Music

Tally Ho! 15 Essential Tracks from the New Zealand Pop Underground

Mike Noren
Photo by Craig McNab

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.

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.


Thanks to partnerships with U.S. indie labels, some of the biggest names in "Kiwi" rock and pop have received a fresh look recently. This week, Captured Tracks is offering expanded vinyl and CD reissues of three classic Bats releases: the early EPs compilation Compiletely Bats, the 1987 debut album Daddy's Highway, and the 1990 follow-up The Law of Things. Then, in July, the Clean's Anthology -- containing material from 1981 to 1996 -- will get a deluxe reissue of its own, thanks to Merge Records.

In anticipation of the Bats and the Clean -- and with hopes for additional vault-clearing reissues to come -- here's a sampling of essential tracks by 15 of New Zealand's finest acts.

 

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 NZ 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 gunna crack, I'm gunna break, I'm gunna 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.

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