Play a new song, play a different way

The Beatniks waiting to catch the new wave. Photo: Peter Mcintosh
The Beatniks waiting to catch the new wave. Photo: Peter Mcintosh
Dunedin needs a new sound.

For too long now, artists have wallowed in the expectations of the ’80s. Waves of Flying Nun nostalgia serve to suppress and condemn the new sounds spinning out of the university and elsewhere.

Jazz pianists lament, blues bassists shed a tear and surf rockers scream for freedom from the tyranny of a sound which has captivated the city for decades. Set them free.

Nothing will ever trump the cultural importance of the "Dunedin Sound" to the city, but I think it’s about time we change our outlook.

But we’ll get to that ... first, I’m going to defend my position by saying how devoted I am to the Dunedin Sound (or I would be undoubtedly written off from the start).

Simple, sure, but the slightly flat vocals and clanging central riffs paired with punkish lyrics and vibe make for something special.

Death and the Maiden by The Verlaines epitomises the genre for me, but I’m no expert on the subject. Influential both nationally and internationally, the Dunedin Sound will always have a special place in the city’s cultural tapestry as a symbol of what Dunedin truly is.

Despite Flying Nun being a Christchurch creation, it’s not a far stretch to say that the Dunedin Sound is one of the most prominent cultural moments in the city’s history ... probably.

Yet times have changed. The Dunedin Sound now only lingers in nostalgic covers and musical odes.

Its influence is far-reaching but subtle, it does not necessarily define the music being produced by the up-and-comers within the city.

Yet, a new wave of Dunedin Sound propaganda is being produced which would have one thinking that this kind of music is all the city has ever known. The Flying Nun exhibition at the Hocken is the chief example of this, along with books by Ian Chapman and Richard Langston, all serving to aggrandise this hallowed era.

But isn’t it all a bit much? Sure, nostalgia can be an innocent thing but not when it blinds people to the present.

The trouble with the overabundance of Flying Nun in Dunedin’s musical sphere is that it prevents people from going out and seeing other acts. Besides the gigs played by legendary stalwarts like Robert Scott and Chris "Shakes" Prendergast, most of the current acts playing gigs in the city are greatly divorced from Dunedin’s musical roots.

Five minutes listening to Radio 1 (the student radio station) will make you aware of how unique and creatively inspired the music being produced in Dunedin is.

The Verlaines in 1983. Photo: ODT files
The Verlaines in 1983. Photo: ODT files
I can really only speak for the surf-rock coming out of the student scene, but I know a wealth of post-punk, jazz and rock flows forth from gigs across the city.

The Beatniks and IVY, two bands which have struck the city with fiery intent last year, are perfect examples of a new kind of sound. The Beatniks, indebted to the Dunedin Sound in name only, merge pop with existential rock to create a passionate blend of sound which you’ve likely never heard. IVY centre lyrical metaphors around wrenching basslines and a post-punk sound to take you on a grungy musical journey which is nonetheless captivating.

Each band is filled with energy and has the potential to light the city on fire in the coming years.

It would probably be an overstatement to say that the nostalgia of the Dunedin Sound is standing in the way of IVY and The Beatniks because they’ve done fine without the leg-up from a wider muso community.

Yet, for the growth of these bands and others like it, we need to open the city up to change. This is a particularly salient argument when considering the current war which live music is waging in Dunedin. 

With noise complaints and the gradual decline of venues, bands are being squeezed into an uncomfortable position with gigs being few and far between. This makes it so much more important for people to turn up in their droves when bands are playing to encourage the gig revival in the city which we are all desperately willing on.

But people won’t go to gigs if they’re still head over heels in love with the Dunedin Sound. The musical talent is there — all that’s now needed is the interest which comes from paying closer attention to the current musical trends of the city.

Let the tyranny of the Dunedin sound end. Open your ears to the new tunes coming out of the current gig scene. 

If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine — indulge in your Flying Nun memorabilia to your hearts content. But in all likelihood, listening to the new sounds of the current Dunedin music scene may leave your ears wanting more.

In freeing ourselves from the shackles of the "Dunedin Sound" the city may be restored as a muso’s town, one brimming with hope for the future.

 - Hugh Askerud is a 20-year-old local resident and student at the University of Otago, majoring in politics and religious studies.