Positively George Street

By Matthew Bannister

(Reed)

****

Positively George Street

Sneaky Feelings

(Flying Nun)

****

Reviewed by Russell Baillie

A multimedia experience this — the book and the album to read it by.

Poring through Matthew Bannister's recollection of life as one of the voices and guitars in Sneaky Feelings — the least enigmatic, most nervous but pop-ambitious of the bands among Flying Nun's first Dunedin generation — it's tempting to dust off a few other recordings of the period to see if they match Bannister's hindsight.

It's a good book like that. A finish-in-two-sittings read that reminds that the best rock tomes aren't always the rags-to-riches tales, but the tales of the couldabeens: those stories about bands' dogged struggles to keep the faith and make a dent. Positively George Street also keeps the music in front and gets between the notes of not only the Sneakies' songs, but the rest of the early Flying Nun canon, especially that of the Verlaines. Bannister seems here to have had a mild fixation on their leader, Graeme Downes, as an intellectual and song-writing rival.

It is also an amusingly enlightening look at the real Scarfies' lifestyle and affectionately captures that Great Urge that comes to young men who don't fit in: form a band.

As well, Bannister is illuminating at the scenester politics (with cool vitriol for Kiwi alternative rock conscience Chris Knox among others), and the Sneakies' frustrations of not fitting the Nun's post-Velvet Underground aesth-etic while also coping with the label's haphazard habits when it came to actually getting the records in the shops.

Bannister certainly writes with candour and dry humour, right from the opening, a hilarious conversation with then label boss Roger Shepherd about why the band had been left off a label anniversary compilation.

Then we flash back to a late-70s Dunedin where, still at high school, he encountered David Pine — and soon dreams of a Lennon-McCartney partnership were born.

Actually, the book runs a little long on Beatles allusion, as it does in holding Sneakies' lyrics up for poetic consideration. And as for the transitions into italics when Bannister's candour heads into passages detailing extra-personal territory, the device can make for some jarring shifts in tone — the sexual encounters discussed can leave one feeling you wish he'd written a song about them instead. Or perhaps used them in his first novel. Which, judging by this, wouldn't be a bad idea at all.

But those are really quibbles in a highly enjoyable work, one that is also generously illustrated and includes an 80s Dunedin band family tree.

Positively George Street, the book, pulls off the double, a personal take and an informed overview which takes you back, even if you weren't there, or particularly interested, at the time.

Ironically, after basking in the hist-ory lesson of the book, the album undoes the time-warp nicely.

It certainly helps that the remastering and remixing of the first 13 of the 22 tracks (which mostly run in chronologically reverse order through the best songs from the three studio albums) liberate it from being just a period piece from a low-budget time.

That said, some of the earlier tracks don't stand up to posterity, though the bittersweet jangles of Not To Take Sides and Throwing Stones (from debut album Send You) are certified period classics.

At the beginning, however, it is constantly rich pickings and, considered through ears exposed to the alt.country-rock "No Depression" American bands of recent years, it can sound (Maybe You Need to Come
Back, Levin Dream) as if Sneaky Feelings were born yesterday, somewhere in the Midwest.

Add the Sneakies' way with powerpop (Your Secret's Safe With Me, Trouble With Kay) deft, literate melancholic balladry (Dad and the Family Dog, Letter To You, their only official hit Husband House) and you've got a picture of a band which was probably never going to be in the right place at the right time, but whose best songcraft remains ageless.