Graham Reid | | 3 min read
If you are 20, jeez even if you are 30, the great days of Flying Nun -- that thrilling period between the Clean's rallying cry-cum-single Tally Ho in '81 and, say, Martin Phillipps announcing the end of the Chills on-stage in America in '92 to the surprise of his bandmates – is not something you experienced.
Not for you the excitement of seeing the young Straitjacket Fits, Bats and the Clean, and reading about them in Real Groove, Rip It Up or fanzines like Alley Oop and Garage.
Or seeing their names in NME and Melody Maker, collecting the records – yes, actual records on black vinyl -- and pouring over original cover art by David Mitchell (3D's), Chris Knox, John Collie (Straitjackets), David Kilgour (Clean) . . .
Okay, nostalgia is for old folks, but in late 2009 when Roger Shepherd bought back the label he had founded (“for more than I sold it for”) there were headlines and a real buzz.
If you were under 30 you could well wonder what the fuss was about.
Well, Flying Nun is now 30 and some who were there at the start must shake their heads in wonder too.
This was the little label that flew and, as with Split Enz before them, Nun bands took wing to the States, Britain and around Europe. Like Split Enz, they were flying into the unknown on the back of great songs and a pocketful of hope . . . but no cash.
Not for them internet and Facebook connections in advance, no rapid download of their music for those in foreign parts. These bands were trailblazing and although many returned licking wounds and global domination didn't follow, they still connected through college radio in the US and favourable press across Europe. They won loyal followings abroad, especially among fellow musicians.
And the world came here to see what the fuss was about, this homespun label from these small islands out of a tiny city at the bottom of the world. In 1990 – the year of the Chill's Heavenly Pop Hit and album Submarine Bells – New York's influential Village Voice devoted its music quarterly issue solely to . . . Flying Nun?
Yes, a label which had begun with a couple of cheaply recorded singles of bands Shepherd liked had established itself in the music world. It really did seem like a kaleidoscope world, albeit refracted through black jeans and pullovers and a sound that seemed to come from nowhere else but here.
Of course, as any small business learns, when things suddenly get big there are problems. Flying Nun suffered from pressing and distribution issues, a lack of business sense, inadequate accounting, internal ructions and bands breaking up.
Shepherd moved from Christchurch to Auckland then to London and was finally moved out in '99 when Mushroom Records – which by that time owned a half share – was gearing up to be sold the following year . . . ironically the same year Triple J in Australia published a list of the 30 greatest New Zealand bands, and 20 of them were on Flying Nun.
By then Flying Nun seemed like a label
with a fine back-catalogue but few hopes for the future. Yet when
Betchadupa (which included the young Liam Finn) signed to Nun that
year it seemed the limping label was still the cool place to
As we wish Flying Nun a happy 30th it's worth remembering its difficult adolescence, the promise it held -- not just for its own artists but as pathfinders for others -- and the blind courage some acts showed when they flew the coop to end up . . . Who knew where?
Nun now has a business plan, stability, a re-issue programme, release schedule and there is the website with an on-line shop (t-shirts for cool kids!).
Yes, there is visceral thrill in memories of the early 90s, but Flying Nun today is stable. Bands have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and You Tube clips. That is exhilarating and healthy. And the Bats have released one of their best albums.
But go to the website and download (free) back copies of Garage.
History in on those pages, and it still feels exciting.
TALLY HO, TALLY HO!
Five Flying starters if you are new to the Nun
Straitjacket Fits, Best
of: The early days
where shimmering pop (Down
in Splendour) and
brittle rock (Cat inna
Can) jostled over 16
The Bats, Compiletely
Bats: Three mid 80s
EPs remastered which enhances the guitar jangle and pure pop
The Chills, Heavenly Pop
Hits: From Leather
Jacket, Pink Frost and
to the sublime title track.
The Clean, Anthology:
Double disc that scoops up
early EPs and singles and captures their psychedelic and drone sides
along with the pop-rock.
The 3D's, Early Recordings 1989-90: Just what is says on the box, bottled lightning by one of the more noisy and abrasive Nun residents.