Dad doesn’t talk much about his past. I know he once lived on a kibbutz in Israel, and that he also arbitrarily dyed his hair green for his 21st birthday, but to him these experiences are well settled in his history. There is one aspect of his past, however, that makes him nostalgic. Although my dad will deny any emotional attachment to his experiences as an Otago student in the 80s, there is a certain animatedness that comes over him when he recounts those times.
Dad is also wholly unmaterialistic – he has worn the same pair of shoes for ten years. In his spare time he plays Angry Birds on a tablet that he somehow received free of charge from an electronic store. One thing that Dad does enjoy owning, however, is his Flying Nun t-shirt.
It is this combination of Otago student life and the apparent brilliance of the Dunedin music scene in the 1980s that induces feelings of nostalgia in my dad, as well as many others who experienced this time. Dad tells me that this was a period in Dunedin when “the band scene was so pervasive that there seemed to be a band playing every night” and pubs like the Captain Cook “were so full that you would often have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder drinking huge amounts of beer.” The Otago lifestyle was “pretty raw like the music. It wasn’t delicate – no one drank pinot noir. I don’t think you could even order a glass of wine.” As is typical of the baby boomer generation, however, my conversation with Dad quickly descended into him taking pity on my generation for its over-seriousness and bland student culture.
The 80s music scene in Dunedin seems like a perfect world, a world that people my age will never know, never experience – but I question this “perfect” status. As Julian Barnes wrote in The Sense of an Ending, “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.” Nostalgia and remembering involves some sort of destruction of the origin. It involves a disregard for the present and a fantasising about – or lust for – a moment that never quite existed. Dad may wear a Flying Nun t-shirt and dream about the 80s but, like others who experienced that era, everyone just wants to be twenty again.
As I delved further in my discussions about the past with those who experienced it, it became clear how very flawed Dunedin was in the 80s. As Graeme Downes – Otago’s head of music and frontman for The Verlaines, a band born in 1980s Dunedin – told me: “the New Zealand you’ve grown up in is very different from the one in the 80s. New Zealand then was a monocultural, predominantly anti-intellectual, rugby, racing, beer-drinking place. We considered ourselves the Great Britain of the South Seas since ‘we’ [said sarcastically] settled here. All our news presenters spoke with very English accents and most of our culture came from America or England. Then, at the end of the 60s, Britain signed up to the EU and that lost us a lot of our automatic markets. David Lange said it best in about ’84: [we’ve] got to start believing what the map is telling us – we’re a South Pacific nation, we’re not Britain. The 70s through to the 80s was a period of asking ourselves, ‘if we’re not Britain then who the hell are we?’
“Punk came along and it was a huge liberation. Music had become technologically very involved with big mixing desks and really expensive equipment so only bands like Pink Floyd could afford to make a record. Punk said ‘stuff all that – if you’ve got content then you can record it on any old piece of crap and just go and play it.’ But by the time punk came to Dunedin it was already dead in Britain – Ian Curtis had hung himself before Joy Division records even got here. In Dunedin the punk spirit got taken on, but everyone kept their 60s record collections so the music created ended up being an amalgam of that.”
Although the range of people I talked to were all able to describe the 80s Dunedin culture, just how the Dunedin music scene achieved such incredible successes during this time remains characteristically mysterious. For Ian Henderson, who runs recording label Fishrider Records (which has signed a myriad of interesting, mostly local bands including Trick Mammoth and Males), it is difficult for people who lived through the 80s in Dunedin to understand it. Ian likens the world’s interpretation of Dunedin to his own illusion of Athens, Georgia – somewhere he has never been: “It’s probably a horrible, grotty little place, but because so many fantastic bands came from there in the 80s I have this impression that it’s an amazing artistic place. Maybe that’s what people who are from overseas think about Dunedin.”
Graeme Downes also attempted to explain what happened musically in Dunedin during the 80s: “Music spikes at various points and it spikes en masse. I have heard other people theorise about this, but the 60s were the first generation of people that came of age as adults after WWII. After the horror of Auschwitz and Hiroshima people woke up and went into adulthood thinking ‘right, I’m in the human species, what have you been up to recently? Right, okay – let’s put the entire culture in the rubbish bin and start again.’
“The 80s in Dunedin may be like the 60s was in the Northern Hemisphere. In the 80s in New Zealand there was a massive thing to rebel against – the Springbok tour was very divisive; it was more or less a civil war. During the South African tour the atmosphere at a gig was often extremely violent because the general populous didn’t like punk rockers or students or anti-tour people. Those people would come to the gig and beat you up. It calmed down by ’83, but between ’79 and ’82 was a pretty ugly period of time.
“My generation grew up through the 60s, and as children we heard all the 60s music on the radio. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard ‘Penny Lane’ on the radio for the first time, and I went ‘my God.’ The sheer effort bands like The Verlaines, The Chills [and] The Sneaky Feelings put into the 80s – we saw no other choice but to rescue what we grew up with … and try and bring it back to life again. If you can’t effect any change outside of yourself then all the energy goes inwards to creating your own skill and evaluations.”
Graeme’s discussion of musical influences only led to more questions. In the world of the past, where credit cards or the Internet didn’t exist, being able to obtain and listen to music were momentous acts in themselves. As Ian elaborated: “It took two to three months for the newspaper the New Musical Express to arrive, which was the main way people found out about new music. There was also a really good TV programme called Radio With Pictures that showed a lot of post-punk, independent, alternative music. The show was on every Sunday night – there was nothing else you could do on a Sunday night so a lot of people got exposed to Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire.” (Graeme also discusses Radio With Pictures: “Watching that show was a religion. Everyone had to watch that – you could not turn up to school on Monday without having formed an opinion on everything in the show.”)
“With the Internet,” Ian said, “it is a lot easier to get new music out to the world, but at the same time it’s really hard to get people to notice and pay attention because a lot of the traditional ways that used to happen – like through print media in particular – have shrunk to almost nothing. If you’re making music you can’t make them like your music, and you can’t make them buy your music even if they like it. But in order for either of those things to happen, people have to spend the time to hear it first. In the past, I’d read about a band in the New Musical Express. I’d decide that that was my kind of music just by reading about a band. I’d then order a record from overseas and wait two or three months for it to arrive. Because I’d spent all that time and invested all that emotional energy in getting the record, even if on hearing the album for the first time it didn’t excite me straight away, I’d give it a much better chance.
“Now, however, you can click on something in Bandcamp or Spotify and if it hasn’t captured your attention in the first 20 seconds you’ll never listen to it again – that’s a main difference. It’s a lot easier to find music but we don’t engage with it with the same level of determination that we used to.”
A central aspect of nostalgia is how it lingers in the present: it can either hinder progress or encourage people to recapture the moment until they are satisfied with the time in which they’re living. When I asked Ian what impact the 80s had on the current Dunedin music scene, he explained that until recently there has been a rejection of the past, of the generations of musicians that have come before: “Each generation wants to make its own mark – they don’t want to be judged by the standards of their predecessors. It’s a bit like when you’ve got older siblings – you don’t want to have to go through life in their shadow.
“What happened in the 80s is so far away now that it’s almost a different city – a different country – but people overseas still make those connections. What people in Dunedin don’t realise is that the rest of the world has this semi-mythologised impression of the place. From what I have noticed from recording music, the fact that a band comes from Dunedin helps them get noticed. It doesn’t matter if they don’t sound like anything from Dunedin – people overseas who are into strange, independent music recognise Dunedin as an indicator of quality or interest.
“One of the really cool things that’s happening in Dunedin at the moment is the trans-generational interest in music. For example, one of the bands I play in is called Kilmog, and it features Bob Scott … the bass player in The Clean and guitarist in The Bats. There’s Glen Ross, who was in a band called On and On, which is a band that ten years ago would have been reinterpreting what the 3Ds did in the 90s. Then there’s Richard Ley-Hamilton, who is 22 years old and plays in Males. We all share a common interest in different eras of music. The current line-up of Snapper has some young musicians in it too. In the 80s there wasn’t that same degree of support from the previous generation of Dunedin musicians. I think they regarded the new music coming through in the 80s as a threat, and they perhaps thought that the 80s musicians weren’t very good technically.”
When I asked Richard Ley-Hamilton – a young, talented Dunedin musician – whether nostalgia for the 80s affected him today, he didn’t seem concerned. Richard explained his interpretation of this era: “For everyone else outside of Dunedin I think the idea of the ‘Dunedin sound’ has cultural capital. I was talking to Bob Scott and he said that when the Bats toured America all their shows sold out. There’s a massive respect overseas for bands in the ‘Dunedin sound’ catalogue. Regardless of whether we assign value to the idea of the ‘Dunedin sound’ or still see it as existing in the present, [both] overseas and in different parts of New Zealand it is still seen as existing.
“My band Males is still compared with music from the 80s, but I don’t see that link that much – the early days of the ‘Dunedin sound’ was all about that lo-fi four-track sound and we’ve already gone far beyond that. We have twenty guitar tracks on everything just because I want to layer things! I still love the ‘Dunedin Sound’ bands, and I respect them – they’ve done an amazing thing by putting Dunedin on the map. As a far as music is concerned, Dunedin probably has the biggest profile out of any New Zealand city because of the ‘Dunedin sound.’”
As I write about other people’s nostalgia for the 80s music scene in Dunedin, I realise that I too am having experiences that will soon become memories driving my own nostalgia. Even though the line between where the current Dunedin music scene ends and the rest of the world’s music begins has become hazy, I love the gigs I go to and the Dunedin musicians I meet. I know that my experiences in Dunedin are momentary and fleeting, but what these conversations about the past and my current experiences of the music scene have made me realise is the importance of “the moment” itself. Among the perpetual chaos and noise of life, truly experiencing the moment gives me a brief, beautiful clarity that I will forever cherish and one day describe, over and over, to my own kids, in the hope that they too will have these experiences.