Mitchell Hawkes, “Heavenly Pop Hits: the Flying Nun Story” (2002)
A long overdue and welcome survey of a particular music scene at a particular time in a country that’s long been a minnow in global youth culture and music is this documentary about the New Zealand record label Flying Nun Records. Founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd in Christchurch as a reaction against the domination of the large commercial record labels in the pop music industry and their imposition of a narrow set of values and expectations on music, the label originally intended to highlight the music scene in Christchurch but quickly began championing the emerging pop music scene in Dunedin, a city a few hundred kilometres south of Christchurch on the South Island. The label’s glory days soon followed with significant acts such as The Clean, The Verlaines, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience (later renamed JPS Experience after being threatened by a lawsuit by the French philosopher’s estate), Scorched Earth Policy, The Dead C and Alastair Galbraith being signed up. The label faded as a power-player in the alternative music scene as various bands on the label either broke up or left to join other labels or market their own music and changes in ownership brought the label under Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation umbrella and then Time Warner. In 2009, Roger Shepherd bought back the label with financial help from three other New Zealand business partners including the musician Neil Finn and his wife, and is currently trying to build up the label’s reputation to what it was in the 1980s.
The documentary is well-made if very fast-paced and follows a general chronological narrative. Interviews with Shepherd, sound engineer Chris Knox who rose to virtual business partner of Shepherd and various Flying Nun alumni bands are mixed with archived music clips and snapshots of Dunedin city life, all united by narration by unseen speaker Hugh Sundae. Topics such as the label’s financial and administrative disorganisation (not a rare phenomenon among independent labels founded by enthusiastic music fans who had to learn how to run a business on the hop), the British music press’s snobbery towards New Zealand bands, the resistance of New Zealand radio stations towards playing local music that didn’t fit mainstream commercial imperatives, how the so-called jangly-guitar “Dunedin Sound” arose, various bands’ personal issues that played havoc with their careers and music, and the friction that often arose between the label and its bands because of lack of communication, the label’s chaotic running or just plain bad luck, all make appearances. Particular bands like The Clean, The Verlaines, The Chills, Straitjacket Fits, 3ds and Headless Chickens and their histories are featured.
As the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, FNR took on more adventurous, experimental or confrontational bands such as The Dead C, The Gordons / Bailter Space and The Skeptics, and the label’s inadequacies in managing its finances and the competing demands and requirements of its artists put increasing pressure on Shepherd and Knox in juggling their responsibilities. WEA Records and then Festival Mushroom Records stepped in with financial and business assistance and Shepherd, after over 15 years of running FNR, sold the label to Festival Mushroom. The influence of the new owners brought a new professionalism to FNR but some of the label’s endearing if wasteful ways were lost. At the time the documentary was made in 2002, FNR’s future looked hopeful – the end credits mention that Roger Shepherd was working in England as a wine merchant – but this was just before the label fell into a creative black hole under American ownership.
The documentary could have been tweaked in parts with some interviews shortened as it tends to drag in its second half, concentrating on some of FNR’s more significant artists, and its style seems a little too slick and professional for FNR, given that the label was as famous for its easy and lackadaisical approach to managing bands as it was for signing up and promoting underground acts in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. While the film clips capture the New Zealand 1980s underground music scene’s energy and bubbliness, after a while they start looking generic and become tiresome. The music featured is varied for guitar-dominated indie pop jangle; only the more obscure acts like The Dead C, The Gordons (later Bailter Space) and The Skeptics really stick out for their uncompromising and sometimes confrontational styles of guitar rock with The Dead C making the jump into freeform improvised guitar noise that got my attention in the mid-1990s and makes the band still dear to me.
The issue of how a record label can reconcile encouraging wayward and uncomrpomising creativity with the need for bands to be disciplined enough to compose and record songs or other music and make money for themselves and for the label is an ever-present current throughout the film but is never really adequately addressed by the narration or the interviewees apart from Bruce Russell of The Dead C. An all too common problem also is that several of FNR’s bands like The Chills were on the verge of cracking global “alternative mainstream” music markets but failed due to lack of financial and moral support from either Shepherd or Knox as the two head honchos were often overwhelmed by their commitments or were too absorbed with finding new bands or indulging their other artists’ needs and preferences.
A revisit to FNR surely seems in order for Mitchell Hawkes and his film crew now that Roger Shepherd has regained control of his famous child; the label certainly could do with increased attention and some money! The documentary is highly informative and is a worthy history of a significant label whose influence was to spread around the world through its bands.