US underground music label Siltbreeze Records have just released an album by a band called The Spies. Uncut magazine (May 2014) gave it a 9/10 rating, describing it as “…perfectly deformed DIY psychedelia. Of all the recent archival action focused on New Zealand music, The Spies shine the brightest.”
The album – edited from a reel tape of recordings made over a few days in Wellington New Zealand in 1979 – is an extraordinary collection of previously unheard songs from a largely undocumented era of New Zealand music. Here’s a version of ‘Egyptian Bird Song’ by The Spies from the tape which didn’t make the album:
The album has some links to Fishrider Records – The Puddle’s George D Henderson was The Spies guitarist and one of its vocalists and songwriters. And the music of The Spies was also indirectly responsible for Fishrider records recording and release of the debut album by Opposite Sex… more on that later.
The circumstances in which the recordings were made, and even their survival for 35 years, is a tale as unlikely as the music itself. The story of the album’s creation is recounted in the liner notes. You can hear more about it in this Radio New Zealand feature.
To summarise: A small group of disaffected young people mostly from provincial NZ formed a loose musical collective based around a Wellington squat. The Spies were Susan Ellis (vocals and organ), George Henderson (guitar and vocals), Richard Sedger (bass) and Chris Plummer (Drums) plus occasional other musicians like Mark Thomas (vocals).
Lacking the means to record their nascent musical activities they and their associates acquired – through criminal endeavours – sound equipment and a reel to reel tape recorder. In the brief period before the Police caught up with them and seized the equipment they recorded a tape of songs and experimentation, from which ‘The Battle of Bosworth Terrace’ was edited, 35 years later. The tape was returned to George by the Police after the band members were tried and sentenced for their crimes (their defence in Court that an artist is compelled to make their art fell on deaf ears) and miraculously survived through many misfortunes and relocations.
For the last 20 of those 35 years the tape was kept in a cardboard box under the house of Dunedin musician Alastair Galbraith before being returned to George via Fishrider Records. We had the tape digitised and mastered by Dunedin sound engineer Stephen Stedman and helped Siltbreeze to assemble photos and notes etc. for the album.
The music of The Spies is the connection that resulted in an album by Opposite Sex being recorded and released on Fishrider Records in 2011. Opposite Sex reminded us of The Spies. There appeared to be some odd shared spirit between their music – perhaps coming from the common factor of being being provincial outsiders following their own rules, together with Dadaist/surrealist DIY art-pop leanings in common. It was that which intrigued us enough to offer to record them in the event they moved south to Dunedin for University. The rest is history, but this is therefore the pre-history of both The Puddle, and, indirectly, that Opposite Sex debut on Fishrider Records.