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Music

15 Essential Tracks from the New Zealand Pop Underground

Mike Noren
Image by David Mark from Pixabay with Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

Recorded for $60 in an island country near the bottom of the globe, "Tally Ho", the debut single by New Zealand's the Clean, was an unlikely candidate to be an international game-changer and a defining moment for a pop movement. Here's a sampling of essential tracks by 15 of New Zealand's finest acts.

Recorded for $60 in an island country near the bottom of the globe, the debut single by New Zealand's the Clean was an unlikely candidate to be an international game-changer. A heap of jagged edges and jittery hooks, pushed along by a screechy Farfisa organ and shouts of "Tally Ho", the song seems to revel in the joys of music-making with little regard for who's listening. Still, listeners began to take notice, and the 1981 release of "Tally Ho" would in time be regarded as a milestone -- not just as the opening blast of the Clean's legendary run, but also as a defining early moment for Roger Shepherd's Flying Nun Records. A fledgling indie label at the time, Flying Nun would soon be the creative hub for one of the world's most influential underground music scenes.

Just about everyone involved in the making of "Tally Ho" would go on to impact New Zealand's musical landscape in major ways. The members of the Clean -- David Kilgour, brother Hamish Kilgour, and Robert Scott -- have created stellar material ever since, both as a group and through their numerous off-shoots and solo projects. In Robert Scott's case, his work with a second band, the Bats, would come to rival the Clean's output in terms of both quality and longevity. Martin Phillipps, who played the Farfisa on "Tally Ho", would form another of New Zealand's most beloved groups, the Chills. Meanwhile,

Chris Knox, who directed the video and recorded other Clean material, remains a punk/indie icon for his work both on his own and with the Enemy, Toy Love, and the Tall Dwarfs. Knox, Phillipps, Scott, the Kilgour brothers, and a handful of others would make up the nucleus of the Flying Nun roster through the label's '80s/'90s heyday.

Here's a sampling of essential tracks by 15 of New Zealand's finest acts.

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15. The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience - "I Like Rain" (1987)

You might expect a group named for a famous Existentialist philosopher to have something weighty to say, but you won't find it on the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience's "I Like Rain". Instead, the 1987 single basks in a childlike simplicity, with a waddling keyboard part and lyrics that don't get much beyond "I like rain, when I'm inside." While it may seem overly cutesy for some, the song is compelling in its own way, and nearly impossible to shake from your head -- in short, it accomplishes what good pop songs ought to. In time, the members of the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience may have found that simplicity suited them best, as they later shortened their name to the JPS Experience.

14. The Dead C - "Bad Politics" (1988)

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dunedin-based Xpressway label provided a darker, harsher, noisier alternative to Flying Nun, a place where fans could seek out the unpolished offerings of acts like This Kind of Punishment, the Terminals, and Alastair Galbraith. Xpressway's founder was Bruce Russell, who also played in one of the label's leading bands, the Dead C. Alongside Michael Morley and Robbie Yeats, Russell would take the Dead C to legendary heights in the experimental/noise realm, with a string of cutting-edge soundscapes that's still going strong today. Most of that material falls outside the scope of this list, but the somewhat more digestible 1988 track "Bad Politics" comes close enough. At just over two minutes, it plays like a straight-ahead punk-rock single, but with the regular guitar stripped away and layers of rumbling, scraping, cavernous distortion its place.

13. The Magick Heads - "The Back of Her Hand" (1992)

In the grand scheme of things, being Robert Scott's third-best band isn't that bad a deal. Scott formed the Magick Heads in 1991, in his time away from the Bats and the Clean, and the group served as a way to channel his well-honed songwriting sensibilities through the ringing voice of singer Jane Sinnott. The group didn't find long-running success, but it did have its perfect moments, notably the 1992 single "The Back Of Her Hand", in which Sinnott sings of a washed-out note and a missed connection over an agreeably Bats-like backdrop.

12. Chris Knox - "Shrapnel" (1994)

Few artists anywhere have had as long-lasting or wide-ranging a career as New Zealand rock mainstay Chris Knox. His bands' contributions are discussed elsewhere on this list, so here we'll focus on his solo catalog, a generally unclassifiable mix of homemade tape experiments, buzzing pop songs, gentle ballads, splashes of humor, social commentary, and more. While the lovely "Not Given Lightly" is arguably his best-known track, 1994's "Shrapnel," from Songs of You & Me, is an equal highlight of a very different kind. A destructive rallying cry of epic proportions, the track cranks up the guitar distortion and reels off some of the most intense imagery of Knox's career (sample: "I'm gonna crack, I'm gonna break, I'm gonna rip the spinal snake out of the bag of meat I've come to feel is mine").

11. The Swingers - "Certain Sound" (1979)

With tracks by Toy Love, the Terrorways, Proud Scum, and more, Ripper Records' AK79 compilation provided a valuable snapshot of the Auckland punk, post-punk, and new-wave scene circa 1979. By that point, early Auckland punks the Suburban Reptiles had broken apart, and Reptiles members Phil Judd (formerly of Split Enz), Bones Hillman, and Buster Stiggs had formed a new band, the Swingers. Whereas the Suburban Reptiles showed a clear Sex Pistols / X-Ray Spex influence, the Swingers had a softer edge -- to the point that their "Certain Sound" nearly sounds out of place in the context of AK79's more aggressive tracks. Still, it stands as a compilation high point, and its breezy melody and drawn-out vocal delivery hint at the distinctive Flying Nun style that would take shape in the years to come.

10. The Great Unwashed - "Born in the Wrong Time" (1984)

Following the Clean's remarkable 1981-82 singles and EPs, the group splintered for most of the rest of the decade. Robert Scott focused on the Bats, while the remaining Clean members -- brothers David and Hamish Kilgour, eventually with former Clean bassist Peter Gutteridge -- recorded as the Great Unwashed. A short-lived but much-loved project, the Great Unwashed released an album and a handful of singles that showcased David Kilgour's effortlessly tuneful songwriting, while also giving his bandmates their chances to shine. "Born in the Wrong Time", by Gutteridge, tells the story of a man who's run out of options, with a scruffy catchiness that recalls the Television Personalities, mid-'90s Guided By Voices, or a hard-luck version of the Clean highlight "Anything Can Happen."

9. The 3Ds - "The Golden Grove" (1994)

With their rotating vocalists and uniquely dizzying guitar style, the 3Ds were always a tough band to pin down. Darkly sinister one moment, spastic and otherworldly the next, the 3Ds' records are full of jarring shifts and surprising turns. Even the band name throws you off, as the group actually had 4Ds: David Mitchell, David Saunders, Denise Roughan, and Dominic Stones. Much of the 3Ds' best work mixed snaking guitar lines with splashes of raw noise, driven along with a bounding energy that threatened to spill into chaos (see: "Sing-Song", "Outer Space", "Helzapoppin"). But "The Golden Grove", from 1994's The Venus Trail, is something else entirely. Uncharacteristically calm and clear, the guitars drop back to frame Roughan's stirring voice and the song's wistful tone, a moment of quiet reflection from one of New Zealand's wildest bands.

8. The Enemy/Toy Love - "Pull Down the Shades" (1977/1981)

Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate were bandmates in three uniquely groundbreaking acts: the pioneering punk group the Enemy, the punk-turning-new-wave outfit Toy Love, and home-recording visionaries the Tall Dwarfs. Taken together, the groups' output shows both a fascinating career arc and a stunning influence on the New Zealand rock landscape. The late '70s track "Pull Down the Shades" provides an early highlight and statement of purpose: "Listen to the beautiful music of your screams / As we bust the picture windows of your dreams." The song was performed by both the Enemy and Toy Love -- the former's version bristling with raw nerves (Knox at that point was known for slicing his arms with broken glass during performances), and the latter's amplifying the melodic appeal. Yet another take on the song would turn up years later, when Jay Reatard contributed a loosened-up cover version to the 2009 Chris Knox benefit album Stroke.

7. The Verlaines - "Death and the Maiden" (1983)

The Verlaines have long come across as one of New Zealand's more erudite rock bands, and not just because frontman Graeme Downes holds a Ph.D. The group took their name from the 19th-century French poet Paul Verlaine, and their best-known song, "Death and the Maiden," is titled after a work by the Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele. But the track itself -- a 1983 single later included on multiple compilations -- is anything but dry and stuffy. Loaded with melody and wit, it includes both a mid-song carnival breakdown and the ridiculous repetition of the band's name some 70+ times, making for one of the more colorful entries in the entire Flying Nun catalog. The track even recounts Paul Verlaine's drunken shooting of fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1873, as if to remind us that bookish types aren't to be taken lightly. Presently, Downes is the head of the music department at the University of Otago, but he still finds time to put out new Verlaines material every few years.

6. The Cakekitchen - "Buried It in the Yard" (1993)

Starting in the early 1980s, brothers Graeme and Peter Jefferies became fixtures at the darker end up of the NZ rock spectrum, first with their work together in Nocturnal Projections and This Kind of Punishment, and later through their projects apart. Peter Jefferies' solo work largely retained the bleak, punishing qualities of his past groups, whereas Graeme -- the slightly sweeter-voiced of the two -- formed the Cakekitchen and gravitated toward fuzzed-out pop, odd folk experiments, and spacious, delicate ballads. "Buried It in the Yard," from 1993's Far from the Sun, is a career-high point from the latter category, a heartbreaking account of a failed relationship and lingering regrets.

5. The Chills - "Frantic Drift" (1982)

The title of the Chills' best-of compilation, Heavenly Pop Hits, might be largely tongue-in-cheek, but it nonetheless provides an apt description for the music of Martin Phillipps and his rotating cast of bandmates. Noted for their airy melodies and lush guitar-and-keyboard textures, the Chills instilled a certain celestial quality in their songs, even when the lyrics would turn tragic and forlorn. The 1982 track "Frantic Drift", included on the Kaleidoscope World collection of early singles and EPs, couches Phillipps' anxious vocals ("Tell me a story / I'm frantic, let me drift") with a shimmering backdrop of guitar, keyboards, and chimes, varying the tension and tempos for maximum effect.

4. The Bats - "Treason" (1987)

Neither as noisy as the Clean nor as strange as the Tall Dwarfs, the Bats might be the most easily approachable of the top-tier Flying Nun acts. Robert Scott formed the group in 1982 after his (not-permanent) departure from the Clean, and the chemistry with bandmates Kaye Woodward, Paul Kean (of Toy Love), and Malcolm Grant (of the Builders) seemed instant. Their brand of brisk, folky indie rock was in top form from the very start, and their 1987 debut full-length Daddy's Highway raised the bar even higher. "Treason", that album's lead track, finds an immediate sweet spot with its jangly guitar, loping bass, and Scott's and Woodward's in-unison vocals ("I know that we're apart / But it won't be for long / and that's why I sing this song / And that's why I carry on"). The song's sadly hopeful tone gets an extra boost from guest Alastair Galbraith, on violin. Remarkably, Daddy's Highway followed "Treason" with 11 more near-equals, making for arguably the most consistently excellent album release in Flying Nun's history.

3. Tall Dwarfs - "Nothing's Going to Happen" (1981)

Enemy/Toy Love bandmates Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate began collaborating as the Tall Dwarfs at the start of the 1980s, and while their work became somewhat slower and quieter over the years, their restless creativity seemed only to increase. Both stellar songwriters and four-track mad scientists, Knox and Bathgate enhanced their pop creations with odd instrumentation, tape loops, found sounds, household items, and whatever else was at hand on the day of recording. Their inventiveness is on full display in "Nothing's Going to Happen", from 1981's Three Songs EP (and later on the Hello Cruel World compilation).

The track features an electric guitar in one ear and a 12-string guitar in the other, with percussion credited to a rattle and wine glasses, while Knox's voice and densely packed wordplay take center stage. In a key verse, Knox longs for a moment where "all the children in small rooms will fall silent at a wall or window and forget to breathe for just one minute because of some beauty that has not been altered, damned, or pointed out by the clumsy, dark oafs who train them." Fans interested in hearing the song with a much-expanded arrangement should seek out the group's later "Wall of Dwarfs" version.

2. Alastair Galbraith - "As in a Blender" (1990)

Dunedin-based guitarist/violinist/vocalist/artist Alastair Galbraith seems to bring an eerie, magical quality to just about everything he does, whether it's his album cover paintings, his work with early bands the Rip and Plagal Grind, or his guest spots with the Bats, the Mountain Goats, and countless others. His solo catalog is heavy on drones and mood pieces, but it also has exquisite melodies that draw you in when you least expect them. His 1990 track "As in a Blender," available on the Seely Girn and Morse and Gaudylight collections, is as disorienting as its title suggests, with Galbraith's violin dancing over fragmented poetry about perception and cycles of life: "All the human ages, in a dear quivering, fall and rise like waves or pulses, mud to blood, blood to mud."

1. The Clean - "Getting Older" (1982)

This list's one-song-per-act approach does no favors for David Kilgour and the Clean, who have countless songs that could rightfully be considered essential -- from the glorious launching-off point "Tally Ho", to prime early cuts "Beatnik" and "Billy Two", to post-comeback highlights like "Draw(in)g to a (W)hole". But if you're looking for a single track to exemplify all the things that made the Clean special, the 1982 single "Getting Older" might be the best place to start. Anchored with a sturdy rhythm and a jaggedly catchy guitar tune, the track reaches greater heights as more and more elements join the mix. Sawing guitars, trumpet, viola, snaps, rattles, and backing vocals all pile together, while Kilgour's voice forces its way through the fray to deliver the darkly humorous lyrical hook: "You're getting older...Why don't you do yourself in?" Best heard on headphones at a loud volume, it's a roaring mass of shifting textures, throwing all its weight behind a perfect pop song.

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This article was originally published on 29 May 2014.

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