Graham Reid | | 2 min read
After his debilitating stroke in 2009, Chris Knox slowly fell from public consciousness: credible book proposals covering his artwork languished for lack of funding; the reissue of his solo albums and those with Alec Bathgate as Tall Dwarfs fell over . . .
And Knox – unable to make music, who couldn't paint until he retrained himself to use his left hand – became more spoken about in concerned whispers than having his considerable and diverse career acknowledged.
Yet here was someone who -- for three decades -- had been one of this country's most singular and important popular figures: a self-taught artist with a rare skill for caricature; the designer and creator of memorable album covers and ground-breaking comics; an astute magazine columnist; a withering film and music critic; someone who never missed a deadline with his Max Media strip in the New Zealand Herald from 1987 until that awful day; a distinctive video maker (Tall Dwarfs' Turning Brown and Torn In Two a post-punk take on Len Lye and Norman McLaren's innovations); a television presenter of an informative arts series . . .
And of course someone who'd gatecrashed late 70s rock with the short-lived but influential bands, The Enemy and Toy Love.
When Toy Love split up Knox advanced an idiosyncratic solo career and – across six albums and seven EPs with fellow Toy Love refugee Bathgate – as Tall Dwarfs.
The year of his stroke Knox was awarded a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate Award, alongside writer Witi Ihimaera, actor George Henare, photographer Anne Noble, master carver Lyonel Grant and the late taonga puoro champion Richard Nunns.
Today Knox seems a fond memory for the “Flying Nun Generation” raised on the alternative music of which Knox and Bathgate were prime movers.
Now however, the independent record label Merge out of North Carolina is releasing released a four LP (or double CD) retrospective of Tall Dwarfs' music curated by Bathgate and presented in artwork he has designed.
Unravelled: 1981 – 2002 collects 55 Tall Dwarfs songs including their cornerstones Nothing's Going to Happen, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, Turning Brown and Torn in Two, Two Minds and Gluey Gluey.
Unravelled prompts a focused reconsideration of Tall Dwarfs' music and will be a revelation for those coming to it cold.
Knox and Bathgate possessed keen pop sensibilities (few songs exceed three minutes) and understood verse-chorus interplay, albeit delivered with gritty under-production.
There is quiet beauty here (the acoustic Wings with Bathgate on 12 string and slide guitar), Knox's Beatles obsession everywhere, prescient social thinking (the moving pro-euthanasia The Slide), minimalist repetitionand . . .
So much more.
If the focus in this has been Chris Knox, Unravelled is a tribute to the quieter figure of Alec Bathgate who has rewoven this collection.
And reminded us just how tall these Dwarfs stood.
Unravelled 1981 – 2002 is released on August 19 through Flying Nun and can be pre-ordered (four records or two CDs, with booklets and further info) here.