 1981 by Roger Shepherd, a record shop proprietor and music enthusiast of Christchurch, with the idea of releasing local bands who would not otherwise be signed. The first Flying Nun single release was "Ambivalence" (FN001) by the Pin Group (Christchurch), the second the Clean's "Tally Ho!" (FN002)(Dunedin). (The catologue numbering on early FN releases was extremely loose, and many bands adopted their own). Initially Roger released mainly South Island bands, from Christchurch (e.g. Mainly Spaniards, Bill Direen's various outfits and They Were Expendable) and Dunedin. There were few (if any) professional recording studios in the South Island at the time, hence many early FN releases were recorded on Chris Knox and Doug Hood's TEAC four-track reel-to-reel, including the Clean's first two EPs ("Boodle Boodle Boodle" and "Great Sounds Great", and the "Dunedin Double", a double EP of four Dunedin bands (The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings and the Stones) which gave rise to the expression "the Dunedin Sound". Knox and Hood rapidly became the North Island (Auckland) centre of Flying Nun, and from 1983 onwards there were more releases by Auckland bands, initially by Chris Knox, The Tall Dwarfs, This Sporting Life etc.

What was the Dunedin Sound? Many of the musicians involved denied its existence, but to outside observers, early FN releases had a distinctive sound, which was only partly attributable to rough recording techniques. This "sound" was typically marked by the use of droning or jangling guitars, indistinct vocals and often copious quantities of reverberation. Punk amateurism was a big influence, especially on the Clean, but the Dunedin bands tended to lack punk aggression, and favour, at least in theory, a more "pure pop" approach. Many band members had large record collections, and the sounds they favored tended to be older ones (apart from punk) especially 60s white pop and rock, from the Beatles and Dylan to the Velvet Underground, the Byrds and the more psychedelic sounds of early Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and "Nuggets"-style "garage punk" (The Stooges).

"Boodle Boodle Boodle"'s commercial success (reaching number five and spending six months on the charts, eventually earning a "gold record" - 5000 copies) was important to the label's early viability. New Zealand is a very small market in which 2000 is accounted a good sale, and a substantial "export market" was still some way in the future. Financial problems arose in 1982 - UK group the Fall played concerts in NZ and one at Mainstreet, Auckland was recorded and released by FN, as "Fall in a Hole". However, the Fall then claimed not to have authorized the release, and took all profit from the project. This resulted in some FN releases being delayed by up to a year. Early Flying Nun bands played mainly in pubs or at University venues, typically in the four main centres - Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and sometimes Hamilton and Palmerston North. It was easier to play in places with students and student radio. Pubs in Dunedin included the Empire and the Captain Cook, in Christchurch the Gladstone and the Star and Garter, and in Auckland the Reverb Room, Rumba Bar and the Windsor. Wellington was more of a problem initially but the Clyde Quay, The Cricketers and the Cambridge all hosted bands. The other important source of exposure was student radio, especially Auckland University's BFM, Canterbury University's Radio U and Victoria's Radio Active (It's worth noting that there was no student radio in Dunedin until Radio One started in 1984). In 1982 the Clean broke up, after releasing a final single "Getting Older", but other groups quickly filled the gap, especially the Chills, with the singles "Rolling Moon" and "Pink Frost", and the Verlaines, whose "Death and the Maiden" single became a big hit on student radio. Whereas the Chills were known for their "Utopian pop" sensibilities, the Verlaines were more arty and bohemian, hence their name, which derives from Paul Verlaine the French poet, not Tom Verlaine of Television, by the way! This "French connection" would later crop up again with the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. Most early Flying Nun releases were singles or EPs - albums involved additional expense. This changed in 1984 with Sneaky Feelings' "Send You", the first FN release to be recorded in a 16-track studio (Mascot in Auckland) and The Great Unwashed's "Clean Out of Our Heads" (recorded at the Kilgours' mum's). Other groups/artists debuting in 1984 include ex-Clean bassist Robert Scott's the Bats ("By Night"), the all-women Look Blue Go Purple ("Bewitched"), The Rip ("A Timeless Peace"); Double Happys "Double B-Side" and in 1985 The Able Tasmans "The Tired Sun", the Birds Nest Roys "Whack it all Down", Fetus Productions, Goblin Mix and the Great Unwashed (featuring The Clean's Kilgour brothers plus original member Peter Gutteridge and The Pin Group's Ross Humphries. Some of the members of these groups later became well known in other groups: e.g. David Mitchell of Goblin Mix went on to the 3Ds, as did Denise Roughan of Look Blue Go Purple and Dominic Stones of Birds Nest Roys; Shayne Carter of the Double Happys to Straitjacket Fits, Alister Galbraith to Plagal Grind, Peter Gutteridge went on to Snapper, Rupert Taylor of Birds Nest Roys later joined the Headless Chickens. Indeed, many FN musicians played in a number of different bands: drummer Alan Haig played in the Chills, the Verlaines and Snapper, bassist Jane Dodd in the Chills, the Verlaines and the Able Tasmans. The release of the first FN compilation "Tuatara" brings this initial period to a close. In late 1985, the Chills became the first FN band to tour overseas, playing in London, and a Chills compilation ("Kaleidoscope World") was released through Rough Trade (UK) Normal (Germany) and Homestead (US). In 1988 they signed to Slash, a subsidiary of Warners, thus making them the first FN band to sign to a "major" label, subsequently recording all their material overseas. 1988 also saw Flying Nun move its offices from Christchurch to Auckland, a move presumably dictated by Auckland's proximity to "the biz" and overseas markets. NZ distribution was now "handled" by majors, first WEA and then the Australian- based Festival/Mushroom, which also bought a 50% interest in the label in 1990. At this time a number of bands emerged who were, along with the Chills, the mainstay of the label into the 90s, while a number of others disintegrated or migrated to other labels - Sneaky Feelings and Look Blue Go Purple broke up in 1989, while the Verlaines left the label and signed with Slash/Warners. Some would argue the Auckland move also influenced the sound of the label, moving away from its "South Island" roots to a darker, harder, more contemporary sound. Such a split can be clearly heard on the second FN sampler issued in 1988 "In Love With These Times" (the title is from a Bailter Space song), which is very much divided up into a light side (LBGP, Chills, Bats, Sneaky Feelings, Able Tasmans) and a dark side (Snapper, Skeptics, Headless Chickens, Bailter Space) of the Nun.

The Chills enjoyed their greatest success in 1990 with their album "Submarine Bells" (NZ number 1) and single "Heavenly Pop Hit" (NZ number 2). However, internally, the band was falling apart again, and the Chills came to a sad (although not necessarily final) end in 1993 after recording one further album ("Soft Bomb"). Shayne Carter started Straitjacket Fits in Dunedin after the death of his Double Happy partner Wayne Elsey in a 1985 train accident. Of all the FN artists, Shayne behaved and looked most like a rock star, with his trademark Elvis sneer and brooding, passionate singing and songwriting. It was a surprise then when he recruited shy, bespectacled second guitarist Andrew Brough, who came very much from a more "mainstream", melodic, Byrdsy background. Both had strong voices however, and when they worked together it promised much, as on their first EP "Life In One Chord". The Headless Chickens (Auckland) emerged from the ashes of Children's Hour to expand the sonic range of the label with electronica and production expertise, enhanced and perhaps financed by the $60000 Rheineck Rock Award the band controversially won in 1987. Rheineck is an awful beer, by the way. In 1991 the band enjoyed big singles hits with "Cruise Control" and "Juice". Always more open to dance crossover than other Nun bands, the Chickens first recruited the "Cruise Control" and "Juice" vocalist Fiona Macdonald as a part-timer, but after the song hit, she was rapidly asked to join. The ensuing album "Body Blow" went double platinum, but once again creative differences and pressures led to a split.

The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience's (later JPS Experience) brand of swirling, hypnotic post-psychedelia (see especially "Bleeding Star") was ideal for film soundtracks, and the group supplied music for Alison Maclean's "Crush" (1993). (The ultimate Flying Nun movie soundtrack is 1997's "Topless Women Talk About Their Lives", directed by ex-Front Lawn Harry Sinclair.) Bailter Space shared the JPSE's fascination with My Bloody Valentine- style "sound sculpture" - swirling guitar textures, volume and minimal structures. Founded in Christchurch in 1987 by Clean drummer Hamish Kilgour (who left after the group's first album, "Tanker") the band then effectively became the reunion of the Gordons, an early 80s Christchurch punk noise band who made some influential recordings (e.g. "Future Shock", initially self- released but distributed by FN). Bailter Space moved to New York in 1993. Finally, the 3Ds presented the ultimate irony - a "Dunedin" band made up mostly of Aucklanders. Balancing David Mitchell's squalling guitar pyrotechnics with folksy melodies from David Saunders and Denise Roughan, the 3Ds (4Ds, really when you think about it) were one part grotesque; one part folk-whimsy. They also stuck to the DIY ethos, recording low budget, living cheaply in Dunedin and generally eschewing commercial temptation. These bands, along with the ever-reliable Bats, backed by Auckland management and organizational ability, made substantial inroads into oversea markets in the early 90s, especially the US alternative and college markets. The US market increasingly became a focus, with Straitjacket Fits signing to Arista, and other groups such as Bats proving popular on US College radio, subsequently recording with American producers e.g. Nick Sansano on Fear of God. Meanwhile Straitjacket Fits were experiencing the pressures of fame, with Brough's melodic ballads (notably "Down in Splendour") proving commercially palatable, but not to the taste of the rest of the group. After Brough departed in 1992, the band recorded a further album "Blow" in the US with a new guitarist (Mark Petersen) and US producer Paul Fox. Brough later formed Bike, placed tracks from the band's ensuing "Take in the Sun" album on Aussie soaps "Home and Away" and "Neighbours", and earned a lot of money. Noisyland, a 1993 US tour package combining Straitjackets, JPS Experience and the Bats, represents perhaps the climax of FN's attempt to "break" the US market. Following the tour however, the Straitjackets and JPS Experience split. Shayne Carter subsequently formed Dimmer, and made the spooky, trancy, dancy "I Believe You Are a Star" (Sony 2000) while JPSE members went on to Superette, Stereo Bus and Lanky. In 1990 Roger Shepherd left NZ, ostensibly to extend Flying Nun's UK operation, and although he did not finally depart these shores until 1995, management of the label increasingly passed to ex-Rip It Up journalist Paul McKessar and former record shop manager and Look Blue Go Purple drummer Lesley Paris. To sum up these 15 years then? Flying Nun's policy of releasing music that they liked, rather than music made for the marketplace, was farsighted and courageous. Although there have been disagreements within the label about the artistic direction of some groups (see my book "Positively George Street" for my gripes), there is little doubt that Flying Nun has, in its own way, made popular music, and certainly New Zealand, a better place.

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