Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

28th March 2002 - Lifting the Curse

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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hey, sorry I missed you last week, but I was busy. Very.

The week began with a bFM DJ's meeting, where Dubhead's mullet was the star of proceedings. From there, it was a whirl of conference and social events - the most intriguing of which was a drinks at the British Consulate, where the Prime Minister turned up and spoke. And, it must be said, charmed the pants off the Brit journalists in town for Intermediate. We tried to explain that she was also a bit of a control freak and occasional bully and all that, but they were having none of it. It was fascinating.

That was Wednesday. By Saturday she'd been featured in a full-page story in the Guardian Weekly and been credited by the Daily Telegraph with advising Tony Blair on the arts of confidence and honesty. Two domestic polls had her and her party through the roof and she was about to fly out for a historic meeting with the president of the USA - bold enough to state her bottom line for talks in advance. In command ain't the half of it.

Anyway, thanks to Pitch Black and Epsilon Blue for forming part of a long and outstanding Saturday night out that began at the Classic, where Graeme Hill and I interviewed John Peel on stage, with inimitable introductions offered by Stinky Jim. Gee, it was good. I was so proud of the bFM audience - they hung on every word for nearly an hour and a half and it just worked.

That event was kicked off by the Tall Dwarfs, and when Alec broke a string, Chris Knox improvised a ditty called 'In Memory of Gary Steel'. The former editor of RTR Countdown magazine had, Knox said, written a nasty feature for the new Listener on occasion of Flying Nun Records' 21st anniversary.

Indeed, he had. The story, 'Dunedin's curse' is a revisionist history that holds that Flying Nun was a vehicle for a group of dowdy South Island killjoys who hated pop music, never sold any records and ended "in tears" by selling out to Mushroom Records.

Flying Nun ought not be immune from criticism. After all, it arguably did fail some of its artists, it hasn't been up to much in recent years, and it still has not really reconciled its indie image with its current status as a subsidiary of FMR and a distant wing of the Murdoch empire. But Steel's story is more about his personal agenda than anything that really happened - and he has no compunctions about twisting the facts to fit his bitching.

Thus, FMR's Auckland premises - a little two-storey business unit with a tin roof and a loading bay in Freeman's Bay - becomes its "oddly soulless corporate-style new offices". The fact that there are, according to Steel, "scant images to recognise their ownership and pride in Flying Nun" will come as a surprise to anyone who has actually been there and seen the Nun stuff plastered all over the walls.

Steel gets around the uncomfortable fact that Flying Nun released quite a few records he actually liked by claiming that "genuinely, radical innovative groups" like the Gordons and the Skeptics were ignored for years by the label and only acquired "by default". This is complete and utter crap.

The Skeptics' discography before Flying Nun consists of one track on a 1982 Furtive Records EP. Their debut EP, Chowder Over Wisconsin, was released a few months later. On Flying Nun. As were all their other records.

And the Gordons? Well, they released 'Future Shock' in 1980, and recorded their awesome debut album the following year, possibly before Flying Nun actually existed. And then, shortly after its release, they broke up. Flying Nun released the next album (by a different lineup and not all that good) then re-released the original - worldwide. And then when the original crew reformed as Bailter Space, Flying Nun released their albums. I am unsure of what planet Gary Steel was living on at the time.

It didn't stop there: in the 1990s Paul McKessar helped get all Bill Direen's recorded work onto four CDs. If that's not a commitment to the culture I don't know what is.

At the same time as he berates the label for the imagined sin of ignoring its strangest and most difficult artists, Steel declares that Flying Nun "murdered New Zealand pop" in the form of the Swingers, Blam Blam Blam, the Meemees and the Newmatics, and labels such as Propeller and Ripper.

Well, no actually. They all broke up, went broke, went overseas or got jobs. It happens - it happened a few years later to Flying Nun. The idea that some Flying Nun hit squad went around and took them all out is ludicrous. And meanwhile, while pop was dead, the Mockers and the Exponents had a swag of chart-topping singles. Go figure.

Flying Nun, on the other hand, only ever had one number single, the Chills' 'Heavenly Pop Hit', says Steel. Bzzzt!! Wrong again! As anyone with any regard for the facts would know, the Headless Chickens' 'George' also topped the singles charts.

Steel further claims that "media coverage of Flying Nun was so out of proportion with its sales graphs". Oh, right. For God's sake, the third record Flying Nun released, the Clean's Boodle Boodle Boodle, went platinum!

Steel fingers The Clean - who were and continue to be a stunningly great band - as part of the "hipper than thou alternative sect" that hi-jacked the record industry. They are, he claims, "terminally morbid, moribund". Yes, he really is referring to the same Clean that released 'Tally Ho!', 'Beatnik' and 'Billy Two' and the recent and delicious 'Stars'. He then goes on to curse "all their terminally hip offshoots". Like, er, the Bats, presumably.

The fact is that many of the records did sell well over the years, and all the top bands were a major live draw. The Verlaines, to take one example, would come up and play three nights straight at the Windsor. Later on, the likes of the Headless Chickens filled the Power Station and the Gluepot.

That club culture - the subject of Steel's last work of slander in the Listener - has largely supplanted the bigger live venues and the older live bands is a fact of life. It is not an excuse to rewrite history to serve your own agenda.

There are many other errors of fact that, to be charitable, stem less from malign intent than the writer just not knowing what he's on about. Roger Shepherd is not "serving beer in a London pub". He's a successful wine merchant. Martin Phillipps is not in "unhappy exile". He's in Dunedin, rehearsing the latest incarnation of the Chills.

The basis of Steel's stupid theory is that the evil cabal in charge of the label required Nun groups to "write songs that weren't seen in any way as pandering to pop accessibility". This will doubtless come as a surprise to Bird Nest Roys, the Chills, Sneaky Feelings, JPSE and all the others who thought that they were actually trying to write great pop songs.

At the end of the story, Steel demands, in a sentence that is ugly even by his prose standards, that FMR should provide Flying Nun with "a dedicated Nun staff module with an independent mindset and a unique perspective/aesthetic". I thought it did, in the form of Hat Meier, who cares deeply about what he's doing. And they certainly field a good football team.

The irony is that Steel tips all his bile over people who are genuinely looking to do the right thing. No, they aren't signing any drum 'n' bass acts. But the roster makes more sense than it has for some years, and if Steel had bothered to ask, rather than interviewing his own keyboard, he'd have found out that Morse Media, the people behind, are working on a swish new Flying Nun website - paid for, as it happens, by evil old FMR. There's a Headless Chickens compilation - 'Unplucked' - under construction, and that will come with a really cool bonus disc of contemporary remixes by everyone from Shihad to Roger Perry. This is all good.

Flying Nun was not a masterplan, still less an evil one. It was history by accident. A surge of talent - not just musical, but in graphic arts and film and video too - happily ran into some other things: a little label, a four-track recorder lugged around the country, good people like Doug Hood and Roy Colbert - and something quite special and significant happened.

The 21st anniversary party took place last Friday, at York Street Studios, where various people were recording an album called 'Under the Influence' in a day, more or less. Hasselhoff doing the Tall Dwarfs' 'Brain That Wouldn't Die', Steve Malkmus flying in to do a Verlaines song, Gerling - bizarrely - remixing a Dead C track.

Gary Steel wasn't there. Indeed, he wrote his Listener story before the party even took place. That didn't stop him describing it as a "sham", sneering at the "hype" and "necessary cred", and claiming that "Sir" John Peel - he's an OBE, you idiot - "presided" over proceedings. No he didn't. He came along, had a couple of drinks and chatted amiably to people, as is his way.

I was there. It was nice. Relaxed. A hundred-odd - some odder than others - old and new friends, some good food and drink, a couple of quick speeches, some music and a good time. That simple, really.

I don't know why Gary Steel felt he had to do this. He has a nice little record shop, where he can be rude to whomever he pleases. Isn't that enough? I hope he might one day be embarrassed by what he has written, if only for the riotous misapprehension of the facts therein. I expect that he will instead continue to meet in a phone booth with David Cohen, the other member of the Sad, Bitter Sometime Rock Writers From Wellington Club.

But in the end, I don't care what he thinks. And neither, really, should you.


Russell Brown

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