Phantom Blog

November 2022

Viewing posts from November , 2022

Fear and loathing in Orange County

Photographer : Grant Maiden

“I don’t fear death, but I do fear cremation.”

– Geoff Cochrane

I’m in Orange County California, the home of overpriced theme parks, good surf, beautiful people and endless summer. Since I’m on ‘active service’ I booked a hotel in the Arts District in Costa Mesa, thinking it would be full of interesting creative types. 

The Arts District, it turns out, was designed by someone who specialises in business parks and carparking buildings. At least there was some interesting architecture and an impressive concert hall paid for by a property developer who converted his lima bean farm into a high end shopping centre.

I know, sounds like something that might happen in Auckland. I wouldn’t be surprised if the property developer also went on to become mayor. 

As is customary, I only listen to Bruce Springsteen when stateside. Writing about his feelings and fears is something the Boss has made a career out of, and I rediscover the depth in his music when it’s contextually relevant, hurtling down the freeway at 65 miles an hour. I had prepared by downloading the Springsteen catalogue over the airplane wifi on the flight over. Some may frown on downloading music via airplane wifi but if free wifi ain’t for freedom, then what’s the fucking point? 

My self-prescribed cure for jetlag is to rise early and stick up some posters wherever I land. I’m not sure if it actually works but it does make me feel useful. And isn’t that all any of us ever want? 

Poem posters in hand, my first stop was Balboa Island in Newport Beach. Outside of Manhattan, Balboa Island is one of the most densely populated places in America, and as you’d expect, it’s outrageously expensive. The island lacks any counter culture – heck, even the park benches have throw pillows, and every house was decorated with Christmas lights in glowing uniformity so as not to spoil the aesthetic. 

Just as I found the perfect pole to affix a poster I was caught in the act and shooed away by the island security. The poem was by the late kiwi poet Geoff Cochrane and was titled GROUND ZERO. This is a poem that left my head racing the first time I read it. Geoff makes so much room for words that you’re always left wanting more. His battles were laid bare in his work. He has nothing to fear.

Technically speaking, sticking posters to lamp posts breaches most city ordinances that have been carefully crafted by their property developer elected members to ensure maximum control of revenue to benefit their developments. Rarely when I’m out on a poster run does anyone care to cite these ordinances to me, and if they care enough or have a chip on their shoulder, like my Balboa mate, I just leave. 

Most of the time, people just ignore the person putting up posters. They have their own shit to deal with, and it’s easier to look the other way than do something about it. Especially in USA, where survival is an extreme sport, most people would rather avert their eyes than create a fuss. 

One of the first lessons I learnt from Phantom founder Jim Wilson when sticking up posters for a living was that you needed to get yourself into the headspace where you are frightened – but only enough that you don’t care about the consequences. In the early days of billsticking, when almost everything we did required tenacity and fear, if you weren’t pushing the boundaries then the location you’re sticking that poster on wasn’t good enough. If so, not enough people will see it. If not enough people see it, then the show you’re working for won’t sell enough tickets, and the whole exercise has been fruitless, and you’ve let down the artist you set out to help. 

These days, of course, we’re very well behaved, and in Aotearoa we only put up posters in our leased and authorised poster frames that have been established with the sole purpose of attracting eyeballs. The modern Phantom Billsticker has been raised in captivity and knows little about the challenge of putting up posters without those resources, while still making sure you’re doing right by your customer. Because of this we have to look for other signs that billstickers have the requisite tenacity and ability to do things that scare them. 

Ultimately, as we say at Phantom Billstickers, our job is to help put bums in seats. Of if you’re selling oat milk, coffee beans or organic dog food, our job is to get bums in the door, or get thumbs clicking on websites, to buy your shit. 

Huntington Beach was the next stop on my poster run, and it was far more laidback and easy-going than Balboa. I worked my way along several blocks of the Pacific Coast Highway on both sides of the road with more Geoff Cochrane poem posters. 

The Pacific Coast Highway – or California State Route 1, if we’re to use the formal name – is the Golden State equivalent of SH1 in New Zealand. It’s the longest highway in California and the second longest in the USA. It seems like the most American thing in the world is to find a beautiful stretch of beach and pave right up to the edge. That way, you can admire the view while you’re cruising with the top down. There’s no fear on the open road and there is fresh sea air to blow through your hair. 

As an advocate for lifelong learning, I believe that to be better than yesterday you need to confront your fears and do things that frighten you. Don’t trust those schmucks who say they’re just lucky and things tend to work out for them. What they’re telling you is that they’re capable of so much more and they don’t care enough to try. Either that or they’re lying, and they spend their spare time secretly working on self-improvement.

Back to the Boss, Writing about fear is something Bruce Springsteen has made his life’s work. He creates characters out of insecurity, aging, death, disappointment and loneliness. Once the fear has a voice it’s no longer in control. That won’t stop new fears from surfacing, of course, because life is a constant battle against oneself – but it generates life-enhancing art. Geoff Cochrane spent his life covering similar territory in Aotearoa. His words acknowledged darkness, and in doing so they open a crack for the light to come in.

The poster run did seem to cure my jetlag and I was privileged to have Bruce in my head and Geoff’s words on paper to keep me company. 

“Now you’re scared and you’re thinking maybe we ain’t that young anymore”.

– Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road

Rest in peace, Geoff.

– Rob

Matt, Do You Still Feel the Surge When You Put the Music On?

Matt Goody is a 42-year-old Canadian record collector and music obsessive with a masters degree in history – those elements are fundamental to his scrupulously detailed and definitive book on the early history of Flying Nun records, Needles & Plastic 1981-1988. He spoke to Richard Langston, former editor of the Dunedin fanzine, Garage 1984-86.

First off Matt congratulations, you’ve managed to do what no New Zealander has been able to do…write the comprehensive book on the early years of Flying Nun…

Thank you.

When The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle came out in 1981, how old were you?

I was one (laughs).

So, you’ve got a bit of explaining to do about how you came to write this book…

I had just moved to Vancouver when I was 19 or 20 and I was into college rock and Yo La Tengo came to town and the opening band was The Clean. I didn’t know who they were, and I read up on them and I thought this is interesting. The Merge compilation (Anthology) came out around that time, and I became a Clean fan really quickly after that. One of the interesting things of being an outsider is people here might not realise that The Clean are a pretty big deal in the underground rock scene in Canada and the USA. The two bands that I knew were The Clean and the Dead C. I worked in an alternative record store, and I put on a 7 inch of the Dead C and thought, well this is wild. I didn’t know anything about the label before that but I was a record collector and I was obsessed with DIY and post-punk bands from the UK and I moved to the UK in the mid-2000s.

Someone had traded in a Flying Nun collection at a record store in London that I went to, and Boodle was there and behind it was This Kind of Punishment’s first record. I didn’t know what this was at all, but this cover is cool and there was The Verlaines and the Dunedin Double and the Exploding Budgies. I put on the This Kind of Punishment record and my wife is in the next room saying, what is this? I said, I don’t know but I wanted to know more right away. It was just stunning, and I went down the rabbit hole after that.

Was it the sound that attracted you, did you recognise some sort of aesthetic like drone…what was it?….because it’s one thing to hear a band and like them but quite another  to decide later to commit years of your life to them…

Like the people who were making the music, I love the Velvet Underground, The 13th Floor Elevators, Pere Ubu, Red Crayola. ..I could hear all that in the music.

There were a lot of great independent labels around at the time Fast Forward, Postcard, Factory…was it simply that someone hadn’t written the book on Flying Nun?

Quite frankly there wasn’t a book about Postcard either. There are interesting parallels in the sound between those labels and they were influenced by the same bands. When I first started researching, Matthew Bannister’s book (Positively George Street) was the only thing that was out there. I tracked down Stranded in Paradise which had been done years previous. These guys in Germany had also done this weird kind of reference book Kiwi Rock (published 1996) which Chris Knox had done the cover for. Roger Shepherd and Shayne Carter hadn’t written their memoirs yet or Graeme Jefferies. I read Matthew’s book but it’s a very personal story and a very Dunedin story. I was discovering that the catalogue was a lot more diverse than the history that was being told of Flying Nun which focussed on the Dunedin Sound. Some of the bands I loved the most were TKP and Scorched Earth Policy, Victor Dimisich Band and the Auckland bands like Goblin Mix, Marie And The Atom, and the Budgies. There was a much broader and more diverse sound to the label than you saw at first glance.

How did you arrive at your idea of how to tell the story…

You are partly to blame. The 30th anniversary of Flying Nun in 2011 Bruce Russell did the Time to Go compilation which is just knockout amazing, and Bruce digitised your fanzine and put it online. I’d seen little bits of it posted before but to have the entire six issues of Garage, to have all these interviews and reviews of the bands there was just this wealth of stuff that could form the first tranche of research.

At the time oral history was the style of rock history, you go around interviewing everybody, and you take snippets and put it together in a book.  I just knew I couldn’t do that; I was such an outsider; I didn’t know anybody. I knew I wanted to start with the records, and I knew I wanted it to be comprehensive. I was as curious about The Clean as I was about …who is Peter Arnold?, what was The Jessels? By focusing on the records year by year you could create a book that people could dip in and out of, if they were just fans of Sneaky Feelings they could go in and read about those records. The records would form the skeleton and once I found out how much press there was from the time that would flesh out the records.

One of the strengths of the book is you’ve teased out all the stories…behind records by  the likes of The Jumblies, Marie And The Atom, Vibraslaps…which many people here probably don’t know about…

I spent years trying to track down Peter Arnold (The Jumblies), I was determined to find him. He’s become very successful working for Apple in Silicon Valley. I tracked him down. I wanted to hear about Paul Luker and Phantom Forth and his tape label.

You had no prejudices …if it had been someone here who had been involved and who had a faulty memory as we all do and maybe some axes to grind…you’re just open to it all…it’s so fresh…

Drawing on the archives is what maybe makes it fresh. I was working in publishing and would go to book fairs in London, and I discovered that in the British Library they had the complete microfilm of The Press newspaper from Christchurch and the NZ Herald. Right away it blew my mind that every Thursday in The Press there was at least one write up on a Flying Nun band, a picture, or a review of whatever had come out that week. The Axemen would be putting out a cassette with maybe 20 or 30 copies and there’d be a write up in the paper about it. In Vancouver at that time there would be nothing about underground bands DOA… Subhumans in the newspapers, and these were big bands. Who is writing it is also important, David Swift who is in Mainly Spaniards is writing the articles. It wasn’t just Christchurch, the Otago Daily Times it’s the same thing, Colin Hogg in The Auckland Star and Rob White in The Christchurch Star, then of course later Rip It Up and Russell Brown in particular.

Commercial radio ignored the bands….so the printed word was very important in spreading the word about Flying Nun…

As you said radio was a dead end, at the beginning with ‘Tally Ho’ being so successful but being recorded in such a DIY lo-fi way this kind of reputation stuck with the industry, even when bands started to record quite professionally at the commercial stations, they were still saying the quality is not up to standard for us to play.

Your book’s also being published by Jack White’s record and book label Third Man in the USA and the UK, what sort of audience is there for that?

I worked in publishing dealing with foreign rights and when I was pitching the book to Sam Elworthy at Auckland University Press, I was as much focussed on the audience outside of New Zealand, I wanted this to be the first book about the label for a US and UK audience. Unfortunately, the books done here never really make it over.  I wanted to find a partner that could get the book into record stores because that’s where the readers are. The interesting thing about Jack White’s company is all his old cronies have been in bands and when a Flying Nun nut at the company heard about the book, he said yeah we have to do this. Jack is a big fan of The Clean.

One of the things I wanted to find out was how did Flying Nun get to me, how did Flying Nun get overseas, how did it get a deal with Normal Records in Germany, how did it take off in the UK and get the deal with Creation Records and Alan McGee with The Chills? Why are bands like Pavement and Cat Power and Neutral Milk Hotel and Yo La Tengo…all these bands I loved growing up…I think Pavement is the most obvious one showing a direct debt to The Verlaines and The Chills and The Clean in particular…how did that happen? The most diehard fans are in Germany. One fan has everything on Flying Nun. It made me realise the scope of it. If you are into collecting records, you have to go to the Utrecht record fair. I went there every year when I was living in the UK, and if you go to Berlin every shop had Flying Nun records, oh my god they were everywhere. I’d never been able to find the second Rip record Stormed Port, I found one in Berlin, and I found my copy of Fall In A Hole there. This piqued my interest, why are there so many Flying Nun records in Germany?

How long did it take to complete the book?

Eight to 10 years but I’m a great procrastinator, and because I’m an outsider I was deeply paranoid about getting things wrong. There are these fact-checkers hiding in the internet waiting to pounce so I kind of overdid it on the research. Flying Nun’s history is a bit murky and spending that time putting that puzzle together – when did that record actually come out? – because I wanted to put the records in sequential order.

I also wanted to shine a light on people like you and these characters in the background helping. I wanted to work out when did Flying Nun first get recognised overseas; the two people that stuck out for me were you when you moved to the UK (in 1982) and started making those first connections with Rough Trade and getting The Clean on the compilation Beyond the Southern Cross. And particularly the role John Peel played in 1984 playing Fall in the Hole every week on his show for a month and suddenly The Great Unwashed, The Chills, Children’s Hour are appearing on his show. It’s broadcast in Germany on British Forces Radio and the guys who are running Normal Records hear that and then you have them putting out Fetus Productions and The Chills. David Swift picked up the baton in London after you left; he was instrumental in getting those early reviews in the NME. Then Flying Nun UK started up as the records were taking so long to get there.

Another strength of the book is the great photos and posters…

There’s always a musician in the band who keeps stuff. Graeme (Jefferies) has a wealth of stuff for TKP…. Robert Scott brought out these photo albums, he had a photograph of 25 Cents, a photograph of The Pin Group, nobody photographed The Pin Group! People like Alec Bathgate whose photo we used for the cover of the book, and all these people in the background, Lesley Maclean, a Canadian as well, did great posters, Stuart Page from the Axemen, Ronnie van Hout obviously, just drawing attention to all these people who were shaping the visual side of Flying Nun. A lot of people love David Mitchell too and I found James Murray in Exploding Budgies and again he kept everything. He photocopied every single Exploding Budgies poster. David lost all his folders when he was walking the streets, there’s a post in Rip It Up…Lost: David Mitchell’s portfolio has anybody seen it?

Spending all this time with the history, writing it, obsessing over it…do you still retain that love…do you still feel the surge when you put the music on?

Yeah, I was kinda burned out by the end. I’ve been doing all these interviews and I was asked to pick out tracks, so listening to Scorched Earth Policy, that first Terminals EP just knocked me out again, it never gets old.

It was an extraordinary burst of creativity, and it still stands up for you?

Another thing with the book was making it into this huge tome, a lot of people here think of Flying Nun as  just a New Zealand thing, one of the things I wanted to do was pull Flying Nun out and put it next to SST, Rough Trade, 4AD…this is just as important, and as significant, and I want people to  hear the records and recognise that.