Almost 30 years ago, Dunedin band Sneaky Feelings released one the finest local singles of the 1980s. Greg Dixon sings its praises still.
For me, the first notes are like a kind of cipher, a key to a code.
As Matthew Bannister picks out the introduction on his guitar and John Kelcher's bass begins lowing, the music unlocks and unscrambles memories of a bleak spring more than half my life ago.
It is 1985. I have not long turned 19. I am at the University of Auckland in my first miserable year as a commerce student, and bored, bored, bored by accounting and economics lectures. Having moved from Palmerston North the previous summer, I have few friends. I am living at home. I have no girlfriend.
And into this melancholy world came the Sneaky Feelings' wonderful, dreamy, melancholy single, Husband House.
"It's been a long time since I've been back home where I belong," begins Bannister's high, slightly wobbly vocal, "Life round here means you must try to be hard and strong."
I can't even think where I bought this life-saving 12" EP; the memories don't completely unscramble. But all too frequently that year I fled the tedium of the university campus, wandered downtown and drifted from record shop to record shop, not so much to spend my student allowance but more in the vain and lonely hope that each shop's incontestable hipness would somehow rub off on me - though, of course, it never did. All I got was ennui and a few records.
So when Husband House went on sale in October, I could have found it in the bins at Sounds, Rival Records, Real Groovy, the Record Warehouse or any one of the many record shops that still dotted the city in that far off time. What I can remember is that as soon as I heard it, I had to have it.
The Sneakys weren't really my band before then. I was certainly mad for music - I had recently bought a guitar, a gold Les Paul copy, which I would torture to death in my bedroom - and for Dunedin's Flying Nun, the Sneakys' label. For most of that year I bought Nun: a couple of 7" singles from The Chills, The Verlaines' '84 EP 10 O'Clock In The Afternoon (it, too, was like some kind of revelation) and The Bats' EP And Here Is 'Music for the Fireside'. But nothing from Sneaky Feelings.
They hadn't passed me by. I'd really liked their tracks on Flying Nun's seminal Dunedin Double (a two-EP set with songs by four Dunedin bands - the others were The Chills, The Stones and The Verlaines). And while I hadn't bought the Sneakys' album Send Me (I think I hated the pinkish cover), I'd gone to see them live. In September, I recall, I was a face in the crowd when they played at Parnell's Windsor Castle, one of the few live venues for what was then called "alternative music".
Did they play their wonderful new song at the Windsor? They must have, it had already been recorded in Auckland earlier in the year and was to be released the following month; but I don't remember hearing it.
What I do remember is that when the video clip for Husband House appeared on Radio With Pictures, the Sunday night television music show hosted by Karen Hay, the month after that night at the Windsor, I truly knew I'd found something special.
They looked like me. They wore unfashionable jeans and what looked like the same shirts I bought at Keans on Queen St. They had woolly jumpers, second-hand jackets and bad haircuts. There wasn't much cool about them, but then there was absolutely nothing cool about me.
And Sneaky Feelings seemed unlike the other Flying Nun bands. For a start, their name didn't have that definitive, pushy "The" in front of it. They sounded a bit different too. All of the Nuns I favoured were pop, I guess, even if the bands thought themselves more than that, though each had a different pop-tastic flavour: The Chills were more psychedelic, The Verlaines more bohemian and orchestral and The Bats were ... The Bats.
The Sneakys were more like The Beatles and The Byrds, full of jangle and melody and complicated emotions. They were, I don't know, more romantic, but hopelessly romantic - or hopeless at romance. I could sure identify with that. As it turned out, Husband House was pretty much all about the latter.
In his terrific 1999 memoir of the band and of the Dunedin scene, called Positively George Street, Bannister says the song's title came from the nickname for an Otago uni students' flat.
"I was doing my best to cultivate a range of girlfriends to replace Kat," he writes, "but none seemed to fit. They were all Christians. One of them was an English student, a country girl. She lived in an all-female flat in Hope St. Good name. I toyed with the idea of writing a song about it. Then I asked where all the Christian boys were and she said 'They live up the street at Huband House. We all call it Husband House'."
When Bannister finally sat down and wrote the song months later - using a breath of Th' Dudes' That Look In Your Eye and a murmur of The Beach Boys' Waiting For The Day - the lyrics took the Christian women's perspective, Bannister writes, with the "passivity of the narrator, the imagery of settling down, and houses seeming to chime in with something in my subconscious."
Mine too possibly, though my sense of the song was that it was all about me. Feeling lost at university, lonely and friendless in a city I hardly knew, and pining, God help me, for Palmy, Husband House, with it's gentle strings and horns, keening vocal and sentimental lyric, made it seem like it was a kind word from someone who understood.
As spring drifted into exam season and then into summer, I played it over and over again ... and now it's 30 years since.
Listening to it again on Spotify - I still have the vinyl but sadly no longer a turntable to play it on - and rewatching the video clip the song's sweet, whispery pop still sounds, three decades on, like a classic winter's tale and, for me at least, it's a sentimental journey, a perfect distillation of a time when earnest boys in woolly jumpers wrote songs in Dunedin that could have saved lives.
Flying Nun re-issues a deluxe version of Sneaking Feelings' Send You, including the Husband House EP, next month.