We all know the story. Back in 1981, in Ōtautahi (Christchurch), record store clerk Roger Shepherd created a label out of a simple desire to see his favourite local acts make a few 45’s. Tracks like the Pin Group’s ‘Ambivalence’ or The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho!’ With a simple DIY, post-punk attitude and a heap of friends and bandmates pitching in, Flying Nun spluttered into life. It quickly became known for it’s lo-fi aesthetic – partly due to the limitations of Chris Knox’s legendary A-334OS TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel and partly due to the jangly guitar sounds of the early bands like The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, The Chills and The Stones who inadvertently pioneered what came to known as the ‘Dunedin Sound’. Many more piled in, Straight Jacket Fits, Jean Paul Sartre Experience, Birdnest Roys, Look Blue Go Purple, Toy Love, and so on.
“Music came almost exclusively from somewhere else,” Shepherd wrote in the liner notes of ‘Tally Ho! Flying Nun’s Greatest Bits’ back in 2011. He was reflecting on how it was for Kiwi musicians when Flying Nun first started. At that time, he rightly says, our own music was subject to the “pervasive narrow-mindedness” that did not recognize popular culture, even when it was right in front of us.
But there was a quiet revolution seeping onto our airwaves. FM radio was gaining traction. Hard to believe AM was so dominant in the late 70’s. It was us scruffy, undernourished student radio DJs who embraced everything subversive and alternative in music. And feeding our insatiable hunger for content deemed by everyone else as ‘not of radio quality’ was Flying Nun. At Radio Active, where I was it common place to have bands like the Chills, JPS, Chris Knox, Able Tasmans or The Bats rocking up to the tiny, stale beer smelling studio on the 2nd floor of the Student Union to crash in on to a day time show to promote their gigs and give away tickets and LPs. Many’s a time I’d roll in to my 2PM show after lectures to find Shayne Carter or Robert Scott reclining on the Station Manager’s mustard yellow couch prior to an Orientation gig. These bands were our friends. On the air and in person. They were all part of our great kicking against the pricks of dull conservative New Zealand. It was also a push back against the over bloated, shoulder padded pastel excesses of the imported and overproduced culture from America and Britain that dominated all forms of media. We wanted to prove that not everything was produced by Stock Aiken Waterman. “Music as the Art of Subversion and met an untapped nerve,” write Shepherd. And he was right.
Haven’t the tables turned? Anyone looking at Flying Nun now would never have thought Kiwi music was anything but essential. So many great tunes have become anthems. For example, The Clean’s raw and crudely drawn ‘Tally Ho’ is still sung by 18-year-olds in pubs today.
Songs like that are in our blood. And what about artists like Reb Fountain, who was playing tonight, winning APRA’s and national Music Awards. Back in the 1980’s there was no way a Flying Nun artist would have performed on the WOMAD stage like Reb Fountain and Aldous Harding have.
Today the cultural cringe is gone. We all roll up to bands known and unknown and champion them for what and who they are. Tonight’s line up celebrated 40 years of a record company who was prepared to back anyone and everyone – the more unique the better. The tradition of backing left of centre, local independents that find their own crowd continues. The 40 year Anniversary party has been rolled out across the Nation. Auckland’s already had theirs a couple of weeks back. After this weekend the gig goes to Christchurch. Each centre has a different line up – a mixture of classic bands and more recent acts.
Wellington’s special double stage line up includes Aldous Harding, a re-formed Subliminals, newly revived Voom, pop darlings Purple Pilgrims, revivalists Superette, and legendary acts The Bats and The Chills.
With the gig playing at the Capital’s Michael Fowler Centre, a location better known for orchestra concerts and graduation ceremonies I was intrigued to see how the organisers would pull off approximations of a sweaty nightclub or bar room – the usual haunts for most FN bands. In reality, it was better. Renoulf #2 was transformed into a large black hole labeled ‘Fuzzy Foyer’ where the noisier bands, like The Subliminals and Voom could kick up a racket. The main stage was afforded the more graceful position for the elder statesmen and women like The Bats and The Chills.
The night kicked off with dreamscape artists Purple Pilgrims who performed material from their sophomore record ‘Perfumed Earth’. Reading up, I found out that the to create this music the Nixon sisters, Clementine and Valentine, had retreated back to a cabin hidden deep in the wilds of Tapu, where they’d also made their 2016 debut ‘Eternal Delight’, and immersed themselves in an ethereal sonic world to create “ancient imagery expressed through a modern lens – folk songs played on synthesized instruments.”. A dreamy sort of mix between Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins.
With just the two sisters on stage, a few digital toys and a guitar, it was incredible how vivid their sonic palette could be. Their sound is laden with lush pentatonic melodies, overdubs and slow aural colour washes that sweep you up. The shimmery kaleidoscopic textures of the opener ‘Ancestors Watching’, ‘Saturn’s Return’, ‘Delphiniums in Harmony: Two Worlds Away’, ‘Sensing Me’, along with others captured every one in its hypnotizing spell during their short but powerful half hour set.
In almost complete darkness save for two spot lights Aldous Harding and her musical partner Huw Evans sat opposite each other on the main stage. As if told to remain as still as possible, Evans provided the subtlest of accompaniments on guitar and keyboards. Like a scolded school boy, he barely moved. The two worked through a simple, paired back set from her catalogues including a starched rendition ‘Living The Classics’, ‘I’m So Sorry’ and ‘The Barrel’. I think I heard ‘Treasure’ in there, too.
Hannah Topp (aka Aldous Harding) has been living in Wales of late. So, we were damn lucky she’d managed to slip through MIQ unscathed and was here for us tonight. She’s always a highlight and never fails to surprise and delight. Her voice was fine, fragile, and occasionally frivolous, with her usual austereness. I always enjoy the ‘personas’ she places over every song, which are a full body experience from face to playing stance. Tonight, I got to see how she frames up the new single ‘Old Peel’.
“Fuzzy wants to rock!” shouted Dave Mulcahy, referring to the FN mascot, halfway through Superette’s set back on the ‘Fuzzy’ stage. What stood before us was an older, more sober and less menacing version of the alt rockers that once dominated student airwaves and orientation mosh pits. Formed in 1993 when David Mulcahy (who also has been in Spider and Eskimo) left the JPS Experience and joined up with drummer Greta Anderson and bassist Ben Howe. Critics were quick to draw comparisons to JPS Experience, because of Dave but Superette’s bright, smart, and distinctive sounds increasingly became its own thing: a heady blend of fat, chunky riffs and sweet, sweaty melodies. Sort of a mix of Sonic Youth and a hint or two of T Rex and sixties psychdelica. Tonight’s set relived all of that. And it was great. The band are still loose and grungy, knocking off blasters like ‘Killer Clown’, Pixies sound-a-like ‘Touch Me’, a groovy version of ‘Funny Weather’ and the soft and delicate ‘Waves’. Although the band moved little, preferring to shoe gaze most of their gig, it was clear they were enjoying still being relevant, even in middle age. Prof of concept was a blistering take on ‘Cannibal’ and closer ‘Saskatchewan’ that got most of us into pogo mode for a few minutes.
Bouncing around like you’re eighteen again was a little harder for this audience. Most of us, like half the line up were in our mid to late 40’s and 50’s. But very elegantly dress, with good and quirky and expensive threads. That never occurred to me, as I rocked up in my usual 80’s student grunge of black jeans and brushed cotton check shirt (nowadays a designer label). Still, seems I was a bit underdressed for this mob.
The marking of passing years were not lost on The Bat’s Robert Scott either. “Imagine what it’s be like in another 40 years,” he quipped, “as we come back on in wheel chairs and zimmer- frames.” Hopefully, they’ll still be as cool as they were tonight, as we all took a trip down memory lane with a selection of best moments from the band’s extensive and ongoing catalogue – ‘Made Up In Blue’, ‘Block Of Wood’, and of course, ‘North by North’, which finished the set. In between we got a selection of newer stuff from ‘Foothills’ and lost albums – a quick survey from over the years included ‘Trade in Silence’, a strumming ‘Field of Vision’ and a nicely done ‘’Singletons’. All appreciated as the crowd abandoned their seats to politely mosh around the big stage.
Voom first formed back in the early 90’s. Buzz Moller and Mac MacCaskill noodling away in their basement for years before anyone heard a thing. Danny Manetto joined on bass and they did plenty of venues around the mahi before finally putting out the highly acclaimed debut ‘Now I Am Me’ in 1998, with ‘Beth’, ‘Sad Surf Scenario’ and the title song – all of which we got tonight. We also got the big hit, ‘Relax’, which Buzz called “a f*cked up mess of a hit, I wrote drunk at 2AM.” Essentially, Voom is just Buzz these days, a new signing to the Nunnery, with a new crew of ‘younger farts’, as he called them, extensively former Goodshirt members Mike Beehre and Murray Fisher and Nick Buckton on bass. There was a couple of new ones, unannounced pop rockers, destined for a new album next year and a song about ‘Tim, the record exec.’ Not a complimentary one, either. They fleshed out the set with a selection from the new album ‘Hello, Are You There?’. Most of the people were completely unaware of this band, and now were heading home to pop them on their playlists, quick smart.
Back on the big state, ‘Hellssemporium’, Reb Fountain gave us a phenomenal set. Well crafted and exceptionally well rehearsed, she was in fine form.. She’s been doing most of these for some time now, but they never get old. ‘Hawkes & Doves’ still has the drama, with Reb in full martyr pose, arms out, wild hair, desperate expressions and sweet vocals. ‘Psyche’ and ‘Strangers’ followed, and then a fragile and tear-jerking rendition of ‘Hey Mom’. Many in the crowd were moms, so that one fully resonated with the sentiments. The wāhine standing next to me was visibly moved, drying her eyes on her sleeve and bravely smiling back. She told me she’d just lost her daughter in a tragic accident. That blew me away.
No Reb Fountain show would be complete without an intense delivery of ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’. That came last, fully grooved and powerful. I was a little disappointed that ‘Lacuna’ and ‘When Gods Lie’ didn’t make it onto the set list, but time was limited, so there you are.
If I was here tonight for any band, it was The Subliminals. Twenty plus years ago, Steve Reay, Simon Maclaren, Jared Johansen and Brendan Moran got together in this scratchy old beach house up near Whāngārei Heads with HDU Dunedin producer’s Tex Houston to record new material. The band’ve always made stuff in unconventional surroundings. Like the debut ‘Crystal Chain EP. It was recorded amongst rusting farm equipment, rotting straw and cow-shite splattered across a Kaukapakapa cowshed. Tonight’s sonic squalls, ‘Trial’, ‘Bug’ and Crystal’ we all produced dung free but blistering. Best song though had to be the hypnotic ‘Uh-Oh’, a swirling mash of sound wrapped up into a one line groove on endless repeat. Bliss! That one came from ‘United State’, which finally came out on vinyl last year, right in the middle of Covid. It’s truly one of Aotearoa’s great forgotten albums.
The story of the record has been enveloped into this country’s music folklore. The beach house was off the grid, with only a rudimentary solar power setup. A generator had to be hauled in to keep the amps and other equipment going. Breakdowns and power spikes caused all sorts of gremlins and problems. Siphoning gas from nearby cars to keep powering the sessions. The final product was an album full of concealed messages, arcane resonances, half-remembered emotional references.
These former members of Loves Ugly Children, Bressa Creeting Cake, and The Hasselhoff Experiment know how to assault the senses. Their music is possibly one of the prest representations of early Flying Nun outside the Gordons and Bailter Space. I loved it! Tonight, it was a joy to hear those sounds come to life, albeit in a more genteel location than their original birth place.
The last band of the night HAD to be Martin Phillipps and The Chills. For once, Martin has gone for a truly talented bunch for his latest incarnation. Not that the others didn’t have their own special skill. But this latest line up really are a cut above. The long dreadlocked Callum Hampton was equally skilled on bass and trumpet, playing both at one time during one track. Also, Erica Scally (Guitar, Keyboards, Violin and Backing Vocals) was all over the shop, skillfully adding plenty of layers to the new material from ‘Scatterbrain’ and the classics, too. ‘Dr’ Oli Wilson added a few bits of improvisation on keyboards to keep things fresh, including some classical nonsense at the start of the student sing-a-long ‘Rolling Moon’, which has been lifted out of its squat into a more hi-brow and legitimate rock song. Of, course the animated antics of drummer Todd Knudson were still available, if a little bit more subdued than normal.
By now everybody has seen the doco on Martin, so we all felt the self-reflecting opener, ‘Destiny’ pretty heavily. No doubt there were plenty in the crowd tonight who can empathize with close call health scares. But not to get too morose, the Chills livened up things with ‘Monolith’ and then reached right back to the 80’s with their first recording, on the ‘Dunedin Double’ with a very tight version of ‘Kaleidoscope World’. ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ is a guaranteed sing along. Audience harmonizing is acknowledged.
We also were treated to a long forgotten ‘punky’ song called ‘The Other’, which was penned in 983 and left in some drawer or other, during the recording of the first album. Now the band, well Phillipps and his new crew, are going back to lay down all these lost gems at Massey Studios. Look out for that release in the not to distant future.
“Shall we sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”, Martin asked, “Perhaps not.” He smiled, acknowledging what a strange, fraught and wondrous journey it’s been for all bands involved.
A grunge-laden ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’ and ‘Pink Frost’ have t come out, before ‘Little Alien’ and a soft finish with the new album’s contemplative ‘The Hour Glass’ sends us all out into the night. Happy, nostalgic and satisfied.
Descending the stairs, I heard plenty of ‘Remember When stories…’ and the occasional ‘Where’s Chris (Knox)?’. We know why.
The of the Flying Nun 40th shows kicked off in Auckland Town Hall with a mix of old favs like – The Bats, Superette, Straitjacket Fits, Aldous Harding, Reb Fountain, Mermaidens, Womb, Wax Chattels and Sulphate…something for everyone. Some played again tonight. Some did not and some, like Headless Chickens, The Clean and Toy Love. The Ōtautahi line up is yet to come. There are plenty of bands in the FN stable that could have played tonight. But we’ll leave the ‘coulda-shoulda’ debate for another time. This was about celebrating the old, the new and those passing through. It worked. A great night for all Nun-heads.
Happy Birthday Flying Nun. Here’s to 40 more!
All photos by Tim Gruar