Every day in May, to mark NZ Music Month, Gary Steel presents something local from his considerable behind. Personal archive, that is. Today’s surprise item?
The Chills/The Bats
First published in the Evening Post, 1987.
Two Oases In The Desert Of Kiwi Indie Releases
AVID ADMIRERS OF New Zealand’s most fertile musical landscape, the nether regions of the contemporary alternative music scene, were left gasping in the wicked heat of an imagination drought in 1987.
Nothing quite gelled, except for the beautifully crafted tunes of such expatriate populists as Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn.
You could have been forgiven for thinking the independent scene – traditionally the more exciting end of the spectrum – had gone stale among the polluted winds of a consumer-obsessed industry.
Christchurch label Flying Nun has for the better part of the decade been the leading independent label in New Zealand, with its more commercial acts regularly scaling the heights of the official record charts without the hype and promotion accorded to other acts by the label giants.
That Flying Nun has relied on the ’60s-derived inspiration of an inbred circle of South Island musicians is a moot point, and one best saved for discussion elsewhere. Whatever… as the well-balanced Tuatara compilation demonstrated in 1986, the label also supported the experimental brilliance of Fetus Productions and Marie & The Atom.
With that summation out of the way, Flying Nun all but disappeared from sight last year.
Perhaps it was putting all its energy into setting up shop in the UK? Or maybe label guru Roger Shepherd was spending his time pontificating the significance of the label’s most radical, contradictory manoeuvre yet?
The upshot of this prolonged inactivity was a shock announcement. After boasting its total independence from the shaved local legs of overseas record company monoliths and their whorish distribution systems, and relying instead on a team of fiercely loyal independent distributors around the country, Flying Nun defected to WEA (otherwise known as Warner/Elektra/Asylum), the New Zealand base of California me-generation corporate post-hippydom. Remember The Eagles, anyone?
Irony of ironies, Auckland’s Flying Nun management was run by alternative music saint and professional WEA hater, Chris Knox. His influential punky pop band Toy Love (the prototype Flying Nun outfit) was unceremoniously rejected by the company, and subsequently signed to a short term of unnecessary hype and ultimately, break-up oblivion.
Along with the WEA deal came several other revelations: a) After letting any and every group hand-design or simply patch together its own cover and label artwork, the little piece of colour near the hole I the middle of the record was now to boast a generic Flying Nun label, and b) Roger Shepherd moves house, to Auckland.
And just for the record (ho ho), I think it’s mostly good news.
More importantly, what’s the first bunch of product released under the new system like?
The Chills is Flying Nun’s biggest band, and the long-awaited debut album (featuring the ninth incarnation of the band most likely to…) was recorded in England, where the members have been based for most of the past year, successfully wooing the critics.
Anyone familiar with their effervescent singles (or the compilation album featuring those small masterpieces, Kaleidoscope World) will know all about the cuddly, delirious cottonbud psychedelia of The Chills. It’s a sound quite unlike any other, though you can spot the influences… almost!
During the band’s last incarnation, leader Martin Phillipps was often less than enthusiastic when it came to opening up to innocently quizzical reporters, behaving like a captive hamster refusing to say anything to the enemy until it was fed its piece of grass.
He has redeemed himself delightfully in the English press where, recently he suggested that living in London is like having your face permanently rubbed in it.
Brave man, brave album, Brave Words.
Brave Words is not difficult to like but it is hard to get to know. Although the sound is distinctively Chills throughout, there are 12 decent songs, all with substance of their own. Unpalatable. Brave Words is more like a collection of singles, comprehensively recorded by former Red Crayola/Pere Ubu weirdo, Mayo Thompson.
The production isn’t that great but Thompson hasn’t stamped himself all over it, to give non-credit where non-credit is due. It’s a clean, spacious thing.
The crucial factor: None of the Chills’ essential character has gone down the tubes. I was expecting nothing but a filipendula of old Chills residue (or Phillippspendula) as Marty (as he’s known by the wide-eyed fans who sit on the edge of the stage at his concerts) is the only element left from the previous lineup!
In fact, Phillipps has turned a bunch of professional musicians into a professional garage band. No mean feat, and it works – brilliantly.
The nursery-rhyme circular sound and chord progressions are still a feature, but there are new ideas itching to find their place. Try ‘Rain’, which mixes the classic Chills sound with immaculate staccato guitar chording, and Caroline Easther’s precise, clean drumming and pristine vocal backing.
It’s still ‘60s influenced by the end result is contemporary. Extensive use is made of a particular bubbly organ sound but you’re just as likely to hear a drum machine and a tap piano (‘Dark Carnival’).
The lyrics remain daffy, dreamy and inward-looking; nightmare imagery mixing gamely with whimsical lines like “You make me sleep quite badly.” Quite badly! A lyric sheet is thoughtfully provided to take the weight off Phillipps introspective shoulders.
Brave Words demands more than a cursory listen but it’s worth the effort. (Available on CD).
The Bats, like The Chills, have forayed to the land all good groups go to starve and break up in. Part of the band’s debut album, Daddy’s Highway, is recorded in Scotland. You wouldn’t know it.
The way The Bats make art out of playing badly is simple brilliance stacked in charm. At best, as on the first song, ‘Block Of Wood’, the members prove just how fab bad can be… and we’re not talking Michael Jackson here. The shambolic way a grinding rhythm guitar can clash with a clanging lead guitar (dribbling tortuously slow, one-note progressions that sound like they’re forming instant rust) is topped only by the wimpy, singing tunelessness of Robert Scott.
Yet it can be glorious… simple tales of angst, love and redemption from the Deep South. Yes, folks, the private world of The Bats has its share of problems, all fully catalogued in these grooves.
It is, however, not the album it could have been. The dual guitar frisson is missing for the most part, while one or other of the band go and do something else, like producing the record or brewing up some old teapot.
Nothing except the delightful ‘Mid City Team’ (with its line, “I’m lost in love since you went away hey!”) grabs with anything like the foothold of their EPs. That song could make a Chase executive pull the plug on his latest mid city demolition job, and start a home for homeless kittycats.
Although there’s charm to spare elsewhere on the album, they’re playing it awfully safe most of the time, somehow the spark has evaporated… just a few more of those patented needlechord electric guitar solos, or tuneful bass lines weaving madly through Scott’s monotone, could have made all the difference.
Daddy’s Highway is disappointing, but it’s still a sterling example of the fine-wire charm of New Zealand’s most sloppy band; a band which exploits its technical shortcomings with exceptional musical articulacy. GARY STEEL
Note from the author: Gawd, I could go on and on in the old days. I often think that Wellington music writer Simon Sweetman suffers from verbal diarrhea, but clearly, I WAS Simon Sweetman in 1987. There simply aren’t enough good sub-editors in NZ. Looking back, what I find interesting about this review is that it’s 1987 going on 1988 and both The Chills and The Bats are releasing their debut albums. Why the heck did it take so long?
* Don’t forget to check out www.audioculture.co.nz after May 31, where you’ll find a vast repository of NZ music history.