Tuesday 16 July 2013

The Clean: Vehicle

1990s American indie rock started in England in 1989 when New Zealand band The Clean recorded Vehicle. Its impact was minimal on release in early 1990, but it's had a greater affect on the indie underground in the subsequent 23 years than any other record.

Vehicle crystallised the DIY garage pop aesthetic, it made jangling folk-rock at breakneck speed that found ways to play without worshipping, knock-kneed, at The Byrds' back catalogue and it channelled krautrock and psychedelia into a unified whole. And they did it so quickly!

"It was all recorded live the way we'd done the other records. We set up, blasted through the songs, did a day's worth of guitar overdubs then a day of vocals, a day of mixing and it was all done."
Robert Scott

The Clean didn't repeat that trick. They didn't need to. Their 4 subsequent albums have taken parts of that whole and made something different each time. As have many, many others. If you're looking for evidence of Vehicle in underground indie records you love from the past 20 years, then pick any 10 and the chances are that The Clean's sounds echo through many of them just as they do in new records released in 2013.

The constituent parts of Vehicle might suggest that The Clean didn't establish anything original; what they did do, though, was create an ideal representation of those aesthetics' possibilities.

Brian Eno said of The Velvet Underground & Nico that "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band". Vehicle sold fewer copies than that, but it would be fair to say that thousands of people who've heard it have taken parts of it into the recording studio with them.

We have 23 years and counting of records that might not exist without Vehicle. Those records are more adventurous and stronger for it:
I think we definitely thought we were saying something back in the day and it was pretty confrontational with our sound. We didn’t hold back. It was, ‘Here we are, take it or leave it—it’s not going to be nice. It’s gonna be confrontational'.
David Kilgour

Don't look for Vehicle Part 2, because it doesn't exist in The Clean's or anyone else's catalogues. Pavement did pretty well with Slanted And Enchanted, but that was a young band making a great debut in Vehicle's shadow. The sales ledgers might give Pavement or MGMT or Real Estate or...you get the picture...the victory on paper, but Vehicle is still, today, the most astonishing album. No one's come close to bettering it - thousands have been inspired by it and the music scene is richer for the suggestions and jumping-off points it's given.

If you've had the chance but haven't yet heard Vehicle I worry for you; if you have yet to hear Vehicle then I envy its manifold joys springing on you for the first time. The reissue is out now on Flying Nun/Captured Tracks.



  1. Vehicle wasn't the start - it was a culmination of music which had been brewing in southern New Zealand for the best part of a decade. Starting with The Clean's single "Tally Ho!", The Chills' "Kaleidoscope World", and work from bands like The Verlaines, The Tall Dwarfs, and Straitjacket Fits, the cities of Christchurch and Dunedin were already exporting an amazing amount of high-quality indie which ears in the UK, US, and mainland Europe were already picking up on.

  2. I agree that, globally, bands had been picking up on older FN bands for a few years. As I said, Vehicle "didn't establish anything original" but it did open doors that previous FN records hadn't. Why? In one respect because it was better produced; in another, because it coalesced so many strands that FN bands had been following.

    I love, as I'm sure you do, Snapper's krautrock, Straitjacket Fits' garage rock and The Verlaines' chaotic symphonies, but I don't hear those bands' influence on new bands as I do every week with Vehicle.

    Yes, Vehicle was the culmination of several ways of attacking music that NZ bands had been doing. It brought many things together, and it was that sensibility, that triumph of ambition, that caught fire around the world.

    Vehicle was also the end of that first period of FN - about 2 months after its release, Mushroom bought 50% of FN. I'm not sure that FN was ever quite the same. I am sure, though, that if Vehicle was what the NZ underground had been building up to for a decade, then its legacy is secure.

    1. Fair comments (and good article too, BTW)

  3. Nice article, eh! I came here through this (http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/flyingnunrecords) and it's really worth checking out.