Stuff.co.nz Guest Blog: Roger Shepherd of Flying Nun

 
 
Roger Shepherd13th May 2009 - c/o www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment
For me New Zealand Music Month emphasises the nature of our music and the business that it has become. And in the process it is also a stark reminder of how much has changed since I first started working part-time in a Christchurch record shop in the mid-1970s.   My earlier memories are almost all in black and white. Colour TV was introduced in 1974 but my world stayed monochrome for a few more years - my family were not early adopters of colour television. I remember watching live Plunket Shield cricket in black and white as virtually the only entertainment on offer during the long summer school holidays in 1976. So my mother thought I needed a holiday job. My response was for the one and only time ever to look in the paper and answer an ad for a part-time position in a record shop. It ran in the family. My father had worked in a record shop in the 1950s and my sister had been a shop assistant in the EMI shop in the late 1960s. I thought it might be an interesting distraction until school started up again.   And I knew a little about music. Bits and pieces that I had picked up from older brothers and sisters or friends at school who in turn were influenced by their older siblings. All sorts of music was consumed from the universally popular Beatles and 60s bubblegum to the heaviness of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and the more countercultural The Mothers of Invention and unconventional Captain Beefheart.   I rang in response to the ad and got through on the third attempt and had to go in for an interview. The Record Factory was on Colombo Street south of the Square. There was a Led Zeppelin The Song Remains the Same display in one of the front windows. I was asked some tricky questions about two bands that were being TV-advertised at the time that I loathed Genesis and Status Quo and bluffed my way through. The kindly owner Del Richards hired me on that basis; he later told me to my everlasting embarrassment that I came across as a pleasant and genuine young person.   There was not much to do in New Zealand in the 1970s so we were among the highest consumers of records and books in the world and were in the process of becoming the most stoned as well. Record shops at this time were busy places of social interaction. A whole cross-section of genuinely interesting people came to listen to talk about and buy music. Late-night shopping on Friday was party time. It was a 12-hour day for me and invariably my feet hurt. The music was loud with a shop packed full of buyers and ghosts" (shop listeners but never buyers) passing by on their way to inner-city pubs to meet friends or sometimes see bands play before 10 o'clock closing and the frantic search for a party to go to.   Time spent in a record shop could not really be considered work and I suppose the $50 a week take-home pay reflected that. Sure it got a bit busy over the lunch hour when we had to play music that was a nod towards what we considered to be commercial dross and interact with everyday paying customers. Otherwise there was a bit of cleaning and unpacking of stock when we weren't chatting among ourselves and regular customers.   All the while we were playing music that we liked or were interested in hearing. By today's standards the choice was limited. There were fewer records released internationally and only a fraction of these were pressed up and released in New Zealand. Some of the more interesting artists like Can or the Velvet Underground were available on a very limited import basis at considerably higher prices due to import licensing controls.   We sold mainly records. Big things with lavish covers of artwork and lyrics and ideas hinting of what the greater outside world was possibly about. A record shop is an ideal environment for obsessive behaviours. Where is the record pressed and how heavy is it and how does it wobble? The cover is printed where with what weight card and with what gatefold features? Is the inner bag paper or plastic? Does it have a generic label or is it something special? And then there are the catalogue numbers. I still remember many. We also sold pre-recorded cassettes that always seemed to malfunction or simply break and be returned. There was also a brisk business in blank cassettes.   Record companies were exotic powerful things that had their head offices in Wellington and Auckland. They had South Island reps with briefcases who would call each Monday to show the new releases and take the weekly order. Sometimes someone from head office would fly in to oversee the sell-in of whatever was about to be commercially massive. These were glamorous creatures with international artists' tour flight jackets worn above the latest-model jeans to match the fast and assured sales patters.   New Zealand music did not have much of a profile. Yes Split Enz had made a huge impact and Th' Dudes and Hello Sailor had a following but there was no particular sense of there being a scene or anything special about was happening in our own country. We were outward looking and anything local had a large amount of doubt and indifference to overcome before it would be accepted.   I worked with a music obsessive called Neil who introduced me to master krautrockers Can and their double live album Tago Mago sounded particularly good. The CD was never mastered properly and this release still sounds vastly superior on vinyl. Neil loved progressive rock and was especially interested in jazz-rock fusion and told me the next big thing to happen in music was going to be "Space Rock". Punk impacted a couple of weeks later with the arrival of The Sex Pistols and everything was changed forever.   Punk coincided with my first experiences of live music. I saw The Detroit Haemorrhoids at the now long-gone Gresham Hotel on Cashel Street on a Friday night between the shop closing at nine and the hotel closing at ten. It was my first real experience of live music played in a confined space and the sense of excitement that could be generated. Before long I was driving south to see what would now be described as a buzz band. Seeing The Enemy play in Dunedin's Beneficiary Hall certainly changed everything for me. The Enemy were a truly remarkable band with great songs and an electrifying performance. And there was a nice connection to my future with The Clean playing a shambolic support set that same night.   Punk gave the impetus for many to start their own bands and this saw the development of a whole scene. The four main centres each had their own very distinct scenes at this time. Venues became available for this new music and the audiences grew as the bands gained confidence and expertise. There was now a proper live scene that not only showcased the music but provided an additional networking environment. Feeding off overseas music papers Rip It Up and local newspaper reviewers and being able to meet up not just in record shops but also at live gigs to see local bands and increasingly those from elsewhere fuelled the whole experience.   Now there were bands generating new and exciting music in New Zealand on the back of the punk explosion and the DIY attitudes of the post-punk movement. There was an eruption of good adventurous music that symbiotically developed a supportive and loyal audience and grew into what I worked with from the early 1980s onwards with Flying Nun.   These days the local music environment seems very different. There is a whole industry built around it with artist management booking agents distribution companies and many record companies of different sizes releasing a multitude of material with the support of publicists and pluggers a generally more interested selection of radio stations music publishing representatives and the like. We have an annual New Zealand Music Month and no one thinks that music made here lacks anything when compared with that from overseas. Overall music seems more prevalent and integrated in our lives than ever before. We have also seen huge changes with formats. Compact Discs replaced both vinyl and cassettes and are now on the wane with the emergence of digital formats legal and otherwise which is having a huge impact on the whole industry financially and structurally.   So here I am in 2009 listening to the lavishly packaged double album by New Zealand band An Emerald City. It is a beautifully pressed vinyl version of their Circa Scaria release (with extra tracks) which 33 years ago Neil would have described as "space music". Everything has changed as well as staying pretty much the same. ROGER SHEPHERD - c/o www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment "