The first band to appear on New Zealand’s vaunted Flying Nun label (with the “Tally-Ho!” 7-inch in 1981), the Clean technically existed for a mere eighteen months before sending its members (David Kilgour, Hamish Kilgour, Robert Scott and, at times, Peter Gutteridge) off to a multitude of other projects. But over the years, the trio, which always wrote collectively, with all three members switching off on lead vocals, has reunited with inconsistent consistency, resulting in a bunch of new records and live performances from a group most fans thought they’d never hear or see again.
Just as amazing as its short life is the fact that the band’s essential output consisted of two EPs: the five- track Boodle Boodle Boodle and the seven-track Great Sounds (which theoretically has a much longer title, and is referred to on the jacket spine as Yet Another Clean EP). Both records were “produced” by Tall Dwarf Chris Knox (meaning he provided the Teac 4-track) and offer up short sharp shots of super-shambolic, super-perky garage-pop that’s deceptive in its simplicity. From the groovy organ swing of “Beatnik” to the loping “Anything Could Happen” and the lengthier drone of “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” Clean songs were exercises in unbridled minimalism and maximum impact. David Kilgour didn’t play a lot of notes, but his guitar provided a haunting, half- psychedelic, half-spy-movie tone, with sleek, fuzzy lines that could lay down a trance and inspire sing-song silliness. The Clean was folksy, lo-fi, precious, aggressive, baroque and naïve all at once, and always knew just how many times to repeat a hook.
Compilation collects some, but not all, of the early stuff, including highlights from the two EPs and “Tally Ho!”; the import CD tacks on six live tracks. Odditties is just that, the veritable odds-and-sods collection; originally released on cassette, the CD also has extra material. And as the title would suggest, Live Dead Clean (recorded in ’81 and ’82, with several songs not found on the previous vinyl releases) was thought to be posthumous. But before that record even came out, there was already the Great Unwashed, which saw the Kilgour brothers taking up with original bassist (and one-time Chill, though practically every Kiwi musician can say that) Peter Gutteridge in the place of Robert Scott, who’d gone and started the Bats. Just to further confuse the discography, the Odditties 2 cassette mingles outtakes and live tracks (from ’79 to ’84) by the Clean and the Great Unwashed.
Now then. On 13 July 1988, Kilgour, Kilgour and Scott played a reunion gig at the Fulham Greyhound in London, resulting in the sublime and frenzied In-a-Live EP, which features five of the band’s best old songs (“Fish,” “Anything Could Happen,” “Flowers,” “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” “Whatever I Do Is Right”), recorded, amazingly enough, on a 16-track board. At the same time, thanks to the Homestead reissue of Compilation (as well as the efforts of the Chills, the Tall Dwarfs and the Verlaines), there was more international interest than ever in the band. Next thing you know, the Clean made what was technically its very first album. Vehicle finds the band in immaculate form, churning out little diamond cuts of nervous guitar, earnest vocal harmonies and pesky little hooks that sting, tickle and shock. The sound quality is better and the rhythms more elastic, but otherwise it’s as if they never left. “Draw(in)g to a (W)hole,” “Dunes,” “Big Cat” and “Diamond Shine” would all be candidates for the best little singles in the world if they came in 7-inch form; songs like “Home” and “I Can See” are gorgeously shimmering ballads.
The Clean toured some in support of Vehicle and then scattered again. David began a solo career, Robert continued with the Bats and Hamish moved to New York, where he and his wife formed the Mad Scene (before that, he briefly played with Bailter Space). In 1994, with little fanfare — basically, the three of them found out they were going to be in Dunedin at the same time — Modern Rock was recorded and released. Suggesting influences like the Velvet Underground, Nick Drake and maybe even Stereolab (though the Clean has always wielded the same sort of rolling keyboard trickery), it’s a more grown-up affair that floats off-kilter melodies and tiny tensile guitar in a slower, softer swirl of cloudy organ lines and spacey electric piano textures, with liberal use of strings and folk instruments. The old teenage energy is missed, but the sweet deadpan vocals and reliably airy textures still deliver, resulting in a record that’s pretty, experimental and highly atmospheric.
Cleaned Out is an American tribute 7-inch (plus a one-song flexi), with contributions by Sleepyhead, Uncle Wiggly, Kickstand, Airlines and Giant Mums. The sleeve drawing is by Hamish Kilgour, who also thought up the title.
When bassist Robert Scott left (to form the Bats), the two founding Kilgours became the Great Unwashed, the name a jokey response to numerous puns that had plagued the old band in reviews. The Unwashed had (pun unintentional) a cleaner sound than the original band but still made vigorously vibrant rock with poppy chords, avant twists, fragile vocals and infectious warmth. Clean Out of Our Minds has a loose and friendly feel, as the Kilgours strum autoharps and guitars, bang on household items and generally croon and ramble through charming little songs of no fixed structure with a lot more genial enthusiasm than concern for details.