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Funny, sexy and ours

by John Campbell

When I was seventeen, just about every boy I knew who did not dream of being an All Black dreamt of being in a band.

I dreamt of both. And whilst the All Black dream was comically outlandish, at least the All Blacks were ours. The band dream was entirely fanciful because twenty-five years ago the sort of music I listened to, the sort of musician I dreamt of being, was as particular to England as Margaret Thatcher, Butlins and mushy peas.

In 1981, I cut up the NME and plastered my walls with their cheap, print-stained photos of Ian Curtis, Robert Smith, Paul Weller, Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope: beautifully wan, wax boys with big, dandy hair. My father was so worried about their influence over me he banned the NME from our house. (I may be the only adolescent male in history who hid music magazines in a stash under his bed.)

And when I first started going to concerts, the Wellington bands I saw sang with English accents. Beat Rhythm Fashion sounded like they’d recently been expelled from Eton, but everyone had an English muse: from the Wallsockets to Shoes this High, everyone sang like Siouxsie, or Johnny, or a pantomime Oliver Twist. (Sometimes all of the above.)

Then came The Clean. And while they displayed wild kleptomania, they stole as bands ought to steal, widely and irreverently, smash and grab, not out of duty or hat tipping deference but with cockiness, exuberance and delight.

Christ The Clean were a brilliant band: funny, sexy and ours. The latter point seems to me to be an under-rated aspect of their early appeal. Why do New Zealanders congregate together in crowded flats in London? Because we like our take on the world, because we get it.

And then they began showing off. All those boys with such ordinary first names (David, Hamish, Robert, Chris, Martin, Peter, Shayne, Andrew, Graeme, Matthew, David) began to pop and bubble, to co-operate and compete, and Christchurch and Dunedin become a big Southern smithy, and not only did they make New Zealand music it seemed the most natural thing in the world for them to do so. And also for New Zealanders like me to listen to it.

Twenty-five years on it occurs to me that at heart of the local affection for Flying Nun is something as simple and corny as parochialism. And what’s wrong with that? We wouldn’t have felt so stupidly proud of them if their music hadn’t been any good. And besides, it’s much less embarrassing than Tony Blair hosting Noel Gallagher at Downing Street. However romantically fans mythologize Flying Nun I doubt that affection will ever stoop as low as “Cool Britannia”.

It’s no coincidence, I guess, that I see this coming of age in our music as taking place at I time when I was coming of age myself: our first loves always hold onto us. But it’s possible to overplay this too.

What made me buy Flying Nun record after Flying Nun record, what made me adore that music, was not just that it was modern music distilled by us, but that it was bloody, bloody catchy. Ask that fine American Stephen Malkmus why he loves The Clean and he’ll give you a similar answer: they knew the rare and gorgeous alchemy of the perfect, unforced pop song.

Listen back to the music on the box set. Listen to 'Joe 90', 'Pink Frost', 'Randolph’s Going Home' or 'Rebel', and you can’t help but sing along. (Indeed, what’s striking about the older songs on the box set is how well they’ve aged and how fresh they still sound.) And when you do sing along, you and the rough diamond behind the microphone will both have New Zealand accents. And although this seems unsurprising now, at the time it was a miracle.

What do we want from culture? In part, it’s to see your own life reflected back at us. With Flying Nun that was as simple as boys and girls who shopped at the same op-shops as you, who looked like the boys and girls you knew, who drove the same cars on the same roads, who made music in New Zealand and out of their experience of being New Zealanders.

But for all that to matter, the music itself had to have merit. I was proud not just because they were our songs those wonderful bands were singing, but because it had never occurred to me that our songs could sound so good.

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