If the rowdy, punk-infused story of a late-20th-century New Zealand record label doesn’t seem a natural fit for one of the most venerable national storehouses of historical documents, think again.
The University of Otago’s Hocken Collections, founded in 1910 on the thousands of pictorial and published items bequeathed it by Thomas Hocken, is staging an exhibition to mark 40 years of Flying Nun Records, the label joined at the hip with the famed Dunedin Sound.
Called Kaleidoscope World: 40 years of Flying Nun in Dunedin, the show takes its name from a 1986 compilation album of The Chills, one of the original Flying Nun bands, and one of the few to have gone the distance. The exhibition runs until March 19.
The standard fare of Hocken, a doctor who came to Dunedin from England in 1862, was ethnological artefacts such as Māori cloaks, greenstone ornaments and carvings (now housed in the Otago Museum), a collection of books, newspapers and maps and the letters and journals of missionary Samuel Marsden.
With that wealth of colonial-era material, however, the Hocken also has an ephemera collection. In that treasure trove can be found a 1960s recipe leaflet for ham and pineapple spread (blend two slices of cooked ham, a third of a cup of crushed pineapple, mayonnaise and mustard), to be slathered on crispbread from the leaflet publisher, Bycroft.
If such a gem of kiwiana is Hocken-worthy, it’s easy to agree with Kaleidoscope World co-curator Amanda Mills that memorabilia from Flying Nun and the Dunedin bands to which it brought international recognition have a place in the collection.
“It’s true, the Hocken’s collections do date back a couple of centuries, but we are still collecting contemporary material. The collection is living and breathing and the more we collect now, the more people will be able to use in another hundred years. So, it’s not just about the old, but also the contemporary and the new.”
Popular culture items began to be collected in the late 1970s, about the time The Enemy, fronted by Invercargill’s Chris Knox, hit town, which is taken as the moment the Dunedin Sound was born.
“When, for wont of a better phrase, the Dunedin Sound was happening,” says Mills, “the Hocken was collecting not only the recordings but also posters and other related materials.”
That leather jacket
The Flying Nun exhibition features perhaps the most totemic object of the time: the leather jacket given to Martin Phillipps by early Chills drummer Martyn Bull, inspiring the song “I Love My Leather Jacket”.
It’s not the only garment on show: also alongside the album covers, posters, photos of such key figures as Knox and Shayne Carter and guitars and an amp from the Dead C’s Michael Morley is a dress matching the pattern and colours of the Bewitched album cover from all-women band Look Blue Go Purple.
There’s a section on the origins of the scene, the art, the venues and an audiovisual room that plays recordings from various gigs,” says Katherine Milburn, who is the Hocken’s ephemera curator and who put the show together with Mills. She did so with the benefit of having been on the spot as the Dunedin Sound took off.
“I was at high school when The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle came out and that’s when I became interested in the music.” The EP’s release was in 1981, illustrated and co-produced by Knox, who by then had left The Enemy and its successor Toy Love behind and had formed Tall Dwarfs with Alec Bathgate. Milburn’s regret is that she didn’t go to more gigs.
“I don’t know why, now, but I wish I had when I was at university.”
Mills was in her early 20s in the mid-90s. “I was very familiar with the later era of the label and the bands.”
She may not have realised it at the time, but she has no doubt now about the period’s significance in Dunedin’s cultural history. “There’s an acknowledgement that the music is intrinsic and important to Dunedin and that continues with the more recent musicians and music scenes that are coming through. But particularly the 80s is celebrated as really important.”
If there was a nursery for the musicians who made their name at the time, Mills would credit Kaikorai Valley High School, attended by such figures as Shayne Carter (Bored Games, DoubleHappys, Straitjacket Fits, Dimmer), Jeff Harford (Bored Games’ drummer), John Collie (drummer with the DoubleHappys and Straitjacket Fits) and Lesley Paris (Look Blue Go Purple’s drummer). Logan Park High also nurtured many upcoming talents, including Graeme Downes (Verlaines), Andrew Brough (Straitjacket Fits) and Francisca Griffin (Look Blue Go Purple), and more recently Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid.
Flying Nun’s home
The Hocken’s Flying Nun show was scooped by a couple of months by an exhibition staged in Christchurch, where the label was founded. Called Hellzapoppin’!, after Flying Nun band 3Ds’ 1992 album, the show at the city’s art gallery featured original artwork and designs, film, record covers, posters and photography associated with the label.
In a piece of devil’s advocacy, Hannah Herchenbach, who has just completed a PhD at the University of Otago on 40 years of South Island rock history, wrote a comment piece on the gallery website timed with Hellzapoppin’! in which she dared suggest Dunedin “acquired its rock reputation by siphoning off Christchurch’s capital and claiming all the credit”.
Not that she isn’t a fan: Herchenbach says she was initially drawn to Dunedin, where she became close to Peter Gutteridge of The Chills, The Clean, Snapper and The Great Unwashed fame, “by its mythological, amazing music scene”. But after moving to Christchurch,“my mind was blown to find the same thing and yet no one was talking about it in the same way”. Rather than a distinct sound, she thinks Dunedin bands share a state of mind.
It’s water off a duck’s back to The Chills’ Phillipps, whose band released a well received seventh full-length studio album, Scatterbrain, in 2021. “The ‘Dunedin Sound’ was a convenient and simplistic media invention and I don’t think most of us can be bothered to try to clarify that now,” he says.
Phillipps, another ex-Logan Park High student, who is still resident in Dunedin, made the pilgrimage to Hellzapoppin’!. He has also toured the Hocken show and approves of both.
“I was really impressed with what the Hocken has done. They’ve managed to put together a simple but coherent overview of the times, including why there was a need for a Flying Nun and the other independent labels.”
A point that he says is lost on people today is that alternative radio didn’t exist in the early 80s, so getting airplay was an uphill battle. ”There wasn’t even student radio for the first couple of years after we started.”
He recalls taking 1982 single Rolling Moon to Dunedin commercial radio station 4XO in an effort to drum up interest. “The head of programming said, ‘We can’t play this,’ before even getting to the chorus.”
For Phillipps, the album covers and posters shown in both exhibitions are a striking feature of the time. “A lot of the bands produced visual art works as well their music. For a period of about 10 years, extraordinary work was coming from people who hadn’t done art before and never would again.”
Deathly live scene
The dozens of musicians who made their names as part of the Dunedin Sound, and how they moved about as bands disappeared and new ones popped up, feature in a large chart in the Hocken show. Another striking illustration, painted on the wall by Robert Scott, whose credits include playing bass and guitar with The Clean and The Bats, shows the many venues where the bands played.
Most have since disappeared, causing sufficient consternation for today’s musicians that even Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins has been drawn into the issue. Among the casualties are Chippendale House, the Empire Hotel and Sammy’s nightclub, which closed in 2016 and is now owned by the council.
Invercargill-raised Hawkins, a former breakfast host on student radio station Radio One, says he never got to the Empire or Chippendale House, “but it’s hard to ignore the importance of that era’s musical legacy”.
He holds out slight hope that the last of those venues might be saved. “Sammy’s features prominently in the memories of artists and audiences alike, myself included. The council bought the building primarily to stop it from being demolished and turned into a car park, but has held on to it as we look at what the city needs in terms of performing arts venues more generally.”
He says there is “significant money” in the council’s 10-year budget to invest in venues. “We want to make sure we spend where it’s needed. I wouldn’t rule out either a return to live music for Sammy’s, or funding from the DCC in order for this to happen, but these things need to be considered in the round.”
Hawkins’ taste for the Dunedin Sound tends towards the “noisier output” of bands such as the 3Ds and Snapper. “Of the more straight-up pop bands, it’s hard to go past Look Blue Go Purple.” As for appreciation of that other son of Invercargill, Chris Knox, the mayor hadn’t been born when The Enemy was making its mark. “Yeah, I think [Knox] is more a contemporary of my father’s — of the Jon Gadsby era or thereabouts.”
That’s not to say Dunedin has no venues left or that the live music scene is dead. Small venues include Zanzibar in George St and The Galley in Port Chalmers. Dive (the Captain Cook Hotel in a past life) copes with medium-sized crowds. The Regent Theatre, which can seat 1650, will be the March 19 venue for a twice-Covid-postponed Shayne Carter and Dimmer show. And Covid permitting, a week before Dimmer’s I Believe You Are A Star 20th anniversary blast from the past, the city’s roofed stadium will host the band people up and down the country think represents the contemporary Dunedin sound, Six60.
But perhaps the most authentic Dunedin Sound venue that’s still operating is the Crown Hotel, in Rattray St, down Princes St and around the corner from another institution of the city’s music scene, Disk Den, which has outlived just about every other in town. It has been run since 1977 by Hing Chin, whose brothers Sam (who owned Sammy’s) and Jones are the Crown’s proprietors. Hing, who will sell you The Chills’ Scatterbrain on vinyl for $44.95 (of which the band will pocket somewhat more than the .001c it gets per Spotify song play), remembers the Dunedin Sound flashing by.
To enter the Crown, meanwhile, is like stepping back into that era, with the fit-out and decor resolutely untouched, and photos of the bands of the time on the walls. On a Saturday night in December, locals Black-Sale House and Ollie Crooks are the final two acts on the bill, and there’s enough energy in the place to convince anyone that Dunedin music is alive and well.
What’s to like in contemporary Dunedin music?
Amanda Mills: “It’s impossible to put your finger on a distinctive contemporary Dunedin sound. There are many. There’s darkwave — people like Élan Vital, Strange Harvest and Ov Pain. And Death and the Maiden, synth pop, underground, noise music, surf pop. There’s a raft of music being made.”
Aaron Hawkins: “Night Lunch are a great ball of energy. Death and the Maiden are great for dancing. I’ve only heard a couple of the new Laney Blue tunes [off Dreamer Too], but they were worthwhile, too.”
Hannah Herchenbach: “Anything Lucy Hunter does is incredible. She is playing as Wet Specimen. I love Kane Strang. Coyote is another incredible band that is rumoured to be getting back together.”
Martin Phillipps: “Marlin’s Dreaming is a band really worth following — they’ve played with us a couple of times [see Phillipps and Marlin Dreaming’s Semisi Maiai in conversation and playing each other’s music at Larnach Castle]. Another is Asta Rangu — I’ve received demos of an album they’re working on and it’s fantastic.”
* Made with the help of the Public Interest Journalism Fund *