Flying Nun Records, Matthew Goody

Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988

In this excerpt from Needles and Plastic, we learn about the force of will, the chance of kismet, and the couple of bands that piloted Flying Nun Records from New Zealand to the US.

Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988
Matthew Goody
Third Man Books
October 2022

In the Region of Tucson –
Flying Nun Arrives in America

Up to early 1986, few people in North America had ever heard of Flying Nun. The odd fanzine had reviewed one or two records, and Rip It Up’s editor Murray Cammick had managed to slip a few records to Trouser Press, but that was about it.

Forced Exposure’s Jimmy Johnson later recalled how he first stumbled onto what was going on thousands of miles away. ‘When I first found out about Flying Nun it was shocking to me that here was this label that had dozens of records out, and this would be the mid ’80s, maybe 1984, possibly 1983, when I heard the first Flying Nun records that I heard. It was just unreal because nobody in the US knew about them . . . I mean literally at that point I did not know one person who was aware of them.’

Lack of exposure in the US owed much to both the label and the bands being completely unaware that anyone would be interested in the first place. Flying Nun was just beginning to react to interest in Europe and all eyes were looking in that direction. Maybe it was the country’s colonial links, but the UK was the more tested and traditional route to go. Most New Zealand bands looked to London before they ever considered New York or LA. They read NME or Melody Maker rather than New York Rocker. Many of the bands also had a small network of friends to help them navigate the scene in the UK, with a particularly large expat community in London. England also seemed like a more logical place to make inroads. There was a centralised music press in London and DJs like John Peel had a wide reach. The independent music scene also benefitted from the distribution networks set up by the likes of Rough Trade. In contrast, the US appeared to outsiders as the unknown country, with no easy way to enter. And in many ways the perception held true. The American independent scene in the mid-1980s was still regionalised, and few labels existed to help bands.

Prior to ’86, Flying Nun’s primary advocate in America was Hollywood-based Kiwi music fanatic Ron Kane. Though more a fan of Split Enz and DD Smash than a lot of the Flying Nun material, Kane had visited New Zealand and returned to the US to start a mail order business called ANZ Imports. When acclaimed Rolling Stone writer David Fricke reviewed The Fall’s Fall In A Hole for Melody Maker, he referenced Kane’s mail order business as the place to contact to track it down. Yet, aside from Fetus Productions’ brief stopover, no Flying Nun band played in the States before 1987.

While Kane flew the flag for Flying Nun on the west coast, several influential writers and college radio DJs on the east coast scene really brought the label out of the shadows. In summer 1985, Forced Exposure printed a review of the Children’s Hour’s 7″. It was editor Jimmy Johnson’s first encounter with the label and he was clearly hooked. ‘New Zealand’s Flying Nun label just may be most underrated one in the known world,’ he wrote. ‘Of course, it’s hard to say for sure since I’ve only heard two of their bands: Children’s Hour and The Gordons, plus a slew of foaming praise regarding their other artists, but who’s got ’em?’ By the following issue Johnson had evidently managed to track down more releases (‘after getting to hear a bunch more of their prolific output all I can say is that ignorance of this sort can’t go on for much longer’) and by the next he and fellow editor Byron Coley were devoting a massive part of the Forced Exposure review section to Flying Nun records, to the point where they began with an almost apologetic explanation in issue #10, which featured write-ups for over fifteen Flying Nun records. ‘We’d like to warn you that there’s a lotta coverage o’ wax from New Zealand.

Around the same time Strange Weekend licensed the Tuatara compilation for the American market and drew considerable notice from college radio stations and the underground music press. Gerard Cosloy, who worked for Homestead Records, stumbled onto the label around the same time:

I started hearing a lot of the Flying Nun stuff around New York [in 1987/88]. Patrick Amory … likely turned me on to a lot of that stuff. Patrick did the Too Fun Too Huge ’zine…. For a long time, Patrick was the music director at WHRB in Cambridge. Some of Patrick’s predecessors at WHRB, Jim Barber and Geoff Weiss—they may have been some of the earliest guys to start playing those records on the radio. College radio in the Boston area, WMBR and WHRB, were big proponents of Flying Nun. Venus Records in New York started importing Flying Nun records. That was one of the first places I saw The Chills, Verlaines and Clean albums for sale. I remember Venus Records even had a New Zealand bin…. Very few people knew about those records then in the United States It was revelatory. I started writing Roger Shepherd after that: ‘How do we get more of these records?

What followed was a series of licensing deals with Homestead, spearheaded by Cosloy and Craig Marks. First was The Verlaines’ Juvenilia, followed by The Clean’s Compilation and The Chills’ Brave Words. Many American fans were also introduced to the label by the popular Homestead compilation Human Music, which featured tracks from Tall Dwarfs, The Clean, The Chills and The Verlaines. Getting paid for these deals proved to be harder than securing them though. Barry Tenenbaum, owner of Homestead’s parent company Dutch East India Trading, was particularly difficult. ‘Barry was a bastard,’ Shepherd later said about dealing with him. Looking for a solution, Shepherd and Gary Cope hit on an idea that was spun into another offshoot venture and led to the label’s first overseas licence deal for the New Zealand market.

On paper, Flying Nun’s international deals kept growing and growing. Yet Flying Nun’s accountant, Gary Cope, had the sticky situation of trying to get paid for them. International bank drafts or wires for royalty payments often took ages to chase down and process. So as a way to recoup revenue from these overseas deals, Cope came up with a creative plan. He set up a mail-order division called Flying In that specialised in selling imports from various international independent labels like Rough Trade UK and Homestead. Flying Nun essentially traded stock with distributors or labels and then flipped them into the New Zealand market where imports from UK or American labels were still exceedingly overpriced and scarce.

As Flying In slowly gained a foothold with its import sales, Flying Nun tried to expand things further by negotiating licence deals for American bands to be released in New Zealand. They partnered with Australian label Au Go Go, which had already agreed to license compilations by The Clean and Sneaky Feelings for Australia. Au Go Go had been aggressively licensing US underground bands like Big Black, Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers, and Flying Nun stepped in to serve as a New Zealand partner. Au Go Go arranged the manufacture of the vinyl in Australia, while Flying Nun secured the exclusive licence to release them in New Zealand.

The partnership with Au Go Go was Flying Nun’s first venture involving a foreign band since the debacle with Fall In A Hole four years earlier. Roger Shepherd had tried to swing a deal with Alan McGee at Creation in 1985 for a New Zealand version of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Upside Down’ single, but negotiations were never finalised. For the first batch of co-releases with Au Go Go, Flying Nun got their hands on three heavyweights of the American underground: Sister by Sonic Youth, Locust Abortion Technician by the Butthole Surfers and Songs About Fucking by Big Black. ‘Flying Nun has struck a deal that sees them delivering the American avant-garde to our back door,’ wrote an excited Debbi Gibbs in the Listener. Bruce Russell, in the pages of Alley Oop, was equally chuffed:

In a moment of possessed inspiration the dudes at F. Nun have organised to follow their latest o/seas release, the Youth’s Sister, with a bulk import of this classic wax artefact, the Buttholes’ third LP. Like the Youth deal, this has been organised with those excellent folks at Au-Go-Go in Melbourne, 300 copies of Locust Abortion have been shipped in to satisfy the weird sub-urges that motivate Butties scrofulous coterie of fans.

Of the three, only Sister carried labels and a sleeve with the Flying Nun name. The other two were simply records in Au Go Go’s packaging with a mention of Flying Nun having the New Zealand rights.

To save money on production costs, Flying Nun manufactured the sleeves domestically for their edition of Sister, importing finished copies of the vinyl via Au Go Go. However, instead of replicating the packaging of the original SST edition from America, Flying Nun produced a gatefold cover that reproduced the lyric sheet insert from the US edition in the middle. All of the cover art was used, just as it was becoming contentious back in the US. In early 1988, Richard Avedon threatened legal action against SST for the unauthorised use of his photograph of a twelve-year-old girl in the top left of the back cover. Subsequent editions of the album blacked out the photograph (the original is not reproduced here for that reason).

Sister proved to be a bold and smart choice for Flying Nun’s first venture with an American band. Sonic Youth’s fourth album showed a major step forward and was almost unanimously lauded by critics. In the Press, Paul Collett declared it ‘one of the best albums of the year, a collection of powerful invigorating rock songs – one of these rare things you want to listen to until your ears bleed’. In the Listener, Debbi Gibbs called it ‘a stunning album that should be forced upon the unwary at Christmas’, while Paul McKessar told readers in Rip It Up that it was ‘better than anything else you’ll hear this year. Awesome.’

The release of Sister domestically also did much to tune New Zealand bands into the groundbreaking extremes of Sonic Youth’s sound. That impact was felt most in Dunedin, where bands like the Dead C were hooked. Dead C guitarist Bruce Russell had first witnessed Sonic Youth in the UK in 1986 and returned home exalting the band to anyone who would listen. ‘In 1987 Sonic Youth were a genuine inspiration,’ said Russell. In fact, he was so taken by Sonic Youth he even named his new label Xpressway after ‘Expressway to Yr. Skull’ from their album Evol.

Both Evol and Bad Moon Rising were licensed by Au Go Go for release in Australia just after the Sister deal but Flying Nun did not do their own editions. One more foreign licence came in 1987 with the release of Swans’ Children of God together with Australian label Rampant.

Able Tasmans – A Cuppa Tea And A Lie Down

After Able Tasmans recorded The Tired Sun EP, leader Graeme Humphreys believed his three-piece outfit needed to get a little bigger if they were going to really do justice to the songs. ‘We were slightly ambitious at songwriting – what happens in your head compared with what we could bring out with just keyboards, bass and drums,’ said Humphreys. ‘We always wanted to make it fuller and bigger with more possibilities for dynamics. And I really wanted to play guitar.’ Accordingly, the Tasmans started adding to the core group. By the time the group came to record their first LP, Humphreys and bassist Dave Beniston (the two constants during this period) had been joined by Peter Keen, new drummer Stuart Greenway and keyboardist Leslie Jonkers. Live, Able Tasmans also roped in any number of other friends and guest musicians. ‘It’s all our friends and people we know from different directions,’ explained Humphreys. ‘In fact, some members of the group don’t know other members at all.’ Peter Keen recalled an incident in Wellington: ‘I remember Tracy [Collier] ran up to Dave [Beniston] and said “Hi, you haven’t met me but I’m your new flute player.”’

In late 1986 many of these friends and colleagues joined the core Tasmans to begin work on A Cuppa Tea And A Lie Down, a sprawling and eclectic debut album. Recording was done at two different studios, Mascot in December 1986 with Victor Grbic engineering, and Progressive with Terry King. Over half of the dozen songs completed dated back to their early days (such as ‘Virtues Asunder’ and ‘What Was That Thing?’), when Humphreys had felt they couldn’t be properly tackled. ‘We didn’t have the mechanism or the line-up to do it and it’s really grown,’ he said. ‘I really like the album because at last all those ideas are realised.’ Others, like the Peter Keen-penned ‘Little Hearts’, were worked up on the spot. With several members bringing material to the table, and a host of friends adding instrumentation during the sessions, Cuppa was much more wide-ranging than The Tired Sun. ‘We all have different leanings and somewhere they intersect,’ explained Humphreys about the diverse sounds in the band. Songs like Leslie Jonker’s sparse piano tune ‘And Relax’ radiated an ambient quality, while the swirling organ on The Chills-esque ‘Sour Queen’ and ‘Virtues Asunder’ offered up frenetically warped pop tunes. So many people played a part in A Cuppa Tea that the band gathered everyone for a large group photo that appeared on the back cover. Listed underneath were credits assigned to twenty-three people and little drawings to connote who did what. The cover did no favours to clear up the confusion over who was in the band. Many people outside of Auckland, who had never seen the band live, thought Able Tasmans had come out of some sort of hippie commune.

Flying Nun released A Cuppa Tea And A Lie Down in September 1987, nine months after sessions were finished. Humphreys had hoped for some chart success, but it never materialised. Some critics were impressed, however. Colin Hogg gave it four stars, writing that ‘the band swirls up a hypnotic collection of lovely pop melodies, even turning to ambient musical pastures when the mood moves them (“And Relax”) . . . a delight’. The write-up over in Rip It Up declared that ‘with good humour and hands on their hearts, Able Tasmans have made one of the best releases of the year’.

Flying Nun Europe also issued an overseas version of A Cuppa Tea a short time later, where it earned some solid press, including four stars in NME: ‘There’s insanity on offer but it comes in a variety of styles,’ wrote David Cavanagh. ‘Too inconsistent for five stars, but four for showing a lot of character, and that’s something the game needs a lot more of.’ Interest in Cuppa Tea in Europe did little to change Able Tasmans’ ambitions, or lead anyone to contemplate launching a tour abroad. For one, there simply wasn’t any money to make it work. Able Tasmans were also still a part-time affair. Graeme Humphreys was working at bFM as a morning show host and programme director (under the name Graeme Hill), while Peter Keen was completing his university studies to become a deep-sea oceanographer. It would be another three years before the Tasmans resurfaced with a new album.

Matthew Goody is a Canadian editor and publisher who has worked in the book industry for over a decade. A fanatical record collector and researcher, he has spent years combing through the archives and records stacks to compile this comprehensive discographic history of Flying Nun’s early years. He currently lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Reprinted with permission from Needles and Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981–1988, by Matthew Goody, published by ⒸThird Man Records. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. [Images and footnotes omitted.]