The creatively innovative, jangly off-kilter bands that emerged from our southernmost main centre during the 1980s have since grown into global legends. None more so than The Clean who it’s widely agreed were the most influential of the “Dunedin sound” bands.
Musician Hamish Kilgour, who co-founded the group with his brother David in 1978, was found dead aged 65 in Christchurch after being reported as missing last week.
Described as “one of New Zealand music’s maverick spirits”, Kilgour’s propulsive, snare-heavy drum style was largely influenced by the barebones minimalism of the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker. Whether at their poppy-best (Tally-Ho!, Beatnik), fuzzily psychedelic (Fish, Point That Thing Somewhere Else) or what we’d now term ‘indie’ or ‘college rock’ (Anything Could Happen, Sad Eyed Lady), Kilgour’s hypnotic, clackity repeating grooves were the shuffling centre that drove The Clean.
Jim Wilson, a former Christchurch gig booker for the famed venue The Gladstone Hotel and later the founding director of Phantom Billstickers, was an early champion of the band. He remembers Kilgour as, “kind, generous, concerned about runaway commercialism [and] intelligent”.
“No one can duplicate a man like Hamish. He stood apart from the world. A bohemian kind of guy,” Wilson says. “When Hamish beamed in he beamed in with no uncertainty.”
Stuart Page, a musician and close friend of Kilgour, agrees. He describes Kilgour as, “like a brother to me, as was David, and always dressed incredibly stylishly”.
“He didn’t really care about material possessions much. Hamish was incredibly generous. If he came into some cash, he’d be handing out $20 to street people.”
Writer and media commentator Russell Brown, who regularly wrote about the band for the influential music magazine Rip It Up during the 80s, describes Kilgour simply as “unique”.
“When most of us have settled down, he lived until the age of 65 with few possessions and a philosophy that did not require them,” Brown says. “He was a lifelong eccentric, often kind, occasionally maddening.
Over the years Kilgour routinely thanked Wilson for giving the band their “big break” by booking them for the Gladstone, but Wilson says the opposite is true.
“More than anything I was the one who got the big break,” he says. “That band could lift you up and up and up.”
“The Clean were a bunch of fresh-faced guys, initially quiet in that Dunedin manner. But the sound was all-encompassing. Just unbelievably different. New, open, expansive, joyful and global. It was like jumping head-over-heels to music. Hamish sat down low in the drum seat and sent the beat every which way. It just kept on coming. David Kilgour was equally as good on guitar. A band of brothers.”
“He had an inimitable drumming style,” Page explains. “You always knew it was him drumming if you heard a recording. He essentially had one beat that moulded into whatever kind of music it was to accompany. No fancy drum breaks, just a solid monotonous beat right on time, but with swing.”
“If there’s an archetypal image of Hamish in action, it’s him hunched over that snare,” Brown adds. “I’m not sure he ever played a fill in his life, just that constant motorik beat. I think the mad rigour of it reflects his personality within the band and it’s as much the key to the Clean as David’s guitar playing.”
In the early days, various members came and went until multi-instrumentalist Robert Scott joined the brothers in 1980, playing bass, organ and contributing vocals. With a solidified line-up they forged an exciting new sound, blending seemingly incompatible genres like tripped-out psychedelia, frenzied post-punk and joyously brief bursts of catchy pop. The fusion was exciting and daringly original even if its origins were puzzling.
“It’s genuinely hard to see what The Clean emerged from in Dunedin, apart from the Kilgour brothers’ record collections,” Brown muses. “There were bands from Dunedin before them, but none of them were remotely like The Clean. Three or four years later, most of the new bands owed some sort of debt to The Clean.”
Perhaps it was Kilgour’s well-documented concerns over commercialism that led to the first of The Clean’s many break-ups in 1982, right when their momentum was building. The year prior Tally-Ho! had cracked the NZ Top 20 and stayed in the charts for seven weeks, effectively launching fledging record label Flying Nun in the process. Their debut EP Boodle, Boodle, Boodle soon followed and did even better, climbing to number five and hanging around for a whopping 26 weeks. The following year’s Great Sounds Great EP did it one better, reaching number 4. And just like that, it was over.
Until it wasn’t.
A chance meeting in London in 1988 saw the three members reuniting for a couple of gigs. This led to a full reunion, a world tour and their debut album Vehicle in 1990. It’s this record, Brown says, that is largely responsible for their famed standing and influence within the world’s indie-rock realm.
“I saw a proposition this week that The Clean were “the first indie rock band” and set that template not only for Dunedin but globally, and for the American indie scene in particular,” he says. “I’m pretty sure that it was only after they first disbanded that The Clean began to be embraced as college radio gods, though – we all know Tally Ho! and Boodle here, but Vehicle, recorded in 1989 in London, is the touchpoint for international fans.”
These fans include alt-rock icons like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Violent Femmes and Pavement, who embraced the sound more than most.
But The Clean was never destined to stay together, no matter how much fans may have wanted them to. With all three members establishing their own musical careers outside of the band, it became something of a part-time proposition. When albums sporadically popped up they were met with acclaim, even if the pace was languid with only five full-length albums being released over three decades.
That could be because they were all busy elsewhere. The Kilgour brothers formed - and disbanded - The Great Unwashed after The Clean, with Kilgour then joining fellow Flyning Nun noise-pop merchants Bailterspace for an EP and Tanker, their debut album. Moving to New York, Kilgour formed The Mad Scene, who released two albums. He then began releasing solo material, which was as radically innovative and wildly adventurous, albeit in completely different ways, as The Clean had been.
“I couldn’t keep up with all of the ideas he had. Hamish was always re-inventing his music, especially his solo work and in particular the Finklestein 3x LP suite,” Page says. “Never before had we heard such funk and reggae influences, and jazz saxophone breaks, as in that LP from 2018. He went on to create Franklestein and Funklestein all in that year.”
Page recollects the recording process for those records as being, “incredibly experimental,” with Kilgour inviting musician friends in, playing them an edited symphony of street sounds, and then recording their response to it in real-time.
“Hamish was very inclusive,” Page says. “If you turned up and wanted to play something, you’d be brought in and handed an instrument.”
More than one music writer has described Kilgour as “Aotearoa indie-rock royalty” and, in 2017, the establishment agreed, inducting The Clean into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. This led to Kilgour favouring spending time here rather than in New York for the first time in decades.
Kilgour was a true original, who created truly original art that made an impact on the world. The sound of The Clean jangles through the music of generations worth of indie rockers. Those playing it today may be unaware but the people they’re inspired by were, in turn, inspired by three lads from Dunedin who only haphazardly committed to the brilliance of what they were creating.
“The Clean changed New Zealand Music for the better. They cracked the ice every time they played,” Wilson says, before giving a definitive statement.
“They are the best band New Zealand ever produced. No question.”
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