Golfcourse Alligators, Bionic Dog, and the Economic WizardsJanuary 10th, 2019
One of my favourite collections in the Alexander Turnbull Library is the collection of demo tapes from independent FM station, Radio Active (MS-Group-1913). Comprising over 900 cassette tapes gathered by Radio Active between 1980 and 1998, this collection is an amazing time capsule of the musical life of Aotearoa (and Wellington in particular) over the last two decades of the 20th century. Recently the Library completed a two-year project to digitise these tapes for preservation and access, which means they can all be streamed for listening at the Library.
Quite apart from the actual music, one of the things that I love about this collection is how it represents the confluence of three golden eras: the cassette tape, ‘alternative music’ and student radio.
Wendyhouse's album Xanadu featuring the track Hitching Song. Ref: MSC-021476.
Listen to Wendyhouse's Hitching Song:
Available here by permission from Wendyhouse. All rights reserved.
The late seventies and early eighties was a fairly revolutionary time for popular music. One of the most significant impacts of the early punk movement was the philosophy of ‘DIY’: it was no longer deemed strictly necessary to be a trained musician to play in a band, and as long as you knew someone with a tape-recorder, it was no longer necessary to spend oodles of cash and have a contract with record label to make a recording of your band.
Sony launched the Walkman in 1979. In the same year Tascam released the Porta One Ministudio: a compact multi-track recorder that enabled recording onto compact cassette, rather than the unwieldy and relatively expensive reel-to-reel tape.
There were of course many musicians in New Zealand with access to reel-to-reel recording equipment, the most well-known of whom was probably Chris Knox who, along with Doug Hood, recorded many of the seminal Flying Nun bands on his TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel machine.
The Ministudio was a step change though: for the first time, your average garage band or bedroom musician could affordably make a multi-track recording. The big difference with the Porta One was that it recorded directly onto a regular compact cassette (the same thing that you played on your Walkman or Ghetto-blaster); so not only was the actual tape readily available and cheap, it also meant that a recording could be produced at home all the way through to a finished product (albeit of sometimes middling quality) in a format playable by a friend, a record label or, more importantly, a radio station.
Of course, most radio stations in New Zealand had zero interest in playing patchily-recorded cassette tapes by local bands that no-one had heard of. Mainstream radio in Aotearoa was mainly the domain of commercial enterprises by the 1980s, and few of them were prepared to risk losing listeners (and therefore advertisers) by playing anything other than the hits. No-one apart from student radio that is.
The student radio stations around the country emerged from the pirate radio tradition: modern day 95bfm began as a capping stunt in 1969 transmitting as Radio Bosom from a hired boat (until the students ran it aground). A few years later transmission resumed over a network of speakers strategically placed around the Auckland University campus, until Post Office inspectors found and seized the transmitter that was hidden in a maintenance tunnel. By the late seventies RDU at Canterbury University (1976) and Radio Active at Victoria (1977) had also emerged, although now as legitimate branches of their respective Student Associations. And because they were funded by their student bodies, rather than by commercial advertisers, the stations had a lot more freedom in their choice of content.
Initially established to disseminate information and politics to the students, the student radio stations really came into their own (from a musical perspective) with the switch to the FM frequency.
The dawn of FM broadcasting in New Zealand, segment of Video Dispatch from 1981.
Radio Active FM frequency application. Archives New Zealand (R996257)
New Zealand radio stations began trialling FM broadcasting in 1981 and Radio Active claim to be the very first to establish a permanent FM broadcast (they were certainly one of the first to officially submit an application).
With both an affordable means of recording and a viable broadcast platform available for the first time, local and alternative musicians began to flourish. These developments mirrored events elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States where the growth of the student radio network (‘campus radio’ in the US) created an audio-ecosystem for non-mainstream music to grow into a genre now referred to as ‘college rock’ , or ‘alternative rock’ as it was better known in Aotearoa.
Unlike today, where the labels alternative rock or indie rock are generally used just to denote a guitar-based pop/rock sound; prior to the mainstream cross-over success of Nirvana in 1991 the designations ‘alternative’ and ‘independent’ were applied precisely because one of the key features of the music was its independence from the mainstream record labels and radio stations. As such, for the first time there existed a genuine ‘alternative’ popular music.
Probably our best-known 80s alternative scene was ‘the Dunedin sound’ and the musicians associated with the Flying Nun record label, such as The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, The Bats and Skeptics, all of whom have demo tapes in the Radio Active collection. Also represented in the collection are many of the other regional scenes, including those that coalesced around the independent Wellington record labels Pagan (Shihad, Hallelujah Picassos) and Wildside (Weta, Dead Flowers), and Failsafe in Christchurch (Love’s Ugly Children, Squirm) and Auckland (Semi Lemon Kola, Malchicks).
Bill Direen Orientation tour candidate cassette tape, 1990. Ref: MSC-021419
However the magic of this collection lies not only in the early recordings of well-known artists like Upper Hutt Posse (recently induced into the NZ Music Hall of Fame), Supergroove (3 years prior to their debut album Traction) or Golfcourse Alligators (who became Salmonella Dub), but equally in the astounding array of bands who may have only existed for a fleeting moment and who left behind little legacy apart from in the memories of their fans and a scratchy demo sent to the local radio station. In this collection you’ll also find recordings by groups like Katerpillar Tractor Concept, King Biscuit, Baconfoot, Economic Wizards, Sperm Bank Five, Bionic Dog, Dr Versuvs and the Uranus Moon Orchestra, Reach and the Flip-Top Heads, Pink Frocks, and Big Ed's Used Farms amongst many others.
By the end of the 1990s the transition to digital technology was well underway, and the cassette had been superseded by the compact disc as the preferred format, both for bands and radio stations. As home computers became increasingly affordable and powerful enough to make home-recordings, musicians were quick to embrace the increased possibilities of digital recording. Audio software like Reason, Logic and Pro-Tools gained rapid uptake as consumer versions were introduced to the market. While CDs were commercially dominant and the format of choice for broadcasters for most of the 80s and 90s, it was only with the introduction of recordable CDs (CD-Rs) in the late-90s that home recordists could affordably produce them.
One of the legendary Tascam 122 Mk III's used to digitise cassettes seen here with the Cakekitchen demo cued up, Ref: MSC-021417
Correspondingly, the shift from analogue tech to digital tech was reflected in the music: with the possibility of easily creating and incorporating sampling, programmed beats and audio effects came a shift in the type of music that people were both making and listening to. Earlier this year Radio Active added 52 more recordings to the collection: these were all live-to-air performances recorded onto Digital Audio Tape (DAT) (a short-lived hybrid technology) made between 1998 and 2002. The musicians on these recordings include groups like The Black Seeds and King Kapisi who went on to define the ‘Wellington Sound’ of popular music in the 2000s. A notable part of what set these ‘Wellington Sound’ musicians apart from their predecessors in the 1990s (Shihad, Head like a hole, etc.) was the shift away from the fully analogue drums/bass/guitar combos of alternative rock, to the incorporation of beats and samples made possible with digital technology.
In 2003, Radio Active had decided that they could no longer support the storage and playback of their large collection of demo tapes, so they fortunately chose to donate it to the Archive of New Zealand Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Take a look: you never know, you might just find your old uni band’s one-and-only documented song somewhere in here…