Friday 25 November 2016

The Dunedin Sound: Some Disenchanted Evening

"How the hell did this happen in a city of 120,000 people sitting at the bottom of the world?" Graeme Downes of The Verlaines asks in this book's foreword.

The essays and reflections on 17 Dunedin bands attempt in part to address this. Of course, no consensus is reached on what the Dunedin sound is but there's plenty of lively discussion on what it might be and how it came to be.

There are fascinating insights - producer Stephen Kilroy explains that any sonic similarity was partly down to shared equipment. Thanks to the "trade-substitution economy" most of the amplifiers were copies of well-known brands, made in New Zealand.

Like any artistic explosion, cheap rents and practice rooms helped fuel the initial boom. And at the bottom of the world there wasn't anything else to do.

This book is mainly a celebration of the Dunedin sound, telling "the bands' much by photographs, artwork and ephemera as by the written word". It's more than a New Zealand take on A Scene In Between, though. The visuals alone would make a great gallery exhibition.

However, The Dunedin Sound is no hagiography. It finds space for a tirade against Flying Nun and Dunedin bands, even if that essay exposes the author's mean spirit, personal grudges and dislike of jangling guitars more than it offers a coherently persuasive alternative view.

That critic, Gary Steel (the type of 'character', one imagines, who enjoys being talked about, but who really wouldn't worry what people thought about him if he knew how little they did), makes a fabulous misstep when he claims the Dunedin scene was "free of the usual competitiveness".

Wait just a minute. You've got The Clean's debut single Tally Ho!, a rallying cry to a scene as powerful as the Ramones' Blitzkreig Bop (hey ho let's go!). Then there's The Verlaines' debut single, Death and the Maiden, an intense punk symphony. Then there's the first 3 Chills singles, Rolling Moon, Pink Frost and Doledrums. I've tried to think of a stronger run of 3 first singles by any band and I just can't.

Now imagine being a band in that scene with that fusillade of records. How high the bar was set for newcomers. How much competitiveness there must have been just between those 3 bands.

The Dunedin sound is still going strong. The recent Fishrider compilation Temporary is testament to Dunedin's domestic jewels. The Dunedin sound itself may be at least as much in Christchurch in recent years. But equally it's in Brooklyn, Seattle, Vancouver and Melbourne.

This book is a fittingly well-crafted tribute to the Dunedin sound's foundations.

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