By Hayley Scott
September 30, 2013
Those who are versed in New Zealand’s musical back story will know that there’s a lot more to the place than sheep and vast tracts of greenery. Indeed, NZ also happens to be home to one of the most influential record labels of our time: Christchurch’s Flying Nun. While Sarah, Rough Trade and Factory Records were laying down the foundations for UK post-punk and indie, equally significant things were happening on the other side of the world. Like rediscovering your favourite Sarah Records 7″, listening to a Flying Nun record similarly elicits a want for the jangle of yesteryear.
Conceived in the wake of new independent labels forming in the early ‘80s, such as Auckland’s Ripper and Propeller Records, the initial intention was to focus on Christchurch’s local music scene, but it was the emerging music from nearby Dunedin that gave the label its prominence and the endemic, much-debated “Dunedin Sound”. Although many bands denied its existence, its unmistakable essence is immanent. Deeply rooted in ‘60s pop and Velvet Underground’s lo-fi experimentalism, the distinction is attributable to rough recording techniques, the familiar droning, jangly guitars and indistinct vocals. Although fuelled by a DIY, punk ethic, some of the Dunedin bands tended to lack punk aggression in favour of a more “high end, pure pop” approach, but punk amateurism was also a palpable influence, particularly on The Clean.
In many ways, The Clean were the Flying Nun band, not only because they were archetypal of the label’s distinct aesthetic, but they were also one of the most successful and influential antecedents to the bands that proceeded them. Outside their native New Zealand, they still remain a relatively unknown cult band today, but the fact that they were already revered almost a decade before the release of their debut is testament to their ramshackle appeal, and the time spent in between wasn’t idly wasted: The Clean had released an EP and various live albums, as well as featuring on a number of compilation albums, they also flirted around the charts, earning a number of hits including the lauded 1981 single ‘Tally Ho!’. Having disbanded in the ‘80s, Vehicle came together when the band ‘reunited’ in 1990.
Earlier this year, Brooklyn label Captured Tracks announced an extensive reissues partnership with the Flying Nun to manufacture and distribute their prestigious back-catalogue. Starting with a 2x LP Toy Love compilation, and now, along with the obscure Birds Nest Roys compilation, The Clean’s seminal debut Vehicle is the latest to revisit Flying Nun’s pinnacle.
Sounding more contemporary than ever, the uninitiated could be forgiven for mistaking The Clean for a new band and Vehicle as derivative; adhering to the indie rock formula that they themselves helped to create. Through an emphatically lo-fi production, angular instrumentation and a general detached sensibility, they envisaged the dominance of what the genre would eventually become. Here the band have eschewed the primitive four-track recording approach of their early EPs and singles in favour of something that is ostensibly studio-crafted, but instead of hindering their performances, it only heightens them: their shared vocal contributions and harmonies are clear and coherent; Scott’s casual lilt is every so often disrupted by the Kilgours’ equally aloof, but slightly more gentle refrains.
The Clean are perhaps best known for their more jubilant, jumpy numbers like the organ infiltrated ‘Getting To You’ and the temperamental ‘Someone’, but the contrasts with the softer, acoustic inclusions like the start-stop ‘Home’ and ‘I Can See’ reveals a more sentimental side, while still managing to create a cohesive continuity.
The reissue also includes In A Live - released around the same time as their debut – featuring recorded live performances of their early singles, including the cogent live staple ‘Point That Thing Somewhere Else’. Retaining the urgency that’s so marked on record, its incremental repetition and protruding guitar riffs paints a clear picture of The Clean being a wonderfully loud, essential live band.
With the album closing in at under a mere half an hour, all of these songs sound urgent and impulsive, but the brevity works in its favour: Vehicle is essentially a punk record in structure, with its offhand 2-3 minute pop songs that deliver in delightfully short, snappy bursts.
In retrospect, Vehicle and In a Live sound like a mixture of past and present. You can hear psychedelic facets of early Floyd in parts, and the sheer potency of Hawkwind in ‘Point That Thing Somewhere Else’. More noticeably it recalls moments from the paisley underground movement and Television, with the melodic propulsiveness of the Velvets, while they decidedly had their own inimitable identity. In all, it remains just as relevant, seamless and engaging now as it did 20 years ago.