Flying Nun's Sister Act: The Story of Look Blue Go Purple

Martyn Pepperell

Thirty years later Dunedin's Look Blue Go Purple's folk pop is getting a second shine.

"They were one of the best bands of their time and the most undeservingly unappreciated," says Dunedin by way of Wellington musician Penelope Esplin, of French for Rabbits, Grawlixes, The Prophet Hens and Moon Lander. "They've inspired a generation of female musicians, most who stumbled across them and wondered why they weren't more famous."

Esplin is talking about Dunedin five-piece Look Blue Go Purple (LBGP), one of the most important acts to emerge within seminal New Zealand indie-rock label Flying Nun's early 80s second wave. "After I discovered them, I covered "Safety In Crosswords" with The Prophet Hens at a show," Esplin continues. I couldn't have been happier. I felt like I was introducing my generation to something really special."

Inspired by post-punk, and the lo-fi pop psychedelia of Dunedin at the time, LGBP let feeling guide their buoyant group vocals, sun-kissed guitar strum, keyboards, flute and rollicking rhythms as they dovetailed together into a wistful and yearning sound that's aged exquisitely. Between 1983 and 1987, they recorded and released three EPs through Flying Nun, Bewitched (1985), LBGPEP2 (1986) and This Is This (1988) and toured regularly with the likes of The Chills, The Bats and Straightjacket Fits.

Flying Nun is set to release Still Bewitched, a retrospective compilation that collects all three of LBGP's EPs, and a selection of unreleased live recordings. Four years in the making, it's an important step towards reasserting LBGP's rightful importance within Flying Nun's storied history.

"Going through our archives made me cry," admits LBGP bassist Francisca Griffin (formerly Kathy Bull), the driving force behind Still Bewitched. "You don't know what you're doing when you're in the middle of it, which isn't that important because you're doing it and you love what you're doing. In retrospect, we were really different and good." Speaking by phone from her home in Dunedin, where she works as a naturopath, Griffin is working through memories from three and a half decades ago. In the process, she's reflecting on the era when she connected with her LBGP bandmates, Norma O'Malley, Denise Roughan, Kath Webster and Lesley Paris.

The year was 1983. After sizing each other up on the local music scene, LBGP started meeting up several times a week in the basement of a Dunedin record store. "I would go into the store, and Lesley would put records in my face and make me buy them," Griffin remembers. "I don't know how we decided to start a band, but I remember Norma saying her friend Kath could play guitar so we could rope her in. Lesley was already drumming, so she was good. Denise was a fledgling guitar player, so some of our first songs didn't have much guitar in them because she and Kath were learning. I had my bass and synthesiser; Norma had her keyboards and flute."

With a shared love of the likes of The Velvet Underground, Television, Pere Ubu, The Slits, and The Raincoats, a healthy sense of humor ("we had a lot of in-jokes," Griffin laughs), and a sororal group relationship as connective threads, they struck upon something special. "We hung out all the time," Griffin says. "Some of us lived in the same places. We were all over each other's lives." More Do It Together than DIY, they didn't let their early limitations hold them back. "I don't think the idea of limitations even occurred to us," Griffin laughs. "We'd look what other bands were doing, and go; we can do that! Let's just try it out? We're not good on guitar yet? That's okay; we'll do other things."

LBGP quickly progressed from the practice room to local stages. In 1984, they played two consecutive shows at The Empire Hotel. "The bar was packed," Griffin says. "We sold out both nights. At the end of the second night, we had this big bag of money. I remember holding up a big wad of cash and saying, 'Look! Look what we did!'"

Emboldened, LBGP bought new music gear and started playing around the country. Live performances led to recording sessions in Auckland and Dunedin with audio engineers Terry Moore and Tex Houston. LBGP's first EP Bewitched was a breakout success, peaking at #21 in the New Zealand pop charts and staying in the Top 50 for close to eight weeks. "We were astonished and excited," Griffin enthuses. "Look at that; they're all selling, people like it."

It was an era when local live music was thriving, and there was a unique energy in the air. "That ridiculous cultural cringe carry-on you get sometimes didn't occur to us much at all," Griffin says. "We were riding a wave I guess? It was more like - where is the party tonight? Let's go! Everyone was busy playing, and the bars were full. You couldn't spend Saturday night on the internet back then."

Regardless of the energy of the time, their experiences as live musicians weren't always magical and could be downright horrible at times. Although being part of the Flying Nun scene located them inside an emerging musical counterculture, that counterculture still existed within a climate powered by rugby, cheap beer and the aftermath of New Zealand's third National Party government. "When the counterculture collided with the mainstream, it wasn't pretty," Griffin continues.

They had particularly bad experiences playing shows at the agricultural colleges in Palmerston North and Lincoln, so bad they skipped both of them on their next university tour. "There were a few places where we'd have boys giving us assholes," Griffin laughs. "We gave them double back." As they traveled around New Zealand, those darker moments were tempered by brand new audiences; audiences who owned their records and knew the words to their songs.

As five women playing together under the shadow of post-punk, LBGP were often labeled a feminist band by media, a title they respectfully had, and continue have, no interest in. "We did want to play with our friends who were women, but we didn't want to play with them because they were women," Griffin explains. We were a band of five musicians who happened to be women. There are lots of musicians who want to get messages across, and kudos to them, we never wanted to get any messages across except, here are our songs."

Despite a promising run, after recording their third EP, This Is This, LBGP called it a day in 1987. Lesley wanted to go traveling, Griffin was pregnant with her first child, and things were changing. Over the decades that followed, their music acquired a cult following amongst Flying Nun fans in New Zealand and abroad. Things ramped up with YouTube, where even a cursory search throws up an impressive number of live performance videos from the 80s, and excellent music videos for crucial LBGP cuts like "Cactus Cat" and "Circumspect Penelope".

In retrospect, every upload contributed to a perfectly understated set-up for Still Bewitched's release. "Back in the day, I was eerily obsessed with collecting stuff of ours," Griffin reflects. "All kinds of bits of paper, posters, photos, live recordings." She might not have thought about why at the time, but now in 2017, it's all finally starting to make sense.

'Still Bewitched' is available on 2LP, CD and digital formats through Flying Nun Records on May 5. Preorder here.