Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Flying Nun

Celebrate, snail bait

Gary Steel figures it’s high time the venerable Kiwi institution Flying Nun got its wings clipped, and maybe its last rites read.

"Whaaaat? I thought Flying Nun was dead and buried!" A look of incredulity breaks into bleak confusion. The look on the face of this chap betrays the disappointment of a music nut who had his head blown off by Flying Nun’s biggest act – Straitjacket Fits – but subsequently had to watch the band, and the label, wither and die.
Your humble essayist had just told him about Under The Influence, the big bash to celebrate Flying Nun’s 21st anniversary on March 22.
As a concept it sounded marginally intriguing: a marathon 21-hour recording session, wherein an assembled gang of noisy boys young and old (presided over by none other than Sir John Peel, doyen of BBC alternative music radio) would attempt an album of Flying Nun cover versions and originals ‘in the style of’.
A quick scan of the Kiwi participants, however, provokes nothing but a stifled yawn: PanAm. Garageland. Betchadupa. Haselhoff Experiment. HDU. Chris Knox. Graeme Downes, The Clean. The D4. Is this the future, the past, or even anything remotely inbetween?
On the face of it, coming just a year after Flying Nun’s 20th anniversary (celebrated with a video and memorabilia exhibition at the Auckland New Gallery), it would appear the label are trying to stretch the party vibe as far as it will go.
But do Flying Nun have anything to celebrate at all?
In its heyday, Flying Nun was a significant cultural resource, but the label ceased to have any discernible profile or personality many years ago.
From its origins as the tiny Christchurch independent record label that introduced the country to the joys of lo-fi recording by ‘seminal’ groups like The Clean, The Verlaines,The Chills and many others, in 2002 we’re left with an institution in name only, whose only visible or notable act is Betchadupa, a poppy, commercially-oriented group led by the son of Neil Finn. Surely, the enemy of the Nun.
In the greatest irony, the label that single-handedly killed Kiwi pop in its prime is now counting on a pop group for its next phase… one that would have been mercilessly ridiculed by the hipper-than-thou alternative sect that surrounded the original label aesthetic.
How does a label get away with assuming such an ongoing, huge cultural cache when it’s actually long past any semblance of what gave Flying Nun its strength in the first place? And was Flying Nun ever as much chop as the carte blanche acclaim given it by the NZ music media mafia indicated?
In the opinion of this observer, no.

THE SEAMS of the Flying Nun getup were sewn in the late 70s, when a tribe of South Island malcontents with their own take on the punk revolution (more influenced by the narcotic afflictions and heroin chic of the Velvet Underground than the snotty speed-driven Johnny Rotten) set about recording themselves.
Chris Knox, fresh from an excruciating experience recording the Toy Love album, corporate-style for WEA in Australia, was fighting mad as the highly touted Toy Love disintegrated before his eyes. Armed with a basic portable four-track tape recorder, Knox documented, audio-verite-style, the emerging grind of his southern compatriots. The rough-as-guts results were released by a Christchurch record shop employee, Roger Shepherd.
The myth makers would have us believe that the advent of Flying Nun freed Kiwi music from the tyranny of stereotypical record industry machinations, and ushered in an era in which genuine talent was allowed to flower, removed from the shackles of the traditional profit motive.
Truth and myth in head-on collision. Truth dies at scene. Want the truth? Flying Nun murdered NZ pop, and got our scene caught in its doldrums for well over a decade.
Despite its longterm unavailability and Knox’s hatred for it, there’s a small but vocal crowd who claim that the Toy Love album is leagues ahead and much better than anything subsequently released by Flying Nun. It’s an absolute classic of the pop renaissance that was occurring in New Zealand between 1979 and 1983; a genre which was eradicated with almost genocidal glee by Chris Knox and Roger Shepherd.
Epitomised by labels like Ripper and Propeller, the exponents of the Kiwi pop renaissance produced a punk-edged sound that wasn’t afraid of being tuneful, complex, funny, or commercial. While inevitably influenced by the flowdown from Mother England, such was the geographical distance that Kiwi pop had its own very distinctive and gorgeously naïve qualities. Think The Swingers, Blam Blam Blam, Screaming Meemees, The Newmatics.
Unfortunately, a music media already (eternally) under the influential sway of exponents of cool intellectual rockers like Lou Reed fell hook, line and syringe for any and all emissions from Flying Nun; it was basic enough for wordsmiths to understand and describe, and it had rock’n’roll attitude oozing from its every track mark.
Coverage of Flying Nun activities was so out of proportion to its actual sales graphs that the aesthetic became totally entrenched in NZ: to be hip and serious and have credibility, you HAD to wear op-shop clothes and write songs that weren’t seen as in any way pandering to pop accessibility.
It’s hard to imagine in the current environment, where a culture of dedicated pop achievers has grown up with no link to our past, but even unstoppable commercial achievers like Dave Dobbyn were considered beyond redemption, and a group had to be brazenly awful (The Fanclub, Peking Man) chart-sluts to crave genuine success.
Hail the young generation: today’s NZ pop groups are confident in their ability to attain commercial success while retaining their integrity. But they know not what they’ve lost in the absence of a mainline to a continuum of cool Kiwi pop over the past decade. There’s no bridge to the present era of Kiwi pop, today’s groups have few past heroes from our own culture to emulate, as they simply don’t know the history. This has produced a musical environment dominated by groups who – while adept and professional and good at what they do – simply want to sound EXACTLY like any band anywhere on the globe.

SO… FLYING Nun, eh?
What’s the musical legacy of this almost universally applauded label?
For starters, it’s universally overrated.
Sure, any Kiwi who lived through the Flying Nun era in New Zealand can claim some nostalgic affection for at least a few of the groups and songs. But anyone trawling through the catalogue today for the very first time would wonder what the fuss was about… while they gasped, uncomprehending, at the poor singing and time-keeping and appalling sound quality.
It took a freezing month in an unheated Dunedin flat in the mid-Winter of 1985 to finally understand why the Flying Nun sound was never going anywhere. The denizens of this introverted music community were a kind of folk club, and their songs were largely singing Chinese whispers, carrying coded message about girlfriends defecting from one group to another. It was literally life in one chord; retroactive students and stoners strumming guitars and gelling, from time to time, into rudimentary groupings.
There were exceptions to the Dunedin drone. Along the way, the label accumulated genuinely radical, innovative groups and artists by default: ignored by the label at first, the epochal Gordons were eventually picked up for distribution, and Palmerston North’s unique industrial art rockers The Skeptics finally found a home there.
But the lion’s share of attention went to the terminally morbid, moribund droolings of The Clean (and all their terminally hip offshoots), the painfully anguished baroque drones of The Verlaines, the increasingly pointless and boring eccentricity of Chris Knox and Tall Dwarves, and the charming but ultimately dope-addled childishness of The Chills.
As the label grew and they began negotiating various dead-end deals with US underground labels (often sending albums straight to deletions bins) owner Roger Shepherd got ambitious, and set about setting up shop in London. After all, Straitjacket Fits (whose music betrayed a complexity, bite and power that no other Nun acts could approach) had been released by major label Arista in the States and had a huge amount of media coverage in the UK, and other Nun groups like The Chills were making inroads overseas.
Ultimately, it ended in tears, Shepherd serving beer in a London pub, and the label being bought out by Michael Gudinski’s Australian label, Mushroom.
The Mushroom consolidation led to a plethora of compilations and cd reissues, which at least kept the label lore intact in the mind of the nation.. But it also quickly led to a kind of torpor that always occurs when control is remote and managed by people with little real understanding of cottage industry.
The Nun got a new habit in the 90s, redefining its aesthetic with the Headless Chickens, and later, the wonky pop of Bressacreetingcake.
Meanwhile, more business stuff meant that ultimately, Mushroom was absorbed by one of Australia’s oldest independent record companies, Festival, which was itself bought out by no less than media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
The first post-Murdoch release of any consequence was the solo album by Fiona McDonald, which blew the budget wide open and sold like a sea slug. Afterwards, then-Nun head Paul McKessar sloped off to London with his galpal, McDonald, in tow.
When Festival changed its name last year to FMR and moved into oddly soulless corporate-style new offices, there were scant images to recognise their ownership or pride in Flying Nun; yet the company have seen fit to madly promote the upcoming 21st anniversary event (the actual birthday is May, when the record is planned for release), all-the-while promoting the label as an INDEPENDENT. Try another one.
Anniversaries are great times to reminisce… and reassess. If FMR really want to launch Flying Nun into the new millennium, they need a dedicated Nun staff module with an independent mindset and a unique perspective/aesthetic. They won’t get to the future by noodling around in a murky past that seems much better than it really was. Or by pretending they’re not the same parent company as Kylie Minogue.
Perhaps the real future has passed Flying Nun by: musicians who were influenced by its early sound, and brazenly developed the ‘lo-fi’ concept, include the Dead C who are proudly part of the Sonic Youth-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles this month.
With the best Flying Nun acts signed elsewhere (Shayne Carter’s Dimmer with Sony, David Kilgour with Arc) or living in unhappy exile (The Chills’ Martin Phillips), the 21st birthday celebration looks like a sham.
I wonder what the disenfranchised Roger Shepherd would think of the current Flying Nun roster, which seems to be pinning all its hopes on Betchadupa, a group of barely developed teens whose own backgrounds are more steeped in the classic, Beatles-inspired pop forms of Liam Finn’s dad than anything in the Flying Nun canon.
And I can see Chris Knox sneering at Crowded House, even with my eyes shut.

* This article originally appeared in the NZ Listener. It whipped up loads of controversy. 'Legendary' Brit DJ John Peel was in Auckland at the time, and he loved it. (And he loved the record shop I owned at the time, Beautiful Music, coming back for a chat and a snatch & grab six times in the course of a couple of weeks). But at a small concert held on Peel's behalf, Chris Knox performed a song called (if my memory serves) 'The Late Gary Steel'. I was disappointed by the response of many of my colleagues/fellow music critics, many of whom seemed to think Flying Nun sacrosanct and beyond criticism. But I felt vindicated by the many emails and phone calls I had congratulating me on the piece, even some of them emanating from Dunedin.


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