An essay by Gary Steel on the hits and myths of Flying Nun, as chronicled by the record company’s founder Roger Shepherd in his new best-selling memoir.
Flying Nun. Was there ever a record label that was more famous than any of its acts? It’s the home of the “Dunedin sound”, The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, and then other heavy hitters like Straitjacket Fits and the Headless Chickens. Does anyone not think about Flying Nun when they imagine those bands?
What an odd, distorted reality, that one raggedy alt-rock label could represent New Zealand in the eyes of the world.
But it’s a distortion that Roger Shepherd supports in his memoir: “An extraordinary amount of wonderful music was created in that decade (1980s),” writes Shepherd. “Most of it was from the South Island, Dunedin in particular, or had some connection with these places. And much of it was connected to Flying Nun Records.”
I guess it’s natural that Shepherd would fuel the legend, but the idea that most of the best New Zealand music of the ‘80s came from the Dunedin, or that Flying Nun was behind most of the best music, is a myth. For many, Flying Nun is ground zero for NZ music. But the label’s prominence has sadly obscured all the great music that happened outside of its orbit, and all of the great bands that didn’t quite fit its post-punk alt-rock/indie aesthetic. An aesthetic that, as viewed through the prism of that tiny Dunedin scene from which emerged bands like The Clean, The Chills and The Verlaines, requires the wearing of black jerseys and sneers at anything commercial, or anything that doesn’t jive with its sense of cool. And that idea of cool hinges on an unhealthy obsession with the Velvet Underground and Nuggets-era garage bands from the ‘60s. It’s cheap and uncheerful and the uniform guitar jangle covers up its musical deficiencies.
Ironically, when Flying Nun was releasing its first singles (including the woeful Pin Group, led by Roy Montgomery, and dubbed ‘Roy Division’ for obvious reasons), the rest of the world had already moved on to synth-pop, electronic dance, reggae fusions and hip-hop. The label’s classic sound was determinedly retro, mired in electric folk tropes, and as cutting edge as a toddler’s plastic cutlery set.
But what those early Flying Nun records had, as Shepherd points out, was a sense of place – in a place out of time – and a sense of community. Without the label to protect and encourage it, the scene may have died, through chronic disorganisation, lack of venues, and no mechanism with which to make it all happen.
And that’s exactly what happened with similar independent artists not within Flying Nun’s geographic reach or not seen to be quite fitting its specific aesthetics. Seminal label Propeller, active in the few years before the advent of “the Nun” and responsible for some of the greatest NZ records of the early ‘80s – the Features’ epochal “Victim”, Blam Blam Blam’s classic Luxury Length album amongst them – was soon to become victim of business misfortune. But there was a torrent of interesting and sometimes great music and bands in the first few years of the ‘80s, including Pop Mechanix, Herco Pilots, Alms For Children, Shoes This High (fragmenting into Fishschool and Smelly Feet), Beat Rhythm Fashion and the First XV.
Sadly, without any kind of umbrella label or distribution system, this talent pretty much died on the vine, leaving Flying Nun as the decade wore on as de facto monopoly of “alternative” New Zealand music, pitting itself against commercial acts like Dave Dobbyn, Split Enz/Crowded House, The Mockers, Dance Exponents and others – acts that in their way were just as much about our place in the world as anything on Flying Nun.
Wellington’s Jayrem label was at least able to offer a home to some of the acts rejected by the taste-makers at Flying Nun, and its “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” approach made for a stylistically interesting mix that included everything from Dunedin’s Working With Walt (early Jan Hellriegel), Wellington’s synth-pop Body Electric, and the first flush of local reggae and Te Reo releases. And by the end of the ‘80s, it was hard to ignore that Flying Nun had found itself in a pasty-faced, op-shop clothes-wearing ghetto oblivious to the development of local reggae, the “Polyfunk” sound of bands like Ardijah or the conscious hip-hop of Upper Hutt Posse.
Not all the popular NZ music of the ‘80s was good, but when the public voted for their top 10 NZ songs, there wasn’t a Flying Nun track amongst them. Instead, it was all Exponents, Crowded House and Dobbyn. And when APRA members voted for their top 100 NZ songs in 2001, Flying Nun songs were thin on the ground, with just Chris Knox, The Chills, Straitjacket Fits and Headless Chickens making an appearance.
But Flying Nun did release some extraordinary records through the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Straitjacket Fits’ high-velocity Life In One Chord EP, the first Jean-Paul Sartre Experience EP, Fetus Productions’ Fetalmania EP, the best Bailter Space albums, most of the Skeptics’ work, and Headless Chickens’ Stunt Clown.
It’s not that Flying Nun should be debunked, just that some perspective would help. Throughout the label’s history, print media journalists have been its best ally, acclaiming its releases, spreading the word and talking it up. It’s one facet of the Flying Nun story that Shepherd ingenuously fails to acknowledge, and it’s one of the main reason Flying Nun has managed to assume its inflated cultural cache amongst alt rock connoisseurs – one that is far greater than its impact on the general public.
The problem with the label that celebrates itself – even though its output tapered off in the ‘90s and its current operation is a shadow of its former self – is that as impressive as its run was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Flying Nun is far from the mythical one-stop shop for great New Zealand music, a convenient illusion that thankfully, will deteriorate over time as parallel histories of NZ music pop up on sites like AudioCulture.
In Love With These Times is Shepherd’s bird’s eye account of his life to date, a good proportion of which is all about the independent label he accidentally founded in 1981 and somehow kept going through thick and thin until overseas interests wrested it off him in the 1990s.
While the classic Flying Nun sound was built on short, artless songs, Shepherd’s book is more like a 20-minute, three-part progressive-rock symphony, an extended riff on the idea of Roger Shepherd as the perfectly flawed nice guy, the drunk, dishevelled would-be businessman who couldn’t keep the books and couldn’t quite grasp the basics of contracts and publishing.
He writes, “I’m not sure I had the necessary ego or strength of character to ever make my fortune in music.” But is that the façade he wants to project, or the real Roger Shepherd?
In part, In Love with these Times is a book that seeks to explain to all those former Flying Nun acts who felt slighted and unloved and unpaid that hey, Roger Shepherd was a decent dude, and you know, all that dough just got absorbed in running expenses.
How he even came to be running Flying Nun in the first place is presented as cliché. It’s the old New Zealand myth at work, the one that lay behind punk: just as anyone can pick up a guitar and just jangle, anyone can run a record company. Everything’s so casual that when you fuck up, no one can blame you.
Whether Shepherd was just a right-time-right-place guy, or really, really clever, he was still the face of the indie label that lasted long enough, and mopped up enough of the talent, to establish our alt-rock locally and create little ripples internationally.
And of course, by dint of the fact that it was the only possible umbrella for just about any “alternative” band that wanted some record action in the ‘80s, Flying Nun was able to take on much more exciting and musically innovative acts than just those goodly but overrated jangly Dunedin bands.
But who knew that Roger Shepherd could write well? He tells his story clearly and succinctly, never gets too mired in boring industry muck, and remembers a surprising amount for a guy who admits to being at the bottom of a bottle too often.
One of his surprising admissions is that he never went on tour with one of his bands – or at least, never completed the one tour he attempted. How odd, for a man who practically lived in pubs but was clearly a sort of homebody. How odd, also, that he was never really a music consumer or record collector, but somehow ended up managing two record shops and starting a label.
There are acute observations, such as this portrait of Chris Knox: “He was intelligent, opinionated, outrageous, brave, sometimes plain stupid, and highly capable of creating extreme embarrassment and unease in those around him.”
There’s insight on the birth of the twin scenes in Dunedin and Christchurch that gave birth to Flying Nun, and a surprisingly chunky section on the label’s forgotten folly: the Netherworld Dancing Toys, before the risible ‘For Today’. There’s also the quite bizarre admission that he spent an entire weekend drinking backstage at the Sweetwaters festival without seeing any of the bands, without any explanation, along with the story of his (ahem) cardboard fetish.
Then there are the booze and drug stories, which peak with The Chills on cactus juice, and a mini-bio-cum-observation for most of the bands or artists who recorded for the label, including the heart-breaking story of Great Unwashed/Snapper man Peter Gutteridge.
In Love With These Times gets less interesting during its later stages, as business becomes paramount and the raw talent that got the label going is mostly expunged to make way for shinier acts. Although Shepherd makes a good pitch for Flying Nun’s current health, it’s clear that its glory days were in the ‘80s, and it’s for insight on that era that most of its readers will be sifting through it all most carefully.
Shepherd’s post-Flying Nun days in London are somewhat glossed over, and his stint as a seller of fine wines doesn’t even get a mention, perhaps because he’s now totally teetotal.
The book effortlessly stokes the furnace that feeds the on-going mythologising of Flying Nun, but that’s to be expected. He was there at the coal face, after all, even if he wasn’t actually touring with his beloved bands.
In Love With These Times (HarperCollins, $36.99) by Roger Shepherd is available at Unity Books
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.