“Punk rock” first brings to mind the snarling, sped-up, dumbed-down assault
of the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. The major rock bands of New Zealand
show few traces of this basic punk sound, and with good reason; the urban
spite and despair of English punk eventually made little sense in New
Zealand’s wide-open landscapes. Instead, musical influences were culled
from a wide array of recorded sources, present and past–New Wave, garage
rock, and scattered 60’s originals like Syd Barrett in his “Madcap Laughs”
period or Captain Beefheart. The sensual droning texture of the Velvet
Underground had a particularly strong impact; the whole genesis of the New
Zealand sound can be heard in a song like “Femme Fatale,” immaculately
faithful to pop principles and yet immanently corrupt. Dreamy musical
intricacies counted more than straight-out attitude; punk’s cherished DIY
(“do-it-yourself”) ethos translated simply as a casual, local,
self-interested tone, music made for its own sake. National economic
policy helped out with its generous dole for unemployed youth. Some bands
even received grants from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, a government
group with a very imaginative music panel. You could see New Zealand rock
as a triumph of socialist aesthetics.

Dunedin, an urban outpost on New Zealand’s vast, sparsely populated South
Island, makes an ideal spot for constructive loafing. It is apparently the
southernmost city on the planet, closer to Antarctica than to the rest of
civilization. Chris Knox grew up in the even more far-flung town of
Invercargill, which served a base for the U. S. Army’s “Deep Freeze
Project” in the late 60’s. (Legend has it that weapons were being tested
for use against war protesters back home.) In an interview for Forced
Exposure magazine, Knox recalls that the main impact of American culture
was the easy availability of LSD. After a self-described year doing drugs
and masturbating, Knox went to work as a forklift driver in a Dunedin
chocolate factory when he met an equally opaque character named Mick Dawson
and plunged into the punk scene. The Enemy played its first gig in the
Beneficiaries’ Hall in Dunedin, as part of an Anti Disco rally. They
immediately stood out from other punk groups because they played all their
own songs.

The appeal of stay-at-home avant-gardism wasn’t immediately clear. Knox
moved on to a new-wave-ish band called Toy Love and made a bid for
commercial success. Toy Love’s sharp-angled tunes and theatrical flair
started attracting big crowds, and the corporate giant WEA signed them up
for an album and an Australian tour. But Knox found himself bored by the
tour grind, disgusted with Toy Love’s broadening audience, and frustrated
by the smooth 24-track sound that got pasted onto his first album. “We
were outclassed by the studio,” he told Forced Exposure. “We were also
outclassed, extraordinarily enough, by the authority figures involved.
Like the engineer who refused to record with Alec’s amp.” Toy Love
disbanded in an epic gesture of renunciation. With Alec Bathgate, the
guitarist with the defiantly fucked-up amp, Knox found his true home in the
Tall Dwarfs, of which more later. With a rudimentary 4-track TEAC tape
deck, he began recording the punk-inspired bands that had meanwhile
proliferated in Dunedin, starting with a group called the Clean.

It fell to the guys in the Clean–David Kilgour, his brother Hamish, and
various associates–to bring out the New Zealand sound in full glory. They
began as rank teenage amateurs, and to a certain extent stayed that way.
Even when David had learned how to play his clangorous guitar, his lead
vocals never showed a sure sense of pitch. But the songs had an indelibly
catchy lilt to them, pop glamour surging out of the underground, and
David’s hoarsely shouted lyrics hit on DIY themes: “Anything could happen
and it could be right now / The choice is yours, so make it worthwhile.”
“Tally Ho” was their first single, distributed by the fledgling Flying Nun
label, and the Boodle Boodle Boodle EP immediately ensured them
immortality. (All the best early Clean is now available on a Flying Nun CD
sensibly titled Clean Compilation.) The charm and strength of these
songs–“Billy Two,” “Anything Could Happen,” “Slug Song,” “Art School”–
are inseparable from the roughness of the sound and casualness of the delivery.
Even though “Tally Ho” and various later efforts climbed into the New
Zealand charts, this was a band with which executives were not wont to
tamper.

The Clean were the first in a long line of young bands that trooped through
the offices of Flying Nun, founded by former Christchurch record shop
employee Roger Shepherd. By the mid-80’s the label had a catalogue
encompassing all styles, most of the best from Dunedin: the down-and-dirty
rock of the Stones, the classically influenced pop-rock of the Verlaines,
the noisy, jagged attack of the Gordons, the elegant pop stylings of the
Bats, the dreamy meanderings of the Chills. Bands formed and split up
fairly quickly, not so much out of customary rock ‘n’ roll animosities as
from a collective interest in trying new possibilities. Thus, the Kilgour
brothers, separately or together, were later seen in the Great Unwashed,
the Chills, Stephen, a Clean reunion, Bailter Space, and Mad Scene. The
same personalities from a decade ago still circulate, many of them married
and with kids. Lurid rock ‘n’ roll tales were few and far between, unless
you count the accidental decapitation of the Doublehappys’ Wayne Elsey, who
leaned out of a train compartment at an importune moment.

The Chills won the widest fame for their soft-edged, synthesizer-flavored
sound and seductively morose disposition. (Kaleidoscope World, with the
haunting Knox-produced “Pink Frost,” is their classic compilation.) They
are many people’s favorite New Zealand band, although I’ve never liked them
to excess. Laden with cult fame in England and to a lesser extent in the
U. S. in the mid-80’s (“the very quintessence of a great band,” said the
New Music Express), they steadily gravitated toward a bland, international
pop style. The Bats, created by onetime Clean bassist Robert Scott and
Paul Kean from Toy Love, are more consistently site-specific, even though
they have become modestly popular on the American college-rock circuit.
Scott is an insanely prolific songwriter who specializes in a sort of
perfectly constructed but never totally predictable pop-song structure; he
warbles reflective, poetic lyrics in a high, almost Morrissey-like voice,
supported by folksily twanging guitars and Scots gig rhythms. Their best
album is probably Daddy’s Highway (Flying Nun), although recent albums
licensed to the Mammoth label in the U. S. (Fear of God, Silverbeet) show a
decade’s accumulation of sharp musicianship.