It’s all but impossible to consider the New Zealand underground without in some way giving the nod to the magnitude of The Dead C and specifically Bruce Russell’s contribution. Russell has worked harder than anyone to formulate a new bottom of the world rock aesthetic, whether live in the field with groups like The Dead C and A Handful Of Dust, as a critic, as a curator and as a label owner. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other label outside of Siltbreeze and PSF that has so completely articulated an original aesthetic as much as Russell’s Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum imprints. And he was there long before you were. His guitar formulations feel like the ultimate extension of 1960s free/freak modes into prole art garage rock while his criticism – somewhere between the scabrous unholier-than-thou intellectual ferocity of Roland Woodbe and the hermetic formulations of Giordano Bruno – remains some of the most insightful and far-reaching of the post-Noise era. To celebrate the release of the landmark compilation, Time To Go – The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-86, Russell has penned a special VT column focussing on the genesis of the NZ underground.
TIME TO GO - THE SOUTHERN PSYCHEDELIC MOMENT: 1981-86
March 2012 sees the release of this compilation on Flying Nun. In a way, I’ve been working on it for my whole adult life. Even by the most conservative calculation, I’ve been working at it for six years, since I first pitched the concept to Roger Shepherd before he bought the label back from Warners. He came over for a chat one day when he was looking at putting together the Flying Nun ‘box set’ of CDs that he did in 2006 for that company, and I suggested he pitch my idea to them. That went nowhere, but as soon as he had bought the company back, a couple of years ago, he said ‘now we have to do that compilation of yours’.
I find myself in a funny position here. Compiling ‘my back pages’ thusly is, in quite a personally meaningful way, a return to my youth: not just because of the vintage of the tracks. Before I’d even written a line of rock journalism, and years before I recorded a second of my own stuff, I knew I could ferret out interesting music and persuade other people of its value – however improbable. And so I used to spend a lot of time doing just that, at a time when obscure music was much harder to find in New Zealand than it is now. Professionally, I also pride myself on my ability to compile music in a meaningful way, one that adds to the experience of listening. But I think this is the first compilation I’ve ever done that doesn’t contain any of my own output. I’m ‘in’ this one solely as a fan, rather like my 21-year old self in 1981.
I go on at length in the liner notes about the background to this music in NZ history. So I won’t bother now. But I have to say that at that time it was something of a radical leap to argue that popular music from this country could be anything other than a second-rate imitation of other people’s music. And I guess that despite having taken a big interest in NZ music over the preceding couple of years, it was not until after Flying Nun got going that I actually really got converted to the new cultural reality.
Appropriately enough that happened in November 1981 as I was finishing up my third-year exams at Otago University in Dunedin. I’d heard the Clean’s first single often enough, and quite liked it. And I’d seen them in April of that year and been quite perplexed by them. At that point their sound was still like standing next to a 747 on the ground as the engines warmed up. They were a lot more like the Gordons (who I’d seen the previous summer in Nelson, the holiday shithole I’d grown up in) than you can readily imagine. The Gordons gig was one where you felt the sound of the band so physically that crossing the dance floor was like wading through hot treacle full of bathing manatees.
My 1981 student association ID card. I recall was really pleased I looked so much like Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who tried to assassinate John Paul II. I recall thinking at the time he deserved another shot.
But in November 1981 I persuaded my flatmate to take a night off and go to the other end of town to this tiny bar in the Empire Tavern where bands were starting to play. We went to see the Clean. Of all the profound ways in which my life had changed in that epochal year (and since the preceding Christmas I’d become an enemy of the state, among other things), seeing the Clean was the biggest. I can still recall the certainty with which I knew then that they were at that moment the best fucking band in the world. I still don’t understand how I knew it, and in many ways I’ve spent a significant portion of the last three decades trying to disprove that hypothesis, but I haven’t done it yet. Maybe the Fall were better that year. But the fact that the last sentence contains ‘the Fall’, and starts with ‘maybe’, should alert informed readers to the enormity of what I was experiencing. It was like falling in love.
Skip forward to the end of the period under review in this compilation with me for a moment. I was in London, England. NME had released the allegedly ‘epochal’ C86 cassette. I checked out quite a few of the bands compiled there, as well as a bunch of others, and concluded that Britain had only two or three bands at the time which could stand up in the company of the best New Zealand had to offer. They were mainly feeble posers in leather trousers. So home I went, to get on with my life and try to do something to help my country be a little less of a boringly pleasant sheep and dairy farm than it had been for the preceding century. And the rest, dear readers, is ‘history’, at least as far as I’m concerned. A history, in my case, dominated by the Dead C. and related activities; which have, I immodestly believe, done a fair bit to achieve the goal outlined in the preceding sentence-but-one.
In London, at my 26th birthday party in 1986, flying the friendly skies with Richard Ram of Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos. Richard had recently seen Spacemen 3 in a Rugby pub, but was so under-whelmed he didn’t mention it till about three years later. I think we went out and saw My Bloody Valentine after this, back when Kevin Shields still had a bowl-cut. They were utter shit, and I could never take them seriously after.
So to return to Time to Go (it’s a Clean lyric, by the way). For me, there are a few points to make. It’s not just a Flying Nun compilation. In some ways it was quite hard to determine what actually was a Flying Nun record, in that period. In some cases bands put money into manufacturing, as well as often covering recording costs. In that way, the Gordons’ album was actually released by the band, but later re-pressed by the label. Several of the tracks on this compilation were originally records distributed by the label, but not released by it. I could have thrown in more obscure things that were not on Flying Nun or distributed by them, but in the end, one way to limit the selection to a manageable level was to give preference to label releases. So the Puddle’s ‘Junk’ is in, and the And Band’s ‘Interstellar Gothic’ is out. Either one would have ticked the box marked ‘George Henderson’, a box that this compilation certainly had to tick. But I chose the one on Flying Nun.
It’s very definitely not a Dunedin compilation. If I had wanted to perpetuate lazy journalistic myths, I could have compiled the whole thing from Dunedin alone. But I’ve spent at least the last 25 years championing the peculiarly Christchurch strand of psychedelia which otherwise looked likely to escape wider notice altogether – so why would I want to stop now? In 1985 I reviewed the first Scorched Earth Policy EP in Garage (download the full run of these fanzines as PDFs from the Flying Nun site) and wrote a full page outlining the whole Victor Dimisich/Pin Group/Vacuum back-story to the record. I had to, because even then no one in New Zealand (let alone elsewhere) knew that these bands were as central (if not more central) to Flying Nun’s very existence than any number of ‘Dunedin sounds’.
This music was less about punk, than about what came before. Many of the key figures in that first wave of bands were 60s kids. John Halvorsen of the Gordons was actually active in teen beat groups in the mid-to-late 60s, in Ashburton, of all end-of the-world hell-holes. Look it up on the map, but that won’t tell you what provincial New Zealand was like back then. The sheer cultural deprivation of the town is unimaginable today, and yet they still have a disturbingly high teen suicide rate.
So in my opinion it’s the psychic discharge of pent-up frustration and inchoate rage that explains this music. The people making it were fed up with doing what was expected of them by a narrow-minded and conformity-mad society of people that presented as wowsers and drank like navvies. It also wasn’t about some posing vinyl-trouser-ed scene, as ‘new wave Auckland’ was around the same time. The thing that struck any remotely attentive observer was that these bands were hardly even aware anyone was watching. This music was so far from being ‘career oriented’ that it wasn’t even ‘audience oriented’. Listen to ‘It’s Cold Outside’ by the Victor Dimisich Band in a blindfold test and try to guess even what decade it was made in. Apart from some tincture of Television, it’s hard to guess between about 1968 and 1998. It’s that kind of ‘it came from the sky’ vibe that frankly defies categorisation. You can smell the reality. These people were very literate in rock music terms, they were literate in literary terms too, and they took drugs. It was what we did to rebel. Listen to ‘Russian Rug’. You don’t produce that kind of whacked-out blending of Pierre Henri with ? Mark and the Mysterians, without engaging in the desperate ‘datura-to-San Pedro’ sub-sub-culture which characterised the South Island of New Zealand at that time: and we invented home-bake heroin, don’t forget.
Throw in massive youth unemployment, impending economic collapse (by mid-1984 the government was weeks from bankruptcy, it was Greece with all the trimmings), and you have a memorable time to be alive – ‘and very heaven to be young’ as Wordsworth (or Steve Coogan) put it. So those were desperate times. And out of it came pop music that ‘advanced beyond the given’ (thanks Herr Lukacs) and aspired to make or say something more, something real. There was a feeling that things had to change. It was – truly -‘time to go’.
This project has been my attempt to pay homage to the times, to the people - many of whom have either passed on, or simply failed to thrive – and to the place. There’s a reason for the legend. This is it.