1980s New Zealand Indie Rock

There is no such thing as one musical sound in New Zealand, where traditions and styles have always combined in many different ways. The renowned opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa and the famed “Poi E” singers the Pātea Māori Club, the roots reggae of Kachafire and the art rock/new wave legends Split Enz (not to mention Crowded House and everything Neil Finn’s done since), the widely-loved pop-rock of Dave Dobbyn and the worldwide pop smashes of OMC and Lorde – all these acts’ collective work only scratch the surface of a rich musical culture. But for many listeners of a particular generation and for others since, the country’s indie rock scene in the 1980s, drawing initially on earlier punk and underground sounds in the UK, Europe and America but rapidly gaining its own identity, holds a strong pride of place, both in its own right and as a continuing source of inspiration around the world. With many of its most notable performers maintaining links not only with less well known compatriots but with other artistic communities in the country, ranging from avant-garde sonic experimentation to literary, theatrical and movie and TV work, it’s often seen as an ideal – perhaps more accurately ‘idealized’ – musical milieu for rockers with an ear for the sensitive, wry and catchy possibilities of the form.

While it’s most closely associated with the famed Flying Nun imprint, the label itself wasn’t the birth of the NZ indie rock scene as such. The famed precursor compilation AK•79 turned up on the punk label Ripper, while the similarly short-lived Propeller made its mark thanks to its spiky early successes such as the Screaming Meemees, who surprised everyone with a full-on number one hit in “See Me Go.” Similarly two of the key musicians in said overall milieu, Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate, later known for their continuing work on Flying Nun as the Tall Dwarfs, first came to notice as part of the new wave legends Toy Love, themselves signed to the NZ branch of the WEA label monolith, while the first Tall Dwarfs EP itself appeared on Propeller’s spinoff label Furtive. Meantime, the dramatic power of the Gordons, who transformed into Bailter Space some years later, was first heard via their self-released Future Shock EP and self-titled full length. Later labels founded in the 1980s like Xpressway, South Indies and Precious Metal further provided deeper explorations into the wider scene.

But Flying Nun crystallized an approach thanks to the success of two key early releases, both featuring bands from the South Island city Dunedin and which led to an alternate if limiting tag for the scene, the “Dunedin sound.” First there was the debut single by the Clean, “Tally Ho!,” which simultaneously introduced Robert Scott and the brothers Hamish and David Kilgour to the wider musical world; later separate solo work and contributions to groups like the Bats and the Mad Scene added to their stature, while the single itself was a top 20 hit. Meanwhile, the Dunedin Double compilation was the debut appearance on vinyl of the Stones, Sneaky Feelings and, especially noteworthy, the Chills and the Verlaines. As these and numerous other acts began to record more, tour more widely and gain appreciation via fanzine, distribution and alternative and college radio around the world in the 1980s, the remarkable reputation of Flying Nun and of New Zealand indie rock as a whole was well established by the end of that decade.

Three Blind Mice cover

The Stones were often seen as a kind of runts of the litter among many of the early Flying Nun bands, especially since unlike their fellow acts on the legendary Dunedin Double compilation they only managed one further EP before splitting. But the 2015 collection Three Blind Mice, drawing together both the EP and compilation tracks as well as including a slew of further live tracks, helps make the case for them well, showcasing the kind of scratchy guitar chug, affably off-center vocals and slightly unpolished sound that helped define scene and label then.

Toy Love cover

It’s a quick, scrappy collection of often quick and scrappy songs, at once catchy as hell and with evidence of the group’s partial roots in the Dunedin punk band the Enemy. But one listen to Toy Love’s sole album and it’s little surprise to sense how the quintet both had a legendary live reputation in both its New Zealand home and in Australia, and how so much of NZ indie rock followed from it. Chris Knox’s singing is a bright, wiry kick much like his guitar playing, Jane Weaver’s keyboards add warm, woozy touches, and the whole is simply an immediate delight.

Kaleidoscope World cover

Originally released as a compilation in 1986 of the Chills’ earliest singles as well as their selections from the key Dunedin Double EP release, it was the 1989 US expanded edition of Kaleidoscope World which captured what made the reflective, passionate songs and lyrics of Martin Phillipps so widely beloved in New Zealand and elsewhere. The stark beauty of the mournful “Pink Frost” is balanced in turn by the blazing, anthemic memorial of “I Love My Leather Jacket,” while the easy ramble of the title song is a lovely singalong high point.

Hail cover

As with a number of other 1980s Flying Nun releases, discographical confusion surrounds this title, with the original 1988 New Zealand vinyl release and the US release that same year on Rough Trade being notably different. The 1990 New Zealand CD provides the best overall option, presenting all the tracks from both the original Hail and the 1987 Life in One Chord EP in a blended order and excellently showcasing the band’s earliest years of dramatic but not overbearing rock on strong songs like “Dialling a Prayer,” “So Long Marianne” and “Grate.”

The Gordons cover

It’s a bit much to say that almost halfway around the world from early 1980s New York a Christchurch, New Zealand trio elevated No Wave and invented Sonic Youth, but the distinct, clangorous power of the Gordons’ self-titled debut remains both incredibly prescient and shockingly modern still. It’s all the more impressive given the sleeve credits saying it was all done in under 24 hours, but the dark swing and explosiveness of “Spik and Span” and the unsettled guitar textures of “Sometimes” and “Coalminers Song” simply can’t be denied.

Still Bewitched cover

The 1991 Compilation release originally brought together the three EPs Look Blue Go Purple released during its too short life, but 2017’s Still Bewitched does the band a better service by putting the track order back together to reflect those original EP releases as well as adding a clutch of live tracks as a welcome bonus. The quintet’s striking sound, at once recognizably New Zealand indie rock of the era and something more besides thanks to such factors as Norma O’Malley’s flute conveys an immediacy that lasts, carving out a distinct space all its own.

AK•79 cover

Capturing the quick flash of the initial punk scene as such in Auckland – an expanded edition on CD over a decade later added more tracks and bands for further context – AK•79 is a classic of-its-time snapshot of rough and ready numbers, at times more bored and disaffected than confrontational. Toy Love remain the most well known act, but the Scavengers and the Swingers are worth noting given their bassists – Ronnie Recent, also a singer and aka Brendan Perry, and Bones Hillman – and their future work in Dead Can Dance and Midnight Oil respectively.

Compiletely Bats cover

The Bats’ earliest EPs set the tone for their continuing, wonderful career, the quartet of Robert Scott, Kaye Woodward, Malcolm Grant and Paul Kean showing from the start that they simply had the goods when it came to warm indie rock energy with a feeling that was conversational and comfortable. Compiletely Bats brought the first three EPs together in 1987 – a later 2014 edition added their fourth EP, also released in 1987 – as a bonus, and from the opening “Made Up In Blue,” Scott’s winning singing and the band’s bright performance makes for a simply enchanting listen.

Send You cover

It remains a little surprising that compared to many of their contemporaries on Flying Nun Sneaky Feelings didn’t gain a larger foothold in America and elsewhere, since as their debut full-length makes clear they had a great ear for gently catchy and quietly passionate rock. Send You displays the band’s notable gifts, including their skill in harmonizing and the fact that all four members wrote songs, with winning, stately numbers like “Throwing Stones” and “Not To Take Sides” the end result.

The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience cover

To say that the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience’s early discography resulted in unexpected confusion is to understate, thanks to two radically different versions of the Love Songs album being released in New Zealand and the US. The self-titled 1994 CD, itself a reissue of a 1987 cassette compilation, solves the problem by simply replicating the tracks from their self-titled debut EP and the original Love Songs in one place, letting all their striking early efforts, like the moody swing of “Flex” and the contemplative “Fish in the Sea,” shine together perfectly.

Me Want Me Get Me Need Me Have Me Love cover

The album title is a mouthful but 2013’s Me Want Me Get Me Need Me Have Me Love is the one release needed to get the full mid-1980s recorded legacy of New Zealand’s Bird Nest Roys, consisting of an album and an EP both titled after the band as well as a couple of singles, like a cover of the Hollies’ “Bus Stop.” While the sextet’s easy singalong grace and slightly rougher sonic edges mark them as a Flying Nun act, the sextet often inhabit a lyrical world of their own, as songs like “Five Weetabix and Toast,” “Wads Of Pork Fat” and the title track all demonstrate.

Perform DR503C cover

Perhaps appropriately for a band with a vast and often daunting discography, the 1999 compilation CD Perform DR503C isn’t simply a reproduction of either the 1988 album DR503 or the 1989 cassette Perform DR503B, but combines tracks from both as well as contemporaneous releases The Sun Stabbed EP and the Perform Max Harris and The Live Dead See cassettes. As an overview of the trio’s early work in murky, mysterious but often absolutely compelling and open-ended exploration of whatever rock music is, it’s a great start.

The Pin Group cover

In existence for barely a year and a half in the early 80s, Christchurch, New Zealand’s Pin Group released three singles and EPs during its time, a fourth archival one a decade later, and then this handy collection putting them all together. Given the group’s wide-ranging legacy, with members working in such acts as the Terminals, Dadamah and many solo efforts, especially Roy Montgomery’s career, it’s a treat to hear both the group’s originals, very much showing a Joy Division influence, and a couple of covers too, including of all things War’s “Low Rider.”

Nerves cover

The story of the DoubleHappys is one of tragic brevity, with the still young band shattered after the horrible accidental death of the Stones veteran Wayne Elsey, leading survivors Shayne Carter and John Collie to regroup and continue in the Straitjacket Fits. The 1992 Nerves compilation pulls together their brief mid-80s recorded career – the “Others Way”/“Anyone Else Would” single and the subsequent Cut It Out EP – along with a couple of live cuts to showcase the Carter/Elsey songwriting and singing partnership, a great entry into the classic NZ indie sound gone too soon.

Juvenilia cover

First released in 1987 and in a more complete edition on CD in 1993, Juvenilia is, perhaps unsurprisingly given the title, a look at the earliest single and EP songs by the Verlaines, another demonstration of 1980s Dunedin’s apparently enchanted ability to produce one amazing band after another in rapid succession. “Death & the Maiden,” more or less the band’s theme song thanks to Graeme Downes’s title choice and the lyrical invocation of the poet Paul Verlaine himself, the steady flow of “Joe’d Out” and the rushed immediacy of “Pyromaniac” are just the tip of the iceberg.

This Kind Of Punishment cover

Having already made an initial underground mark in New Zealand with their band Nocturnal Projections, Graeme and Peter Jefferies rebooted themselves a bit with the debut This Kind of Punishment album, keeping the postpunk mood of their earlier work but adding the kind of flowing, strange beauty that defined their future work. Piano taking a central place on many of the songs helped the music stand out all the more – perhaps unsurprisingly “Instrumental” showcases this well – while the uneasy, sometimes strained vocals add to the atmosphere.

Beatin Hearts cover

After a couple of earlier singles, the legend of New Zealand’s Bill Direen began here, 1983’s Beatin Hearts – originally credited to the Builders – fully introducing his distinct, fragmented but never sloppy or pointlessly chaotic way around rock music to the world. Direen’s singing ranges from murmuring understatement to soft cracking falsetto, the often direct songtitles – “Moderation,” “Evidence,” “Friend” among many others – suggesting rather than spelling out the sometimes striking song narratives. Not that he can’t simply rock out in a distinctly scrappy NZ fashion, as songs like “Bedrock Bay” show.

If This Is Paradise, I'll Take The Bag cover

Much like Toy Love, the Screaming Meemees predated the existence of the initial Flying Nun wave in New Zealand but still captured its sense of rushed, immediate and very enjoyable energy, evident in both their singles and their one full length album released in 1982. If This Is Paradise is most well known still for the NZ number one hit “See Me Go,” a notable shock of a feat given it was on an independent label, but the whole is a great blast of crisp early 80s rock and roll spirit with fun, unexpected moments on songs like “Days of Heaven” and “Sunday Boys.”

Compilation cover

The Clean stuck to singles, EPs and the occasional tape of randomness for its first few years, so when Compilation formally surfaced in 1986, then in an expanded version for CD a couple of years later, the results conclusively demonstrated just why the trio of Hamish and David Kilgour and Robert Scott were so instantly beloved at home and elsewhere. The catchy fanfare of “Tally Ho!” broke the band wide at home, while songs ranging from the gentle chug of “Flowers” to the controlled burn of “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” confirmed their stellar quality.

Hello Cruel World cover

Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate already had plenty of experience with the Enemy and Toy Love under their belt when they decided to go it alone as the Tall Dwarfs, and their initial four EPs from 1981 to 1984, compiled in 1987 as Hello Cruel World, demonstrated that their choice to just simply record great, minimal, weird and catchy music on a four-track was exactly the way to go. Right from the start thanks to the brilliant anti-anthem “Nothing’s Going To Happen” the genius of the duo and their impact on what became known as lo-fi is immediately clear.

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