Philip Matthews on what the Christchurch/Dunedin Sound looked like, in the first of our week-long Music Week series

You could probably write a thesis on the use of alien and UFO imagery in early Flying Nun music. Seriously. There’s the space capsule in “Kaleidoscope World” by The Chills, an alien who runs out of space in the Bill Direen song “Alien”, an entirely different song called “Alien” by Bird Nest Roys, “Outer Space” by The 3Ds (with its famous UFO video), a Flying Nun compilation titled Pink Flying Saucers Over the Southern Alps, the many sci-fi and futuristic images in Gordons and Bailter Space titles, and the best expression of the lot: the UFO that artist Ronnie van Hout put on the cover of The Pin Group Go to Town, by The Pin Group, way back in 1982.

What’s it all about? Obviously there is drugginess and escapism. “The stars and planets just glide on by,” as Martin Phillipps of The Chills sang dreamily. Even the name of the label seemed trivial and silly, which was and still is part of the appeal. It was named after a daft TV series from the 60s that was probably on afternoon repeats by the time Christchurch record store employee Roger Shepherd named the label in 1981, at a time of serious and politicised post-punk when independent labels were supposed to be called harder, tougher things like Factory or Propeller. For better or worse, that image of child-like, apolitical whimsy would stick to the label, despite it releasing plenty of music that was entirely the opposite.

But apart from drugginess and escapism, and the song “Kaleidoscope World” seems to refer to both (it’s said that New Zealand in the early 80s didn’t have much of a hard drugs scene, but instead mushrooms, cactus, LSD and cannabis make oblique appearances in this South Island psychedelia), there is also something about the image of aliens that must have appealed to young, introverted, sensitive men who were not fitting in, but observing the inscrutable rules of human social life from outside. And not just men: Marie and the Atom’s “Isol” is one of the most heart-rending songs about isolation you could hear.

So, the UFO. Van Hout has talked a fair bit over the years about the meaning of UFOs in his art, ideas about higher powers, and truth and fiction. But what does that blown-up newspaper photo of a UFO, now screen-printed in loud purple and red, mean when it reappears on the front cover of Hellzapoppin’! The Art of Flying Nun, a magazine-like book published by the Christchurch Art Gallery to document a show of the same name? Maybe it reasserts the Christchurch history of the label that was obscured by the persistent idea of the “Dunedin Sound”. This is an image made by a Christchurch artist that appeared on a record by a Christchurch band whose single “Ambivalence” had been Flying Nun’s very first release. Turn a couple of pages, past an image produced by John Halvorsen for his Christchurch band The Gordons, and you get a large black and white shot of downtown Christchurch in the fateful year, 1981. That’s followed by a very Christchurch-focused essay by former local Russell Brown.

But maybe the UFO means something else. New youth cultures sometimes appear like alien invasions. They’re terrifying, alluring, destabilising. Punk was the great destabiliser, but then so was glam (packed with alien imagery), and hippies, mods, rockers and beatniks before them. In cultures as narrow and conformist as New Zealand was in the late 1970s and 80s, punk and that which followed was world-changingly strange.

“Child-like, apolitical whimsy”: Ballon D’Essai This is the Level Crossing 1982 EP cover. Designed by Matthew Campbell Downes and Stuart Page, hand-screenprinted by Lesley Maclean.

The good news is that there is still quite a bit that seems strange and original, as well as charming and even funny, about the output from the early years of Flying Nun, even four decades later in an art gallery’s white rooms or between the pages of a slim book. It’s colourful, it’s loud, it’s undisciplined. While it is true that it is easy to feel a bit wary about the label’s regular celebrations of itself — has any label marked anniversaries quite so religiously? — and its reissue/repackage culture, and the way that the media reduction of “alternative 1980s” to Flying Nun used to overlook some good bands who weren’t on the label, it’s still hard to get past the incredible wealth of music that was largely produced by two small southern cities over the course of about seven years.

The reason why this happened when and where it did is not the direct focus of Hellzapoppin’, but there are a number of factors. Christchurch and Dunedin were university towns with cheap rents and depressed downtown areas that offered cheap rehearsal spaces. Christchurch at least had a reasonably active live scene to plug into. A national alternative media network had emerged to cover music that would have been ignored had it appeared a few years earlier (student radio, Rip It Up, Radio with Pictures). Politically, it was a grim time and music acted as one of the few accessible means of expression.

Van Hout describes this bit well in Hellzapoppin’: “It is easy to forget that this all came out of a period of high unemployment, and many of us had gone through a utopian education system that left us unequipped for the emerging dystopia. Educated and poor, and with what many seriously believed was no future. The music scene felt like a refuge for the rejected, and in that sense it was more than just a music scene. Flying Nun came out of, and responded to, this idea of making an alternative society.”

That idea of Flying Nun as a subculture that passively resisted the conformism of 1980s New Zealand is nicely expressed by gallery curator Peter Vangioni, who recalls getting out of rugby-mad Palmerston North for a three-day scooter ride south, when Flying Nun was still based in Christchurch, and driving back with records and posters loaded onto the back of his Vespa. It’s a relatable story for any fan and it’s clear that the show is his labour of love. How touching that Christchurch was seen as a cultural Mecca.

As the book shows, there was a lot of inspired amateurism and learning on the job, and not just in the production of the music but in the art (record covers, posters, videos) that represented and promoted the music. Some were educated and poor, others were self-taught and poor. That DIY (although van Hout prefers to call it BYO) dimension is a key part of the Flying Nun myth too, as it intersects so neatly with New Zealand’s number 8 wire/homemade mentality, which means that, far from being oppositional, figures like Chris Knox can be co-opted for a national story about Richard Pearse-like pioneers and inventors tinkering in the shed.

“Chris Knox was really an old hippie”: Tall Dwarfs That’s The Short and Long Of It 1985 LP cover. Design by Alec Bathgate

It’s a familiar story, maybe far too familiar, but focusing on the visual art is a fresh way into it. The book has short chapters on 17 artists, 10 of whom were also in bands (Knox, Phillipps, Robert Scott, Jane Dodd, Alec Bathgate, Stuart Page, Kath Webster, Michael Morley, John Collie, David Mitchell). The remaining seven are video makers John Christoffels, Robin Neate and Varina Sydow, who made highly memorable clips for This Kind of Punishment, the Doublehappys and The Jean Paul Sartre Experience for next to nothing, the aforementioned van Hout, designer Ian Dalziel, photographer Carol Tippet and designer Lesley Maclean. More musician-artists are buried in a chapter at the back: Jed Town and Sarah Fort of Fetus Productions, David Kilgour, Christine Voice of Snapper and Sarah Westwood of Marie and the Atom. There are even more who didn’t make the book but are in the show, including Alistair Galbraith, Chris Matthews, Norma O’Malley and video director Jonathan Ogilvie (“She Speeds”). In fact, the book collects only about half of what is on the walls, and omits some really nice work (there are even a couple more van Hout UFOs, including a fantastic woodcut promoting the Chills in Christchurch in 1982).

Has there ever been a music scene anywhere in which so many musicians also acted as artists, or vice versa? It’s unlikely. That was born out of economic necessity, and an unwillingness to impose on the part of Roger Shepherd. There was no house style and no design aesthetic, although Knox’s hand-drawn ads promoting new releases in Rip It Up gradually came to be an identifiable look for the label, just as Knox’s ethics and personality became increasingly central to Flying Nun as the 80s went on. Both goofy and grotesque, Knox’s drawings owed a lot to US underground comics, as did David Mitchell’s more intricate, hallucinatory illustrations. Knox may have been the godfather of punk but he was really an old hippie.

Van Hout was more of a Warhol nut, screen printing with found images. Page also had an art school and experimental cinema background, and his legendary video for Snapper’s “Buddy” revealed the influence of Kenneth Anger. Scott’s cover for The Bats’ By Night and Collie’s for the Verlaines’ Bird-Dog had a suitably ominous, looming, Southern gothic dimension. Maclean’s poster for The Great Unwashed is weird and marvellous, while also bearing no obvious relationship to the band.

“The stars and planets just glide on by”: The Chills The Lost EP 1985 EP cover. Designed by Martin Phillipps.

But there is an elephant in the room and it is the absence of The Clean, who were both the label’s first commercial success and the strongest influence on the look and sound of Dunedin bands. By the time they recorded, three years after forming, The Clean were more interested in sounding like Syd Barrett, the Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan than, say, Joy Division (“Anything Could Happen” is a straight Dylan homage), and the no-budget, student-flat psychedelia of the Great Sounds Great cover was an important step in the label’s graphic history. That cover should be here; Flying Nun’s visual story doesn’t really make sense without it. Why are The Clean absent? Hamish Kilgour told Stuff’s Vicki Anderson that he boycotted the show as he “had constant issues with the way my art and music is used”.

It’s a pity. The boycott also means the gallery’s video screens miss out on showing two of the more entertaining clips from the era (“Beatnik” and “Anything Could Happen”, directed by TV professionals Simon Morris and Andrew Shaw respectively). While there are Clean record covers in the show, but not the book, they don’t depict band members, and the ban on images of The Clean also means Tippet’s famous photo of the band in the bath, which Knox drew for the Boodle Boodle Boodle cover, can’t be included either. It’s like reading a book about Motown and not hearing about the Supremes. .

The gallery provides a fuller immersion in this creative output than a book ever could. How can you even evaluate all this? That probably depends on whether you lived through it. The relationship between music and memory is complex, and the visual presentation of music adds another layer. How is what you heard mediated or changed by what you saw? How much of what Straitjacket Fits were was defined for you by Ogilvie’s red and black “She Speeds” video or Snapper by the outlaw motorcyclists in Page’s clip for “Buddy”? It’s deeply personal and a word like “nostalgia” doesn’t do justice to it.

“One thing I think about these posters is that because people saw them around and had them on their walls back then, the posters sort of absorbed some of the energy of their lives,” poster designer Lesley Maclean says in this book. “And so seeing them now, the memories come up. There’s way more going on there than the poster itself. They were there then, like we were. And the music of course, which was the soundtrack of our lives.”

Hellzapoppin’!: The Art of Flying Nun, edited by David Simpson, designed by Alec Bathgate, with essays by Peter Vangioni, Kath Webster, Russell Brown and Roger Shepherd. Christchurch Art Gallery, $39. The show is at the gallery until November 28. The Hocken Library in Dunedin host the exhibition Kaleidoscope World: Forty Years of Flying Nun (featuring singles covers and posters, ephemera, archives, photographs, and artwork) from December 4 through to March.

Tomorrow in Music Week at ReadingRoom: Steve Braunias reviews  the illustrated Beatles book published to coincide with the Get Back films directed by Peter Jackson, playing this week on Disney Plus.

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