The year is 1981. Punk rock, in one of its earliest forms, is dwindling. No wave and post punk are taking over the proto-indie crowds. The rush of both American and British CBGB-era bands—Television, The B-52’s, The Feelies, The Fall, Suicide, Wire—were all borrowing from the playbooks of their punk forefathers, but there was something inherently disparate about this breed of bands. Whereas the old guard of punk was surface level, blues-oriented rock music played at hyperdrive speeds and deafening levels, the aforementioned bands took approaches that bordered with the abstract: Television channeled prog-rock; The B-52’s eased the brakes, stripping their sound down to something haunting and absurdly funky; The Feelies were geeks channeling geek frustrations, writing sharp, snotty, and oftentimes directionless rock music; Suicide did more with less, inspiring a generation of minimalism and dark, brooding sounds; Wire were just flat out sharp—too self-aware to be punk, too stylistically diverse to be labeled post-punk.
While this artistic renaissance was happening across the seaboard, embedding itself—slowly, but surely—into Western pop culture, there was a little city in New Zealand that was going through something that sounded quite familiar, the result of that was what the meek and lazy call the Dunedin sound. The phrase “Dunedin sound” wasn’t coined until the mid-’80s, when sloppy New Zealand DJs and journalists shoved a wild and thriving artistic community into a box—as we typically do with things that are new or perplexing, us fools—loosely relating a dozen or more bands because they all featured guitars as a main instrument, something every “guitar rock” band has had in common with one another. It was weak, facile and treasonous.
What these DJs and journalists were really talking about was Flying Nun Records. Conceived in 1981 by Roger Shepherd, formerly a record store manager in the city of Christchurch, Flying Nun was inspired by the rush of strange and perplexing bands taking over America and the UK. Within their first year, Flying Nun released The Pin Group’s “Ambivalence” 7-inch—though urban legend mistakes Flying Nun’s first release as The Clean—followed by “Tally Ho,” one of the most popular songs to ever come from The Clean. With a $60 recording budget, The Clean released “Tally Ho,” and within weeks it reached number nineteen on the New Zealand pop charts.
Everything about these bands sounded isolated, as they were from a remote island country, their isolation turned to inspiration. There was nothing urban about these records, nothing relatively close to tough-as-shit city folk, something frequently found within the wave of late-70s’ NYC bands. Instead, bands like The Clean, Look Blue Go Purple and The Verlaines were crafting prose that, though copiously reflective of the vast nothingness that surrounded them, captured life, movements, motions—simply songs about being alive. Existential terror was forgotten, replaced by love songs, songs cogitative of solitude-by-birth.
Dunedin’s skyline is surrounded by Mount Cargill. Mount Cargill hosts endless plains, mountains, trees—tediously upkept, gorgeous and preserved. It’s often forgotten how much a surrounding landscape inspires music. It’s no coincidence that the UK had such a strong output of gloomy post-punk in the late ’70s and early ’80s, much like the Pacific Northwest, where the dreary, rain-soaked landscapes informed a generation of melancholic-rock in the ’90s. This perpetual system of landscape-informing-output is heavily recognizable in Flying Nun bands. Flying Nun’s discography provides some of indie rock’s finest songwriting, easily lovable and constantly meandering.
The Gordons – The Gordons
The Gordons is the only album The Gordons released through Flying Nun. Their 1982 follow up and final studio album under the same name—they later reformed as Bailter Space and signed to Matador—Volume 2, was self-released. The Gordons is equally significant to the legacy of Flying Nun as The Clean’s “Tally Ho” and “Platypus”; it was a crippling and irreverent collection of sharp guitar spasms and deflated grooves, ripping bits from both the post-punk playbook and the spasmodic noise-rock of Wire’s late ’70s period. It’s hard to imagine an era of bands such as Slint, Polvo, and Unwound without somebody like The Gordons paving the way.
Most songs on The Gordons run well over four minutes, each one diving deeper and deeper into undiscovered instrumental territory, its (DNA eventually heavily influencing facets of both math and noise rock. Alister Parker and John Halvorsen’s vocals are deep, brooding and menacing, their guitar work glass shattering; Brent McLaughlin’s drumming patterns occasionally tight, often polyrhythmic. Flying Nun came out with two completely different beasts, The Clean rising to prominence and influence, The Gordons drowning in their own self-induced obscurity.
Look Blue Go Purple – Bewitched
It should come as no surprise that the bulk of Flying Nun’s discography consisted of dudes and guitars, much like majority of the indie rock canon, particularly in its formative years. But what made Look Blue Go Purple such a unique and vital act to Flying Nun’s roster wasn’t the fact that it consisted entirely of women—though, for this era of guitar-based music, that was less visible—but the blend of breezy, gentle-pop they crafted, drawing influence from the Velvet Underground, minus the droning and disturbed epics. Instead, on Bewitched, a four song EP, Look Blue Go Purple turned toward flute arrangements, lush yet imperfect backing harmonies, and an identity that resonated most with the aesthetic of kiwi-pop—like the country they hailed from, their music sounded otherworldly and spacious, as if the scenery of New Zealand was captured in four songs.
To listen to a song by Look Blue Go Purple is to ride an endless wave, their climactic percussion chugging along, sounding as if it were your own heartbeat. Bewitched isn’t just music, but a mood, capable of conveying emotions you thought might be impossible to express. “Vain Hopes” does exactly this, a seance of sort, a collective consciousness guiding you along to places you could have never imagined. Norma O’Malley’s flute contributions are hypnotic, Kath Webster and Denise Roughan’s guitars equally soporific, droning in a way that doesn’t feel forced but instead incredibly at ease. Never before had Flying Nun released something so singular.
The Chills – Kaleidoscope World
It’s nearly an objective truth that The Chills are the quintessential Flying Nun band. I’m also cheating for this one: Kaleidoscope World is technically a compilation album. But so much of The Chills’ legacy sits in this compilation, and it would be blasphemy to exclude it. Whereas most Flying Nun bands had distinctive characteristics, The Chills sound like every single one of these bands, borrowing a thing or two from each playbook to craft something completely unique. The Clean’s jangle, Look Blue Go Purple’s patient, soft-rock approach—these are all very much apparent in Kaleidoscope World, and it’s a steadily joyful 58 minutes of eccentric guitar rock.
“Pink Frost,” one of Kaleidoscope World’s most memorable tracks, showcases frontman Martin Phillipps’ expertise and understanding of that timeless, soft-rock I’ve relentlessly been mentioning. It’s a repeatable song by so many standards. “This Is the Way” and “Doledrums” drive a unique and steady attitude into the ground, and “Hidden By” sounds uncontrollably manic and scattered. Yet, Kaleidoscope World is another one of those albums—or compilations—that heavily depends on each individual track. Any detail removed and the album falls apart. Oh yeah, and David Kilgour was a member for a while, too.
The Bats – Daddy’s Highway
No band captured the Dunedin sound’s aesthetic better than The Bats, and their debut studio album, Daddy’s Highway, epitomized the twee, jangly rock Flying Nun has so carefully fostered since their inception. For those who have lost countless hours browsing and flipping through stacks of records in their local shop, the ventriloquist dummy on the album cover of Daddy’s Highway is instantly recognizable, and equally startling. Though the common recording methods of Flying Nun’s most prominent bands bordered lo-fi, the production of Daddy’s Highway is surprisingly clean, the vocal melodies much easier to follow than that of the Clean or the Chills.
Daddy’s Highway ripples and frolics, its playful melodies consistent and never overbearing. The Bats were at the top of their game when they released Daddy’s Highway, and they were never able to recapture that magic again. Daddy’s Highway bears heavy resemblance to the Replacements’ Let It Be and Pixies’ Doolittle—not for the literal sound, but for the magic found within. All three groups are incredible in their own right, and they all have a few masterpieces of their own, but the connection Daddy’s Highway, Let It Be, and Doolittle share is the once in a lifetime magic they were capable of capturing. Daddy’s Highway is that rare, definitive moment in time where everything aligns, escaping them the moment the studio sessions concluded.
Able Tasmans – A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down
Able Tasmans’ influences lie more in Look Blue Go Purple’s curiosity than any other Flying Nun band. Their hilariously titled debut studio album, A Cuppa Tea and A Lie Down, finds Able Tasmans tinkering with lively piano arrangements, lushly layered organs, and twangy acoustic guitars. Able Tasmans looked at the Talking Heads and Meat Puppets for inspiration when the rest of Flying Nun’s bands looked at Wire or the Modern Lovers. There’s a certain and obvious playfulness that lingers from song to song on A Cuppa Tea and A Lie Down, a lack of self-seriousness—this only works in their favor, testing the limits of what makes a cohesive structure that somewhat resembles a pop song.
Like the glitchy rolls of “Patrick’s Mother,” the funky, funeral-prance of “Rain in Tulsa” sounds like a monster’s funeral, something celebratory on the surface, but still rather menacing and dark in its mood. Tasmans even attempt a punk song with “Tom Song,” but instead they hopscotch back and forth between groovy, bouncing piano rolls and lockjaw D-beats. A Cuppa Tea and A Lie Down still sounds revelatory, an approach often imitated but never quite delivered in the manner Able Tasmans are capable of.
The Dead C – Eusa Kills
Before The Dead C mutated into an utterly terrifying collective of free noise and drone rock, the Dunedin trio was discovering and experimenting with what would later become the sound they’re best known for: flat out disturbed noise-rock, traditional song structures long in the rearview mirror. But this was 1989, their salad days. The Dead C had signed with Flying Nun the year before, and their debut, DR503, was featherweight compared to their later releases with Siltbreeze. What followed DR503 was Eusa Kills, their second studio album and last for Flying Nun—possibly the most accessible in the Dead C’s discography, predicating their ominous departure into a world of noisy esoterica.
Though Eusa Kills is still easily considered “noise rock,” for most ears, it’s corybantic territory, feral yet surprisingly groovy. Its “accessibility” is still very much a long shot, but the consistent stability of its song structures make for an accessible release, especially for a band as unidentifiable and niche as the Dead C. Eusa Kills is also an incredibly vital historical document for Flying Nun. Where The Clean, The Bats and Look Blue Go Purple had all, in one way or another, built up a reputation for breezy, gentle “rock” music, the Dead C picked up where The Gordons left off in 1981—creating something entirely arcane, immersed in their own fits of noise and redefining guitar rock in the process.
The Clean – Vehicle
The Clean are perhaps the first band to ever release a “greatest hits” compilation before a debut studio album. Though The Clean originated in 1978, their first full length, Vehicle, wasn’t released until 1990. In that 12-year period, frontman David Kilgour assembled a “fat songbook,” and The Clean released a slew of EPs, live albums, and compilations, most notably 1983’s Odditties and 1986’s Compilation. Though the wait for Vehicle was obnoxiously prolonged, it was ultimately worth it, as it proved to a be a living historical document of indie rock’s earliest roots. The hyper lo-fi methods seen on their most beloved 1981 singles “Tally Ho” and “Platypus” were long forgotten in the studio, but the stylistic blueprints were still very much prevalent when recording Vehicle.
It’s hard to imagine indie rock as a concept, technique, and an attitude without The Clean. David Kilgour was proficient in a language that Stephen Malkmus and Ira Kaplan could only hope to learn from, disguising perfect pop songs with layers of distortion, melodic guitar leads, and driving, “motorik” drumming tactics. Vehicle didn’t so much embody indie rock as it was indie rock in its perfected form—too cockeyed to be power pop, too melodic and jangly to resemble punk rock, too simplistic to edge toward experimental. The scatterbrained opener, “Draw(in)g to a W(h)ole,” the bouncy, organ-led goodbye on “Bye Bye,” and the driving force of “Some Ones” are The Clean at their finest and hungriest, and the live document that is “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” sounds like a Yo La Tengo fever dream. But it’s the sparse, acoustic closers “I Can See” and “Gem” that truly showcase Kilgour’s ability to craft euphoric love songs. Vehicle is still as emotionally pervasive now as it was in 1990.
David Kilgour – Here Come the Cars
If The Clean’s 1990 studio debut Vehicle proved David Kilgour to be a maestro of indie rock, then Kilgour’s 1991 solo debut, Here Come the Cars, is the antithesis to this very idea. Here Come the Cars is a polished, stripped down collection of hauntingly graceful songs, a direction of tedious, gentle craftsmanship that, though unexpected, established Kilgour as a true artist. Backed by Noel Ward on bass and Tane Tokona on drums, Here Come the Cars augments Kilgour’s minimalist approach for something that sounds incredibly monstrous while still grounded and unpresuming—the ultimate paradox, equally lovable as it is heartbreaking.
Kilgour surrounds his instantly recognizable vocal delivery with flourishing piano arrangements and lush guitar work, and when these are placed together, the songs of Here Come the Cars unfold into radiant epics, equally indebted to Kilgour’s own quixotic nature as his ability to craft such vulnerable and unfiltered prose. Where the fleeting croons and piano jabs on “Because It Was You” display Kilgour as melancholic and lonesome, “Uplift” is a rapturous, third-person burner that captures the trials and tribulations of life and existence itself within five and a half minutes. Here Come the Cars is in every way a symbolic departure from the rough and loose groove of the Clean—it’s a bandleader-turned-solo artist trope as common as drunk, white dudes ripping off storied blues artists, but the contents within rise above this trope, showcasing a man at his most defenseless and broken.
3Ds – Hellzapoppin
Listening to Hellzapoppin now, it’s difficult not to hear both Stephen Malkmus and Black Francis. By September, 1991, when Hellzapoppin was originally released within New Zealand, Doolittle had already become somewhat of a canonical staple, and though Slanted and Enchanted didn’t arrive until April of 1992, Pavement had already released a slew of singles and EPs, slowly but surely garnering the attention of a strange, anti-rock scene happening in NYC, then adopted by noise-rock overlords Sonic Youth. But it could also be argued that Hellzapoppin inspired Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain—the era (1994) in which Pavement emerged as a semi-serious collective crafting tasteful, pop-oriented songs.
Nevertheless, the impact of Hellzapoppin was nowhere near that of The Clean or The Chills—it didn’t even appear on a single radio chart within New Zealand. 3Ds came a decade too late, though their sound is timeless, still sounding innovative in 2018. The high-note plucks and tossed-off distortion of “Swallow” and the pop-friendly hook and lead of “Sunken Treasure” help identify and categorize 3Ds with the “Dunedin sound,” but that’s about it. Everything about Hellzapoppin is supremely different from any Flying Nun band, and David Mitchell and David Saunders’ guitar work sounded playful, constantly attacking each other with twin-guitar attacks and tantrums.
The Courtneys – II
Much like the majority of fellow Flying Nun cohorts, The Courtneys craft distorted power-pop with a hyper-sensitive edge. The only difference is that The Courtneys are 30 years past Flying Nun’s golden years—and yet, they’re still capable of capturing the bottle-rocket release of The Bats and The Clean at their finest. What’s so refreshing about The Courtneys isn’t that they hail from British Columbia, or that they’re a trio, but the fact that they’re still capable of capturing the slick prowess of their Flying Nun ancestors in the 21st century. Their second studio album and first for Flying Nun, 2017’s II, displays a band with improbable songwriting chops, their songs slackish and insular yet brimming with life.