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…
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.