Was the Dunedin sound a thing? Or was it just a coincidence that in the early 80s a bunch of bands with the same area code, much the same influences, who pretty much dressed the same, drank the same beer, saw Chris Knox's punk band The Enemy at the same time, formed groups which sounded, well, similar and ended up on the same label?

(Q: And for a bonus point, what was the name of Martin Phillipps' band before the Chills? A: The Same.)

The echoes of the Dunedin sound debate have faded with the decades. But now they've started reverberating louder.

First, there was Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd's memoir In Love With These Times, while his old label has kept up a steady stream of vinyl reissues of the era.
Now, the city's post-punk music history gets its own visual volume, The Dunedin Sound - Some Disenchanted Evening. It's also a diagram - a giant poster, The Sound of Dunedin Band Chart which is a vast family tree of 1977-92, which Robert Scott of the Bats and the Clean has been working on since the 1980s and comes with the book.


The Dunedin Sound itself is by Ian Chapman, who, when he isn't lecturing at Otago University on music, has bashed out five previous rock books on everything from his specialist subjects of David Bowie and the glam era to Kiwi rock women.

You may think a book about the rock of early 80s Dunedin might be a penance for his glam fixation. All those black jerseys and anti-performance stage style. Except the book - a mix of Chapman's biographies of nearly two dozen bands and a series of essays by many who were there at the time - rings with energy.

Much of the writing is terrific, insightful and occasionally hilarious. Natasha Griffiths' tale of how her big brother Shayne Carter tore up her Little Ted on stage when his band Bored Games debuted at his high school is wonderfully punk rock.

So too is page 150. That carries a photo of Chris Knox, rehearsing with The Enemy in 1978. It may well be the greatest unseen Kiwi punk rock photo ever.

Chapman remembers dancing around the room when photographer Ian Bilson sent him and some other shots of the seminal band after an appeal through the Otago Daily Times and social media.

"That was like discovering gold nuggets. I couldn't believe it when I saw those, " he says of the Enemy photos.

The influx of images caused him to rethink the book and shift from 50:50 words to pictures ratio to 30:70; Thus a band like the Verlaines, with frontman Graeme Downes' literary and classically influenced canon, is represented by maybe 250 words. But the band gets more than a dozen images encapsulating its career.

Downes also pens the book's foreword and he's reportedly working on his own memoir.
The book is a very good reminder that you go "see" a band. You don't go out just to hear them.

Chapman has been in Dunedin since the early 2000s. That he is a wasn't-there-at-the-time outsider helped with his approach to the book. Although one of his intentions was to focus solely on the bands from the city and not the geographically wider scope of Flying Nun, he also didn't want the book to fawn over the place.

"I never wanted the book to be a sycophantic bow-down to the holy grail of the Dunedin sound and Flying Nun."

One essay is by veteran Metro music reviewer and Chapman's one-time schoolmate Gary Steel, about the backlash he suffered when he suggested much of the music released by Flying Nun was over-rated.

"I really loved having his more-dissenting opinion."

There are insights from Simon Grigg, whose independent Auckland record label, Propeller, foundered as Flying Nun flourished with its DIY ethic. Other contributors include the legendary Dunedin record store guy and writer Roy Colbert.

Elsewhere, Susan Brettingen, an American school teacher who discovered the Dunedin sound via a teenage fixation with Split Enz, then Grigg's Propeller label and made the pilgrimage to the city last year.

She's a good reminder to the Dunedin bands who didn't want to be put under the one umbrella - sometimes people just really like that brolly.

It's funny looking through the book and seeing which writers put the Dunedin sound in sceptical inverted commas.

As for Chapman, he doesn't need air quotes.

"It's like shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Maybe it was a media beat-up. Maybe it's just a convenient term. But the fact is the Dunedin sound firmly exists in the vernacular of popular music so why try and deny it?

"It does exist in people's minds. I got off to musicology conferences around the world usually talking about David Bowie and when people find out I am from Dunedin, often people come up to me and say 'what about the Chills, the Verlaines, the Clean?' So why deny it?

"Whatever way you frame it, it does exist."

Lowdown: The Dunedin Sound - Some Disenchanted Evening by Ian Chapman (Bateman, $50).