The CLEAN – ” The Albums “

Posted: December 17, 2022 in MUSIC

The Clean a South Island New Zealand indie rock band that formed in Dunedin in 1978. They have been described as the most influential band to come from the Flying Nun label, which recorded many artists associated with the “Dunedin sound”.

Led through a number of early rotating line-ups by brothers Hamish and David Kilgour, the band settled on their well-known and current line-up with bassist Robert Scott. The band chose their name from a character from the movie Free Ride called Mr. Clean. Hamish and David Kilgour started to play and write music together in Dunedin in 1978, “building up a fat songbook of primitive punk, minimalist pop, infectious folk rock, and adventurous psychedelic instrumentals. Their sound was built around David Kilgour’s off-kilter, 1960s-influenced guitar, Hamish’s motorik drumming, and melodic driving bass, first from Peter Gutteridge, then Robert Scott“.

The trio, which always wrote collectively, with all three members switching off on lead vocals, has reunited with inconsistent consistency, resulting in a bunch of new records and live performances from a group most fans thought they’d never hear or see again.

Back in Dunedin in late 1980, the Kilgours picked up Robert Scott on bass, completing the group’s classic line-up. The band’s 1981 debut single “Tally Ho!” was the second release on Roger Shepherd’s Flying Nun Records label. Other major tunes instantly memorable songs including ‘Anything Could Happen’, ‘Beatnik’ and ‘Getting Older’ and the lengthier drone of “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” Clean songs were exercises in unbridled minimalism and maximum impact. David Kilgour didn’t play a lot of notes, but his guitar provided a haunting, half- psychedelic, half-spy-movie tone, with sleek, fuzzy lines that could lay down a trance and inspire sing-song silliness. 

The Clean operated in fits and starts for the next four decades and beyond, exploring the confluence of noise and melody on essential early singles and EPs as well as branching into different articulations of their sound on full-length albums like 1994’s “Modern Rock” and 2009’s “Mister Pop”. The band remained sporadically active — including U.S. tours in 2012 and 2014 — until Hamish Kilgour’s death in 2022.

Boodle Boodle Boodle

A defining moment in New Zealand music history. In September 1981, The Clean – brothers David and Hamish Kilgour, and Robert Scott – entered a makeshift studio in Auckland’s Arch Hill and emerged with “Boodle Boodle Boodle”, one of the country’s landmark records.

The five-song EP, recorded by Chris Knox and Doug Hood and released on Flying Nun Records, followed the jangly single ‘Tally Ho!’, which had come out that same year and found its way to number 19 in the New Zealand charts. But “Boodle” would push things even further, eventually peaking within the top five and spending a good six months hanging around on the chart. Not bad for a handful of songs that commercial radio refused to play.

Through 1981 and 1982 they placed a string of vibrant indie EPs and singles in the New Zealand Top 20. The keyboard-driven classic groovy organ swing of  ‘Beatnik’ from their second the seven-track EP “Great Sounds Great Good Sounds Good, So-So Sounds So-So, Bad Sounds Bad, Rotten Sounds Rotten!!”..aided by heavy touring The third release from The Clean, and their second 12-inch EP from June 1982. 

But for most of the 1980s, The Clean had disbanded; but during this time, the Kilgour brothers worked together on an experimental album and EP with the deliberately pun titles “The Great Unwashed” and “Clean Out of Our Minds”.

Even with the group in abeyance “The Odditties” compilation tape of unreleased material appeared in July 1983, followed by a live EP, “Live Dead Clean“, in 1986, and a greatest hits collection called “Compilation” and second “Odditties” tape in 1988. In 2003, the two-disc compilation “Anthology“, released through Merge Records, which awakened new interest in the band in the US, building on an international reputation that had been enhanced by endorsements from prominent 1990s indie groups such as Pavement and Yo La Tengo.

Compilation” collects some, but not all, of the early stuff, including highlights from the two EPs and “Tally Ho!”; the import CD tacks on six live tracks. “Odditties” is just that, the veritable odds-and-sods collection; originally released on cassette, the CD also has extra material. And as the title would suggest, “Live Dead Clean” (recorded in ’81 and ’82, with several songs not found on the previous vinyl releases) was thought to be posthumous. But before that record even came out, there was already the Great Unwashed, which saw the Kilgour brothers taking up with original bassist (and one-time Chill member, though practically every Kiwi musician can say that) Peter Gutteridge in the place of Robert Scott, who’d gone and started the Bats. Just to further confuse the discography, the “Odditties 2” cassette mingles outtakes and live tracks (from ’79 to ’84) by the Clean and the Great Unwashed.

In July 1988, Kilgour, Kilgour and Scott played a reunion gig at the Fulham Greyhound in London, resulting in the sublime and frenzied “In-a-Live” EP, which features five of the band’s best old songs (“Fish,” “Anything Could Happen,” “Flowers,” “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” “Whatever I Do Is Right”), recorded, amazingly enough, on a 16-track board. 

Vehicle

The Clean made what was technically its very first album. “Vehicle” finds the band in immaculate form, churning out little diamond cuts of nervous guitar, earnest vocal harmonies and pesky little hooks that sting, tickle and shock. The sound quality is better and the rhythms more elastic, but otherwise it’s as if they never left. “Draw(in)g to a (W)hole,” “Dunes,” “Big Cat” and “Diamond Shine” would all be candidates for the best little singles in the world if they came in 7-inch form; songs like “Home” and “I Can See” are gorgeously shimmering ballads.

The Clean toured some in support of “Vehicle” and then scattered again. David began a solo career, Robert continued with the Bats and Hamish moved to New York, where he and his wife formed the Mad Scene.

Like lovers who could never quite say goodbye, the group reunited in 1994 to record a new album. “Modern Rock” was released in late 1995, followed by “Unknown Country” in 1996. The trio went their separate ways yet again.

Modern Rock

Modern Rock” was recorded and released. Suggesting influences like the Velvet Underground, Nick Drake and maybe even Stereolab (though the Clean has always wielded the same sort of rolling keyboard trickery), it’s a more grown-up affair that floats off-kilter melodies and tiny tensile guitar in a slower, softer swirl of cloudy organ lines and spacey electric piano textures, with liberal use of strings and folk instruments. 

The archly titled “Modern Rock”, slyly digging at the tag often applied to the band’s music in earlier years, a la “college rock,” finds the trio merrily making its way through fourteen gently rocking, gently chiming originals. Though recorded over only ten days, the combined experience and ability of the three members allowed them to whip up a fairly elaborate set of songs, as indicated by some of the intriguing arrangements. The spacey echo on the keyboards for “Outside the Cage” and spectral backing vocals on “Something I Need” are two highlights among many.

There’s also a pleasant low fuzz at points bespeaking both the continuing influence of the Velvet Underground and New Zealand’s vaunted tape subculture that seems just right for the proceedings. Hearing Scott’s vocals on a slightly different tip than his work in the Bats is especially a treat — after the series of eternally sparkling jangle-rock he’s made his own, hearing more consciously experimental touches behind his voice makes a fine contrast. The Kilgours continue in their own particular veins, with everyone trading around vocals in a fairly even split. Those familiar with the band mostly through “Tally Ho!” or the other earlier work will find this version of the Clean — generally calmer in many areas, downright reflective or melancholic in more — an intriguing change. The members have matured, but in such a way as not to sound like typically sleepy midlife crises come to life.

Unknown Country

Originally released in 1996, The Clean’s “Unknown Country” makes its debut appearance on vinyl in the US on March 2021.

Of this album, The Clean’s David Kilgour writes, “The Clean always wanna try something different, but on this LP, we were obsessed with the idea.” Bandmate Robert Scott agrees, saying, “I really enjoyed recording this as it was free of expectation. Certainly our most experimental album.”

Unknown Country” seems to be the sound of a group of songwriters and performers who don’t have the time or energy to dedicate to an album, showing little of the jangling, interesting pop/rock charms found in the band members’ full-time groups, the Bats and Bailter Space. The Clean is a supergroup gone sour. Making matters worse, there are a number of mind-numbing instrumental interludes that drag the album down.

Highlights such as “Happy Lil Fella” and “Clutch” sound like lesser tracks from the artists’ full-time bands. “Happy Lil Fella” sounds like a B-side to a song from the Bats’ Silverbeet. “Clutch” displays a heavy Chills vibe. “Rope” shows that the Clean had been following the work of Matador artists; it sounds like Pavement gone New Zealand. “Cooking Water” and “Wall Walk” might as well be Bailter Space on a bland day. The album couldn’t be more unfocused. It’s as if members of the Clean went into the studio with no ideas and simply toyed with sounds from their pasts and their peers, to no good effect. There’s not an ounce of passion in the music.

Getaway (Deluxe 2016 Remaster)

After time spent away working on solo projects and with other bands, the trio got back together in 2000 for a festival in their Dunedin hometown, they stayed together for more shows and a new album, “Getaway”, which was released in 2001 on Merge Records and featured guests Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo.

Great album, great reissue. The piano-based “Slush Fund” versions are really something else. Favourite track: “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” (Slush Fund Version).

The Clean always had a hard time staying apart. Through the years, they would go their separate ways to work on other bands, like “the Bats” for one shining example, or on solo careers, but some inescapable force always drew them back together. When they made 2001’s “Getaway”, the Kilgour brothers, David and Hamish, and Robert Scott hadn’t made a record together in four years, yet it’s clear from the opening notes of the first song, the prettily droning “Stars,” that their almost telepathic chemistry was still as strong as ever.

The album features plenty of the sprightly, noisy jangle pop the trio is best known for while also taking side trips into lengthy guitar workouts, folky instrumentals, sweet indie pop ballads, and the occasional bit of jaunty rock & roll. Some of the songs have the kind of hooky melodies of their best work; some of them have a pleasantly off-kilter approach that is also reminiscent of their best work. The studio-fresh production and the graceful ease the three play the songs with means that “Getaway” lacks some of the scrappy youthfulness of their early recordings. They make up for it by exhibiting excess amounts of tender melodicism and sonic imagination, enough to make the record an under-the-radar indie rock gem. It’s no coincidence that two members of one of the bands considered indie rock’s best make guest appearances here; Ira and Georgia of Yo La Tengo owe plenty to the Clean, and their being on the record is a tribute to both the Clean’s historical importance and their continuing mastery.

Mister Pop

The Clean continue to release records “Mister Pop” in 2009, The Clean were the seeds of New Zealand punk. They carved out a big sandbox for everyone to play in, and their influence resonated not only in NZ but around the world. This fall’s “Mister Pop” sees The Clean continue the great pop pastiche. Circus ragas (“Moonjumper”), hazy sunset anthems (“In the Dreamlife You Need a Rubber Soul”), and the loose Dada approach to word-smithery continue alongside “proper” lyrical forays and a few Autobahn-referential instro moments to boot (“Tensile”).

Over the next few years the band kept playing shows, a few of which were documented on limited-edition live albums — 2001’s Slush Fund, 2003’s Syd’s Pink Wiring System, and 2008’s Mashed. The trio ended the decade with a new studio album, 2009’s Mister Pop, then spent the next year playing a select set of concerts around the globe.

Once back home, they began sessions for a possible new album, but abandoned them after the catastrophic earthquake that hit New Zealand in early 2011. They got back together to tour the next year, playing some shows in the U.S. They did the same in 2014, and then in early 2015 played two concerts in Australia. In the years that followed, the members of the Clean turned to other projects. Scott with the Bats and both Kilgour brothers with solo work.

The Clean discography

  • Vehicle (1990)
  • Modern Rock (1994)
  • Unknown Country (1996)
  • Getaway (2001)
  • Mister Pop (2009)

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