Graded on a Curve:
The Clean,
Compilation

Over the decades there have been many bands in the post-Velvets guitar-rock sweepstakes, but none better than The Clean, New Zealand’s on-again off-again kings of post-punk/DIY string splendor and one of the cornerstones of the whole Flying Nun sound. In 1988, the generically titled Compilation LP helped introduce to world to their brilliance.

In the world of heavy-duty record collecting, single artist compilations are often viewed like a small army of redheaded stepchildren. The words Best Of and Greatest Hits are the tip off to a certain type of casual abbreviation, a CliffsNotes or Condensed Classics treatment for careers that obviously encompass much more than can be adequately summarized through the cherry-picking of chart-toppers or the most noteworthy tunes of an artist or act.

But sometimes these comps provide a valuable service in the procurement of music that was originally released on 78 RPM discs or vinyl 45s, records that would be tremendously difficult to obtain in their original form. Indeed, there is a big difference in perception between a lowly Best Of cash-in and a well-ordered anthology presenting often scarce and forbiddingly pricey material.

You want the easiest route to The Falcons, a ‘50’s-‘60s R&B group with members that included Eddie Floyd, Sir Mack Rice, Joe Stubbs, and Wilson Pickett? Well, that would be You’re So Fine and I’ve Found a Love, a pair of far from perfect yet basically indispensible LPs chronicling this historically titanic acts’ progress for the Lupine and Flick labels. You want to taste the root of jazz via New Orleans in the ‘20s? Any physical format other than shellac that holds Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens is a comp, some obviously better than others. You want the full picture on the early belladonna-whacked work of Siouxsie and the Banshees? Then please don’t neglect Once Upon a Time: The Singles.

In 1981 The Clean began a quick spate of recording, making quite a ripple in their homeland, a hubbub that would take a few years to travel the oceans beyond their shores as one of the earliest and finest examples of the Kiwi nation’s Flying Nun record label. Featuring Robert Scott and the brothers David and Hamish Kilgour (with early assistance from Peter Gutteridge and Doug Hood), this band forms one of the four pillars upon which the whole Flying Nun experience rests, the others being Tall Dwarfs, The Chills, and The Verlaines.

Naturally, there was a premium of other interesting names that add to the picture. For starters; The Pin Group, Bill Direen, Doublehappys, Sneaky Feelings, The Rip, Look Blue Go Purple, The Gordons, The Stones, and Scorched Earth Policy. But the above foursome was responsible for carrying the torch that broke Flying Nun on an international level, and for good reason. They had staying power, all being still active upon the global issue of their formative work, and they were arguably the best bands New Zealand produced between ‘80 and ‘85.

Tall Dwarfs connected like a very personal two-man DIY extension of stripped-down Syd Barrett-esque psyche moves, The Chills examined a similar zone and grew conversant with the style of Brian Wilson, The Verlaines presented a pop complexity that nodded toward classical music and advanced balladry, and completing the picture, The Clean took their biggest cue from The Velvet Underground.

But The Clean weren’t your standard bearers of the VU torch, clad in horizontal-striped shirts and sporting sunglasses indoors, acting all aloof and pouty. No, they were instead completely caught up in the liberating possibilities of the riff, and this places them in league with their American Jerseyite contemporaries, The Feelies. And whilst on the subject of the Garden State, by the time of Compilation’s arrival in the US, The Clean was also quite analogous with the fledgling work of Yo La Tengo.

However, even if they had a few stylistic Yank cohorts, the band still provided a life-affirming gulp of fresh, crisp air on shores stateside, for theirs was an emotionally direct music unhampered by the baggage so prevalent during the period; there were no grandiose concepts withering upon arrival, no straining for credibility or displays of posturing, no fatal confusion of form and content. And unlike so many (often great) American bands of the late ‘80s, The Clean were not suffused in angst, rage or other anti-social qualities, so if Mom dropped by the apartment with some delicious peach cobbler, there would be no need to change the music if Compilation was on the box.

And once bought, it was almost inevitable that it would spend much time on said box. Infectious and addictive in its unlabored pop-rock ingenuity, the LP received a ton of play. And like so many stone classics of the LP era, slabs flaunting a perfect balance of energy and brevity, it wasn’t enough to just jam this record in the house; it was also necessary to transfer its contents to cassette for ample car listening as well as for sharing in the domiciles of those poor souls bereft of a turntable.

Compilation arrived in the midst of Homestead Records’ American licensing of Flying Nun material from all four of the abovementioned groups. Notably, every band had a comp to its credit; The Chills with Kaleidoscope World, The Verlaines with Juvenilia, Tall Dwarfs with Hello Cruel World and The Clean with the trim beauty that’s the subject of this review. Anyone looking for a solid point of entry into what’s known as the Dunedin Sound (named after their shared city of residence) would be wise to begin with this suave quartet.

It’s no easy task to decide which of these monsters stands as the finest collection of previously issued material, but I’m far more comfortable declaring Compilation as the savviest. Grabbing tracks from five different sources, it represents none of those releases in their entirety, and yet it still basks as an absolute triumph of sequencing.

In 1981 The Clean issued the “Tally Ho” single and ended up with an unlikely hit, the song climbing to #19 on the New Zealand charts. Their follow-up EP Boodle Boodle Boodle was an even bigger success, heading to #4. In 1982 they released the “Getting Older” single, the Odditties cassette and the Great Sounds Great EP before going on hiatus for much of the ‘80s and splintering into other groups; Robert Scott had The Bats and Electric Blood, David and Hamish had The Great Unwashed. Early member Gutteridge also released the Pure cassette for the Xpressway label.

Even if they’d never reformed, The Clean would still stand as one of rock music’s most laudable bands, and Compilation would be their calling card. While of definite Velvet’s descent, the band was also a direct repercussion from the grand fallout of 1977. Therefore, they were quite the study of assorted post-punk styles applicable to their sound. And for a band that relied on simplicity to such fine ends, their sound was especially varied; this was mainly due to being the product of so many strong songwriters.

Compilation opens with “Billy Two,” as perfect a hunk of emphatic strumming as has ever been waxed, a tune that gains so much of its verve from a back-to-basics sensibility and a defiant modesty in production (recorded on 4-track by Doug Hood and Tall Dwarfs’ Chris Knox) and yet still has the stones to toss in a backwards-tracked guitar bit; The Clean might’ve been born from punk, but they clearly weren’t afraid of the ‘60s.

One of the band’s best qualities is its penchant for well-conceived instrumentals; this record holds two, “At the Bottom” and “Fish,” and both carry that VU framework to a very specific end, particularly through Hamish’s unflaggingly tough and precise drumming. And “Odditty” is the boldest indication of The Clean’s punk genesis, a passionate, raucous number that stands up tall next to anything the style has to offer. Its closest spiritual sibling on Compilation might be the lean post-punk of “Getting Older,” a magnificent tune with well-placed trumpet tones and a biting chorus of “why don’t you do yourself in?”

And it’s a record loaded end-to-end with high-points; the sing-along melodicism of “Anything Can Happen,” the doomy surf of “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” the sweet ache of the Scott-sung “Flowers.” But it’s in the use on select cuts of a wondrously cheap organ that’s perhaps their ace in the hole, most famously on “Tally Ho,” but also through “Beatnik” (which also displays the band’s sense of humor), “Slug Song” and most distinctly via the faultless melancholy of album closer “Whatever I Do Is Right.”

In 2002 Flying Nun and Merge Records unveiled Anthology, a two CD collection that greatly expanded upon the band’s ’81-’83 era on the first disc with choice selections from later albums on the second. It was surely a must have for fans of the band, and its content doubtlessly inspired new converts. Some even proposed that the once vital Compilation was rendered obsolete, but apparently that wasn’t the case; the small but fabulous concern Mississippi Records repressed the LP in ’08, where it connected with a whole new batch of listeners.

Compilation isn’t about tidy summarization or exhaustive annotation. Instead, it gleans a dozen tracks from those early releases and morphs into a document of one of the greatest (and by extension, most unheralded) bands that ever existed. While I won’t be there to witness it, I’m pleased as pie to see that The Clean is playing this weekend’s Chaos in Tejas festival in Austin, TX. If you are in the vicinity and care about any of the music referenced above, their set should be destination #1.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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