Tally Ho!: Flying Nun’s Greatest Bits
The story of New Zealand’s venerable Flying Nun label is best told aurally, writes DOUG WALLEN.
“Well you said it was yesterday/Yesterday’s another day” – The Clean, ‘Tally Ho!’
Flying Nun’s 30th anniversary may have come and gone last year, but this two-disc retrospective is only reaching Australia this month. It’s both an introduction to the one-of-a-kind label and a satisfying distillation of its best bands and eras. In his succinct liner notes, founder Roger Shepherd muses on the sort of parallel universe inhabited by Flying Nun in the 1980s as well as touching on the cultural cringe that must still to be overcome today. Not just in New Zealand, either.
But it’s the 40 songs that tell the story, each a rallying cry in its own way. There were always going to be some acts missing (The Mad Scene, Alec Bathgate, Toy Love), just as tough choices were inevitable with the most iconic bands (‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ or ‘Pink Frost’? ‘North by North’ or ‘Block of Wood’?). But honestly, you could have sold me a compilation of The Clean’s title song 40 times in a row. Clogged with a cheap keyboard and scrappy harmonies, it’s one of the label’s punch-drunk early “hits” that can hardly be bothered standing upright. Equal part hooks and sneers, it’s an unlikely reconciliation of pop and noise.
The funny thing is, Tally Ho! attempts to divide those two things: the first disc is reserved for the poppier artists, the second for the noiseniks. But while that’s a nice way of avoiding a schizophrenic tug-of-war from track to track, the beauty of Flying Nun is that there’s melody in even the harshest noise, and scars of distortion or other such subversion haunting the pop. Yes, there’s also post-Velvets jangle in great abundance, but more telling are the dual (but not quite duelling) impulses to experiment and to write a proper song, pop or otherwise.
“You’re just too obscure for me” – The Verlaines, ‘Death and the Maiden’
There’s a family vibe to Flying Nun, thanks to certain personnel playing in different bands. Shayne Carter pops up here in Straightjacket Fits, Dimmer, Doublehappys and a Peter Jefferies collaboration that’s easily a highlight. Likewise, fans can trace the defining qualities of The Clean into The Great Unwashed and rejoice other such trajectories (The Mint Chicks into F in Math, The 3Ds into Ghost Club.) There’s also a real sense of dialogue between the bands, as if everyone is learning from everyone else. Even with decades separating some of the output, it’s all still part of that Flying Nun continuum.
For me personally, the attraction of Tally Ho! was to move beyond the familiar pantheon of Clean/Chills/Bats/Verlaines into the label’s deeper reaches. Some of it was introduction, some merely a reminder. The all-female Look Blue Go Purple are one of my favourite Flying Nun discoveries of late, while it’s always a perfect time to encounter the chiming layers of Straitjacket Fits’ ‘She Speeds’. Bressa Creeting Cake’s Nilsson-ish ‘A Chip That Sells Millions’ is the best thing I’d never heard before, while Headless Chickens’ angsty tumult ‘George’ is the worst.
For all its hummable tendencies, the first disc encompasses bagpipe-fuelled psych (Able Tasmans), wispy synths and soggy drone (Fetus Productions) and 1950s innocence twisted with romance and sexuality (Chris Knox). Where bands like The Clean and The 3Ds influenced Pavement, Garageland’s 1995 track ‘Pop Cigar’ seems to come out the other side with a Pavement influence. Also on the newer side of the spectrum is the guitar-pop clarity of The Phoenix Foundation’s ‘40 Years’ and the exhilarating clutter of Grayson Gilmour’s ‘I Am A Light!’.
“I really don’t know how to behave/But I guess I'll try” – Tall Dwarfs, ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’
The second disc, meanwhile, moves ably from droning jangle (Pin Group, The Gordons, The Stones) to incessant grooves (Tall Dwarfs, Snapper) to frayed and fuzzy indie rock (The 3Ds, Bailter Space) without stumbling with Children’s Hour’s dour ‘Looking for the Sun’. There’s room alike for Dead C’s uncharacteristically brief ‘I Was Here’, Skeptics’ eroded pop nightmare ‘And We Bake’ and Shocking Pinks’ melody-clouded lo-fi reverie ‘This Aching Deal’.
“The beauty of Flying Nun is that there’s melody in even the harshest noise.”
Still, better defining the second disc is a run of songs either instrumental or so intent on driving mechanics that they feel instrumental. That includes Solid Gold Hell’s spiky post-punk, Dimmer’s burnt noise-rock atmosphere, Loves Ugly Children’s wading lushness, High Dependency Unit’s tidal churns and crests, Ghost Club’s Burma-heavy blast of psych and The Subliminals’ taut intensity.
Playing bookend to that famous title song might seem a thankless duty, but the post-Mint Chicks outfit F in Math ploughs through ‘Don’t Look Down’ with the synth-mad contagion of Devo. It has more than enough of the tinny, anthemic verve of ‘Tally Ho!’ to bring these 40 songs – and 30 years – full circle.