POSITIVELY GEORGE STREET BY MATTHEW BANNISTER (2000): Rocking and popping in Flying Nun

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Sneaky Feelings: Husband House
POSITIVELY GEORGE STREET BY MATTHEW BANNISTER (2000): Rocking and popping in Flying Nun

Credit Giles Smith’s hilarious Lost in Music if you will, but recently there has been a proliferation of stories about bands which, if not exactly losers, didn’t quite get a seat in the Business Class of Life alongside Bono.

Smith’s story of his time in the ill-fated 80s band Cleaners from Venus (“one man’s journey into rock and back home to his mum’s”) has echoes in the tele-film The Venus Hunters, the grin-inducing story of a glam rock band reforming for a Jools Holland retro special.

And recently bassist Ed Jones of Wigan’s Tansads -- Verve supported them although went on to somewhat greater heights --  has shared his story of failed rock dreams in his groupo-graphical This Is Pop.

Into this world of wannabes and never-weres comes Bannister’s book about the rise and demise of Dunedin’s Sneaky Feelings, a pop band adrift in a Velvet sea on Flying Nun.

Positively George Street is amusing, informative and often scabrously soul-baring -- although some might not feel the need to know the miserablisms of the author’s love life.

But admirably Bannister has taken seriously Patti Smith’s injunction: “If it’s your opinion why be humble about it?”

Bannister -- now guitaring with the Mutton Birds -- unashamedly says he considers Sneaky Feelings one of the best bands on the label, but concedes in their love of pop they were out of step with the prevailing, atonal DIY noise ethic in Nun’s cloisters.

Pop-passion runs deep through Positively George Street and if you used highlighters to mark every Beatles, Beach Boys and Bacharach reference you’d end up with a Dulux colour card.

Freewheeling and somewhat disjointed in its middle chapters, it opens with an astutely observed portrait of former Nun boss Roger Shepherd as Bannister -- “we’ve made three albums . . . had singles on the charts . . . Toured Europe twice” -- confronts him in 91 about their omission from Flying Nun’s Getting Older retrospective compilation.

If the book fails to match that acuteness with frequency thereafter, no matter.

Bannister essays his background pre-Sneakies, takes you into that familiar world where school-misfits-make-band, into his pop obsessions (he does the Giles-like album listing thing) and signing to the fledgling Flying Nun alongside noisy neighbours like the Clean.

By the late 80s/early 90s a cone of consenting silence descended over the Nunnery and criticism was considered betrayal. This intelligent, witty book reveals the intra-label struggles and ethical divergences. Bannister expresses great admiration for Graeme (Verlaines) Downes although doesn’t much rate his lyrics. Graeme Envy -- or Downes Syndrome?

Chris Knox, the Oddfather of the Nun and would-be conscience of the label, takes a fair pasting and, as with Shepherd, Bannister is witheringly accurate in his analysis: he wonders why, given his manifest talents, Knox feels obliged to act as if they don’t exist. And sees no particular virtue in Knoxism which means “if it hurts it must be good for you”.

This is “art as a cold shower”, Bannister skewers adeptly.

And later on Knox’s confrontationalism: “If you can cow people sufficiently you can build a handy little cult.” Ouch!

Bannister and the Sneakies didn’t want a cult: “Flying Nun’s [amateurish] approach was endlessly frustrating and elevating it to mythical status seemed ridiculous.”

They wanted to make great pop and sell loads of records. Not such an odd aspiration.

So Positively George Street quietly settles a few old scores, includes a useful Pete Frame-style family-tree of major Dunedin bands, has numerous telling pictures, and gets under the skin of the touring life: “Try being stranded in a foreign country with nothing to do, no money . . . I took Valium . . . It was kind of waxy. Later I realised it was probably in suppository form.”

In what could be construed as schadenfreude, Flying Nun has released a Sneakies compilation under the same title as this book which you suspect, given his academic background, Bannister must see as a useful cross-reference -- but the kind of assistance he would have appreciated more often in the Sneakies career.

It’s a good album, and the book -- although needing more determined editing, sharper focus and which assumes prior knowledge of some subjects -- is a vital contribution to a tiny body of NZ Rock Lit.

So no, Sneaky Feelings weren’t the Cleaners From Venus and were more successful than the Tansads.

Even so, this is one man’s journey into rock and -- albeit briefly -- back to the day job.

This review appeared in Real Groove in January 2000. After Sneaky Feelings Bannister formed The Dribbling Darts of Love, joined Don McGlashan’s touring band, early in 2008 released an album of working drawing home-demos under the name One Man Bannister, and in late 2008 released the album Aroha Ave with his new band the Weather. It wasn’t on Flying Nun. 

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