Positively George Street: a personal history of Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound
Reed Books, $34.95,
ISBN 0 7900 0704 5
The mythology tells us that Dunedin in the 1970s was a studious, quiet backwater, seemingly permanently becalmed in a Calvinist Sunday. At nights, the town was lit up like a huge, empty theatrical set of deserted warehouses and stone churches: a collection of architectural styles from a bygone era awaiting a new art movement. Or so it seemed to the town’s young people. Then punk rock music arrived; it had an ethos or an aesthetic that offered the chance to grab entropy by the tail and give it a spin; it was a kind of empowerment, a kind of validation, for bored, disaffected youth. The rise and rise of the Dunedin Sound, the glory days 1979–1989, are chronicled and charted in an idiosyncratic, forthright, and often amusing fashion, in Matthew Bannister’s rock memoir Positively George Street (George Street being Dunedin’s main drag, and the title itself, with its nod to Bob Dylan, swiped from a song written by short-term Verlaines band member Craig Easton).
The so-called “Dunedin Sound” was iconoclastic. It was about smashing imported rock idols and replacing their flashiness with something homegrown, something “authentic”. Bannister’s book, too, is iconoclastic, but he uses that same critical methodology to examine the hierarchy and value systems formed after the revolution by the new generation. Inevitably, 20 years on, he finds the hopes of that bright new dawn to be riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. What matters is the musical legacy, the interplay of personalities, and his own progress, his own self-enlightenment, his own sentimental education, as a leading member of one of the foundation bands, Sneaky Feelings.
Bannister was in some ways an outsider, and he argues that his band was atypical of those signed up and promoted by Flying Nun, the fledgling record label which rode to international prominence on the back of the Dunedin Sound. But even as he explains what he means, you can see how neatly Sneaky Feelings does slot in, with its harmonies and its arty, literary references, somewhere between the Andrew Brough end of Straitjacket Fits and the ambitions of Graeme Downes’s Verlaines; though it is true that, towards the end of the Eighties, Sneaky Feelings did fall prey to the internal politics of the record label, to its self-mythologising. Positively George Street, the book, can be seen as a form of compensation for that rewriting of Flying Nun history, promulgated by countless press releases.
But surely he wasn’t the only band member to be disillusioned, to have a counter-discourse. Every band on the Flying Nun label will have their own story to tell. So far, only Bannister has managed to get a book publishing deal; the only other major account of possibly New Zealand’s most significant record label is to be found in John Dix’s Stranded in Paradise: New Zealand Rock’n’Roll 1955-1988. Positively George Street is the rime of the ancient Flying Nunner, who plucks at your sleeve with a colourful tale: all droll anecdotes, back-lit impressions, and you-had-to-be-there reminiscences.
Bannister, who emigrated to Dunedin with his family from Scotland in his late teens, did graft a different sensibility onto the local music scene when he arrived in 1979. Schooled in the rich tradition of Sixties British pop, his cultural drives were based on a first-hand appreciation of such references as the TV cop show Z Cars, The Who’s concept album Quadrophenia, and the Beatles’ movie Help! A nerdy teenage trainspotter (amongst his books was Rolling Stock of British Rail), Bannister struggled with “the tight little world of Dunedin refusenik culture”, but formed a lasting friendship with fellow-guitarist David Pine, at Otago Boys High School, and later at Otago University, which became the basis of Sneaky Feelings.
Bannister arrived at the right time to be part of the generational shift. Bands were forming and reforming in rapidly changing combinations and permutations: high school and university kids creating a sub-culture whose waves of creative energy began rippling out of Dunedin in the early Eighties. His book provides a cast list, a who-was-who in the Dunedin Sound (which was really a “South Island” sound, as band personnel sometimes came from small towns, or moved back and forth between Dunedin and Christchurch). There are incidental figures, like Chris Trotter, editor of Critic, or Grant and Gavin, members of traditional rock bands from the “redneck Riviera” of South Dunedin, but the real action centred around some two dozen young people whose principals included Martin Philipps, David Kilgour, Shane Carter, Graeme Downes (the musicians), along with Doug Hood, Roger Shepherd (Flying Nun management), Roy Colbert (enthusiast) and Chris Knox (guiding spirit, inspired improviser).
For Bannister, Knox turned into a kind of nemesis. A lightning conductor, who, by example, first dispelled the anxiety of influence, the weight of overseas rock tradition, and asserted a do-it-yourself purism, Knox was the Flying Nun carnival-barker, the chief ideologue: his madball, pop-eyed stare Flying Nun’s acceptable face. Bannister claims that as such Knox (and by extension Flying Nun) was out of sympathy with Sneaky Feelings’ aims: “Every cult needs its folk devils, its traditional scapegoats, and Flying Nun’s were delicacy, sentimentality, beauty, love.” Knox, Bannister argues, was a punk puritan: a version of the bluff Kiwi bloke, hiding his real feelings under a pushy heartiness. Bannister also implies that the critics and reviewers enlisted to manufacture consensus, to help create the Flying Nun mythology were all “Southern Men” in origin: Roy Colbert, Colin Hogg, George Kay, Russell Brown, and Chris Knox himself.
But Sneaky Feelings songs are also characterised by the sweet and sour melodies, the descending chords and morose love lyrics which help define the Flying Nun sound. Essentially, Bannister is exercised and energised by his distaste for the unspoken rules which govern expression in New Zealand culture: its monolithic, monochromatic, mono-dimensional and mono-tonal nature, or at least as it obtained in the Eighties. Yet, he, too, is part of the studied cult of shambling amateurism.
Bannister traces some of Knox’s ideas back to New York minimalist band Velvet Underground, and others back to the Calvinist father-figure John Knox. More rewardingly, he analyses the detached ironic quality of the Dunedin Sound as a blend of the bagpipes drone motif (the aboriginal womb-music of a transplanted Scottish city), and the use of guitar reverberation to create a cold, distancing, tribal effect (analogous to emotional repression or emotional sublimation). Thus, the rhythmic tonal drone patented by The Clean and imitated by many thereafter.
This book is by no means the final word on the Dunedin Sound, on its adherence to the low-budget, the lo-fi, the hand-made, which has fragmented, but which persists. But then Bannister wouldn’t want it to be: in keeping with the dynamic of his band Sneaky Feelings, he’s provided a sounding board, something to argue over. Beyond that, his book is valuable as the record of a trip round the punk songlines of New Zealand of ten to twenty years ago: the watering holes, the mirages, the hallucinogens, the casualties, the handful of success stories.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin poet and reviewer.