The fact that The Bats have been together in an unchanged line-up for thirty-eight years is remarkable. Guitarist, singer and primary songwriter Robert Scott claims it’s the longest unchanged band line-up in New Zealand history, and I’m yet to find any evidence that calls his impressive claim into dispute.
Emerging from the ashes from after The Clean played their last performances supporting The Fall in August 1982, Robert Scott found himself living in Christchurch with time on his hands, which he spent mastering the guitar and fine tuning his songwriting craft. Paul Kean, laying low after the dissolution of Toy Love in late 1980, had been living in Christchurch too, earning money being a sound man at the Gladstone Hotel and playing bass in Playthings with Jay Clarkson. He has also been a key player in the development of Flying Nun Records, with the b-side of The Clean’s debut single, Tally Ho!, a song called Platypus, which he recorded live on a Ferrograph tape recorder whilst he was doing sound for one of the band’s gigs at the Gladstone Hotel in July 1981.
In this early stage the band had yet to find a proper name and they initially rehearsed under the unlikely names of Thanks To Llamas. Surviving film footage shot for television show Radio with Pictures in late 1982 captures Thanks To Llamas in a practice session, performing an embryonic version of Get Fat; a song that would be released six years later on the Four Songs 12” E.P. Jane Walker, Paul Kean’s partner at the time and also an ex-Toy Love member, plays drums. She was eventually replaced by Malcolm Grant, already a respected local drummer having played with Bill Direen in The Builders. He is on the classic full length 1983 Flying Nun release, Beatin Hearts.
Kaye Woodward, who had been playing guitar in Lyndon And The Liars with Ross Humphries, Lyndon Fraser and Malcom Grant, found herself flatting with Robert and learnt up some of his songs. By this stage the band were now called The Percy Taiwan Band (named after a brand of guitar) and now comprised of Robert, Paul and Kaye. It wasn’t until a location change to Longfellow Street in Sydenham and the final addition of Malcolm that The Bats were properly formed.
Initial Bats shows were predominantly at parties. A surviving cassette tape of the band’s second ever gig at a 21st birthday party in West Melton captures a fresh and punky sounding band playing a set comprised predominantly of cover versions – I’m A Believer by The Monkees, Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Twist and Shout by The Beatles - along with a few originals. Their gigs eventually outgrew the parties and over the next few years they developed a solid live fanbase across the country.
Their debut release, the 12” E.P. By Night was released in 1984 and is a charming but rough and ready affair; so much so that Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd was unsure about even releasing it. Thankfully he did and it almost immediately picked up attention overseas, with Sydney’s JJJ radio station playlisting some of the songs. The follow-up E.P., And Here Is ‘Music for The Fireside’ was released the following year and soon after, The Bats became the second Flying Nun act to tour overseas after The Chills; heading to Europe in 1986 to record the Made Up In Blue 12”. However some of their European tour had to be diverted due to the Chernobyl disaster.
In 1987 they released their outstanding debut album Daddy’s Highway, which contains what is possibly their most well-known song, North by North, which according to Scott emerged from a practice room jam, and the single Block of Wood, which Scott claimed he originally wrote on a piano in 1980. Some other interesting facets to this album are that it is possibly the only album to be recorded in both Christchurch and Glasgow, Scotland, and it was one the last Flying Nun albums to be pressed in New Zealand before the Lower Hutt-based vinyl pressing plants closed down.
Financial factors meant that their follow-up L.P., 1990's The Law of Things, was delayed for two years between being recorded and pressed. Recorded at Writhe Studios in Wellington with Brent McLachlan (The Gordons, Bailter Space), it continues the tradition of well-written pop songs, including Mastery and the single Smoking Her Wings, of which the latter features exquisite violin from Alister Galbraith. An international tour to promote the album was planned, but it wasn’t released until after the tour was over.
In the early 1990’s, The Bats, as well as several other Flying Nun bands, were feeling the pressures of the music industry; it led them to become temporarily disillusioned and lose their career trajectory. The recording of 1991 album Fear Of God, with American producer Nick Sansano, proved to be problematic. Despite having some bona fide Bats classics, such as Boogey Man and The Back and The Blue, the band were ultimately unhappy with the finished product:
“We were one of the top tier of Flying Nun, and suddenly they were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than tens of thousands on recording. It was out of our control,” explained Robert Scott. “There was the record company deciding we needed to use American producers for our albums, and that was a retrograde step; we were doing pretty well ourselves. [The producers] took a degree of sparkle out of our records.” Other pressures presented themselves too. "We had a photo session in Australia that had a makeup artist with a caravan, and they took Kaye away for an hour. When she arrived on the set it didn't look like Kaye at all. It was the big makeover and this was totally contrary to what we related to. Then suddenly we were getting bills which said we owed so much and wouldn't get any royalties until they were paid. We rode along for a while thinking maybe it would work, but it didn't."
In 1993 there was an infamous tour of the United States called The Noisyland Tour, featuring The Bats, Jean-Paul Sartre Experience and Straitjacket Fits. Straitjacket Fits were signed to major US label Arista Records and were suffering the fall out of recently departed guitarist and songwriter Andrew Brough. Robert Scott explains: “In the first few dates it was JPSE first, The Bats on at the middle and Straitjackets at the end. But when we finished playing the audience pretty much left. They switched it around and allowed us to play last, and in that situation, people weren't coming in until we started playing."
Their 1995 album Couchmaster featured the classic single Afternoon In Bed, which in turn was included on the Flying Nun compilation Pop Eyed. This compilation introduced a whole new generation to The Bats and was a return to form of sorts.
The Bats are very much a family affair, and their offspring continue to be involved with music. Brydie, Robert’s daughter, plays in popular UK-based band Superorganism with her partner Chris Young, and Paul and Kaye's daughters Annabel and Rose are both involved in respective musical endeavours and the wider music community too. The band took a lengthy break between 1995 and 2005, with Paul and Kaye concentrating on raising their two children and Robert preoccupied with other projects, such as The Magick Heads, who released two albums on Flying Nun in 1995 and 1997 respectively. The band also released a best of in 2000 called Thousands of Tiny Luminous Spheres which is an excellent place to start if you are unfamiliar with their material. This compilation was my personal introduction to the band, which I got as a free gift when I was given a subscription to Rip It Up magazine as a Christmas present when I was 16 years old.
It was somewhat of a surprise when they returned in 2005 with At the National Grid, recorded by Sneaky Feelings bass player John Kelcher. From a personal perspective, this album occupies a special place in my heart as my then band The Pickups were personally asked by Paul to be the support act for the opening night of the New Zealand tour, which was at The Jetset Lounge in Christchurch. He had seen us perform at the semi-finals of the RDU band competition, Roundup, and was impressed enough to ask us to play. The band were in our early 20’s and even though we never made it any further than the semifinals in the band competition, being asked to support The Bats was probably more important to us than if we had’ve gone through to the finals.
That album proved that they hadn’t lost anything in the ten-year gap between releases and it contains at least one Bats classic, Up to the Sky. Seemingly energised by this release, the band have continued to regularly release albums since then: The Guilty Office (2008), Free All the Monsters (2011), The Deep Set (2017) and their most recent release, Foothills (2020).
Some detractors accuse The Bats of continuing to sound the same, but they are missing the point. The Bats have a unique style and sound that has been hugely influential worldwide over many decades. In the case of this wonderful band, the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” suits them perfectly.