Out of place, out of time, strangely named and oddly priced. That would be Chris Knox’s very first record release in his own name, Songs for Cleaning Guppies.
Toy Love were officially over as a band early in 1981 less than six months after returning to New Zealand from their shot at the big time in Australia. Toy Love's singer Chris Knox and his partner Barbara had decided to resettle in Auckland. A family was on its way. A small inheritance from an aunt gave Chris the means to buy a much-coveted Teac 4-track.
Fellow ex-Toy Lover Alec Bathgate was still in Auckland before heading south to live in Christchurch and the two got together with the 4-track to record ‘Nothing’s Going to Happen’, ‘Luck or Loveliness’ and ‘All My Hollowness to You’, the songs that became the Three Songs 12” single. The record that was released by Propeller Records sister label Furtive Records in August 1981, less than a month before The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho!’ was released on Flying Nun. While Three Songs was a statement of intent it was also a hesitant one. The songs were strong and the recording was unique and defiantly unconventional but a touch scratchy and unfulfilling. A shadow of what it could have been but still an indication of what was still possible.
The reviews were gushingly good and all the Toy Love fans rushed out to buy it. All but the lovers of boundary pushing music and the ardent followers of Chris would stick around for what was next and fortunately that was a good enough number to keep to keep the wheels of the home styled recording enterprise turning.
If Chris was going to reject the corporate music business by recording himself at home, he needed to produce something that sounded better than Three Songs. He would only achieve that if he could get more out of his 4-track by learning how to use it properly. These machines were superficially simple but to get the best out of them a good deal of thought and considerable planning was required.
After all, it was the anti-music business "Do It Yourself" (DIY) ethic that Chris was looking to embrace and not a willfully rough and ready Lo-fi one. DIY is about using the limited resources at your disposal and getting the best possible results by being imaginative and inventive. The saying “necessity being the mother of invention” could apply to much of the music released on Flying Nun all through the early 1980s and account for a great deal of its charm as well.
Chris was creative and smart so good at understanding if not following instructions. He realised that to get an improved result out of this 4-track home recording setup he would have to invest some trial and error time and effort in getting to know how it best worked.
Chris did not like waste. Throughout his career outtakes and unused material would surface on B-sides, promotional flexi discs, limited edition cassettes and the like. Chris initially considered the material recorded in this early period of experimental study and doddle on the 4-track as not suitable for release but a year or so later he felt these experiments and exercises could be compiled into a collection.
Despite the unconventional nature of Songs for Cleaning Guppies, there is much of interest to hear as Chris finds out what his 4-track can do when he records his vocals: quiet and loud, a little scat here and there, adds another layer or so to create harmonies and then moves them all around the room. There are also scrapes, handclaps and slaps, and cardboard percussion. Instrument use depends on what is to hand; acoustic and electric guitar, a little bass, and some Casio tones. Recorded sounds are panned, sped up and slowed down, reversed, chopped and looped. Fiddly bits and bobs painstakingly made and collated as I believe the album title Songs for Cleaning Guppies alludes to.
Fascinating as it is, Guppies is not at all a satisfying album of songs as we conventionally understand it. It is more a collection of mostly sharp-edged bits and pieces with a few songs unpicked from the present (past?) or taking shape for the future. There are 20 tracks on the album and most of them are song fragments containing recording experimentation held together by some simple structures but there are longer running exceptions that are actual songs. ‘Photographs’ is a Toy Love song (recorded on their self titled album as ‘Photographs of Naked Ladies’) and is a deconstruction here so that it could be described as a “reverse demo”. ‘Oh!! Happiness’ is an example of what Chris could produce throughout his career; a beautifully gentle heartfelt melodic pop song. A song that undoubtedly serves as a precursor for ‘Song of the Silents’ which appeared the previous year on Tall Dwarfs Louis Likes His Daily Dip EP. Effectively it was “demoed”, then developed and “properly” recorded and released on Louis before the original “demo” was compiled and released on Guppies.
Songs for Cleaning Guppies is also called the Ego Gratification Album in bold on the album back cover and record label. On one hand, Chris has modestly and painstakingly made and compiled these sound fragments from his 4-track experiments, and on the other, he knows it’s interesting enough to warrant being shared with a wider audience. But he isn’t sure and he knows he isn’t sure. The album effectively has two titles with their own implied meanings. Notes on the cover downplay the worth of the record, the price printed on the overly simplistic front cover is below the usual album price at the time and the release itself was low key with no promotion or publicity. The catalogue number is ‘ME 1’.