The Dunedin Sound: Why New Zealand Rocks so Hard

Once upon a time, on the small Pacific island of New Zealand, there was a city called Dunedin (don’t worry…it’s still there. You can check on a map). In this city, there lived a disgruntled group of guys who were sick of all the horrible music pumped in from international radio, which at the time was dominated by America and (heavens, no) neighboring Australia.

One of these guys was Chris Knox. He was in a band called Tall Dwarves and was a bit of a psychopath (but in a rambunctious, funny way). The other guy was Roger Shepherd (and I’m pretty sure he’s on the Spectrum because he constantly looks down at his feet during interviews). These guys decided to start a record label. That label was called Flying Nun. Using a simple 4-track recorder, they approached a local band and asked if they’d like to get some of their stuff down on tape. That band was called the Clean, and they looked and sounded like this:

The Clean exploded onto the scene in 1981, their DIY anthem spreading across New Zealand like a virus. It wasn’t too long before the guys at Flying Nun knew they were on to something. They realized that there were plenty of great bands in their own backyard who were making more creative, groundbreaking sounds than any of those other guys from America, England, or Australia (sorry Neil Finn). In a few years, they put out albums from other Dunedin bands like the Chills and the Verlaines. Here, listen:

The result was a truly stunning array of original, compelling lo-fi goodness devoid of any corporate meddling. Flying Nun didn’t care about selling records. In fact, they were pretty much bankrupt for most of their existence, and the bands often had to put up their own money to get their records pressed. Chris Knox actually hand delivered boxes of records to the local shops by hand. Pretty punk rock, right? But that kind of stuff didn’t matter. The only thing they wanted was to get this music down on wax. In the process, they were creating the whole idea of “alternative rock” without even realizing it. American college radio ate it up, spurring a whole generation of 90’s kids to pick up their guitars and start tooling around in their parent’s garages a la the Velvet Underground in the 60’s. Indie mainstays like Pavement, the Stone Roses, and Calamine have all listed Flying Nun bands as the foundation for their own sounds. Even though their worldwide impact was small at first, Flying Nun’s reputation grew as a nurturing label that offered it’s band’s complete artistic expression. In the decades to follow, it continued to release refreshing, good music. Oh, and you know that band the Clean I mentioned earlier? The guys that started all this? The bass player started his own band called the Bats. Listen:

It wasn’t long before the industry took notice. Somehow, somewhere, nobody really knows who or why, someone coined the phrase the “Dunedin Sound”, claiming that all these Flying Nun bands fell into the same all-encompassing genre. Even a casual listener can see that there’s really no cohesive sound tying all these groups together, but they went with it anyway. They claimed that there was a “jangly” quality to the guitars. Now, this has been a point of contention with music critics for years. Electric guitars are going to be “jangly” no matter what. The only real commonality is that the majority of these guys were from Dunedin city or neighboring Christchurch. And when you take into account how small these places are, it’s really incredible to see the amount of good music they produced. Something in the water, I guess. When you start getting into the individual “sounds” of the bands, things can get a little fragmented. Take, for example, the Chills’ “Heavenly Pop Hit”:

Now put that against the 3D’s “Outer Space”:

Throw in a little “Needles and Plastic” by the Doublehappys:

Is there a “Dunedin Sound”? I don’t think so. Is Flying Label responsible for issuing a heap of awesome music that was too ahead of its time for its own good? Absolutely. Recently, the label has been lifted out of its international obscurity, and with good reason: without it, myriad bands across the world may not have formed. And we would have missed out on some truly great tunes. Man, that would’ve sucked.

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One Response to The Dunedin Sound: Why New Zealand Rocks so Hard

  1. Pingback: The Dunedin Sound: Why New Zealand Rocks so Hard | Pat Moody Writes

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