Clean Vehicle
“I gotta say there was a lot of scepticism back in NZ about the reformation and new LP (and fair enough too! These days who hasn’t reformed? Oh right, The Smiths)” David Kilgour (‘Vehicle sleeve-notes)

I think The Clean may have started all this reforming mania. They started a lot of stuff – like modern day jangly guitar pop. Yep, that was them. They made splitting – and then reforming – their thing. As soon as they had any kind of momentum, David would drag the handbrake on and bring the band to a halt. They’ve had the most off-hand self-destructive ‘anti-career’ imaginable, broken every rule in the business and, in the process, made some remarkably enduring music. In fact still making it.

It took them a decade to release their first album, ‘Vehicle’ and that was mostly the result of happenstance. It’s just been re-issued – more tasty fruit from that Flying Nun/ Captured Tracks partnership. I don’t usually get re-issues – seems a bit pointless and indulgent when you still have the original in mint condition. But I made an exception for ‘Vehicle’. It’s my favourite album by The Clean. One of my All-time Top 5 NZ albums. It’s worth getting for the gatefold sleeve and two pages of notes (and a few photos) from the three members of the band. It comes with the cracking ‘in-a-live’ EP too. But I also wanted to get the re-issue for the sheer bloody thrill of buying it again. It was such a buzz the first time that doing it again seemed worthwhile.

I’d better do a quick history lesson for the uninitiated. In the first half of the 1980s The Clean recorded a clarion-call single ‘Tally Ho!’ to announce their trebly arrival, then a couple of legendary EPs and then another single, then, on the cusp of success, split up. David & Hamish had started The Great Unwashed (with original Clean member and future Snapper overlord Peter Gutteridge), and split THAT up when it threatened to get too serious too.

The late 80s in Dunedin was an exciting time. I was in Invercargill at the time and that wasn’t exciting. I was writing for the weekly music page of The Southland Times in Invercargill and also for Dunedin fanzine Alley Oop (successor to Garage). I took any excuse to get to Dunedin and experience some live music. By the mid to late 1980s the world had started to notice bands from Dunedin. The Bats had made two trips to the UK, The Chills had been there, Straitjacket Fits, Sneaky Feelings too. And now The Clean.

I interviewed Robert Scott not long after he’d come back from the UK trip that resulted in the Live EP and ‘Vehicle’. While the interview was about Robert and The Bats (a half page in the paper – what were they thinking back then?) he talked a bit about The Clean and recording ‘Vehicle’.

Robert Scott on Vehicle 1989

He also let me take a posed photo of him holding his guitar on the veranda at his flat, as if this was a normal thing for him. Bob’s good like that. David would’ve politely declined, or worn sunglasses.

Bats_Bob_88

Everyone was pretty excited to hear The Clean had recorded an album in a London studio and that the album would be released on Rough Trade in the UK. I don’t remember much scepticism here, but there are always the hand-wringing purists who reckon they did their best work in their first, early 80s period.

‘Vehicle’ was an impressive album to hear in 1990 and today it still sounds timeless and perfect to me in all its brevity. It fair crackles with a kind of righteous energy that still gives me goose-bumps.

Recently UK music blog Did Not Chart suggested ‘Vehicle’ was responsible for starting American ‘indie music’. Someone – presumably one of those first-era purists from NZ – disagreed and thought it was the culmination of a decade of world-conquering NZ music, not the start of anything. David’s notes with ‘Vehicle’ tend to support the Did Not Chart theory:

“Over the years I’ve met many people, especially in the USA, who said ‘Vehicle’ was where they discovered The Clean – not the early 80s records – so it was an important record for us all in many ways. Still is really.”

The first FNR compilation was ‘Tuatara’ in 1986. That started to be heard around the US in the late 1980s when FNR began licensing a few releases to small indie labels there (eg: Communion Label on the West Coast of the US) and set up Flying Nun Europe. I have met a couple of US musicians who said that compilation was their introduction to Flying Nun, and to NZ music in the late 80s.

The Chills were the first to travel to the UK, in 1986. That was when Flying Nun Europe first started, but everything I heard about that was it was a bit of a shambles early on. The Bats went in 1987 and 1989, as did the Clean. Sneaky Feelings and Straitjacket Fits were also there in 1989. But I think their impact was quite minor at the time (compared to other independent labels) and Flying Nun had notoriously bad distribution & promotion in the UK. John Peel – one of the label’s biggest advocates through his radio show – found releases hard to get even when Flying Nun had a London office.

In NZ we used to take the occasional review or mention in the NME as confirmation ‘our music’ was making a huge impact overseas. NZ bands had been getting heard around the world up to that point, but not in a way that compared to UK or US alternative bands on labels with good distribution and marketing.

Sure, The Chills went to the US in 1988 and signed with Slash Records, two years before ‘Vehicle’ came out there. But The Chills were more influenced BY music from the US (the 1960s) than an influence on it I think. There had also been some FNR titles licensed to the small independent Communion Label in the US who were distributed by Revolver, starting with The Bats in 1987.

The reason I think a compelling argument can be made that ‘Vehicle’ was the start of a more widespread influence is that it was a Rough Trade release in the UK (Rough 143) and the US, so had the benefit of their UK and US distribution and marketing. No earlier releases had that. The other thing to remember back then is that time (and discovery of bands) moved very slowly compared to the internet age so 1987-90 was not the kind of dizzying churn of flash-in-the-pans we are accustomed to now in a three-year timeframe.

Even in 1991/92 Flying Nun’s own influence in the UK and Europe seemed frustratingly limited. I sent Peel some Flying Nun Records releases in 1991 because I heard him say on a show that year (playing something by The Clean from ‘Vehicle’ in fact) that he wished he could get more NZ stuff to play on the show. He sent me a postcard saying “Thanks too for the records. Supplies of stuff from NZ are erratic in the extreme, so I’ve probably missed out on some real gems over the years. One of our newsreaders is from over there and is visiting for Xmas and she has promised to bring back loads of tunes.”

My reaction at the time (and most people I knew here) was that Rough Trade releasing ‘Vehicle’ was something pretty special. For the rest of the world (particularly those who were not crate-digging music obsessives) ‘Vehicle’ in 1990 was the start of their connection with NZ alternative music. After 1990 a lot more people began discovering the 1980s Flying Nun Records catalogue, Flying Nun set up a US office in North Carolina, there were tours by The Bats, The 3Ds, Straitjacket Fits and others and the rest is history.

Big Soft Punch live 1990

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