Flying Nun’s rightful place in New Zealand history has been secured with the acquisition of the legendary label’s master tapes by the Alexander Turnbull Library.
If Alexander Turnbull was around these days, he’d be your classic bearded, single-origin-coffee-and-fancy-toast-loving Wellington chap. Had he been at his peak in the early 1980s, on the other hand, he would’ve been into jangly guitars, stovepipe jeans and woolly jumpers.
But as it so happens, Turnbull was living it up in our capital city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A “handsome dandy” who never married, he loved books, yachting, playing golf and frequenting the city’s clubs.
“He was of a bohemian bent,” says Michael Brown, music curator for the Alexander Turnbull Library. “Roger, would it be too much of a stretch to say the Flying Nun milieu was a bit bohemian?” he asks Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd as we wander the library’s subterranean temperature-controlled storage rooms.
“Oh yes it was, definitely. Very much so,” agrees Shepherd. “If Turnbull had been around in the 1980s, he’d have been heading down to Christchurch and going to the Gladstone [the heart of the city’s post-punk music scene]; he’d be spending time in Dunedin. Perhaps yachting down if the weather was good.”
Turnbull died 100 years ago, on 28 June, 1918, and on his death bequeathed the nation his impressive collection comprising more than 55,000 books, plus thousands of original artworks, prints and maps.
“About five or six years before he died, he realised that to donate just the stuff itself was one thing, but to give the government a head start, he thought, ‘I’ll build them a library’,” says Brown.
“He had a ready-built facility for his collection for he government to take over, and it opened two years after his death, to the day, in 1920.”
The library moved out of that three-storey brick building, Turnbull House on Bowen St, in 1973, and now resides within the National Library building just up the road on Molesworth St.
This year marks the centenary of Turnbull’s bequest, and over the next two years, up until the centenary of the library’s opening, a number of special initiatives are planned to celebrate. The first is the announcement that the library has acquired legendary Kiwi indie label Flying Nun’s collection of nearly 1200 master tapes, covering the period from 1981 to the mid 2000s.
“We’ve prioritised this as our first big news, which does represent the value the library sees in it,” says Brown.
The tapes had been had been held at Flying Nun’s Auckland office, and in recent years Shepherd became concerned about their degradation. “We came to the realisation they needed to be somewhere they could be looked after properly,” he says.
“We’d been keeping a track of the tape collection since the early ’80s — we’d realised the practical reasons for doing so as the label got bigger and we were sending master tapes off for overseas releases,” he says. “It was very much a practical thing: ‘We’ve got to manage this or we’re going to lose stuff and it’s going to be expensive’.
“So we’ve always been mindful that they’re important on lots of different levels and we’ve really made a point of keeping tabs on them, which is why there is a collection.”
While music may not have featured in Turnbull’s original collection, the library has been collecting recordings since the 1970s, and established the Archive of New Zealand Music in 1974, on the suggestion of composer Douglas Lilburn.
In recent years the Turnbull has acquired master tapes from New Zealand record labels like Viking, which was big in the 1950s and 60s, and Ode, which came to prominence in the 70s. The aim is to preserve and digitise the tapes to allow some of the music to be re-released, as well as to provide opportunities for music researchers.
“With archiving, you tend to be acquiring material at the end of the cycle of its care — when people are retiring, downsizing or have passed away, or when a company’s closing down,” says Brown.
“With magnetic tape masters, though, we really need to get ahead of the curve, so the Flying Nun collection is perhaps a bit more of a contemporary collection than we would have had in the past, but there’s such urgency around preserving masters that it’s good for us to get on to it.”
While the original focus of the archive was classical music, there’s been an increased interest in popular culture across the entire library, says Brown. In recent years they’ve acquired collections from early Kiwi rock ’n’ roller Johnny Cooper and pop queen Dinah Lee, as well as almost 1000 tapes sent in by bands wanting to be played on Wellington student station Radio Active, and a collection from Joel Little’s old band Goodnight Nurse.
In a nutshell, a master tape is the original recording of a song or songs — the source of the LP or CD. “It’s usually the highest-fidelity version and when you listen to master tapes played back, they have a saturation of sound that is usually several orders better than a published release,” says Brown.
The Flying Nun tapes held by the library include not only masters of classics like ‘Pink Frost’ (The Chills), ‘Death and the Maiden’ (The Verlaines), Straightjacket Fits’ ‘She Speeds’ and many more, but also outtakes, demo material and live recordings — including a multitrack from a Chills gig at Auckland’s punk mecca Windsor Castle.
Many of the tapes are multitracks, meaning a different track has been recorded for each instrument or microphone as the band plays. Once they’re digitised — the project is pegged for completion in three to four years — they’ll provide a valuable resource for researchers, says Brown.
“You could do a study on drumming or bass playing in New Zealand based on the ability to isolate a particular contribution, or a study of studio techniques — how were these sometimes world-famous recordings constructed?
“Flying Nun music is often characterised by this DIY approach, which it was in that people were taking charge of the recording process themselves, but musically it’s really interesting,” he adds. “It’s got nuances and textures that are quite interesting to musicologists. I think the ability to look at that in more detail for a collection like this is an amazing opportunity for researchers.”
Digitisation is a complex process, however, and frustrating due to tape formats changing regularly over the period the recordings were made. “There was this quest to find perfect tape format, then digital files became what people worked with, so all these things are a bit frozen in time,” says Nick Guy, senior audiovisual conservator at the Turnbull.
The necessary playback equipment differs for each tape format too, and can be hard to find. “A library that wants enough analogue playback equipment to digitise a vast collection can’t just go out and buy it,” says Guy. “It’s a real challenge. It’s no good if we have this thing in a hundred years if we have no way of listening to it.”
The project also involves making digital images of the tape boxes and any accompanying notes, which researchers will be able to view as they listen. Many of these make for interesting reading, such as Chris Knox’s letter to the vinyl-pressing plant that accompanies The Stones EP Another Disc Another Dollar, complete with a doodled cartoon face pleading: “Cut flat!”
“I think there was always a little bit of interplay with the pressing plant around how you wanted the record to sound. It’s such a technical process, but imprecise and open to interpretation,” says Brown.
“Potentially something would come back at the wrong speed or with a track missing, or sounding horrible, or sounding remarkably good — it sometimes seemed like a total lottery,” adds Shepherd.
Flying Nun changed hands a few times over the years, including being acquired by Warner Music in 2006, but the tapes were well looked after.
“We’ve been lucky, because often with a change of hands things get moved and the dreaded dumpster appears,” says Shepherd, who was part of a consortium that bought the label back in 2009.
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The tapes represent more than 70 bands and as part of the project, Shepherd has enjoyed getting in touch with many of those involved in Flying Nun’s history. “I’ve been tracking people down and telling them what they’re doing,” he says. “It’s been good — people now have the realisation that these tapes need to be properly looked after.”
The process has also uncovered a few lost tapes that bands have held on to all these years.
“It’s been important to us at the library too to get their blessing,” adds Brown, who points out that the copyright is not affected by the acquisition — it’s still their music.
The digital files of the tapes will be available to the label to remaster and reissue tracks, or put out unreleased material. “There might be better versions of something available, there might be interesting outtakes,” says Shepherd. “It opens up all sorts of opportunities.”
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