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