The “inside story” of Flying Nun, the Little Record Label That Could (and did…and sorta still is…) is this year’s must-read New Zealand music book. In the way that Simon Grigg’s book about OMC was last year’s must-read, this should appeal not only to fans but to anyone intrigued, to anyone who grew up in those times or in love with those times – for it’s a very New Zealand story. Not merely because that’s the setting, Flying Nun is one of those New Zealand touchstones or tropes for the world stage. Ask anyone from abroad about Kiwi music and just before or after they name Neil Finn/Crowded House (and possibly Split Enz) you will hear something about Flying Nun. Even if it’s just that name trotted out, that’s right up there. In the memory banks.
The man behind the label is Roger Shepherd. He doesn’t play music. He isn’t any sort of extrovert. Just a guy that loves certain sounds, that worked in a music store and wanted to nurture the start of a scene, wanted to make available to others the music he was hearing and digging.
The Flying Nun back-story’s oily-rag rider includes the $50 production values behind The Clean’s Tally Ho, Chris Knox’s drawing skills and trusty 4-track recording device, a whole heap of on-the-dole musicians prepared to lick stamps and run to the post office as Shepherd suddenly had a tiny wee business. A business he ran after his “real job” and during lunch breaks.
It’s crazy to think that The Chills, The Clean, The Bats, The Verlaines, Knox and many others came from these humble beginnings. In an alternate universe they’re world-beaters, nearly the lot of them.
It’s certainly much clearer reading Shepherd’s account. With the benefit of hindsight – and a 35-year history that gives the book a Victory Lap-status of sorts – Shepherd sets out only to tell his side of things. Some of the Nun’s better known acts are barely mentioned, one or two of Shepherd’s own favourites are excluded, the narrative jumps around as the chapters deal with specific characters or themes. We hear, early on, about Chris Knox. One of the key figures. Shepherd and Knox have a friendship, but that doesn’t stop Roger from talking about Knox’s more difficult side – his savage wit sometimes manifested in on- and off-stage ugliness. Other times he was the life of the party, generous, supportive. A picture slowly emerges that is in-line with the accepted wisdom that Knox was (is) some kind of lo-fi genius. A DIY wizard who, in keeping with heroes like Jonathan Richman, John Lennon and Lou Reed, knew how best to explore and exploit his weaknesses, all the while honing strengths through that exact process.
David Kilgour is more of a ghost across these pages. He’s seen as almost painfully shy, reluctant, damn near embarrassed for his role in any “Dunedin SoundTM” and in anything approaching the wee cottage industry that fumbled along, slowly, surely growing. And then, eventually, knowing.
No contracts, no plan, no insurances, only a few vague assurances – Shepherd’s label has been behind some of the most important music to come from this part of the world, and most of the great home-grown music that made its way out into wider worlds.
But you won’t read much in the way of boasting.
Shepherd too is shy, the version of him in these pages is lost somewhere near the bottom of a whisky bottle. He spends a lot of that vital contract-signing/admin/business time trying to locate the part that’s missing, sneakily self-medicated, coping, dealing with the life.
He had great ears. He knew what he liked. And there’s nothing misty-eyed in this re-telling. He dismisses certain songs, albums, even groups that were on his label. He focusses only on the insular world of Flying Nun – well, that was (is) his world. The label existed to prop up the scene/the scene existed to prop up the label.
You know some of the story going in but to read this version, beautifully handled, most often understated, is still to have your mind boggle that the label could last this long and mean so much to so many.
It’s so highly readable too (great quality for a book – but not always the one you spot first). It becomes addictive, page after page, you hear Kilgour’s distinctive guitar lines in your head as you read the descriptions of the music, and the setting of the scene. You feel Chris Knox’s jandal stomping down, you think of Martin Phillipps and Graeme Downes and Bob Scott all woodshedding in their own ways, honing their writing, escaping down into themselves to channel their beautiful/ugly pop song approximations.
And you hope Shepherd has another book in him. Because this one was so easy to digest, so fulfilling, and ultimately a happy story composed of several weird little homilies. Again, that’s New Zealand, right? Well, at least it used to be…
see also: On The Arrival of The Flying Nun Book