Monday, May 18, 2009

If The Straitjacket Fits

Sometime back around 1990 or ‘91, I was in the midst of one of my late night ‘Rage’ watching sessions, tuned in to Australia’s ABC (that’s the government owned television station, not Australia’s answer to the British pop group). Most nights (in those days), ‘Rage’ would play a good mix of current hits, throw in a few classics, and were probably the only promo video medium to offer a look at what some of the lesser known, or indie groups were doing - not unlike the JJJ radio network. It was via ‘Rage’ that I caught my first look, and listen, of the song ‘Down In Splendour’, by New Zealand band Straitjacket Fits. Awash with shimmering guitars, and caressing vocal harmonies, the track had a dreamy, almost ethereal quality, that was truly tantalizing, and the promo clip captured the song’s hazy beauty perfectly, with some brilliant underwater cinematography. But ‘Down In Splendour’ represented just one part of Straitjacket Fits’ suite of sounds, that would lead them to be one of New Zealand’s most critically lauded, and popular bands.

Straitjacket Fits hailed from the city of Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, and became a leading representative in the mid 80s of ‘The Dunedin Sound’, associated strongly with the band’s label, Flying Nun Records. ‘The Dunedin Sound’ was basically representative of an indie pop fusion of earlier punk rock influences and jangle guitar styled psychedelic pop-rock. One of the earlier exponents of the style (or aligned to the genre) had been harder edged rock outfit the DoubleHappys, who had existed from 1983 through 1986. Following the death of key member Wayne Elsey, singer/guitarist Shayne Carter, and drummer John Collie, set to work forming a new band, and recruited bassist David Wood in 1986, thus becoming Straitjacket Fits. Within a few months they added another singer/guitarist, in Andrew Brough, who brought a different song writing and vocal dimension to the band’s style. With his raucous vocals and blistering, jagged edge guitar, Carter brought the harder edged, punk rock side of things to the Straitjacket Fits equation, whilst Brough delivered a sweeter vocal style, and melodically charged pop hooks (sounds a bit like the McCartney and Lennon stylistic counterpoint of sweet and sour).

Straitjacket Fits released the four track EP, ‘Life In One Chord’, during 1987, and the set inhabited the Kiwi top fifty for ten weeks. It spawned, arguably, a hallmark track for the band with ‘She Speeds’, which lured listeners with seductive and introspective moments, before exploding into bursts of melodic guitar-pop brilliance. After the positive reception for their debut EP, Straitjacket Fits shifted base to the bigger urban centre of Auckland, and in 1988 released their debut album ‘Hail’. Produced by Terry Moore (ex-Chills), the album garnered acclaim from fans and critics alike, and once more managed to strike an effective balance between dreamy melodic pop and a fiercer brand of garage rock (and later gained UK/US release via the Rough Trade label - with a slightly altered track listing). Soon enough, Straitjacket Fits had hopped a plane across the Tasman to play an Australian tour, and followed this up in 1989 with a stint in Europe.

1990 saw the release of Straitjacket Fits’ sophomore album, ‘Melt’, which warmed the hearts of most who heard it. Gavin Mackillop helmed the production side of things, and the album was blanketed with the same dreamy atmosphere that permeated throughout the single ‘Down In Splendour’. ‘Melt’ climbed to #13 on the New Zealand national charts, and aside from the Brough penned/sung ‘Down In Splendour’, also featured the hit single ‘Bad Note For A Heart’ (NZ#25), from Carter, which was backed by a very cool promo video. All Music Guide made comparisons to the work of Cocteau Twins, and assessed that the atmospheric production values were overpowering in parts. The album has since been acknowledged as arguably the band’s finest moment, and the cascading, wall of sound that is ‘Down In Splendour’ still resonates almost twenty years later. A gruelling tour followed in support of the album (which had been released by Arista in the States), during which time the EP ‘Missing From Melt’ was also released, featuring several ’stripped down’ mixes of album tracks. But the increasingly fractious circumstance of balancing Carter’s stylistic ‘ying’ to Brough’s ‘yang’, reportedly became untenable, and after touring duties had been completed, Andrew Brough left Straitjacket Fits, citing personal and artistic differences. Brough went on to form a new band in 1992, called Bike, which allowed him greater freedom to indulge his penchant for 60s influenced melodic pop, though they only recorded one album, after which Brough largely withdrew from the music scene.

Guitarist Mark Peterson came into the fray, but Shayne Carter assumed a greater control over the band’s style and sound. Minus Brough’s more melodic pop sensibilities, Straitjacket Fits re-emerged with a much harder edge on the 1992 EP, ‘Done’, which served as a taster for the band’s next full length album, and reached #11 on the New Zealand charts. 1993’s ‘Blow’ had been recorded in California, with producer Paul Fox, and continued in the same vein as the ‘Done’ EP, with a much harsher, guitar driven bent. The ambitious, heavenly pop songs of the Brough era were largely absent, and replaced by a more abrasive, less inviting fare. In some senses, Carter arguably moved too far away from his own pop sensibilities, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to claim a new order of stylistic autonomy, or to recapture the original ‘live energy’ feel of the band on record. The album had plenty of dynamic energy on offer, but lacked some of the warmth of earlier efforts. Regardless, ‘Blow’ was acknowledged in some quarters as a return to form, and peaked at #12 on the N.Z. charts. It spawned another top twenty hit in ‘Cat Inna Can’ (NZ#19), and offered another classic in ‘If I Were You’. The band spent much of ‘93, into ‘94, on the road, including a stint in the U.S., supporting the Bats, and the JPS Experience, but later in 1994, Straitjacket Fits announced that they had agreed to part ways.

Shayne Carter went on to start a new band called Dimmer, and engaged with a new musical direction, less packed with raucous guitars, and embracing of funk and jazz elements. John Collier went on to establish a new career as a photographer, with numerous exhibitions of work to his name.

Though Straitjacket Fits were only active within the musical asylum for around eight years, they left an indelible imprint on the New Zealand, and Australasian, music scene. Just how great a legacy was evidenced in 2001, when A.P.R.A. (Australian Performing Rights Association), as part of its 75th anniversary, conducted a poll amongst its members to name the 100 greatest New Zealand songs of all time. Straitjacket Fits ranked alongside the likes of Dragon, Split Enz, and Dave Dobbyn, and scored three entries inside the top 100 - ‘If I Were You’ (#88), ‘Down In Splendour’ (#32), and ‘She Speeds’ (#9). In 2005 the band reunited, minus Brough (who refused to participate), for a series of concerts across New Zealand, and in 2008, Straitjacket Fits were fitted with the prestigious New Zealand Herald Legacy Award.

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