Founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd, Flying Nun Records unleashed an extraordinary wave of New Zealand music on listeners in Aotearoa and around the world – from The Clean to the Headless Chickens, Look Blue Go Purple to The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience.
Needles and Plastic is a fully illustrated account of the label, the bands and the songs from 1981–1988 – the critical early years, when the label was based in Christchurch and getting records pressed in New Zealand.
Matthew Goody tells the story through the records themselves. In entries on over 140 records from The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho!’ 7” in 1981 to The Verlaines’ Bird-Dog LP in 1988, the book draws on years of research to reveal the stories of the bands,
the recordings, the songs and the audience, with a host of characters contributing along the way – Shepherd, Chris Knox, Doug Hood, Hamish Kilgour and many more.
In this remarkable tale of creativity and chaos, do-it-yourself innovation and extraordinary attempts at world domination, Needles and Plastic tells the inside story of one of New Zealand’s – and the world’s – great independent music labels. He spoke to Zara Potts about his labour of love.
It’s a pretty hefty book! There’s a lot in there.. So how long did it take you to write it?
That’s a tough question to answer, technically it took me about 7 or 8 years but there were huge pauses within that – life got in the way. But it was a few years of researching, a few years of straight writing, and then almost a year of putting the images together, which took a lot longer than I thought it would.
And now for the back story – how does a Canadian get so interested in Flying Nun – an independent record label half a world away?
I think it speaks to the global reach of Flying Nun – since it started 40 plus years ago – that a Canadian decides to do this. One of the reasons why I wanted to do the book was to investigate how Flying Nun went global and why it became so popular in certain music circles. There are fanatics like me, all over the place. Writing the book I discovered all these crazy Flying Nun fans right around the world. I had someone last night message me from Indonesia. Germany is full of Flying Nun nuts…
Where do you see Flying Nun’s influence musically? Do you see examples of its influence in North American bands?
I think you can trace it back through the early years all the way up to the present, really. Once Flying Nun started to take off overseas in about 1985/86 you just see the influence in places like the 1990s US college rock scene – a lot of bands there that really glued on to that – the famous bands like Pavement or Cat Power – and from there on there’s always been a lot of American underground bands and in Europe that are appreciative of the garage-y, 60’s infused, jangly sound that Flying Nun was known for. There are so many different bands on the label that the influence is quite wide.
The book is concentrated on the period 1981 to 1988, which is the period that Flying Nun was really active in Christchurch, how important was Christchurch to that period? Did the city influence the label in any way?
One of the goals for the book for me – the story of the label in the early years is really focused on the so-called Dunedin bands and they’ve taken up so much of the story, and rightfully so actually, because they were the most successful and popular bands – but I wanted to re-orientate the understanding of the label as a Christchurch label that started in Christchurch and it was what was happening in Christchurch that really kick started Roger Shepherd to form the label. He was seeing bands at places like The Gladstone and that was what instigated him into starting the label. He didn’t really have a huge understanding of what was happening in Dunedin until he signed The Clean.
The book, which tells the story through the records, allowed me to give readers a broader perspective in terms of what was happening in Christchurch and by making it such a visual book, I really wanted to give people an understanding of the broader artistic community in the Christchurch that were influencing the bands. Out of the University art school there, you had visual filmmakers like Ronnie Van Hout or Stuart Page or artists, or designers – there’s a broader artistic community in Christchurch and this book allowed me to talk about that.
The artwork is a very important part of the label, isn’t it? Because it’s so distinctive?
The Christchurch years are where that’s the most evident. When Roger Shepherd is forced to move offices up to Auckland and make a more formal company out of Flying Nun, some of the character of the label kind of disappears. Bands who had had a lot of say on the design and artwork for the covers – that slowly starts to disappear once the label is in Auckland.
How instrumental is the punk and post-punk scene in Christchurch – the venues, the attitude – how instrumental was that to the label?
It was quite small scene – Roy Montgomery has written about this: that it was a very close-knot scene and everyone that was in the scene was doing something. If they weren’t making music, they were designing posters or helping promote gigs, and I think Roger Shepherd starting the label is just another part of that. He saw what was going on, these amazing bands – and there were no labels to speak of in Christchurch at the time – and as someone who was working in a record shop he just saw this opportunity and no one else was doing it. If he hadn’t done it, I don’t know who would have.
When you were talking about the so-called Dunedin sound that Flying Nun is so associated with – is there a Christchurch sound? What bands epitomise the Christchurch sound?
Well I think certain people, rather than certain bands …doing all the records, you see these threads, where the same people keep popping up – Peter Stapleton is someone who I would single out and Mary Heney as well, they were just two who had a big influence.
People who have said there was a definite Christchurch sound, say its gloomy, slightly darker and broodier – and so the bands that would typify that were the kinds of bands Peter Stapleton was involved in like Scorched Earth Policy, The Terminals, The Victor Dimisich Band. But there were a lot of other bands too.
Like The Bats..
Yeah, and Jean Paul Satre Experience – but they don’t fit easily into a style.
The Bats are often typified as the big Christchurch sound – but you believe their sound is not quite as ‘Christchurch’ as people might think?
Robert Scott, for the most part was based in Dunedin, for the majority of their existence – so they’ve been like a two-city band in some ways.
Let’s talk about The Gordons.. who I think became Bailter Space… how would you describe – for someone who hasn’t ever heard them – The Gordons?
The one thing that people love to point out, particular in regard to their live sound, is just how punishingly loud they were.
I’m pretty sure I got tinnitus from a Gordon’s gig.
Yeah. They were banned from pubs pretty regularly and had a tough go of it because of their unwillingness to dial it back. They’re kind of a conundrum for me because they’re not, in some ways, a Flying Nun band. They are their own entity in so many ways, they had their own brand, their own style, all their records were basically done by themselves, they just needed Flying Nun distribution. In terms of a band that has unflinching determination and devotion to the DIY ethos of doing everything yourself and operating outside of traditional industry expectations of what a band should be – in terms of how they sell their records, how they tour, how they record, how they should sound – they defy every expectation you can imagine.
They were also very good at myth making and using the press to build up that reputation of being really loud. There were different line ups – The Gordon’s, Nelsh Bailter Space, Bailter space – they sound a lot different than the Gordon’s did.
But still loud..
Still loud. Then there’s The Gordon’s second record which was a difficult record for me to have to deal with in the book, because they don’t talk about it at all.
One of the things that has been said about Flying Nun over the years, is that there’s not a lot of women on the label – what role did you find women had when it came to these years?
I think there certainly were fewer women involved proportionally – it was pretty dude-centric. But with this book, wanting to take a broader look beyond the Dunedin sound, there are some bands that I really wanted to shine a light on that have been forgotten about a little bit – particularly ones that were quite influential.
I think Chris Knox recognised this was an issue quite early on and said the label needed to support more women artists, so he was certainly proactive in trying to do a bit more about that. You see later on in 1986/87 bands like Dead Famous People – who went on to be fairly successful and signed with Billy Bragg’s label in the UK – and one band in particular that I’m a big fan of is a band called Marie and the Atom -they only released two EPs and then disappeared – but they were very influential in some circles.
Bruce Russell cites them as being an early influence on The Dead C. The book gives a perspective on some of those important women artists.
So tell me how hard it was for you to find all these stories? The book is amazing because it looks at every release – but how hard was it to find out what happened and the back stories? The research must have led you down a few tunnels..
Yeah, absolutely. The distance for me both geographically, being so far away, and also in terms of time – I’m a little bit younger, I wasn’t there – so digging into the archives was a requirement and necessary to write a book that did justice to the subject matter so I kind of naively went into it thinking ‘Oh yeah, there’s lots of stuff out there,’ and then I realised I needed to really dig into it. I knew there were microfilm archives of a few New Zealand newspapers and that where it really started for me going down the rabbit hole.
So the newspapers were a gold mine?
Particularly the Christchurch Press newspaper, in terms of their archive, their microfilm archive, I remember going into it the first time and realising how much weekly coverage was in the newspapers there back then and it blew my mind. It makes New Zealand stand out in that regard.
That’s an interesting point. It was relatively mainstream then, even though the music wasn’t seen as mainstream, but yet there was mainstream coverage – which sadly doesn’t happen anymore.
I really wanted to focus on those journalists – Rob White in the Christchurch Star and David Swift – he was writing weekly reviews and features on the Christchurch bands in The Press, and later Tony Green as well. Every week I could find a review and it really helped me piece together the sequence of events because Flying Nun has always been a bit murky about details like when did that record come out? So I was able to go back and find out and piece together the puzzle.
Have you been to New Zealand?
It’s amazing to think that you have all this knowledge of a place and its culture even though you are so far away geographically and yet you know how the music culture of that time and place was…
Once I started to do this book I realised I needed to have a much better understanding of the culture and the places – Christchurch as a place – to have an understanding of where these venues were, where the label was, where the university was- you read about the Dunedin Double being recorded in Christchurch – I wanted to know where the flats were. Having an understanding of these places – again it was the archives, just diving in and spending tons of time reading newspapers.
Of course a lot of those places have gone now with the earthquakes so a lot of the history and heritage only exists in archives now…
Okay let’s put you on the spot – if you had to name a favourite Flying Nun band – who would it be?
Well, it has to be The Clean. The Clean are the best. They’re up there in the pantheon of greatest bands of all time for me.
Actually I think Beatnik was filmed in Christchurch..
It was. At a coffee lounge. I’d also like to mention a few bands who are less well known that I think people should appreciate more – in terms of Christchurch bands: Scorched Earth Policy and The Terminals are both fantastic bands. The band All Down – they just did one EP – but they had a great, jangly, 60s infused sound.
If you had to distil the essence of Flying Nun – how would you describe it? What makes it so special?
It stands out in terms of being a record label that embraced the artistic community around it in a whole-hearted way which is very unique.
Recognising that there was just this huge groundswell of musicians who were making great music and being so proactive in doing something about it, but also just creating a space that allowed photographers and filmmakers and artists to be involved and to really create a sense of community, particularly for the South Island, and just champion all this great music that never would have made it outside the country if it wasn’t for Roger and Chris and Flying Nun.
That embracing of the creative community is a really important aspect to Christchurch.
That moment in 1981 where Auckland is considered is considered the epicentre – and literally with just a few records – Flying Nun turned the entire music industry in New Zealand on its head. Every expectation of how to make a record, how to distribute it, how to record it, how to make it look – everything was turned on its head and they defied every expectation of them as a label for years to come and succeeded despite endless screw ups and an industry that was working against them. It’s just so admirable. radio ignored them and it still succeeded.
Needles & Plastic is published by Auckland University Press and available at all good booksellers now.