1996 "Official History" of Flying Nun
The story so far ....
So it's been fifteen years now and about 430 records since Roger Shepherd decided it was time to start a record label in Chrstchurch, New Zealand. The road to the label's 15th birthday celebration this month has followed the usual way for a small record company - the business struggles through financial ups and downs and great records appear at regular intervals. In 1996, with Roger himself settled in London and running the label's extensive Northern Hemisphere activities while things back home continue on their merry way under the watchful eye of Lesley Paris, drummer turned label manager, the world of Flying Nun is more interesting than ever. Roger has managed to turn the company into an efficient business operating from two opposite corners of the globe, and Flying Nun still has a roster of musicians who must be the envy of all the record companies between London and Auckland.
Back in 1981, Roger, at the time a Christchurch record shop employee and music fan, was inspired to start a record label by the 'do it yourself' ethic which originally accompanied the worldwide punk rock explosion in 1977. With ideals shaped by successful English independent labels like Rough Trade and Factory, he determined to create an outlet for bands from the South Island.
Flying Nun's records first appeared in stores around New Zealand in the winter of 1981. The label's erratic distribution system (a loose network of friends around the major centres) meant that copies of the Pin Group's seven inch single 'Ambivalence'/'Columbia' were scarce. A second single followed two weeks later, but such was the demand for 'Tally Ho', by Dunedin's The Clean (Shepherd's favourite band) that the record steamrollered into the NZ Singles Charts despite Flying Nun's distinctly part-time, cottage industry approach to selling records. 'Tally Ho' reached number 19 in the New Zealand Singles Charts.
For the next few months, Flying Nun continued to concentrate on recording bands from Christchurch; the label's earliest releases include another single and EP from the Pin Group, a single from all-women band, 25 Cents, and records from Bill Direen's Builders. Meanwhile, The Clean had got together with Chris Knox and Doug Hood to record Boodle Boodle Boodle, a seven song twelve inch EP that followed 'Tally Ho' into the charts but managed to stay in the top 50 for a full six months! The EP eventually sold in excess of 10,000 copies.
The involvement of Knox and Hood was significant to Flying Nun's development. Both men had started out in Dunedin's punk scene of the late 1970s, with Knox fronting the city's legendary punk band, The Enemy, and Hood (who had, for a brief period, been lead vocalist in an early incarnation of The Clean!) working as The Enemy's live sound engineer. The Enemy moved to Auckland in 1978 and evolved into Toy Love, one of New Zealand's most successful and original bands of the immediate post-punk period.
Following Toy Love's demise, the two men brought to Flying Nun a four track recorder and expertise that would shape the rough-hewn but engagingly "home-made" sound of Flying Nun records like Boodle Boodle Boodle. Toy Love's unhappy experiences at the hands of the corporate Australasian rock industry shaped the two's strong commitment to the label's evolving, enigmatic way of doing things and the staunchly independent 'do-it-yourself' philosophy.
Knox's cartoonish graphic style emerged as the label's signature on album artwork and advertisements, and he began recording - solo and as a member of the Tall Dwarfs - on Flying Nun. Doug Hood continues to offer managerial guidance to many successful acts on the label.
The process of making a record for Flying Nun changed little over the first five or six years of the company's existence. Bands would record on primitive equipment (if they weren't recording onto a portable four-track recorder in someone's lounge - as many were - bands were mostly using cheap eight-track studios like Arnie van Bussel's Nightshift in Christchurch or Auckland's Progressive Studio) and deliver the tape, along with album and poster artwork they designed themselves, to the label, who would release batches of three or four records at a time every few months. Often a cheap video was also made - usually by friendly TVNZ employees, artschool film students or the ubiquitous Chris Knox.
By this time, Flying Nun had an office in Christchurch and even a couple of full-time staff, including The Clean's drummer, Hamish Kilgour, alongside Shepherd. The office handled the distribution of Flying Nun product and that of some other smaller independent labels to New Zealand music retailers, as well as to a growing list of international mail-order customers, ranging from hip individuals to stores like London's Rough Trade Shop.
Flying Nun records were marketed in the same friendly and haphazard manner as the label approached all other facets of business. Newsletters, typed or handwritten and intricately decorated by Hamish, appeared intermittently, and an ad was usually provided for the country's monthly rock music giveway, Rip It Up, by Auckland-based Knox.
The label's reputation was spreading though. Sales grew as New Zealand's six student radio stations adopted Flying Nun records as the core of their playlists. And these were still the days when young bands from Dunedin eagerly embarked on national tours to promote their new EP to fans up north, knowing that their van would probably get home okay and if the money ran out then perhaps Roger could send a royalty cheque...
It was Dunedin that quickly became most strongly associated with Flying Nun. The phrase "Dunedin Sound" was coined for the young bands who emerged in the wake of The Clean. In 1982, four of these bands - the Chills, Sneaky Feelings, the Stones and the Verlaines - each had a side of double 12" EP pack which was actually untitled but is almost universally known as the "Dunedin Double".
The Chills quickly developed into Flying Nun's most popular act with a string of three charting singles following over the next couple of years. The band's songs were all written by founding member, Martin Phillipps, and the Chills' moody guitar pop exemplified what people were calling the "Dunedin Sound".
The Chills broke more ground for Flying Nun when they headed for England in 1985. The label's first overseas touring act then became the first Flying Nun band signed to an overseas label, when UK company Creation Records released Kaleidescope World, a compilation of The Chills' singles and "Dunedin Double" tracks. Kaleidescope World was received rapturously by the influential UK music press, and sold 20,000 copies in the UK alone. Despite being plagued by continual career interruptions through line-up changes, Phillipps and The Chills managed to slowly build on the success they enjoyed with those early records. The band spent a lengthy period based in England, where they recorded their first album, Brave Words, in 1987.
Brave Words was released by Flying Nun UK, a company established by Shepherd to market product in the UK in conjunction with Flying Nun Europe, a joint venture with the German label, Normal. By the mid-eighties, Flying Nun exports to these markets were growing quickly, and a number of licensing arrangements had been developed with independent companies in the USA for records by The Chills, The Clean, the Verlaines and Tall Dwarfs.
Back home, Flying Nun's roster of bands continued to grow. New Dunedin bands like the Double Happys and Look Blue Go Purple proved to be the most popular of the new Flying Nun acts of the mid-eighties, but Shepherd also looked north to find a number of excellent bands, ranging from the organ-guitar pop of the Able Tasmans to the heavy dirge of Childrens Hour.
The 'sound of Flying Nun' became increasingly difficult to pinpoint - a fine thing too, so far as all those involved with the label were concerned. Tuatara, a popular 1985 "best of Flying Nun" compilation album, showed the label had everything from accessible but varied pop in the form of the Dunedin bands and Christchurch's Expendables to a lively experimental edge thanks to acts like Fetus Productions and Marie and the Atom who were manipulating electronics and conventional rock instrumentation to intriguing, albeit esoteric, ends.
Critical acceptance of Flying Nun releases continued to be high. Few releases were received with less than rapturous reviews somewhere - if a new release proved too far "out there" for local newspaper reviewers, there was certain to be a writer in some small American magazine prepared to stake their life on the necessity of owning an EP by Dunedin duo Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos! And critics continued to find bands like Christhcurch's Jean-Paul Sartre Experience almost universally acceptable...
For the first seven years of its existence, Flying Nun found it could virtually do what it liked, releasing and distributing product while remaining oblivious to the pressures of the wider music industry. The arrival of a new music format, the compact disc, was initally accomodated at Flying Nun by the licensing of product to Normal in Germany for release on CD through Flying Nun Europe. Copies of CDs compilations by acts including the Gordons, Able Tasmans, the Chills and the Clean imported back to New Zealand for the small local market which then existed for the new format.
The wider implications of the CD's arrival became evident, however, in late 1987 when EMI announced it was closing down New Zealand's only record pressing plant in Wellington. Economic issues, including the predicted 'death of vinyl', meant that the country's major record companies were switching record production to Australian plants.
Flying Nun, an indepedent label, lacked the resources to manufacture records in Australia, so Roger Shepherd was forced to seek a "production and distribution" deal with a major company to enable Flying Nun to continue to release records. An arrangement with the major label, WEA, appeared most beneficial to both companies - Shepherd's operation remained autonomous from WEA, who simply became responsible for manufacturing records for Flying Nun in Australia and distributing them to New Zealand retailers. Flying Nun, which shifted its two-person office operation to Auckland, was responsible for its own local advertising and marketing, and continued to export now WEA manufactured product.
The most successful release of the Flying Nun-WEA relationship was In Love With These Times, a second label 'best-of' compilation of twelve Flying Nun acts which was TV-advertised in New Zealand and released locally on LP, cassette and CD. To date, In Love With These Times has sold 8,500 copies in this country.
By 1989, Shepherd was certain that Flying Nun needed another change in direction. Making records (and now, CDs and cassettes) had become an increasingly expensive business. Flying Nun still retained a unique perspective and some of that "do-it-yourself" philosophy, but the "alternative music industry" had changed around the label.
A number of Flying Nun bands had made successful international tours and there was considerable interest from leading international record labels in these acts. The Chills had by now signed to an international recording deal with American label, Slash, and there was obvious potential for other Flying Nun bands to follow suit.
Popular acts like the Straitjacket Fits the Bats and Headless Chickens needed larger, "serious" recording budgets to realise musical ambitions that were now focused on selling to the world, rather than just a local audience. A desire to see these ambitions realised, plus the cost of maintaining Flying Nun's extensive catalogue in print (especially getting records reissued onto CD) and developing new artists, saw Shepherd accepting overtures from the powerful Australian independent label, Mushroom Records
A deal between the two companies was struck in 1990, resulting in the formation of a new company, Flying Nun Australia, which would assign the "significant" budgets deemed necessary to break Flying Nun acts into large overseas markets. As a result of this deal, manufacture and New Zealand distribution of all Flying Nun releases switched to Mushroom's Australasian distributor, Festival Records.
The first successful fruit of this relationship was Melt, an album by Straitjacket Fits, which was recorded in Auckland and Melbourne. Melt also became the first release under Straitjacket Fits' contract for the rest of the world with major American label, Arista.
Before the success of Melt, however, came Submarine Bells, the Chills' 1990 breakthrough follow-up to Brave Words. Submarine Bells was recorded for Slash, but loyalty to Flying Nun had led Martin Phillipps to demand in his contract with the American label that the Chills continue to release their records in this country through the band's original label.
The album, which was only moderately successful in overseas markets (despite receiving the highest critical praise of any Chills release), reached number one in New Zealand and became Flying Nun's first New Zealand Gold Record (signifying sales in excess of 10,000). Submarine Bells also collected the Chills four awards at the 1990 New Zealand Music Awards. (Straitjacket Fits also picked up two awards at the December 1990 ceremony in Auckland.)
The past five years have seen Flying Nun continue to focus on developing an international audience for tis music. In 1992, three leading bands set off on a tour across three continents under the banner, "Noisyland". Straitjacket Fits, The Bats and JPS Experience, all with new albums out, travelled across Australia, North America and Europe together. The European leg was integral to the launch of a new Flying Nun entity in London, and Roger left for England shortly after that tour to head an office which handles the label's manufacturing and European distribution.
Since Roger has been in London, Flying Nun's roster has extended into foreign artists - four American bands (Ween, Pell Mell, Cul de Sac and Labradford) and English act Stereolab have all had record releases through Flying Nun in the past couple of years. Meanwhile, a new crop of New Zealand artists have been signed. Three of these bands - King Loser, Loves Ugly Children and Garageland - toured Australia as a Flying Nun package The Sound Is Out There in 1995 and Loves Ugly Children followed the now well-trodden Flying Nun path to the Northern Hemisphere when they headed to London later that year. Recognition for the company's overseas exploits came with a NZ Government Export Award in 1995.
Back home, Flying Nun managed its first NZ Number One single with the Headless Chickens "George" around Christmas 1994, and artists from the still-active Chris Knox to new bands including the Sound Is Out There three and HDU (the latest Dunedin signing) continue to build loyal NZ followings. In fact, Knox's worldwide following continues to grow with his latest album Songs of You & Me (1995) leading him to the top of the US college radio charts and four overseas tours in the year.
So times have changed for Flying Nun, which has been through a lengthy process of growing into a successful business. The spirit of creation, however, is little-changed; Flying Nun bands continue to make artful and distinctive videos and record packaging is as enigmatically eye-catching as ever, even if the records are no longer packaged in handpainted or screenprinted covers. Most importantly, the music inside the sleeve is always diverse and interesting .
Flying Nun celebrated its 15th he story so far ...