The opening of Hellzapoppin’! The Art of Flying Nun in August 2021 at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū is no coincidence. It celebrates to the month, forty years ago that Roger Shepherd, then a record store manager in Christchurch established Flying Nun, its first ten years of recording the predominant subject of a survey exhibition of the original artwork, record covers, posters, videos, photographs, design and paintings by predominantly members of the labels’ various bands, musicians and associated designers and artists.
While debate still fires up among music critics and musicians in Aotearoa about the critical role that Flying Nun played in the post-punk music scene in the 1980s, while Wellington and Auckland saw the emergence of bands that included Beat Rhythm Fashion and The Mockers, (both from Wellington) the anchor of a record label with a distinct attitude and personality has seen Shepherd’s Flying Nun remembered as the sound of that period. Certainly, The Clean, Straitjacket Fits and The Chills are high on the list of bands contributing to such perceptions and memories.
Curated by Peter Vangioni from the Christchurch Art Gallery, he admits that he made the decision to move to Christchurch in the late 1980s to study at the University of Canterbury, based on the premise that the city was the centre for many of Flying Nun’s bands and venues. Bringing together the album covers and associated objects, films and works of art, making up over 300 objects for Hellzapoppin’!, he comments with significant pleasure that the exhibition is ‘more work than your standard art exhibition. Each band involved has been an absolute treat to communicate with, its band members and their records, and the artists who have brought their music to visual life: Chris Knox, Lesley Maclean, Ronnie van Hout, Robert Scott, Alec Bathgate, John Halvorsen, John Collie, Jane Dodd, Martin Phillipps and many more’.
The punk music scene that dominated a number of pubs and bars in the early 1980s, that included The Gladstone and Hillsborough saw them evolve into regular venues for Flying Nun Bands, and it is important to note that the involvement of artist Ronnie Van Hout, a student at the Ilam School of Fine Art, during that period and contributor to record covers and singles for The Pin Group and Sneaky Feelings, was part of a wider association between the music and the SFA in the early 1980s that also included a transitioning punk scene into experimental sound music. (Student/sculptor Graham Snowden’s group And Band’s continuous noise performance in 1980 at the University of Canterbury represented a wall of sound that drove all those initially wishing to attend from the venue).
Vangioni says that with Flying Nun, Chris Knox is everywhere. ‘He was a musician, sound engineer, song writer, and he did album art for himself, his own records and for other bands, making posters, making video he did The Clean video for Tally Ho) and little advertisements that would go in Rip It Up magazine. Ronnie van Hout also features large in the exhibition. In addition to his design of the publication accompanying Hellzapoppin’! and a limited edition poster, van Hout’s observations about Flying Nun, are enlightening. He observes; ‘hanging out with those artists at that time was more important than going to art school.... It came out of a period of high unemployment and many of us had gone through a utopian education system that left us ill-equipped for the emerging dystopia’. And although Flying Nun is often described as representing a DIY attitude (do it yourself) , van Hout identifies it as ‘more BYO than DIY’.
Vangioni is also impressed by the number of records that Shepherd released for his Flying Nun label in Christchurch. ‘The Clean’s Boodle, Boodle, Boodle, 1981, provided the model. There is a modesty unassuming strength about them. They are the Dunedin band, being pre-digital and hands on in their recording and album art’.
‘Hellzapoppin’! goes to the mid-1990s but the period from 1981 to 1988 is dominant. The exhibition is made up of some original paintings used on records, and that includes John Collie’s Bird-Dog painting for The Verlaines’ LP of the same name in 1987and beautiful original prints by Michael Morley for The Dead C. Ronnie van Hout did all three covers for the records by Roy Montgomery’s The Pin Group, 1981-82 and 25 Cents, 1982. Designed by Matthew Campbell Downes and Stuart Page Ballon D’Essai, This is the Level Crossing, 1982, also included a comic book’.
‘Lesley Maclean was a student at CPIT School of Art and Design and she did posters for Flying Nun, including Builders, 1985, using a series of mylar sheets and cutting out the shapes by hand with a swivel knife, different sheets for different colours, like a screen print. She got to see and know all the bands. Michael Reed was teaching print making at CPIT at that time and he taught her’.
‘The exhibition has original artworks relating to specific record covers including Rolling Moon by The Chills - The original drawing for it. Martin Phillipps was self-taught and he liked comic books in particular. Jane Dodd, who was also in The Chills and The Verlaines is now a contemporary jeweller represented in Christchurch by The National. Self-taught , she did the labels on side one and side two for their single, Death and the Maiden, and these are related her silkscreened posters for The Verlaines.
‘A lot of the musicians were doing beautiful art. Up to about number 83 of the Flying Nun records, each of them had their own label, done by artist-friends or members of the band. They were creators using whatever was available. By the late-1980s there was less of the hand production and less of the DIY’.
In 1987, Flying Nun bands stopped doing their own labels for their records and Vangioni highlights this shift, acknowledging a philosophical change in thinking. He notes that Montgomery’s The Pin Group were anti-marketing, releasing a single with virtually no identifiable details.
Vangioni also notes that Christchurch-based designer Alec Bathgate has designed the book for Hellzapoppin’! and like all aspects of the exhibition’s realisation, he is also closely associated with Flying Nun. ‘Bathgate went through art school in Dunedin and joined The Enemy with Chris Knox, went to Auckland, formed Toy Love and then Tall Dwarfs–and being involved with the label Flying Nun has also led musicians to become designers’.
Hellzapoppin’! The Art of Flying Nun
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
Corner Worcester Boulevard and Montreal Street
21 August to 28 November 2021.
Hellzapoppin’! will launch with a free opening party with performances from some of Aotearoa's best musical acts.7pm Friday 20 August
- Sneaky Feelings Be My Friend 7-inch single, designed by Ronnie van Hout