The Great Unwashed
A Dryer Sheet Billionaire's Son-- recounts his magical year listening
by Domenic Maltempi
Unfortunately, the title of my piece does not live in the world of truth. Little sweet-Apple Cyanide was never my girlfriend. My daddy didn't patent 'Bounce,' or shack up with the Snuggle Heiress. I'm not such a scion of great wealth. I'm the lower middle-class son of an immigrant New York cabinet maker, and seamstress, who cut a lot of my music loving teeth on lo-fi rock n roll in the '90's.
The topic of my piece is forsooth about a New Zealand band called The Great Unwashed. This name paid homage to the river in which it sprang into life. Certainly no runnel, The Great Unwashed was a strong tributary in its brief spin of existence. That river was The Clean, and from The Clean, many College Rock, or Art Rock, or Lo-Fi legatees bathed.
The Clean is a band that began life in the late 1970's in the city of Dunedin on the southern island of New Zealand. They are the cornerstone of the great independent record label Flying Nun Records. The term 'Dunedin Sound' owes a lot to The Clean, and other great bands such as The Chills, or The Pin Group. There is an element of punk rock in The Cleans sound that is not as present in their 'break off' band The Great Unwashed which used more acoustic instruments, and drifting arrangements. The Dunedin sound has been greatly informed by both of the latter mentioned bands, which were essentially given flesh and soul by the talents of the Kilgour brothers.
Dunedin developed a sound much more immune to becoming injected with the imported punk music from the far off UK that was making a splash, and could be detected in the drum kits and busted amps of bands in Northern cities such as Auckland during mid/late '70's. These Southern island bands took more of their musical cues from much further out groups (in two senses)---such as The Stooges, or The Velvet Underground, and other less known artists in the U.S. or elsewhere that didn't necessarily fit into any identification of musical 'style' writ large.
Along with touches of what might be understood as punk rock (only spazzier, and spaceier) mixing in with the local musical air, soil, and underground culture of the place, you can add strands of certain psychedelic qualities from an earlier error. The kookish jangle frenzy, and slightly warped wanderings that might make it into a Great Unwashed song such as "Neck of the Woods," might have also swapped spit with the tongues of music rolled out by The Byrds or 'The West Coast Experimental Pop Art Band. They can get far out, and toast you with this psychedelic numbing that might be produced by the hazy quick sweep of a bass line slushed with the slow-drag of vocals that are just talking themselves out of a closet that seems like a universe.
The Great Unwashed begins life in 1982. The Kilgour brothers break off with The Clean to start their own thing. Hamish moves from Dunedin, making his way to Christchurch with a four track and a picture of an imaginary hooker engraved in a pocket watch used to hypnotize vending machines into dispensing a certain candy bar called Sheeptime Crackle. We all have our tricks.
David Kilgour soon embarks on the same move himself. Clean out of Our Minds (note the pun) is an LP of slippery songs that register like the overhearing of beautiful snatches of conversation that may be remembered as possibly one. The album comes out in 1983 on Flying Nun.
The experience of listening to The Great Unwashed might have its corollary with one of the only house parties you remember liking, because the kitchen was populated by a beauty chatting with a busted blender wearing a wig, offering you cigarettes and wine without any pressure, and there is a comedy show hardly heard up in the attic she walks you up to by the hand. The show features a man who talks of how magic despaired and became religion, but then pulls off the most sensational magical act using only a glass of water and a partly busted lighter, and everyone is in on the act without being asked.
You can shake to it, but the songs on Clean out of Our Minds leads you into this bright stillness, held in place by the brother's gripping harmonies. It is fun to contemplate how these quickly stitched together home recorded song creatures with hardly any stuffing, could hold one in such cheerful musical thrall.
There is a 'just let it happen' muted giddiness that motivates a single like Duane Eddy. Absent are any big organs, clean guitar rallies, or sweet vocal hooks to punch up the track. Instead, we just buckle ourselves into the clanging mess dressed in fetching magnets. We stare at the broken seat belt, and grin as the thing takes us up a metal hill that is not a metal hill, but still makes us feel propelled into the blue. There are other elements that one might hear on a Clean track with its fuller sound, and more developed arrangements (on some tunes) that are understated or missing on Great Unwashed tracks. Although the DNA of the two bands essentially are the same: The Great Unwashed cannot be tidily seated under the cooling umbra of The Clean.
The band only made the one LP mentioned above, and a collection of singles. The brothers broke it up in 1984 not very long after a fourth member joined (bass player Peter Gutteridge) to play a few shows. During this run they made homespun music on the technology available, with the money they had. One can still find great bands doing similar things now, but the combination of the isolation of where they were living, the time period as it relates to technology, as well as the underground musical currents of the time meshing with who they were, made The Great Unwashed an intensely unique band.
The fact that this evanescent grouping represented some sort of release from their main act to fool around more artistically, and for the music to be even more personal (off to Christchurch to join my brother and work shit out as we want to)- is apparent in the overall impact of the music to me, and adds value to it.
What another ear might describe as a collection of desultory musical sketches not looking to grow up into 'proper' songs; I hear richly plain sinuous wisps of joyful energy cascading in a thinly framed body of music. The ideas and melodies are simple and wonderful. A song such as "What You're Thinking Now" holds you up with a balloon of organ power, and the rickshaws of guitar and drum move you through into the warm face of the next tune on Side B of Clean out of Our Minds, "Obscurity Blues." These songs show themselves as one thinks they more or less came into being, fueled with the verve of still hot-on-the-skin expression, undiluted, not terribly rehearsed or thought through.
Clean Out of Our Minds starts off with a track called "Hello Is Ray There?" This song brings me in contact with the part of my brain that might be cycling through bits of The Fall, a British band that formed a few years earlier than The Clean. It is an instrumental that is cheeky and trenchant, clattering guitar and spoken vocals excite with instant intrigue that is light but in a way that makes us pay close attention, and is not without a dour element.
Although one can feel the same singular spoken vocal ease, and moving calm in a tune off a Clean song such as "Some Ones" off the album Vehicle, with a tune off of Clean out of Our Minds, there is a more inner-world open contemplation afoot in the latter grouping, some of it fuzzier and with less light. To state the somewhat obvious, there is something 'small-batch-dirty—what-are-you-gonna-get?' that clings on to these tunes. No doubt the band name points to this, and the music backs it up.
Small Girl is the third track on side one of Clean Out of Our Minds. It's a skeletal heart-warmer that walked out of a sonic womb missing a thumb, or navel, or a piece of brain, but charming with just enough acoustic guitar to warm up a room with love, longing and mystery. We will adopt the song-child, look after the small girl. The vocals are sing-spoken with a mildly gloomy romantic playfulness, not unlike what one might hear on a Sebadoh tune from the Freed Weed album.
Clean Out of Our Minds was recently re-released on vinyl for the 1st time since 1983 from Exile Records in Oregon. Is it a psych-pop masterpiece? Whatever... But I tell you; if something in this article piqued your curiosity, please do give it a thorough listen.
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