Tag Archives: Flying Nun

Into the Night

Last night I went to a pub to see a band. It’s something I haven’t done in a long time. I used to be a regular in my teens and twenties in Christchurch. Thursday, Friday or Saturday. There was always something to see. Local or out of town.

Last night in Wellington was like a Christchurch gig of old. A dancefloor packed with people standing, staring at music, shuffling their feet on the sticky floor. But with no cigarette smoke in the air and a crowd like me; grey, middle-aged. Relaxed. Drinking craft beer. No aggro or thought of conquest.

It was my first time at Meow. It’s a nice venue. Quirky.

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As I walked in John, the old friend I had come to see, shook my hand and apologised as he had to ready his cello to guest with The Bats. I had forgotten the nervousness of pre-gig organising. When I played music I used to leave the venue and march the streets until the last moment. Or share a spliff.

I went to the gig with my old school friend, Damian. We played in a noisy band called Swim Everything in the ‘90s. It was good to catch up. Talk about kids and getting old. His knees recently stopped working after a ski trip with his daughter. He reckons the change in the body from 50 to 60 is the same as from 10 to 20, but in reverse.

The Bats were the same as ever. But older. They’re the nicest people and were very supportive of my first school band, All Fall Down. Flying Nun folk are generally pretty amiable. It’s nearly 30 years since I saw them live (except on the telly at that gig after the first Earthquake).

It wasn’t too loud, either, but I still stuffed in ear plugs half way through the first song. I have such bad tinnitus that I constantly feel like the side of my head has just received an unexpected whack. Rock n roll.

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It finished dead on 11pm (no sirens or flashing lights to shoo us out like the old days) and I caught up with Ruth who managed the student radio station I DJ-ed at in the ‘80s. She was featured in an exhibition at Canterbury Museum last year celebrating 40 years of RDU. Literally a museum piece (I didn’t point that out). I asked Hayden, a muso acquaintance, if he still played music. He laughed and said he just watches TV. I also said gidday to another old muso (name withheld) who runs New Zealand’s spy agency. Funny the connections that weave through a life. Five Eyes everywhere. Watching, accumulating. Leaking. I resisted giving a secret handshake.

As I dropped Damian home he said he’d send me a link to the loops he’s put up on Soundcloud. He is very pleased with them. I said sure, and awkwardly mentioned that his mother had a good raunchy poem in a collection of erotic writing I had failed to get a piece into. He laughed and said she had a play produced last week. She was stunned by the effort, tears and despair required. Surprised how it nevertheless came together on the night. I said there’s nothing harder, and more intimidating, than putting on a play. That a script isn’t like a song or a recipe. The same script never bakes the same cake.

By Night

 

As I write this a script has turned up for a play I’m going to audition for. The thought fills me with excitement. And dread.

“The night is dark and full of terrors, old man, but the fire burns them away.”

A polar front, full of snow, is approaching New Zealand from the Antarctic. I need to get in the ceiling and sort out the insulation I shifted to fix a leak last spring.

Writing, music, theatre. I do not know what draws me to them, when a fire offers such comfort. Too old to be young and stupid I stumble onwards into the night.

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Profits of the Future

I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful book. It is gripping, funny and thought provoking with a command of narrative and metaphor that has me shaking my head in wonder. It’s a popular history book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and while this is not a review, I urge any thinking person to read it (Sapiens, as in Homo sapiens, means ‘wise’ human).

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Harari says fiction makes us human

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1970’s view of the future

Like all history it addresses the present (we can only understand today by looking at the past). However, in the final chapter it looks ahead making the point that visions of the future are often hopelessly rooted in the past, blind to imagination. He makes this point by saying that in 1948 the future was full of an apocalyptic nuclear WWIII, while visions from the 1960s were all about rockets and colonising space.

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Slow Boat Records

All this was made clear to me the other day when I revisited my past in the most peculiar way. I was in a record shop flicking through LPs, something I had not done in decades. As I was doing it I couldn’t help reflect on how much time I spent in my teens scouring album racks, searching for music I might want to buy. I did it several times a week. What was it all for? With no record player all those albums I bought now sit un-played in crates under the house and all the ones I hunger to hear have been replaced by digital copies I can scroll through on my phone.

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Vinyl Heaven

As I watched the surprising amount of people, young and old, looking through the music I got several messages from the stranger I was waiting to meet. He was delayed, so I started to look for specific albums, ones that I owned, and I was shocked to find that all were worth a lot more than I had imagined. Not just the rare or obscure ones, but the mass-produced commercial ones that I would get from my mother for Christmas were at least three times the original price.

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$10 when I got it for Xmas 1981 …$30 now!

Yes, there has been inflation, so a $10 LP from 1980 may well be worth $30 in 2015… except that is not how it was meant to play out. From the mid ‘80s on we were told by a chorus of media experts and retailers that LPs were worthless relics which needed to be replaced with everlasting CDs. People dumped LPs en masse. A lover of old things, I would often pick them up for a buck or two at charity stores, adding to my neglected, unplayable collection.

So what’s happening? I got a bit of an insight when the person I was meeting turned up, sweating heavily in the mild late summer 22 degrees of Wellington having recently left the -20 degrees of snowbound Toronto.

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Playing a lunchtime school gig Sept ’84

Matt had made contact with me the week before after reading my post from last year, It Was 30 Years Ago, where I reminisced about my final September at school in 1984.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take his interest, but he seemed genuine and I was happy to scour my photo collection for pictures he might use for the book he is writing.

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Midnight Espresso. Nice muffins. Perfect atmosphere

Initially, I assumed he was a New Zealander living in Canada, who else would bother to write a book about the early years of obscure NZ record label Flying Nun? But as we crossed the road to Midnight Espresso I found out he was a historian with an interest in DIY pop culture. He had come across the label while living in London after doing his doctorate, falling in love with the music (and the story). Then, once he began working in publishing, he tried to find a book that charted the history of Flying Nun, finding nothing. Eventually, after talking to NZers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, he decided he had to do it himself.

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Before Garageband, it helped to know someone who could build a mixer from scratch

The historian (and writer) in me was fascinated by this tale. So much so that it was a while before I stopped ‘interviewing’ him and he pulled out his phone and started asking me questions.

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The Flying Nun Xmas Party ’86. There was bath tub full of beer

It was a strange experience. Being bought food and a drink. Talking about the past. That’s the thing, some things are so familiar you take them for granted and have little idea how they appear to others. Yeah, stuff happened. I played in bands in the FN scene. We weren’t famous, successful or noted. So what?

I had been aware that the EP the schoolboy band I played in (which included a girl, and I once found filed under Women’s Music) has fetched ridiculous prices on the internet ($500 in one auction) but I assumed that was an aberration, fuelled by vinyl geeks completing a collection, rather than out of enthusiasm for the obscure 30 year old music of All Fall Down.

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A quick Google finds the EP retailing for $225 today

But Matt’s eyes lit up when he talked about it, how everyone knew about all the big FN bands and how good the music was, how the vinyl was worth big $$ around the world, but AFD was a mysterious lacuna. With only 200 pressed it was hard to get a copy of the EP so the only way to hear the music was to pay way too much money, or watch two videos on YouTube (which he loved).

AFD Supporting Great Unwashed, Clyde Quay Tavern (The Pulse) 14 Dec 1984 (photo Clifton Fuller)

Supporting The Great Unwashed in Wellington 1984. All well under-age

The past and the future collapsed for me in that moment.

When I was collecting vinyl in the ‘80s, so much was unavailable. I read Rip It Up, NME et al cover to cover, reading more words than ever listening to the songs. There were only a couple of music video shows a week showing a handful of new stuff. And student radio only broadcast for a few hours a day, a few months a year. Scarcity drove deep interest and if you wanted to hear something obscure or beyond the ken of the corporate masters that ran commercial radio and the pressing plants, you had to read about it, then import it from overseas, hoping like hell you liked it (or found it in a second-hand bin somewhere).

Of course, this is not a dewy-eyed harking back for a past age. I love the 21st Century and the availability of music fuelled by the internet, YouTube, iTunes, Wikipedia, ebay/TradeMe etc. I love that I can edit some photos to a beautiful song by the forgotten band I once played in, purely as a tribute to a lost friend and band mate, and people I do not know can watch it anywhere in the world and find something worthwhile.

Yes, it was heartbreaking in 1987 to put so much time, effort and money into an EP and struggle to get retailers to take it for $6.99 (sale or return). And yes, it is kind of galling to see people paying hundreds of dollars for it now.

But it is also satisfying.

Great Unwashed + AFD 1984It was even more satisfying to see the look on Matt’s face when I gave him a copy of the EP he has only read about, to see him pull out the vinyl to check out the grooves like an enthusiast (like I used to), to have him ask about the engraved matrix which he and his friends have speculated about.

Ironically in this time of constant media and ever-present past, he’s having a tough time finding pictures from back then. People just didn’t take photos at gigs. It was either frowned on or illegal (oh, how times have changed. A friend recently posted a whole song on Facebook of Peter Hook playing a Joy Division song in Auckland… they used to call that bootlegging).

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A clipping from Auckland gig

And the newspaper archives are little use. Apparently the papers don’t think ‘entertainment’ stories were worth keeping so they got dumped at some point or other.

No one knows what the future holds.

But, as a historian, what I do know is that which we unthinkingly discard always accumulates value, and prophets of the future tend to be more concerned with their own profits than anything else.

I can’t wait to see the book Matt’s putting together. To see scant pictures of the past turned into history and story.

It makes this ‘wise’ hominid smile.

AFD (Esther, me Blair) playing the 21st party Feb 1986 Photo taken by Jonathan Hall

Rockin’ on & on in 1986

Needles and Plastic

For the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from a particularly persistent (and infectious) earworm. It’s Needles and Plastic by early ‘80s Flying Nun 3-piece DoubleHappys. It’s a song I’ve loved since the first time I heard it back in 1985 when I was a sneering (and insecure) 18 year-old bashing away in the Christchurch music scene.

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Instruments of joy and terror

The singer, Shayne Carter, was the king of sneer and, to be fair, there was plenty to sneer at in the world of 1985 which tends only to get appreciated in a jovially mocking manner, or as dewy-eyed nostalgia (big hair, lame rock, the ‘protection’ of the nuclear umbrella, Reagan selling drugs to fund terrorists while skipping merrily towards dementia, Thatcher tagging along in shoulder pads).

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High fashion c.1985 How high? Ask Ronnie Reagan

1985 was also a time when every mainstream radio programmer claimed all New Zealand music was ‘shit’, and much of the public agreed. But, like Reagan and his dodgy mates, they were wrong.

There was heaps of good music happening in NZ and the fact that those scraped-together recordings and ropey pressings continue to hold high value in the USA and Europe is testament to that (even 2nd hand copies of the insignificant FN E.P. I played on in ’87 have reached $400).

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Pure 1985

Why is it still valued? (beyond obvious nostalgia value). I believe it’s because it was fresh and real, with an energy akin to the first rock ‘n’roll that swept away the manufactured crooners in the ‘50s, or the British Invaders of the early ‘60s who made the processed US ‘rock’ acts irrelevant, or the US/UK punks of the early/mid ‘70s who popped the bloated balloon of Led Zep and pomp rock.

It spoke to me not just because of the subject matter but because the music sounded real. The drums, the guitars, the keyboards weren’t pumped full of processing in $200 an hour studios, they were noisy and nasty, grabbing your attention as if you were in the same room (or garage) as them.

And Shayne Carter wasn’t just a snotty young punk standing in the corner of the room; the lyrics also had a clever poetic quality. original_Double_Happys_Cut_It_Out_cover_image

It starts with a wonderfully blunt snark at a bogan:

Fat cunt in a studded belt, my god I think he thinks he’s something else
When he’s just another zombie probably made out of needles and plastic

And moves to a brilliantly economic couplet describing a pissed goth girl:

White, white girl in a black, black dress
She’s only pretty as in much of a mess
She’s just another zombie, probably made out of needles and plastic

Musically, it chugs along like you’re in the room watching it all

Everybody’s watching everybody else
But everybody’s watching out for themselves

It’s a shallow
Sickening sideshow
I don’t think I’m right, I don’t think I’m right, I
Know that I am!

It’s the nature of earworms (songs in your head you can’t get rid of) that they’re hard to escape. One method is to listen to the song repeatedly to kill it (I learned this from an article about earworms where, ironically, Shayne Carter said he had once been tortured for many weeks by Achey Breaky Heart). So, with this song continually on my mind I decided that I had to buy a copy from iTunes and thrash it to death. After all, even though I own Needles and Plastic on two original vinyl releases (the E.P. it first appeared on, Cut It Out, and the Flying Nun compilation, Tuatara) I haven’t owned a turntable in 15 years (I also have it on a mix-tape… but my last tape deck died 5 years ago and has not been replaced).

Never mind, I thought, I’m more than happy to pay $1.97 for a single (which, ironically, is the same price singles were when I started buying them in 1979).

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King of style, Steve Jobs 1985

The problem is Needles and Plastic is available on iTunes only in the form of two ‘album only’ album downloads. And I already own both of those pieces of plastic… I just don’t have the needle.

Which led to much frustration as the earworm continued to eat away at my brain.

But in the 21st century there is always more than one way skin a cat, so to speak (thank you interweb).

I ripped the song from YouTube and whacked it onto my iPhone and have been singing along again and again, chewing away at the tail of the earworm.

It’s every bit as good as I remember. So full of life and energy.

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Had this poster on my wall for years

It makes me wish I had seen the DoubleHappys live. I was still at school when the Looney Tour went through town in 1984, a 16 year-old in a time when you had to be 20 to enter a pub or risk the wrath of the police. Sure, I looked 20 but my school boy band All Fall Down had just started playing in pubs, and I knew that my gigging would be in jeopardy if I was nabbed.

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DoubleHappys hanging out in Dunedin: John, Shayne and Wayne

Aspiring to be on Flying Nun we recorded our best songs in a scraped-together studio for the always friendly and approachable Flying Nun supremo Roger Shepherd. We (unknowingly) took them to him the day after Carter’s DoubleHappy’s band mate (and childhood friend), Wayne Elsey, was killed after climbing on top of a train while on tour.

Back then, in 1985, 20 seemed so much more mature than me. Now it seems so young to die because of an ill-considered action born of youthful high spirits.

As L. P. Hartley wrote, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

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Long-lamented (and banned) Double Happys

You couldn’t drink till you were 20 and they kicked you out of pubs at 10pm (or 11pm on Friday and Saturday). You had to get your money for the weekend from the bank by 4:30pm on a Friday. There was no internet or cellphones, bin Laden and Saddam were good mates of the CIA, and all NZ bands were shit. Double Happys and sky rockets were legal for Guy Fawkes, and they played music with needles and plastic.