FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME
Sneaky Feelings and the Rest of the Best
of the Flying Nun Sound
Photo couresty of Lawrence Mikkelsen
by Marc Horton"We were a bunch of wooses, wimps, tossers, MOR bourgeois-buggering, pop-picking, schlock-sucking, wet-as-wankers. We liked pop music, damn it. We were intellectuals. Nerds." --Matthew Bannister, of Dunedin, NZ's Sneaky Feelings.
By the time I caught on to the music of New Zealand, bands like the Chills, the Bats and the Verlaines in the early '90's, much of their most exciting and groundbreaking work (for the most part) was behind them. I was too busy trying to keep up with the outpouring of stellar bands whose names seemed to come from the fever-dreams of rock obsessives- names like the Jean Paul Sartre Experience, Tall Dwarfs and the Clean. Here was pop music as I had never heard it before; familiar, recalling as it did the best of '60's psychedelia and '70s pre-punk, but also fresh and otherworldly, evoking the rugged, isolated beauty of that mysterious little corner of the world. Along the way, in the import bins of my local discriminating record stores, I discovered just how rich and diverse the Flying Nun roster really was, not only through earlier recordings of the above-mentioned, but also because of records by outfits that never quite made it out of the southern hemisphere, let alone onto the pages of CMJ or NME.
Around the time of the label's 20th anniversary last year, Flying Nun released an overview of Dunedin's Sneaky Feelings (named for a song by a much more celebrated nerd, Elvis Costello), Positively George Street. At the same time, a memoir by the same title by Matthew Banninster, singer/guitarist for the Sneakys, was published. Both paint an interesting portrait of a band ever-so-slightly out of step with the prevailing sounds, and out of favor with the important tastemakers of their time and place. While bands like the Clean, Tall Dwarfs and the Chills, whose records leaned heavily on the Velvets and '60s psychedelia, became more and more popular at home and abroad, the Sneakys channeled more off-the-Flying-Nun-radar influences like the Byrds, Hollies, '60s soul, Fairport Convention and Motown, but was not as quick to find an audience than their contemporaries. Listening to Positively George Street, however, it seems to me that though the band had little to show for its time with Flying Nun during its formative decade, the music left behind only adds to the label's legacy of rich, original guitar pop.
Founded in 1980, the first stable lineup of the band was Bannister, David Pine (vocals/guitar), Martin Durrant (drums/vocals) and Kathryn Tyrie (bass). After contributing a shambling EP side to the famed Dunedin Double record which also featured a side each by the Chills, Verlaines and (in a fearless display of cheek) a short-lived band from Dunedin called the Stones, their proper debut, the excellent LP Send You was issued in 1984. It was a watershed year for Flying Nun, with the Chills' "Pink Frost" and the Verlaines' 10 O'clock In The Afternoon EP making waves locally and internationally, but Send You remains a gem, with songs like "Throwing Stones" and "Someone Else's Eyes" crystallizing the (often oversimplified) notion of a "Dunedin Sound," an identifiable jangle that hearkened back to the great guitar pop of the '60's.
Trying to be heard above the din of the jangle, however, the Sneakys set about asserting the importance of songwriting; there was a greater value placed on harmonies and lyrics than on volume or dissonance, an attitude at odds with the post-punk zeitgeist. But occasionally their reach may have, Bannister concedes, exceeded their grasp, as this was a time before the ethos of indie-rock made charmingly off-key vocals and shambolic live performances actual selling points of the music. As the Verlaines' Graeme Downes remembers: "To like the Sneakys you had to appreciate the songs first and foremost, and had to be prepared to forego all the other aspects that are usually the hallmark of the successful rock and roll package."
John Kelcher replaced Tyrie for their next release, the "Husband House" single (1985), of which Bannister's title song (featuring strings and a crafty horn arrangement by Downes) became their lone NZ hit, cracking the top 20. The single itself stands as one of the band's top moments; Pine's "Strange & Conflicting Emotions of Separation & Betrayal" is not nearly as convoluted or psychologically involved as the title suggests, but is as bouncy and catchy as all get out, and "Major Barbara" is a lilting, Barrettesque wisp of a ditty penned with ex-Chill Martin Kean.
Their sophomore full-length, Sentimental Education (1987), was more ambitious, but faltered in places due to misguided production. It does, however, contain some of the band's finest tunes: Bannister's "All You've Done" shines, and wouldn't sound out of place on a Joe Jackson record (fave lyric: "all you've done/is give me habits I can't get rid of/you've had your fun/for you there are no tactile limits"), and Pine's "Trouble with Kay" is a manic, acoustic guitar-driven confession with another Downes arrangement. Drummer Martin Durrant (the Lionel Richie of the band) delivered "Coming True," a shimmering nugget of blue-eyed soul somewhere between Dusty Springfield and the first Belle & Sebastian record.
A tour of Europe and England took the band overseas for the first time, though not much commercial headway was made abroad. Moreover, at home, the Sneakys had failed to rally the support of a number of key players in NZ music, most importantly, Chris Knox, Tall Dwarfs mastermind/music critic/godfather of the underground scene, who considered their music too saccharine and over-produced. "We wanted to be the Beatles, not the Velvets or the Who," Bannister recalls. "Our musical philosophies were completely at odds." The Sneakys swan song, 1988's Hard Love Stories, was, true to its title, a tougher affair, but not at the expense of good songs. Pine's "Your Secret's Safe with Me" rocks harder than anything the band has ever done, with the dainty hand-claps over the searing guitar lead sounding like a big middle-finger to those who questioned their twee leanings, and Bannister's "Dad & the Family Dog," is a hummable narrative ala Ray Davies. After another tour of Europe and Scandinavia, the band dissolved without much fanfare.
Bannister went on to make records with his wife as the Dribbling Darts of Love, and toured with Kiwi ex-pats the Mutton Birds, and recently played with an outfit called the Weather. Pine released a solo album and played with Death Ray Cafe, but is now New Zealand's ambassador to Myanmar. But as the Sneaky Feelings, they made some pretty great records, though they never got the recognition that other Flying Nun bands would go on to earn.
Bannister's book, while only one perspective on the scene, offers a interesting insider's look at a musical time & place that has yet to be documented with the attention it deserves. It is a must-read for fans of New Zealand music, containing as it does a great FN discography and family tree. More info on the band is available from www.listen.to/sneakyfeelings, and from www.nzmusic.com as well as from the Flying Nun site at www.flyingnun.co.nz.
While there were definitely similarities between many of the Flying Nun bands, its '80's roster, taken in its entirety, reveals diversity and a wealth of great music. That said, here are some other bands that made some great music for the label in the '80's:
THE BIRD NEST ROYS
Although hailing from Auckland, this willfully obscure 6-piece had a layered jangle that was very much of a piece with their south-island contemporaries. Their self-titled (and only) full-length from 1986 is a modest, and difficult to find, classic. Songs like the brilliant "Jaffa Boy" and "Alien" feature the solid, simple pop structures favored by bands like the Clean and the Chills, but with choruses big enough to knock birds out of the sky. Even the cover, with its acid-and-magic-markers charm,is priceless, but theirs unfortunately never became a household name in NZ, let alone anywhere else.
Led by the twin attack of singer/guitarists Wayne Elsey and Shayne Carter, this Dunedin trio's output consisted only of a single and an EP, but songs like "Some Fantasy" and "Other's Way" are among the most exciting Flying Nun releases ever. Brash, bratty, punk-driven "music you make when you're young and you think everyone else is full of shit," as NZ music maven Roy Colbert wrote in the liner notes to Nerves, the CD reissue of their recordings. Elsey, sadly, was killed in a train accident in 1985; Carter and drummer John Collie continued on in Straitjacket Fits.
One of the more unknown diamonds in the Flying Nun tiara, this crew recalls the Verlaines (for whom bassist Jane Dodd had played with previously) in their wont for orchestral arrangements, but without the smouldering moodiness. Their 1990 release Hey Spinner! combines chamber pop with Fairport-style pastoral underpinnings and just enough of the Dunedin jangle to get them through customs without any trouble. Relegated to the same obscurity, alas, as the 17th century Dutch explorer who is their namesake.
LOOK BLUE GO PURPLE
With a name made up of favorite words chosen from a paper bag, these women released 3 EP's worth of unassuming, dreamy guitar pop confection, somewhere between the Raincoats and the quieter Paisley Underground bands. Their songs were about cats from Tucson, sketchy girls named Penelope and other such ephemera, and though Norma O'Malley added some fine flute playing, they were much cooler than Jethro Tull. "I Don't Want You Anyway," which can be found on the excellent Compilation CD, is about as perfect as pop songs get. Denise Roughan continued on with the noisier Flying Nun outfit the 3D's.
Thanks go to Matthew Bannister and Graeme Downes for responding to my pesky e-mails with informative reminiscences and helpful contacts.
Also see our Flying Nun & Nationalism article and our Chills interview
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