Flag-bearing Flying Nun group and New Zealand mainstays the Bats balance pop grace and idiosyncrasy on By Night, their debut EP from 1984.
When the Clean’s Robert Scott and Toy Love’s Paul Kean formed the Bats with Kaye Woodward and Malcolm Grant in 1982, the feats of each musician already warranted inclusion in New Zealand’s great pop canon revolving around Dunedin’s venerable Flying Nun imprint. But, Scott and Kean were pop journeymen simply not content with a career eulogy ending with tenures in their respective pioneering groups. The Bats’ debut EP By Night was released in 1984, two years after the group was formed, and it wasn’t until 1987 that their classic Daddy’s Highway LP arrived. The years between releases are telling. The Bats maintained an admirable allegiance to the original line-up, meaning that when a member’s obligations demanded absence, the group was unofficially put on hold. For over 30 years now, the Bats maintained this original line-up and ascended to flag-bearing champions of the so-called “Dunedin Sound”, across a remarkably consistent, albeit sparse discography, despite being from Christchurch.
The breezy, casual pace of releases reflects the music, though, as the Bats established a template for pastoral guitar jangle, lilting melodies and pop idiosyncrasy that was fully formed on By Night. Two more Bats EPs arrived before Daddy’s Highway. And Here is “Music for the Fire Side!” from 1985 and 1986’s Made Up in Blue were compiled with By Night as Compiletely Bats in 1987. The collection constitutes a body of work as essential as Daddy’s Highway. But as part of New York imprint Captured Track’s ongoing reissue series in partnership with Flying Nun, By Night was released alongside the debut EP of Snapper this year on Record Store Day, in packaging identical to the original.
From the outset of By Night, the Bats' assets are on display. The hallmarks of their sound, which they continue to bare even as recently as 2011’s Free All the Monsters, are evident on opener “I Go Wild”, and throughout each of the six tracks. At a sauntering pace, two guitars interweave meandering melodies between and throughout each fey line. Two verses start things off and a repeated phrase leads into an exalted chorus – the Bats command pop form with grace. If a vocal melody is strong, it’s repeated, but never to excess. “Jeweler’s Heart” reveals their deft use of ascending progressions, as the same upward tonal mobility is repeated on each instrument. To their credit, every dramatic build is wisely resolved, imbuing the progressions and crescendos with balance.
By Night's title track is a highlight of the release and the Bats’ early career overall. Furious strumming of an acoustic guitar add the percussive propulsion needed to elevate the lofty refrain “don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen here.” In the music video created at the time of release, each member performs in front of an orange backdrop, but curiously stares off-screen with a frown, nearly grimacing as if the sun shines too brightly in their eyes.
Their expressions are at odds with the buoyant melodies, but revealing in other ways. Isolated from the greater music industry apparatus of Europe and America in the 1980s, the Bats were unaccustomed to the conventions of pop music videos. Flying Nun, while a seminal label earning deserved reverence in the last decade, was not a particularly well-managed imprint. Its artists weren’t badgered into perfecting industry hustle, so it’s unsurprising that the Bats appear uncomfortable in the promotional video. The Bats' isolation allotted time to hone the instrumental nuance and fey vocal flourishes that negate massive hits, but ensure the continued interest received today.