Tally Ho!," the debut single of ruddy New Zealand pop band The Clean, sports all the sonic grace of music transcribed to an Edison wax cylinder.
Recorded for $60 in 1981, the two-and-a-half-minute track skips and sputters to an approximation of a four-on-the-floor beat, supplied by Hamish Kilgour. An insistent Farfisa organ line dances above the pulse. And at the front of the whole ramshackle endeavor is Hamish's younger brother, David, hacking out a rough guitar part and singing about ... a girl? A holiday in Bombay? Who the hell knows? Tally ho, tally ho.
Still, that song and the two subsequent Clean EPs cracked the Top 20 in New Zealand. Those hits turned the Kilgours, bassist Robert Scott and the label Flying Nun Records into temporary Kiwi sensations.
"I probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for getting The Clean going," says David Kilgour, speaking from his Carrboro hotel room a day before leading his other rock band, The Heavy Eights, through a ragged set at Merge Records' quarter-century celebration. "Even 20 years ago, I didn't think there'd be any way that I'd still be doing this."
Many bands have found stardom in their home countries while only ever becoming cult favorites here in the States. Even among such acts, The Clean are remarkable outliers. They never again achieved that early '80s level of success, but a string of sporadic records during the last three decades have made them steadfast beacons of underground pop. Even if the following is small and obsessive, they're beloved in the United States.
Ben Goldberg is one such adherent. A former Merge publicist, Goldberg now runs the New York label Ba Da Bing, which will release Hamish Kilgour's All of It and Nothing in September. In 2010, Goldberg booked The Clean to play a successful benefit for another New Zealand musician, Chris Knox.
"There was the real beautiful and effortless way that they conveyed their music," he remembers of the set. "They have maintained the integrity of doing these jangly, catchy songs and keeping them smart, yet it doesn't seem overwrought."
The Clean's work has remained accessible to American audiences in large part because some of their fans happen to be members of other influential acts. Yo La Tengo brought the New Zealanders along as an opening band for a 2003 tour. Merge co-founder and Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan is a longtime fan. The label released the band's last two studio efforts (2001's Getaway and 2009's Mister Pop) and the career-spanning Anthology.
"I know Mac's not making any money from us," Kilgour says. "But there's no one else in the music industry that will send us a line and ask, 'Where's the new record?'"
That apathy is a far cry from the stir the trio caused in the early '80s, but Kilgour seems to prefer the intimacy of the current cult reputation. The Clean enjoyed touring and making videos on the cheap to support their more commercial efforts, he says, but being a pop star was too much.
"I was a little too young and too naïve," he admits. "I wasn't sure how to deal with fans treating me special because I played these songs. I mean, in a country of four million people, it's not hard to get noticed. I had a few experiences that flipped me out."
Due in part to that pressure, The Clean even broke up for a while, with its members splitting the band's sound in half. Scott took the melodic, jangly pop side to further acclaim with his project The Bats, while the brothers Kilgour emphasized their experimental interests with The Great Unwashed. The three finally reconvened in the late '80s to play some shows in New Zealand and Europe. The result, 1990's Vehicle, elevated the group's former rambling pop tricks with a clearer sense of purpose. Scott took a more prominent role as songwriter and vocalist, too.
The Clean has since evolved into an almost-egalitarian collective, drawing each member's individual interests into the fold. Scott's studies of traditional folk music inform 1996's Unknown Country, while the Kilgours' continuing love affair with psychedelia (both in musical and ingestible forms) blossomed on later albums like Mister Pop. Still, the same off-the-cuff attitude that fueled their oddball hit nearly 35 years ago remains.
"It's this notion of taking the sounds that a band like The Velvet Underground were doing and continuing, while not necessarily cleaning up the production," says Goldberg. "Especially in the '90s when production was so clean and so compressed and it felt like a lot of the music had its life blood sucked out of it, The Clean kept the integrity of the song. That was incredible to me."
Want to understand The Clean? Here's a five-song primer designed to make you a convert. Check out indyweek.com to hear the tracks.
"Tally Ho!" (1981 single)
More than three decades later, this little discharge, which marries the energy of punk with the groove of '60s pop, still sounds inspired and wacky.
"Point That Thing Somewhere Else" (from Boodle Boodle Boodle)
Written with original bassist Peter Gutteridge, this dark kiss-off ("I know when you hold me/you won't see it through") burns icy hot, thanks in part to a perfectly panned guitar duel.
"I Wait Around" (from Vehicle)
Robert Scott's lead vocals and insistent bass line each help keep this off-kilter anthem to romantic desperation steady and true.
"Franz Kafka at the Zoo" (from Unknown Country)
On 1996's Unknown Country, the Kilgours' experimental interests started leaking more into the mix, as evidenced by this short track of Dadaist poetry (sample lyric: "Bertrand Russell likes anchovies on his pizza"), whispered vocals and glassy piano.
"Asleep In The Tunnel"
(from Mister Pop)
Scott embraces the dreamier aspect of The Clean with this Forever Changes-like gem. The song sports two vocal lines, each with different lyrics, that compete for your attention during the bridge. Watch out for the dosed lead guitar line.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dirty ditties."