Southern man, music fan, poet and journalist Richard Langston takes us on a roadtrip through Dunedin and its music.
‘North by North’ by The Bats
Robert Scott - frontman of The Bats, grew up in Mosgiel. When he was 17, he moved to Dunedin to go to art school and met David Kilgour. They went on to form one of Dunedin's most beloved bands - The Clean.
The Bats were formed around the time the first lineup of The Clean broke up - in the early 1980s. Robert is an interesting character. A prolific songwriter working in many genres, styles, and bands. He's written thousands of songs. He's done covers of traditional folk songs and written for The Bats and The Clean and played in dozens of different bands as well as making solo albums. He also draws and paints most of his cover art. I don’t know how he has time to sleep.
'North By North' is upbeat and a great driving song. We're now headed in a northerly direction toward Dunedin.
‘What You Should Be Now’ by The Great Unwashed
I picked this one because it has the word ‘Dunedin’ in the opening line and I can’t think of another Flying Nun song that does: “Saw you back in Dunedin/things seems strange there".
The song is off an album recorded by the Kilgour brothers at their mum’s home in Christchurch in 1983. The first lineup of The Clean had broken up and this album is laid-back, an antidote to being perceived as a ‘pop band’ after their unlikely flowering into the charts in 1981/2.
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon album and takes you into the ‘vibe’ of Dunedin and the Kilgours’ approach to creating – open and inventive. Thematically this is a classic Clean/Great Unwashed song – it’s about non-conforming/resisting ennui, ‘the system’, the predictable life.
We play this as we drive over Lookout Point and enter the city from the south – and there it is laid out below us in hills and harbour.
‘Pull Down The Shades’ by The Enemy
This song is on the CD I Write the Songs Okay, a selection made by the late Roy Colbert. More about him later.
We've stopped outside the Beneficiaries Hall on the corner of Hanover and Filleul Street in central Dunedin. We've had a coffee and a cheese roll and we're ready for punk rock.
The hall is where The Enemy played their first gig in November 1977. This is where the ‘Dunedin Sound’ begins. The Enemy inspired the Kilgours and many other others who would form bands.
This is my favourite NZ punk song. Someone should put it out for Record Store Day as a 7 inch. Chris Knox is a terrific singer and he was as fearsome as hell when he performed. I never saw The Enemy but I did see Toy Love a heap of times.
Unlike most of the Dunedin school, Knox has a great sense of theatre. He is a ‘performer’. A natural born show-off.
‘Anything Could Happen’ by The Clean
We're now outside The Empire in Princess St, a 5-minute drive south from the Beneficiaries Hall. The Empire was so pivotal, allowing the young ambitious songwriters of the Dunedin school to play original material, when many hotels would not. The order of the day in the hotels was to play covers.
The Clean were the first of the Dunedin bands to play this pub, run by John and Maureen Simpson, and this song is one of their best. It's off the EP that made The Clean – Boodle Boodle Boodle
In the video David Kilgour looks like a young Bob Dylan.
The lyrics were written by Hamish Kilgour. As a young man, a relative had told him he needed to get a steady career when all Hamish wanted to do was rock’n’roll, the creative life.
I met Hamish when I was a reporter at the Evening Star in 1978/79 – Hamish tried his hand at reporting but he was far too much of a romantic and creative for daily journalism. Roy Colbert was also my boss at the newspaper – we’re about to meet him next.
We're now standing in the Octagon. There's the statue of Robbie Burns, the Town Hall, the pigeons roosting and crapping on poor old Robbie’s head. We're strolling up to the site of Roy Colbert’s famous record shop, Records Records, in Stuart St. That solid, elegant Victorian architecture. Through the black cast iron gate.
We peer through the double windows to see where Roy used to stand, conducting phone calls, conversing about music with the young songwriters, where he hung on his noticeboard all the posters and notices of who was playing, who was looking for a bass player, who was selling what.
Chris Knox, Alec Bathgate, Martin Phillips, Shayne Carter, The Kilgour brothers, Graeme Downes (Verlaines), David Pine (Sneaky Feelings) … they all came here after work or school to get their records and hear about Roy’s recommendations.
He was the Flying Nun man in Dunedin and his shop was the hub. He was funny as hell.
I was 17 when I started work at the Evening Star and Roy said I was ‘barely out of short pants and as green as Sherwood Forest’. He had an incredible knowledge of music and he favoured the mistake over perfection in performance.
He liked it ‘punk’, he liked it rowdy and a little messed-up sounding.
'Planet Phrom’ by Peter Gutteridge (off his solo album ‘Pure’)
Roy died recently. So, too did the writer of this next song, Peter Gutteridge – who was a legend among the Dunedin crowd - he was in The Chills, The Clean, The Great Unwashed and Snapper.
Roy was a fan of Peter’s songs. Peter was a wild character. His songs ranged from feedback masterpieces to simple sweet pop songs, we’ll have one of those.
We’ll hop in the car now and travel up Stuart Street. Past the Victorian towers of Otago Boys where some of the songwriters went to school (certainly, Peter Gutteridge, the Kilgour brothers, and David Pine did) and travel up to Roslyn and stop and stand on the Stuart Street overbridge.
We have a great view of the city, harbour and the Otago Peninsula. This is the spot I imagined when I recently wrote this poem about the city.
It begins beside water
a ship staring at itself
a still life of hull and girder,
a fog, a stack of cloud,
birds blown across a seafarer’s mirror,
harbour & hump of hills,
salt hitting your lips
strewn through your hair,
a promonotory of rock, a spit,
a dark gothic rock lit
on the wrong side on the sun,
the scratched imperfection of an image,
a city that invites you to rise above,
the road below,
the night above,
and take in the view,
a city laid out in light,
a plate of water, hill, sky.
- Richard Langston
‘Night of Chill Blue’ by The Chills
In Roslyn/Maori Hill, we are in the neighbourhood of the hall where The Chills played some of their earliest gigs. The Coronation Hall. They also played their 30th Anniversary gig there.
It's time for Chills songs. One from their first album made in 1986, Brave Words. This was a powerhouse song in the mid-80s for the band, a show-stopper, bold and melodic with an air of something far greater than its parts.
It's one of Martin Phillips' landscape songs - or it feels like it is - looking out onto the Otago Peninsula while listening to it is the perfect place. That geography did inspire Martin.
There is a terrific version of this song on a recent live album called Somewhere Beautiful. But we will stick with the album version as it probably suits radio play more.
‘Evolution’ by Dimmer
If we turn around on the Stuart Street over-bridge we can see Brockville. That's where Shayne Carter grew up. He's in charge of proceedings at the awards tonight. Shayne was in his first band at high school, Bored Games.
He was Dunedin’s answer to Johnny Rotten. He had the sneer, the mouth, and the ‘front’. And at 15, he could write songs. He was in the Doublehappys and then the mighty Strait Jacket Fits. And then Dimmer.
People always say the Dunedin bands sound the same but as the years go by you see how different they all are. There are no jangling guitars in this next song, no bedroom recording, this is a song from an album that took Shayne a painstaking seven years, the first Dimmer album.
‘Joed Out’ by The Verlaines
We’re heading for the North End. The student quarter. Stopping to take in the University, the bell towers, those beautiful stone buildings, the Leith flowing by.
Grame Downes of The Verlaines lectures in music here now. In his younger days he was a songwriter living in a house virtually on campus. He might very well have written this next song lounging on a busted couch in his house by the river. Graeme’s songs are quite intense.
He was a big fan of The Clean early on. And his songs had drive. This song is something else, complex, and open-hearted. It’s a love song to a woman called Joe.
‘As Does The Sun’ by Look Blue Go Purple
Now we’re going to have a look at The Oriental Tavern, just off campus. In the mid-80s this was something of a second home for many of the Dunedin bands.
It's a pretty ordinary looking pub but it hosted some great gigs, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, The Orange, The Rip, The Puddle, The Great Unwashed, The Doublehappys, Straitjacket Fits and Look Blue Go Purple. They were the most high-profile of woman musicians in Dunedin.
They had a really strong pop/melodic sense.
‘Waiting for Touchdown’ by Sneaky Feelings
We're probably ready for an afternoon coffee by now, just to keep the energy up for the tour. So let’s go to The Govenor’s Café.
Dave Pine, one of the lead writers and singers for Sneaky Feelings, used to work here while he was studying law at University. He wrote some really terrific songs for the group’s first album, Send You.
He was in that ideal state for a songwriter, his relationship had gone south, broken up (judging from these songs). This song is not one of the overtly acerbic ones.
I like this song for its lyricism and apparent languor.
We'll take a drive down northeast valley because a lot of songwriters have lived there, various members of The Clean, Look Blue Go Purple, The Puddle, and Snapper.
But ultimately we're heading to Port Chalmers, host to a creative little community of music makers. And no trip to Dunedin is complete without a visit to Port – especially if you’re a music fan – it thrived in the late 80s/90s when the Xpressway label started by Bruce Russell and Peter Jefferies that released the more experimental music that has come out of Dunedin.
The hub of the music created there in recent years has been Chick’s Hotel. It has hosted a lot of the bands on the Fishrider Records label which has released a heap of recent Dunedin bands – showing that the city’s tradition of music making is still alive and well.
‘Civilisation’ by Death and the Maiden
One of those bands is Death and The Maiden, who are doing something un-Dunedin, going light on the guitars and taking something of a cue from 80’s synth bands.
So, a change of pace while we take in the sea air at Port Chalmers – probably fish and chips for dinner – always a good bet in a port town …
‘Main Trunk Country Song’ by Sam Hunt, David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights
David Kilgour has been recording his new album with his band The Heavy Eights at Chick’s. And a couple of years ago he recorded another album at Chick’s with Sam Hunt. Sam does the poems while David and the band play. It works really well and this would be a great song to drive back into town to because it’s one of Sam’s road poems. They toured this album.
The album’s called the 9th and it’s really good. There is one song where Sam is not quite ready. He says something to the band like ‘can’t see you behind this pillar’. You think the band might stop but no, they just keep going. And Sam catches up and it works beautifully. A looser approach can work …
There’s one pub we should definitely visit – but it’s different now – The Captain Cook. It used to be the venue for bands. Toy Love seemed to be the pub’s house band at one point. And all the Flying Nun Dunedin bands played there at some point.
It's been a pub of musos and poets for as long as. Hone Tuwhare was known to have a drink there and the poet Peter Olds played pool there and wrote a poem about it.
But the old Cook is gone now – it’s had a makeover, and bands still play there. But the old Cook closed a few years back and it sort of stunned everyone who’d been there because it was such a Dunedin institution.
In fact, I think it was the place where a young David Kilgour first saw Sam Hunt. Their father used to run the pub. Anyway, when I heard it was closing I wrote a poem.
On the Closing of The Captain Cook Tavern
Goodbye to Tiger Taylor & his tattooed muscles
Guarding the door;
Goodbye to your sweet under-aged self
In flight down the fire escape;
Goodbye to Heavenly Bodies,
& Chris Knox’s toothy snarl;
Goodbye to those fresh faces & the boy
With the purple guitar,
Goodbye to the worldliness of those old faces on the bar
Who were not so old or worldly;
Goodbye to the guy in leather calling out at midnight
For an Iggy Pop song,
Goodbye to the mindless head-butts,
The cut arms & the smashed-glass faces.
Goodbye to the Tuesday Morning Pool Players
& the poet rolling one between shots.
Goodbye to those who never made the last round
Who saw the afternoon light brilliant in a jug,
Goodbye to the wild electricity of youth,
our beginning hearts,
& the siren emptying us onto the street at closing time.
- Richard Langston
‘The Outer Skin’ performed by Sean Donnelly aka SJD (a cover of a Chris Knox song on the Stroke compilation)
‘Green Grow the Rashes O’, Robert Scott from the album ‘Ae Fond Kiss’
We’re going to wander down to the Exchange now and have a pint at the Crown Hotel in Rattray Street. Always a colourful part of town, which has always hosted bands.
Recently it hosted a festival of bands who had recorded the songs of Robbie Burns. One of the songs was done by Robert Scott.
We started with him, so we’ll finish with him as he is one of the three members of The Clean being inducted into the Music Hall of Fame.
It would be a Dunedin moment to hear Bob do this live – nursing a lovely dark porter - the son of a Scottish immigrants doing a cover of one of their great poets. That rather closes the circle nicely.
- If you enjoyed this journey, you might like our five-part audio documentary on Flying Nun Records