15 Nov 2016

The disenchanted-DIY chic of the ‘Dunedin’ sound

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:30 pm on 15 November 2016

Bands in 1980s Dunedin took the anger of British punk and melded it with a Kiwi-DIY aesthetic to create the primitive, but powerful, ‘Dunedin’ sound – the sound of "making do".

The Dunedin Sound

The front cover of Ian Chapman’s book: The Dunedin Sound – Some Disenchanted Evening Photo: Supplied

In his book The Dunedin Sound - Some Disenchanted Evening, Ian Chapman, a senior lecturer in Contemporary Music at the University of Otago, writes about the pioneers and practitioners of that sound.   

He told Jesse Mulligan that without the esteemed New Zealand record label Flying Nun the Dunedin sound would not have the worldwide profile that it has.

Dr Ian Chapman

Dr Ian Chapman Photo: Supplied

But in his book he also looked at some of the bands that were not been signed to the label.

“You have others, for instance, like The Enemy, who kicked the whole thing off, who were never signed to Flying Nun."

He says The Enemy, who were eventually regrouped as Toy Love, were innovators, who took the anger of British punk rock and repackaged it in a very New Zealand DIY way.

The cover of Dr Chapman’s book has a photo of The Enemy’s singer, Chris Knox, and the band, performing at a community hall in Dunedin in 1978, which is emblematic of the emerging aesthetic.  

“Chris Knox is right there in the middle of the picture, snarling, holding the microphone, but he is dressed like he’s just come back from the [Salvation Army]. There is none of the punk iconography that you would associate with … the uniform of punk, the zips, the chains, the leather.

“And yet everything about his stance, and everything about the aggression of the image screams punk, screams protest.”

Dr Chapman says David Kilgour has been credited with coining the phrase ‘the Dunedin sound’, but the others, including Roger Shepherd from Flying Nun, have also claimed it.

And although many of the bands rejected the label as a convenient media term, nonetheless it  has stuck, and came to be known worldwide.

“[The Dunedin sound] is the sound of making do with very little", Dr Chapman said.

“Certainly, particularly the very early records [were] very very primitive. Chris Knox was going around with the famous four-track and recording these bands in a very primitive way.”

Bill Direen & Malcom Grant (The Bats)

Chris Knox and Bill Direen Photo: Supplied

Dr Chapman - whose academic specialty is studying how music is represented in art - said he had managed to secure some incredible images from musicians and fans to illustrate the book.

“I think I initially envisioned a book that was about 50 percent photos, 50 percent text, and I have probably ended up with a book that is maybe 70 percent photos, 30 percent text.

“But I think it is all the better for it.”  

The DIY aesthetic carried into the way images were used in the album-cover art and posters. In many cases it was done by band members themselves, or by their friends or family.  

There was a real tribal identification happening at the time, he said, with a close-knit campus community at Dunedin University who were against the dominant, conservative, rugby-based culture of the 1980s.

“There was this real tension, and that helped fuel the whole thing. And that came hot on the heels of our very turbulent 70s in New Zealand with the French testing in Moruroa, the nuclear ship visits, Maori land marches. There was so much division and tension.”

He said the international success of Dunedin artists from that time gave current bands confidence to take their music to the world.