Perfect Sound Forever

Flying Nun & Nationalism


Is its greatness exaggerated?
by Martin Osborne
(December 2011)


It is a founding myth of indie pop that it is the end of boredom, historical and a creative year zero instigated by the only pure souls on a hopelessly compromised lump of rock. A prime example is the globally circulated story of New Zealand independent record label Flying Nun that filled magazine articles, reviews and lately, the Internet.

The critical and fan line on Flying Nun is best exemplified by utterly wrongheaded and sycophantic claims1 of Flying Nun emerging from a culturally isolated backwater, free from musical contaminants producing music of unrivalled uniqueness and purity then conflating a handful of musicians as the New Zealand music scene.

How did this history become so pervasive? Simply, it was the musicians aided and abetted by critics and fans who have constructed this history which combined with indies' self image of a progressive, hippy-dippy idiot savants singing 'real songs,' colliding with a fracturing national identity, individual psychopathology and economic imperatives to create a pseudo-history.

My brief is not specific bands. I find most of the Flying Nun discography, be it the poppier end or the noisier end, the so called 'arty' and 'serious' end- to be essentially adolescent and unengaging.

Romantic notions of New Zealand as culturally isolated have been demolished by the writings of Mathew Bannister2, Nick Bollinger3, Chris Bourke4, Andrew Schmidt5 and Grant Smithies6 . Bourke's essential Blue Smoke notes that that the 1879 New Zealand demonstration of the phonograph took place in Canterbury in front of 2,000 people and that in 1910, a population of 1.1 million people were buying 550,000 movie tickets a week, with more people attending the movies than church.

Bollinger's list of 100 essential New Zealand albums ranks at number one a 1930 collection of recordings by the Mäori7 pop group The Tawhiwi's, who recorded a mix of original pop songs, traditional Mäori song and 1920's standards.

Smithies highlights an especially scabby strain of late '50's early '60's Garage Punk, whilst Bannister notes that the English music papers the New Musical Express and Melody Maker were readily available and local music monthly Rip It Up extensively covered overseas musical developments whilst Schmidt notes that in the early 1980's, 1.8 million recorded titles were available to New Zealanders for order through record store catalogues.

From a purely musical perspective, the originality and uniqueness of indie pop is easily challenged, after what exactly is so special about indie pop, a genre best summed up as young men playing a guitar based pop derived from The Beatles, The Byrds and The Velvet Underground? Mathew Bannister, a former member of the Flying Nun signed band Sneaky Feelings turned academic convincingly argues that there is none:

"... there were significant groups of people listening to the same records in different places."8
As noted earlier, the 1980's were and interesting time to be a New Zealander in which legislative, economic and social change shattered the vision of New Zealand as an untroubled paradise. The major theme of this period is articulated by the historian Dr. Stevan Eldridd Gregg's recent observation9 that from 1200 A.D., New Zealand was a Polynesian country, from the 1840's a European country and by 2030, will be an Asian country.

At the same time, and still to this day, many New Zealanders like to believe in a 'New Zealand Exceptionalism' – a belief than New Zealand is unique and that the issues troubling other first world European countries (class, race relations , poverty, etc.) were never a problem or were quickly resolved thus making the country a moral example to other countries. This idea was challenged, and arguably disproved, by events of the 1980's.

In 1985, the Government changed and extended the brief of the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi10 back to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840- specifically, the Government confiscation of Mäori land, which brought to public light a complex and sometimes wretched and inarguably racist recent history. Many people seemed genuinely surprised that Mäori had legitimate grievances with their treatment by the Crown post-Treaty of Waitangi.

At the same time New Zealand went through a massive economic restructuring moving from a protectionist to a market based economy. The decriminalisation of homosexual activity and a change in immigration policy from a preference for European migrants to a skill and character based policy that resulted in a dramatic increase in migrants from the Asian countries saw some people confronted by the perceived 'threat' of the foreign and the silenced by the assumed consensus that 'everything was alright.' The result was an often rancorous public debate – which still persists - over identity, culture and race, making the time ripe for anyone with who could offer a firm identity.

It needs to be noted that Flying Nun did not exist as a hipster minor sport, but achieved considerable chart success11 and media profile from day one. An analysis of the chart performance of Flying Nun bands12 shows that in 1981, four of its seven singles entered the New Zealand Top 50 Singles Chart spending a total of 11 weeks on the charts. In 1984, arguably Flying Nun's 1980's commercial high point, the label released 87 unique titles, 28 of which entered the Singles chart spending a combined 159 weeks on the charts.

Personalities soon emerged from the melee. David Kilgour of The Clean who coined the phrase 'The Dunedin Sound,' Chris Knox espousing an especially narrow indie aesthetic in a weekly magazine column and lately Martin Phillips of The Chills.

Martin Phillips, an intense man seemingly convinced of his own artistic infallibility and manifest destiny was the highest profile of the Flying Nun artists as The Chills became a popular local band, signed to Slash Records in the United States and were being tipped as the next big thing by American trade publications, resulting in a large public profile.

Phillips' public pronouncements are the sound of a man convinced that his activities were the beyond mere music but 'cultural' and helping determine national identity. Canny marketing cannot be ruled out either. In the late '80's, New Zealand music was tipped to be the next big export (the large scale commercial success did not come) and the timeless technique of convincing the public that you are 'one of theirs' as a tactic to extend commercial life and neutralise critical reflexes: criticism becomes an unpatriotic act.

The 1996 Martin Phillips and The Chills single "Come Home" is a beyond patriotism plea for New Zealander who have moved overseas (the so called 'Brain Drain'13) to return home to contribute to their country. Phillips diction is unclear in places, but the sentiment is clear:

"We need more of your kind, crossroads, help your side(?), it will (inaudible), Come home."

The video for the song features the band performing on beach intercut with images of a presumably New Zealander living in an American city giving money to a elderly beggar, a New Zealander in bar drinking alone and a bicultural group of children playing in backyards and the bush – local and overplayed symbols of 'real' New Zealand.

The message is clear, New Zealand exceptionalism is alive and well, despite statistical evidence to the contrary, so come on home. It also raises the question, if we need "more of their kind," what kind do we need less of?

Further evidence comes from an introduction penned to a recent history14 of New Zealand by Phillips where he makes quite clear he is an architect of culture:

"Many of us have cherished memories from New Zealand's rich history of modern music – incredibly rich when compared, for example, to some cities in the USA where I have performed, and where the population may be greater than the entire population of New Zealand, but where they have failed to contribute anything of real value to their culture."
A musician spends 24 hours in your city, checks about every single musical happening then judges it irrelevant? Coincidentally, in a 2008 interview with a New Zealand radio station15, Phillips stated he was working on a new national anthem.

There is a history of New Zealand music to be written that gives due weight to the forces that provided its voice, rather than the voices of musicians or the psychological needs of the audience. Until that day arrives – and the work of Mathew Bannister, Nick Bollinger, Chris Bourke, Andrew Schmidt and Grant Smithies are an excellent place to start – all histories should be considered suspect.


FOOTNOTES:

1. Dave McGonigal, "In Love With Those Times, Flying Nun and The Dunedin Sound," Stylus magazine. 2005. www.stylusmagazine.com

2. Mathew Bannister, Positively George Street: Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound – A Personal Reminiscence, Reed Books, Auckland, New Zealand, 1999.

3. Nick Bollinger, 100 Essential New Zealand Albums, Awa Press, Wellington, New Zealand, 2009.

4. Chris Bourke, Blue Smoke : The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918 – 1964, Auckland University Press, Auckland New Zealand, 2010.

5. Andrew Schmidt, Flying Nun Records, The Dunedin Sound and The Myth Of Isolation, Mysterex Blogspot, 2010.

6. Grant Smithies, Soundtrack: 118 Great New Zealand Albums, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson New Zealand, 2007.

7. The Mäori are the discoverers and first settlers circa 1200AD of what became known as New Zealand.

8. Mathew Bannister, White Boys,White Noise: Masculinities and 1980's Indie Guitar Rock, Ashgate Publising Company, England, 2006.

9. Dr. Stevan Eldridd Gregg interviewed on 'Good Morning', TV One, 27 September 2011

10. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Mδori Chiefs and The Crown on 6 February 1840, as was in 1975 was recognised as New Zealand's founding document. It made New Zealand a British colony whilst protecting M Mäori ori land and giving them the rights of British citizens.

11. An unofficial site of New Zealand Top 50 singles and albums is available at www.charts.org.nz.

12. Discographies obtained from www.dscogs.com. Errors and omissions are a distinct possibility.

13. Economists point out that population outflows are one thing, but it is a two sided equation – the other side being population inflow the skills and capital that migrants bring.

14. David Eggleton, Ready to Fly: The Story of New Zealand Rock Music, Craig Potton Publishing, 2003.

15. Martin Phillips of The Chills, http://www.95bfm.com/default,188616.sm.



Also see our Sneaky Feelings/Flying Nun overview and our Chills interview


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