Sunday, 12 June 2016

In Love With These Times by Roger Shepherd

“It’s not a plotted history but a highly personal memoir....a book about how the hothouse of punk and post punk affected me in Christchurch and like-minded characters in Dunedin.”

Flying Nun is one of the greatest independent labels ever. Many of today’s hippest and most popular indies are influenced by its ambition and conglomeration of styles. This story - or interpretation of the stories - by label founder Roger Shepherd is essential reading for anyone who’s loved Flying Nun, anyone who’s thinking of starting a label and anyone who moans about a label doing something they don’t like.

Before this book’s publication last week, the best book about Flying Nun was Positively George Street by Matthew Bannister of the Sneaky Feelings. Don’t let the fact that it was then the only book about Flying Nun put you off.

However, where Bannister used his book to settle personal scores and concentrate on his role in the soi-disant only Dunedin band that “wanted mainstream success”, Shepherd describes the chaos and craziness of a fan “who had let his enthusiasms get the better of him.”

Shepherd is generous in his recollections. He knows very well that Matthew Bannister was “especially frank about his relationship with Flying Nun and me” in Positively George Street, but leaves it at that. His enthusiasm for Sneaky Feelings’ back catalogue is undimmed.

Equally, he’s gentlemanly recalling the circumstances around Shayne Carter leaving Flying Nun for a succession of bigger labels: “Major changes had happened and there was a dispute over his publishing contract. So things didn’t end well, but I still think Shayne P Carter is one of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever worked with.”

In Love With These Times is especially good on the high-wire balancing act of releasing records on a shoestring budget and the initial triumphs of naivety over experience, all the while knowing that “no one was going to get rich, but some great records would get made”.

Its strongest when looking at growing an indie from a South Pacific island to a global concern. When New Zealand’s vinyl pressing plants closed down in the late 80s, deals were done to keep Flying Nun going at a price to their boutique releases:

“When we had been handling our own distribution we could generally break even on a minimum initial pressing of about 300 to 500 copies. This made most of the smaller or one-off projects possible. With WEA...many of these releases had gone from marginal to hopelessly unprofitable.”

Shepherd describes the paradox of the Flying Nun phenomenon very well: “The very isolation that had created the conditions for the music to develop the way it did - exactly what made it special and unique - was also the main barrier to communicating and selling that music internationally.”

However, he’s on less surer footing when claiming that The Bats were a victim of bad timing when major label money got them a big name producer for 1991’s Fear of God just as Flying Nun’s core values, bands “being themselves, doing their own thing, cutting back on excessive recording budgets”, became compatible with radio play and chart placings.

No amount of money or luck would have transferred The Bats into the premier league. If anything, radio and fans opening their minds to the noisy underground happened at least a year later and would have more suited Flying Nun’s Straitjacket Fits and Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. Except all three bands toured the USA in 1993 and didn’t break through.

The Flying Nun story is not one of failure, though. JPSE and Straitjacket Fits were equal to any of the post-grunge generation’s hitmakers. Just as The Gordons and Bailter Space, for example, were equal to Sonic Youth’s art rock experimentation in the 1980s.

Naturally - justly - Shepherd knows that many Flying Nun bands deserved much greater acclaim and sales than they saw. Even when the background is a 21-year-old kid working out to run a record label as he did it. He also suggests that the essence of Flying Nun was best captured on its first surges before business got involved:

“That’s the great thing about a release on an independent label. The ideas can be fragmented and strange, and the execution variable. But there is a tolerance of what is being offered up creatively…”

This memoir is in part a recognition of the author’s manic depression, only latterly diagnosed:
“The symptoms - extreme focus, increased  energy, increased productivity, grandiose ideas, reckless behaviour and poor judgment - summed things up pretty well. A normally functioning person would have thrown the whole FN exercise away very early on. My slightly altered perspective had helped start the thing up and, crucially, ensured the thing kept going.”
Read this personal, entertaining account of one of the world’s greatest labels if you want to know more about some of the most crucial bands of the post-punk period, the co-operative approach needed to develop and sustain a label, and the struggles and compromises needed to keep an indie afloat when it becomes more successful than anyone imagined. This is very much more than the story of  a “guy who happened to be there at the right place and time”.

It might not satisfy you if you want a release-by-release account. Don’t worry. There’s a forthcoming book that will meet those needs. There will surely be more books - a Clean biography, anyone? - in the future. But this is where all future authors will start their research.

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