Label lives on at the Hocken

Xpressway Records' Bruse Russell (left) with The Dead C bandmates Robbie Yeats (centre) and...
Xpressway Records' Bruse Russell (left) with The Dead C bandmates Robbie Yeats (centre) and Michael Morley in 1989. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Xpressway Records collected an eclectic and significant snapshot of the live music scene in the 1980s and early '90s, writes Amanda Mills. 

Consider this: it's the mid-1980s in Dunedin, and there are local bands galore playing live over a weekend. However, you have to make a choice on which one to see, unsure if you will get to see them again for a while. You make your choice on which bands to see, hoping someone else can report back on the ones you missed, all the while knowing you will probably never hear the performance. Or so you thought ... not knowing that someone recorded the show.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Port Chalmers-based Xpressway Records was the home to many local independent musicians.

Founded in late 1988 by Bruce Russell (of The Dead C), Xpressway was formed in response to Flying Nun merging with Australia's Mushroom records and subsequently letting many of its ``less profitable'' artists go. The label ran until 1993, when Russell wound up the business and donated the papers, posters and recordings to Hocken Collections. The recordings - all on cassette - are particularly significant to Dunedin's musical lineage: live performances of local (and beyond) bands captured from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s at local, and not-so-local, venues. Many names are familiar: The Bats, Tall Dwarfs, 3Ds, Look Blue Go Purple, The Terminals and DoubleHappys (to name a few) are all featured, and one DoubleHappys cassette is early enough to feature their notorious, unreliable drum machine Herbie.

The Chills' Doledrums advertisement from 1984. Photo: Bruce Russell collection/ Hocken posters...
The Chills' Doledrums advertisement from 1984. Photo: Bruce Russell collection/ Hocken posters collection.

The cassette recordings were never available to buy commercially, and are unique live recordings, or demo recordings. They are mostly lo-fi - while some performances were recorded from the mixing desk, most were taped on a portable cassette recorder.

This explains why it can be a mixed bag in terms of sound quality. Some recordings are clear and capture musical and lyrical nuances, but others are less detailed.

Some of the artists represented on these recordings did not last the decade, while others still perform regularly and continue to create new material today.

Many recordings are significant: one of the DoubleHappys' final Dunedin shows (``Live at the Oriental'', June 1, 1985) before band member Wayne Elsey's untimely death, is captured in this collection, as is a 1983 Palmerston North show by The Stones and an early performance by Bailterspace in Christchurch at The Carlton.

Recordings by Sferic Experiment, Olla, Son of Goblin Mix, The Rip and Stephen, among others, complete this eclectic and significant snapshot of the live music scene in the 1980s. Most of the artists recorded were signed to, or associated with, Flying Nun or Xpressway, and these live recordings or demos are an invaluable accompaniment to the music they officially released.

The Xpressway cassettes are only one part of the wider Xpressway materials held at the Hocken; records of the label (correspondence, documents, promotional material, cashbooks, mail orders etc) are housed in Hocken's archival collections. Related gig posters, such as that for The Chills' Doledrums single that illustrates this article, arrived as part of the materials and now reside in Hocken's poster collections. These archives and posters are available to view at Hocken Collections in consultation with staff, while the cassette recordings are available to listen to on request, along with further officially released recordings from the label. Please be aware that due to storage conditions for cassettes, they require 24 hours' acclimatisation before playback on Hocken's audiovisual equipment.

The Hocken is open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm, and you can view and listen to Xpressway materials, as well as material from many other collections, during those times.

Take a look

The Hocken offers free guided tours (maximum of 10 people) of the collections on Wednesdays at 11am and 2pm. Bookings are not required. Hocken Collections, 90 Anzac Ave, Dunedin, (03)479-8868 or otago.ac.nz/hocken

Amanda Mills is Curator Music & AV at the Hocken Library.

 

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