In Love with these Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records
A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis
Karl Du Fresne
Flying Nun Records, the small independent record label which Roger Shepherd, a young record store employee from Christchurch’s working-class suburb of Aranui, steered to international recognition, has been near the centre of New Zealand’s productive and successful post-punk community for 35 years.
In a nation whose “flirtation with punk youth culture in the late 1970s was said to be second in intensity only to Britain itself”, as historian James Belich observed in 2001’s Making Peoples: A History of New Zealanders, that’s a chunk of cultural activity not to be underestimated. The thousands of live shows and the consistent stream of compelling records, with original sleeve and poster art produced by alternative groups from the interconnected indie communities that developed from punk ideals in Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland, point to an extraordinary pool of committed talent.
While many indie labels faltered in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, Flying Nun Records’ catalogue and reputation grew. With that success came influence and determined followings in New Zealand, then Great Britain and Europe, Australia and, finally, America. The outpouring of art, and the struggle to keep up with the demands of the audience and the expectations of the talent he mustered and fostered, is at the heart of Flying Nun Records’ kingpin Roger Shepherd’s honest, wryly observed memoir.
In what is only the second published historical work produced by that community (the first being Matthew Bannister’s Positively George Street: A Personal History of Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound), Shepherd, an odd bookish child and teen, finds his way through 1960s and early 1970s suburban Christchurch, before lucking into a teenage holiday job at Record Factory, an inner-city music store.
The punk movement pushes its way onto the record shop’s shelves in the mid-to-late 1970s. Soon, the Garden City version is walking through the door and starting to trickle into local venues. Having already acquired a taste for pot, booze and dive bars, like Christchurch’s infamous Gresham, Shepherd, the nascent fan, quickly locates the new soundtrack’s early home in the punk-friendly Club Da Rox all-age venue, better known as Mollett Street, after its location.
When news of a similar South Island outbreak reaches his ears, Shepherd takes to the road in a clapped-out Morrie to catch The Enemy stunning crowds in Dunedin. In the Celtic city, he meets The Enemy’s singer, Chris Knox, and soundman, Doug Hood, and joins an audience full of the would-be punk and post-punk musicians who’ll people and inspire the new wave of groups which he’ll eventually release on his still-to-be born record label.
Tapping into the do-it-yourself ethic (a very traditional New Zealand approach that is easily transposed) utilised by the fresh independent labels springing up in Great Britain, Australia and America, Shepherd starts up Flying Nun Records in 1981, to release the new groups he’s seeing in Christchurch and Dunedin. When Knox and Hood relocate north, the label gets an Auckland branch, in a city that is vital for its sizeable and supportive audience, and valuable when Flying Nun’s initial portable four-track lo-fi recording method gives way to use of the Queen City’s recording studios.
With the label and its emerging community’s foundations now laid, Flying Nun Records begins its wobbly, under-funded way through the 1980s, releasing groundbreaking discs by New Zealand groups, including The Clean, Tall Dwarfs, The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings and Headless Chickens. Surprising chart success, widespread critical acclaim, and ever-expanding influence follow.
Sucked up by major record companies in the late 1980s and early 1990s – the historic fate of nearly all independent labels of worth – Flying Nun Records launches a semi-successful Mushroom Records-funded Great Britain branch in London, under Shepherd’s guidance. When sales fall short of expectation, and his drinking and moods threaten his sanity, Flying Nun’s founder is let go in 1996.
In the midst of that decade and a half of tumult, the record label boss, who doesn’t always indulge, but clearly likes to watch, casts a reddened eye over his charges and their immediate community, a journey well remembered in In Love with these Times.
It’s by no means a full reveal. The label’s transition back to independent status from Warner Music’s control, under Shepherd in late 2009, wasn’t as smooth as he suggests. Many of his, and the label’s, difficult relationships with artists over the years are also tiptoed around or salved away completely. Shepherd’s dismissal of the anger caused by the casting out of a significant portion of Flying Nun’s roster for economic expediency in the late 1980s, at a time of wider discontent over economic rationalisation and the rise of the new right, sundering what was a tight community, is particularly trite.
Mostly, though, Shepherd is disarmingly honest about himself and key figures on the label. His manic depression and its impact on Flying Nun Records’ progress and character is laid bare, as are the sometimes difficult and tragic personalities of indie doyens like Knox and Peter Gutteridge. The character of The Clean’s David Kilgour, one of the label’s most important artists, is also explained with insight: “David was shy and sensitive to what was essentially flattery and it made him feel awkward”, a traditional New Zealand modesty well-observed and simply rendered.
The anecdotes sprinkling Shepherd’s gentle memoir often raise a soft smile. Dunedin musician Shayne Carter’s typing skills are assessed alongside Shepherd’s love of corrugated cardboard. An encounter with an early line-up of Martin Phillipps’s The Chills, involving a blackened pot and a fridge full of recently acquired, freshly sliced cactus, puts a different slant on the group’s psychedelic influences.
With a major narrative history of Flying Nun Records yet to be written, errors of fact and interpretation inevitably creep in. Misspelt names, and incorrect finer details of events heard anecdotally in situ and not checked since, dot the book.
Shepherd is clichéd on what punk reacted to, which serves at least to show the common opinions that then predominated, until being overturned in recent music histories, but is strong on the excitement of a new movement. This rarely distracts from what is an otherwise accurate and detailed memoir, full of people and environments rarely found in New Zealand history and fiction.
Where In Love with these Times is a story about establishing popular culture in New Zealand and taking it to the world, Karl Du Fresne’s A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis is a crisp travelogue tracking the enduring allure and mystery of the overseas music we receive.
In three road trips through 12 states and 24 mostly southern United States’ cities, Masterton-based journalist, author and amateur musicologist Du Fresne explains the gestation of American popular songs with place names in their title, including “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Nashville Cats”, “New Orleans”, “Okie From Muskogee and Little Old Lady (From Pasadena)”, as he examines and seeks out the environments they evoke.
It’s a simple approach, that’s not always satisfying. Place can be invoked by mood and feel as much as name – songs being a fusion of lyric and instrumental sound – something the groups on Flying Nun Records knew only too well. And do “place names add colour, tone, pathos and texture”, as Du Fresne suggests, or are the songs they exist in signifiers of need, expectation and experience assembled closer to home? This would have been a stronger book had the author more fully explored why the music resonated with New Zealanders and certain musicians, rather than simply stating their chart position in local listings.
With no attempt made to interview surviving performers, producers and songwriters, as New Zealand writers Alan Young and Garth Cartwright did successfully in Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life (1997) and More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music (2010), Du Fresne relies instead on a thorough rendering of existing research and writing. That’s okay, if you are a fan new to the subjects, but less so if you are seeking insight born of new information and investigation.
It’s Du Fresne’s encounters with everyday Americans and America that hold more interest, in what is a handy, well-written travel guide for baby boomers with time on their hands and money in the bank, whose lives have been informed by popular music.
Andrew Schmidt is a writer/historian for Audioculture.co.nz, the noisy library of New Zealand Music. He is currently researching and writing a biography of Taranaki musician Peter Jefferies.