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Late Friday afternoons were often a good time to visit Roy Colbert’s Records Records shop, if only because a dozen or so vinyl offcasts could be swapped for a handful of coin, perfect for a teenager’s weekend plans.
Yet this place, a mere Frisbee throw from Dunedin’s Octagon, was more than a quick source of cash. Before Spotify, iTunes, Beats Music, even Napster (yes Napster is back), here was a tactile, loud yet quiet (in a meditative sense) space in which some albums gleamed like gems, whispering for attention amid the dregs and the dire.
Some people didn’t come to scan records. They’d come to chat, to sound out the opinion of Colbert or, in some cases, sound off about their own tastes. As an early 1980s newspaper advertisement suggests, there was "lots of room on the floor for guitar cases", as well as a black and white television on which to watch international cricket.
Arguably, Colbert’s business, which opened in 1971, could have gone by other names — the magic roundabout, or the incubator, perhaps — given it helped shape the Dunedin Sound era of the early 1980s. Frequented by musicians from bands such as The Enemy, The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings and Bored Games, its wooden floorboards bore the weight of various musical ambitions.
In celebration of the shop that helped spawn a music movement, the Dunedin Fringe Festival is hosting an installation that aims to recreate — or, more accurately, reimagine — Records Records.
Titled "Anything Could Happen: Strange Echoes of the Dunedin Sound," the project — to be held in the Robbie Burns Pub on George St, will feature an extensive collection of memorabilia as well as host a range of performances over three days early next month.
"The idea was to recreate Records Records, which was an iconic meeting place," co-organiser Sarah Spicer explains, adding the overall idea is to treat the Dunedin Sound as a living, evolving entity. An oft-used term, the Dunedin Sound encapsulates dozens of bands who adopted as their core instrument the electric guitar and typically eschewed rock posturing in favour of exploring repetition and minimalism, albeit with ’60s-era songwriting craft underpinning many songs.
Sparked by the punk energy of Chris Knox’s The Enemy in the late 1970s, The Clean’s seminal 1981 EP Boodle Boodle Boodle, the 1982 Dunedin Double album (featuring The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings and The Stones), a pool of young songwriters and musicians from unfashionable Dunedin created a legacy that was largely borne on the spinning vinyl (and, later, CDs) of Christchurch-based record label Flying Nun.
Their intriguing mix of approaches, initially along with a DIY recording ethos, pricked the ears of overseas fans. Thus a relatively small city at the bottom of the world got to lay claim to its own breed of music, á la Liverpool (Merseybeat), Seattle (grunge), Nashville (country) and Detroit (Motown/soul), to name a few.
A regular at Records Records, The Chills founder Martin Phillipps was not unlike others whose fingers glided over the rows and rows of vinyl offcasts: a music fan who wrote songs enjoyed by other music fans.
Kaleidoscope World, Rolling Moon, Pink Frost, In The Doledrums, I Love My Leather Jacket . . . on the back of support from a range of labels (including Flying Nun, Warners/Slash and London Records), The Chills’ music eventually found its way into lounges in the UK, Europe and the US, and was promoted by influential DJs, including late BBC host John Peel.
"The greater part of my musical education took place in that shop, under the guidance of Roy Colbert," Phillipps told the Otago Daily Times in an interview marking the closure of Records Records in 2010, five years after Colbert had sold the business to musician Patrick Faigan, who later moved it from Stuart St to a Princes St location.
Colbert recalls his shop offered a mutually beneficial arrangement: "Dunedin’s many record-lovers, including many of those who became key figures in the Dunedin Sound, kept the bins full by constantly bringing in the very music a used-record dealer dreams about. The Dunedin Sound was strongly influenced by ’60s record collections.
"And then there were the confused parents, who would stagger in with their absent son’s — record collectors are almost all male — priceless collections, explaining how they were in New York and would never return. ‘Are these of any use?’ they would ask. I still dream about seeing those cartons being brought through the door."
Speaking from Auckland, where she has recently been appointed head of drama at Diocesan School for Girls, Spicer says she met Colbert about four years ago, after she had taken up a similar position at Logan Park High School. Colbert’s wife, Christine, works in the department.
"That’s how I discovered the Dunedin Sound. I got to know Roy, who was such a big part of that scene," she explains.
"I had met Roy a few times at various plays and events but ... it was a funny moment when I realised that I had known the godfather of the Dunedin Sound without knowing it. He is a great friend and source of information. He has made me playlists, introduced me to people and clued me up on everything I need to know."
Last year, Spicer visited the United States as part of a prestigious literary scholarship. While there she met various people who were fans of Dunedin bands.
"When I mentioned where I was living they got really excited. I realised I should learn a bit more, so that’s when I really got into the music and thought about planning an event.
"The city still buzzes about the Dunedin Sound. It has a very special community. People are precious about it. That’s why it’s important to have a community-based approach.
"The idea is to recreate Records Records. It’s a time capsule: you go back to Roy’s shop," Spicer says, adding she has enlisted the help of staff at the Hocken Library, which has a large collection of Dunedin Sound memorabilia.
"Luckily, we still have people like Graeme Downes and Shayne Carter in our midst and I met with them ... People are lending us things, too."
Yet the Fringe Festival project is no static display: there will be a range of guest performers, including younger artists influenced by the Dunedin Sound; visitors will be invited to bring along their favourite old cassettes and participate in a mixtape art gallery; Los Angeles broadcaster KCHUNG Radio will be playing Dunedin music for the duration of the Fringe production; and there will also be a related multimedia at Los Angeles arts space Machine Project. Although she wouldn’t disclose the entire festival programme ("The idea is the audience doesn’t know who they are going to see ...") Spicer did confirm Downes, Carter and "people from other bands at the time" would perform.
"We are also going out to a number of schools around Dunedin. We will be doing community-based stuff in the day-time. But in the early evening we will have performances by more established artists."
There are also plans to expand the project.
"The next stage, after the Fringe, will be to convert an area of the Athenaeum Library [in the Octagon] into a two-level performance space.
"We have been given a grant from the Dunedin City Council to investigate a Dunedin Sound festival in the future. We are looking to the long term but we need to make sure we have got this first stage right."
Reflecting the Dunedin Sound’s international ripple-effect, Spicer has enlisted the help of Adam Samuel Goldman, a Los Angeles-based music producer and composer who has remixed David Bowie and covered Prince for SPIN magazine’s Purplish Rain compilation as well as released his own albums.
Goldman, who arrived in the city on Thursday to help organise the Records Records project, recalls it was a song by The Verlaines that opened the door to a plethora of Dunedin music.
"In the early ’90s, in upstate New York, the hippest person I knew made me a mixtape of her favorite indie and legacy bands: Alex Chilton, the Modern Lovers, Lucinda Williams, Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, Richard and Linda Thompson — all classics or soon to be. And the song I kept returning to was an exotic gem called Bird Dog, by The Verlaines.
"Long before Google, it was difficult to get information on them, which just added to the mystique. But slowly, record by record, zine by zine, the puzzle pieces came together, and I got an incomplete but tantalizing picture of this thing some people called the Dunedin Sound.
"Naturally, I wondered, ‘What the hell is going on over there on that island?’. The Clean, The Chills, Look Blue Go Purple, The DoubleHappys, Snapper, Chris Knox, Dead C, The Bats, The 3Ds, etc ... it seemed impossible."
It begged the question: "What set off this explosion of brilliant music?"
The answer to that might well be found in a new round of chat amid memorabilia and music. Or it could rest somewhere between the record crates and crackle of conversations that echoed in a store now closed.
• Anything Could Happen: Strange Echoes of the Dunedin Sound will be staged at the Robbie Burns Pub, George St, Dunedin, from March 16-18.