from the Dunedin double EP, Flying Nun, 1982
If the Verlaines represent romantic compositional craft, the Stones brutal pop noise, the Chills the sonic possibilities of pop, then the last of the Dunedin Doublers major in the pop tune. It can’t be any coincidence that alongside the group’s two main song writers – Matthew Bannister and David Pine – both drummer Martin Durrant and bassist John Kelcher (who replaced Kathryn Tyrie in 1984) also contribute songs to their second LP, 1987’s Sentimental education. It appears that they were much more of a democracy than most quartets, where the power usually resides in the polar balance between the singer and the lead guitarist. I say this without having been able to read Positively George Street, Matthew Bannister’s account of the ‘Dunedin sound’ and his time as a Sneaky Feeling. But I have been able to read his academic text, White boys, white noise: masculinities and 1980s indie guitar rock (Ashgate, 2006). There was a time – it was, of course, the nineteen-eighties – when I would have dismissed an academic reading of any ‘outsider’ music as destined to fail to spot the nub of the matter, or likely to make out that the matter was simpler or more complicated than it actually was. But when we reach a decade in which the practitioners of independent music have become the practitioners of its musicology, psychology and sociology (for want of a better way of encapsulating the approach taken in White boys, white noise) – when we pass a year in which Johnny Marr has been made a visiting professor of music at the University of Salford – then it becomes a redundant argument, if it wasn’t already one. There is something to be gained from any kind of in-depth analysis, whether that of journalist or amateur, socio-cultural commentator or academic.
So this final part of the Dunedin Double mini-series, slightly past my self-imposed deadline of 2007, attempts both to celebrate the songs of the Sneaky Feelings and weave in the echoes of their music that sound in White boys, white noise.
As it was for the Verlaines, the Stones and the Chills, the Dunedin double 12 inch gave the Sneaky Feelings their first chance to set out a musical stall. Of the four groups their songs are the most tentative, possibly because each has vocals by a different member of the group. These were blueprints for types of songs that they would bring to life on 1984’s Send you, the record on which Sneaky Feelings became distinctly themselves. Not that in 1982 anyone yet sounded like the Sneakys do on Dunedin double – it just seems that way in retrospect. They started off with a sound of the kind that many British indie groups settled for at their peak. Very few of those could match the quality of song writing that would be apparent on Send you and the following year’s Husband house EP.
‘Pity’s sake’ is sung in the sardonic, slightly sneering fashion that David Pine refined into an instrument of character on later songs. It has a country rock chug which pre-dates those late eighties practitioners of alt. who sprang up in the States. The upbeat, minor chord melancholy of Martin Durrant’s ‘There’s a chance’ has you scratching your head as to just who he sounds like. His later songs ‘Strangers again’ and the 1986 single ‘Coming true’ clearly reveal him to be Barney Sumner’s antipodean twin. The resemblance, which extends to a certain lyrical vagueness, is uncanny. There’s nothing else about Sneaky Feelings which suggests New Order, so we have to assume that it’s a happy coincidence. ‘Backroom’, sung by Matthew Bannister, is pitched somewhere in the unlikely zone between the Nightingales and the Pastels, resemblances which would never again surface in the Sneakys’ music, and which were quite gone from the confident version of the song that appears on 1986’s Sentimental education, where additional cello and organ give it a grand orchestral edge.
Had they been combined, Send you and Husband house would have constituted a classic debut LP. Pine’s singing on ‘Waiting for touchdown’ and ‘Throwing stones’ is as convincing, impassioned and dramatic as the slow-burning guitar work, while Bannister has hit his stride as a writer with a great pop sensibility, his voice more angelic than Pine’s, his melodies more inclined to the McCartneyesque. He transforms the harmonic influence of Brian Wilson into incredibly taut guitar pop, occasionally employing a horn section to give a song the lift that was also characteristic of Dexys. With references to Rubens and George Bernard Shaw and a vocal ghostliness, ‘Major Barbara’ is not your typical Beach Boys pastiche – its shadow or inverse, perhaps. And in ‘Husband house’ Bannister wrote a Desert Island Disc, a song whose rising melody gives heart to all the mental debates about settling down, and is capped with a beautiful arrangement and twanging, plangent guitar. At the right time and in the right place, it might have been a worldwide hit rather than simply a number 17 in the NZ charts. For Sneaky Feelings, the song marks the point at which the tension between pop and indie, between major and minor, between accessible and inaccessible, between wanting above all a place in musical history and wanting above all to remain true to oneself, was greatest.
How to follow ‘Husband house’? ‘Better than before’ seems the obvious answer, a bracing pop song which speeds away from the ballad to which it is discographically moored, attempting in passing to overcome self-doubt and petty jealousy.
‘Every Sunday night at ten
we’d sit and watch the music show end
and we’d discuss just how it was
that they got on instead of us’
A familiar scene for groups the world over, but particularly poignant in New Zealand where it took just a few thousand sales to have a hit. There is obviously a fair degree of arm’s length self-analysis going in White boys, white noise, and a sense that Matthew Bannister’s experience as a Sneaky Feeling remains unfinished business, evident in the contrast he draws between the archetypal indie groups of the period – particularly their rivals for affection in New Zealand – and the musical choices his own group made. You get the sense that there is ongoing irritation at the ‘the triumph of polysemy over authorial intention’ and hangover frustration that Sneaky Feelings weren’t better loved. Based on the music alone, which until now is all I’ve had to go on, you can understand that, because they wrote some classic pop songs in anyone’s book, not just indie’s.
White boys, white noise corrects my misconception about the relative isolation of New Zealand being a factor in why the Flying Nun groups sound so distinct. In terms of formative influence, they were lighting upon the same sixties sources and inspirations as the groups recording for Creation, and going through the same deep-mining process of discovery. As a specialist in the indie discipline, I probably took the common ground for granted, and only noticed the differences, not discernable to the generalist’s eyes. And yet I still can’t kick the feeling that there was something particular in the Dunedin water, just as there was in the Scottish water. The Celtic connection, for Matthew Bannister was born and lived the first part of his life in Scotland. Or perhaps it was simply the tendency of young male pop obsessives the world over to cast themselves as outsiders and seek out their friendships under its cover. ‘Canonism, archivalism and connoisseurship are… central to cultural legitimation in popular as well as high culture. I suggest re-envisioning indie as a history of record collectors – the importance of rock tradition to indie, of male rock ‘intellectuals’ and secondhand record shops; a narrative suppressed because of the normative emphasis on rock as a folk discourse, spontaneous, instinctual, closely allied to a ‘natural’ masculinity.’ Matthew’s subsequent discussion actually highlights record shop owners and label founders more than collectors and writers, but it’s an attractive notion to a bit-playing fan. It certainly felt true in the eighties that ‘to uncover a ‘lost’ 1960s classic from the bin of a secondhand shop represented a small victory against the forces of modern capitalism, which were only interested in selling you the latest Dire Straits album.’ And what is Backed with but an alternative canon, archival in nature, written by, er, a connoisseur?
As a slightly discomforted individual variant of the archetype dissected in the book, I found that often Matthew Bannister was explaining my own life to me, at least in terms of the young adult I was. But only the young adult – in important respects, I didn’t recognise myself, more aspects of the scene of which I was a part. Matthew has many thought-through things to say on a lot of issues which underlie how my friends and I lighted upon independent music and stuck to it like limpets – on the masculine / feminine split, on the relation between black music and white, and on the Byrds (‘drone and jangle can function to obliterate time and space’). He even finds the time to diss Brian Eno – ‘not so much androgyne as android’. Neither is he afraid of saying something with a sentiment as unfashionable as ‘when I look at the various alternative music subcultures and associated models of masculinity, it strikes me that, of all of them, only the counterculture offered any kind of serious threat to establishment values.’ But I think he underestimates the effect in Britain on non-mainstream music that mainstream black music-influenced artists (Paul Weller in the Jam, Kevin Rowland in Dexys) or indeed mixed race groups like the Specials and others on the Two Tone roster had, both in terms of approach and an increasing eclecticism listening-wise. Of course, the attraction of Weller and Rowland in particular may have been their own demonstrable ‘purity’ (in terms of the way each portrayed themselves), their particular codifications and taboos – precisely the attitudes Matthew Bannister rightly says indie scenes typically espoused. But without wishing to make excuses for their fixed ideas, puritanism or callowness, the relative youth, immaturity and inexperience of the participants – both artists and fans – isn’t accounted for, despite the visible way in which the author himself has with time escaped the straightjacket that indie ideology forced one to wear. I can’t think of any music-obsessed friend of mine whose listening did not get swiftly broader in their twenties. Some of us may have begun in narrowly marked territories but we all became and remain internationalists, admittedly with our favourite countries and cities to which we return again and again.
I would also take issue with Matthew’s argument that inexpressive singing is typical of indie. Drawing on my taste, I grant him the June Brides, McCarthy, Josef K, Felt and the Field Mice. But the other groups I warmed to most in the eighties all liked to express themselves – the Jasmine Minks, Hurrah!, James, the Wolfhounds, the Esurient trio of the Claim, Emily and Hellfire Sermons, and indeed the Verlaines, Chills and Sneaky Feelings. I had indie tastes, but I also loved the mid-eighties expressiveness of the Pale Fountains, XTC, Prefab Sprout and American Music Club, though I guess the first two also owe the traditional indie debt to the Byrds. By the late eighties there were so many different species of independent music, so many shades of influence. The Jasmines recorded for Creation but were definitely influenced by soul as well as garage. The Claim too laid a soulful voice upon updated sixties garage and pop sources, while Emily ended up sounding more like Hendrix if they sounded like anyone. It seems to me that in pop music, especially in the 21st century, there is almost always a group (or even a scene) to prove or disprove any argument or concept, and I think this holds true when discussing independent music in the eighties. But perhaps Britain (and America?) were especially prone then to polarity, to defining yourself by spelling out what you were against as much as what you were for. If someone took a position, standing proudly above the parapet, it wouldn’t be long before opposing ramparts were fully armed and ready for a musical war.
Perhaps what it comes down to is that you can talk about tendencies, but there are always exceptions. The Sneaky Feelings balanced on the knife’s edge, being both typically indie and atypical. They rarely if ever hid behind white noise. There was no obvious leader; Matthew Bannister says of David Pine that although he was the most charismatic member of the group, ‘he did not feel comfortable in this role.’ Which may be why they never got the recognition their song writing deserved – there was no-one to catch the eye, no star to hold the attention of the mainstream. A common enough reason why groups fail to move on from song-centric independence to major label success. With ‘Take me out’ Franz Ferdinand made great play of the notion that it’s not enough for just boys to like your music – girls had to be able to dance to it too. They wilfully overcame their indie tendencies. Back in the eighties, few had that kind of drive. In Graeme Downes’ judgement, ‘to like the Sneakys you had to appreciate the songs first and foremost, and had to be prepared to forego all the other aspects that are usually the hallmark of the successful rock and roll package.’ Even the Sneakys’ sleeves didn’t help their cause, bashfully and pointedly opting to hide behind rhododendrons for the cover of Sentimental education.
The egalitarian tendencies of the group also show themselves in the subject matter of the songs, which assess relations between the sexes in a more even-handed manner than was typical in the eighties – ‘watching the spaces between all the people’, as Matthew Bannister sang on ‘Broken man’, and frequent enough references to marriage to make it a thematic concern of his – ‘let’s get married!’ is the lyrical coda to ‘Hard love’ (see also ‘Husband house’ and ‘Better than before’). Not only between the sexes, but between each other – with Matthew writing ‘Not to take sides’ about ‘the increasing alienation I felt in my relationship with David’ and Pine writing ambiguously about Bannister on ‘Now’. ‘It seems rather odd, this displacement of emotions into songs, this communication by proxy, but I don’t think it is atypical’, Bannister writes in White boys, white noise. Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Jim Shepherd of the Jasmine Minks was writing ‘Living out your dreams’ about the recently departed Adam Sanderson.
Alongside Positively George Street the book, a CD collection of the same name was released, updating and expanding the vinyl compilation Waiting for touchdown that I had to make do with in the eighties when money and distance militated against the fan of New Zealand music. It loses two great David Pine songs in the title track and ‘Someone else’s eyes’ but gains songs from Sentimental education and 1988’s Hard love stories, particular highlights being Pine’s ‘Trouble with Kay’ and ‘Your secret’s safe with me’, about both of which you could use the non-indie description ‘rollicking’. With ‘Maybe you need to come back’ and ‘Levin dream’ David Pine made good on the promise of Dunedin double’s ‘Pity’s sake’ and the pedal steel country blues of ‘Better than before’ B side ‘Wouldn’t cry’, arguably fulfilling the natural trajectory of any group which owes a debt to the one which earlier travelled from Mr Tambourine Man to Sweetheart of the rodeo.
As ‘Hard love’ suggests, Matthew Bannister’s songs got stonier and his voice less angelic as he went along. Not surprising then that he should set Larkin’s ‘This be the verse’ (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad etc) and adapt George Herbert’s ‘Discipline’. But he also branched out by writing a great character song in the form of ‘Dad and the family dog’ – ‘if it’s not an awful trial, perhaps you could take them off our hands for our while’.
If his family hadn’t moved from Scotland to New Zealand, might Matthew Bannister have been a central player in the sound of young Scotland, possibly becoming the better-known singer-songwriter of the Rough Trade or Creation group that never was? Since the moment at which this alternative course of history was foiled, the world has shrunk, and twenty years on, the music that Sneaky Feelings recorded retains the freshness that follows from the suggestiveness of the group’s name – not sneaky feelings so much in the confessional sense as ones which have snuck up to surprise you, newly emergent from the dim recesses of emotional computation.
Bannister and Pine were song-writing equals, and though together they were never quite the pairing that Forster and McLennan became, individually their best songs are a match for the many highs of the Go-Betweens repertoire, and the group performed them as dramatically as the Australians’ classic four-strong line-up. Like the Verlaines and the Chills, the music of Sneaky Feelings deserves a place in your own personal canon.