Heavenly Pop Hits - The Flying Nun Story is a case study in how to run an independent label with a refreshing lack of manufactured drama. The 2002 TV documentary, available to stream at NZ On Screen, includes moments of tension, regret, and long-running feuds, yet each anecdote is delivered with resigned laughter. Though Flying Nun bands such as The Clean, The Chills, and Headless Chickens would go on to achieve international success in the years leading up to the film (and earn cult status thanks to fans like Stephen Malkmus), the label’s humble spirit remains on display.
Beginning with Flying Nun’s origins in the early 1980s, its story is told through archival footage and talking head interviews. Musician/producer Chris Knox stands out immediately with his grinning recollections on the 4-track recordings behind early successes such as the Dunedin Double EP: “It was extraordinarily Mickey Mouse, but it sold heaps.” Knox then shares the inebriated feedback he would give bands, telling them when they needed to ditch songs or even members.
Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd, who comes across as legitimately sheepish, has a friendlier approach to releasing music: “If we liked the band and we liked the people, we just tried to do whatever they wanted to do.” Yet there was always trouble in paradise. When Shepherd signed the preppy, brass-driven Netherworld Dancing Toys, Knox retaliated by signing The Eric Glandy Memorial Big Band, a comedic country outfit who became a sales flop. The Chills’ Submarine Bells was Flying Nun’s first number one album, thanks to the success of shinily produced songs like the titular “Heavenly Pop Hit.” It’s then revealed that Chills frontman Martin Phillipps (himself the subject of a 2019 documentary) has been the only constant member since their formation, backed up by over 40 rotating musicians like a less slurred version of Mark E. Smith.
As the label continued into the later 1980s, Flying Nun signed noisier groups such as Skeptics, Bailter Space, and The Dead C, showcasing an abrasive, experimental side of music down under. This changed once again in the 1990s with the departure of Shepherd and various major label partnerships, alongside the signing of bands like Betchadupa (led by Neil Finn’s son Liam) and their commercial radio friendly alt-rock sound. Thankfully, the years following this documentary have found Shepherd resuming ownership, teaming up with Captured Tracks for a reissue campaign, plus landing new acts such as Aldous Harding and The Courtneys. In the end, label manager Paul McKessar sums up the legacy of Flying Nun best: “Maybe its defining moment is that it’s still here.”