I’ve now spent about two months straight listening to The Clean because RIP Hamish Kilgour. Might spend two (or three) more. This started on December 5, 2022, the day his death was discovered and the elegies flowed, when I watched this video interview someone recommended, where he says “I heard the Velvet Underground’s double live album and Moe Tucker played a single snare beat all the way through ‘What Goes On’ and at the time I thought that’s kind of magical, and that’s possible.” It’s magical and possible all right, through an entire song, an entire side, an entire career, that snare beat vanishing point defining a steady horizon and therefore a steady coordinate position within this entire ongoing and constantly reorganizing omniverse we call Earth, thanks for that Moe, and thanks Hamish too because now I’m listening to you on repeat, right here in my speakers, working that single snare beat magic all day every day, opening up that omniverse again and again and again.
But Hamish & David Kilgour & Robert Scott as the Clean don’t merely demonstrate our horizontal/vertical coordinate within infinity; they also show us something of the planet we’re actually standing on, of the constant social and ecological reorganizing referred to above: the awe, beauty, bliss, humor, folly, and chit-chat of it all, which the Clean represent with sweet whimsical folk rock vocal melodies, simple wistful poetics, and lots of psych/surf/punk/folk rock guitar (and keyboard) playing, sometimes tied tightly to that snare beat (as with most of the tracks on the landmark Compilation LP), sometimes deliberately unmoored and adrift (as with much of The Great Unwashed LP from 1983, and lots of David tunes scattered around the catalog, one of his go-to moves, songs like “Never End” from 1994 or “Wave of Love” from 2007 for two quick examples).
There’s so much of all of this on an “ALL CLEAN and related” playlist I made, which includes every one of their albums/singles/EPs of course, but also every solo release by David in his various situations (solo, with the Heavy 8s, with New Zealand poet Sam Hunt, with the short-lived early-80s band called Stephen, probably more), every solo album and EP by Hamish, and every album and EP by Hamish’s ‘90s band The Mad Scene. And more too, though I have to admit chickening out and not adding everything by The Bats after seeing they had about 302 releases, stopping after just Compiletely Bats and the resplendent Daddy’s Highway (good god “Made Up in Blue,” how about that outro bass solo by Paul Kean that I didn’t even really notice the first few times, such a good bass player). Nothing by Bailter Space either. (Update: I snuck on a couple more Bats albums and the Bailter Space EP and LP that Hamish plays on, and I’m already worried it messed up the vibe.) (Update: it didn’t.) (Update: well, maybe kinda. Bailter Space are cool… but they ain’t the Clean.)
I can’t believe how much I love all of this music. I mean, I already loved The Clean, but that was really only from listening to Compilation over and over. This playlist has gotten me way beyond those twelve tracks and into many further revelations that span their entire career(s). Such as:
The Clean were a singles-and-EPs-only band in their early 1980s heyday (thanks again for compiling, Compilation) but then rather quickly veered off into strange side projects like Clean Out Of Our Minds by the Great Unwashed (1983) and non-reunions like their super-belated 1990 debut full-length Vehicle, actually a great album in its own right, starting as it does with two anthemic classics “Draw(in)g to a (W)hole” and especially the superb second track gem “I’ll Be Around” (one of the greatest of all Robert Scott melodies and lead vocals), and never really letting up the pace through the entire super-breezy 28-minute running time. (“Some One” and “Diamond Shine” for goodness sake!) Every song is a banger… and I’m pretty sure it’s their only full-length without a single jammy instrumental. (Not that I don’t also love their jammy instrumentals, more on that later.)
Speaking of great Robert Scott melodies (this time a resplendent ‘sing the chorus only’ move), one of their nicest limpid twilit pop gems of all is “Trapped in Amber,” which until the 2002 Anthology 2CD was only released on a single-sided two-song 7” flexidisc (wait what?) that came with some (not all) LP editions of their second-ever full-length release, the 1994 LP/CD/Cassette Modern Rock, where it’s followed by the ‘B side’ “Ludwig,” one of their non-nicest non-limpid non-twilit non-pop non-gems of all.
Also from Modern Rock, second track “Outside the Cage” with its lovely spacey haunting Scott vocal, and killer tranced-out rippling organ riff, which mirrors a similar rippling organ riff on side B that makes another great hook for a completely different type of song, the happy/sad Kiwi-to-my-Lou new talking blues instaclassic “Too Much Violence” (“it seems like the days are all wasted/and night time seems better for us/but this lifetime is soon quickly over/and we’re wondering what was the fuss” right into the chorus “you've got too much violence/in your eyes/you've got too much violence/in your life”).
This playlist has also taught me that the Clean have an ongoing ‘mostly-instrumental lounge exotica’ subset as a band, the ability to jam on a Martin Denny beachcomber vibe as a psych-rock guitar (and/or keyboard) trio, steadily coming up with immediate moody vamps like “Twilight Agency” (from their fourth official full-length, the 2001 album Getaway), or what do you even call something like “Different World” or “Phluke” from Modern Rock or “Chumpy” from Unknown Country? Sorta lounge? Sorta exotica? Sorta soundtracky? Definitely jammy.
And I suppose the aforementioned “Ludwig” goes in this jammy category too, or are “Ludwig” and tracks like “Balkans,” which closed their third official full-length, the 1996 album Unknown Country, part of some further Ethnological Forgery Series subset (unknown country indeed), which makes The Clean even more like The Can than I thought? (For Clean EFS starters, you can’t go wrong with any track Alan Starrett guests on.)
At first I thought “Wipe Me I’m Lucky,” the majestic opener of Unknown Country, was another of these jammy barely-written-yet-glorious ditties, the kind of song that (presumably) materializes so quickly they don’t even have time (or need) to write lyrics for it, but the more I’m listening I’m hearing structures and chord changes that require a little more care than that. Almost mini-symphonic. Maybe it’s just the vocal that’s casual and barely written. Though still great!
Part of the reason I thought “Wipe Me I’m Lucky” was in the jammy category is that I first heard it on the Clean’s very jammy 2001 tour support CD EP Slush Fund, as reissued along with the legendary Syd’s Pink Wiring System live self-bootleg on a crucial bonus CD included in Merge’s 2016 reissues (on 2LP and CD) of the band’s fourth official full-length, the 2001 CD Getaway. It seems that the concept of Slush Fund was to be so casual as to put David on an electric piano instead of his usual guitar, and have them all jam their way out of it live, either just goofing off on the spot (such as on “Rollo” and “Slush Fund”) or cruising through classics (an excellent laid back “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” and a lovely raw delicate version of the aforementioned “Wipe Me I’m Lucky”). But then in the middle of this keyboard tomfoolery stand near-definitive (and guitar-containing) versions of “Filling a Hole” and “Caveman,” two fine pop songs that had only previously been released 15 years earlier in 1986 on a different live EP, the 45RPM 12” called Live Dead Clean. And by the way, what’s with all the goofball regional psychedelic post-punk 1980s trios that were 2/3rd brothers? These Kilgours in Dunedin, the Flemions in Milwaukee aka The Frogs, the Meat Puppets and Sun City Girls in Phoenix/Tempe with the Kirkwoods and Bishops respectively, and omg, I just remembered the O.G.’s, that’s right, the Swell Maps in the suburbs of Birmingham, England, your Godfrey brothers aka Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks! (Also check out that Live Dead Clean cover painting linked above and tell me it doesn’t look like something Curt Kirkwood mighta whipped up for a Meat Pups cover…)
But back to some of that supersweet Clean pop how about “Stars,” the wonderful song that kicks off Getaway? Or “Complications,” the song that closes Getaway, and though released in 2001 sounds enough like gold-standard punk/poppy 1981 Clean that I might question if it was actually written and recorded as part of the 1996-2001 Getaway sessions?
Unabashed Fall homage alert: “Side On” from the Great Sounds Great, Good Sounds Good, So-So Sounds So-So, Bad Sounds Bad, Rotten Sounds Rotten!! 45RPM 12” EP that was released in May 1982, before The Fall’s legendary August 1982 two-show visit to New Zealand had even happened.
Now jumping 32 years ahead to Hamish’s first full-fledged solo LP, All of it and Nothing, which didn’t come along until 2014, released by Ba Da Bing! and possessing a haunted ramshackle Syd/Skip ghost-chasing sound throughout (third track “Strength of an Eye” hits particularly hard) that portends the same sense of trouble and uncertainty I can’t help but attach to his disappearance and death now, almost a decade later. But I’m sorry to go there, and I hope it doesn’t scare you away from what is a very good record.
Then going back a couple decades to the Mad Scene, Hamish’s NYC-based 1990s band with his then wife Lisa Siegel. I completely missed this band at the time but, listening now, man they were terrific, both Hamish and Lisa proving themselves excellent singer/songwriters, Lisa contributing lots of heavy numbers like “Silhouette” (“like a dream/everything seemed to fall away/I heard you say/I heard you say/something really nice to me”) or the super-sweet “I Met You In My Dreams” or groovy “Paperplane” or wistful/dreamy “Starshine” but Hamish also hitting hard regularly with his own songs, like “My Dreams Are Losing Their Teeth,” which gets into the struggles of the intrepidly independent artist (“I’ve been rehearsing this thing for weeks/and my dreams are losing their teeth”), or the quite effectively retro-psychedelic “Eye,” or the moody downbeat murmur of “Watertanks.”
BTW, I’ve listened to this playlist so much that I can finally immediately tell “At the Bottom,” “Fish,” and “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” apart. These are the three tracks on Compilation where the Clean are in full-on VU surf instrumental mode. When I was spinning the LP all those years, I was just too zoned out to look at the sleeve and put a title to a groove.
And yes, the Clean really are a surf band. It’s VU, the Fall, and surf music, infused with a Beatles/Stones/Kinks melodic sense. Not that the surf thing is an original idea. It’s right there in the second sentence of their entry in the SPIN Alternative Record Guide (published in 1995, only making it as far as Vehicle), as written by Rob Sheffield: “New Zealand’s Clean was basically a surf band…” But surf wasn’t just an influence on their musical vocabulary, it was key to their entire philosophy and approach, as writer Tyler Wilcox gets at in a recent Clean-and-related reissue roundup for Aquarium Drunkard: “Kilgour can do more with a blurry strum and a Velvety D-to-G chord progression than most players do in a lifetime. In his hands, you’re always surfing a new wave.” That’s the whole mindset — get up, fall down, try again, new wave coming — behind the loose improvisational/instant compositional thing they’re so good and steady at.
The vocoder on “Tensile” freaks me out every time, Clean-goes-ELO/Styx for some reason, late in the sequence of their fifth (and last) official full length, Mister Pop (released in 2009). Another lovable shaggy dog of an album, starting with more of that mostly-instrumental (this time with uncredited female vocals) jammy lounge exotica in “Loog” (named for one Andy Oldham?), moving on to a couple David numbers, one in his dreamy/druggy/drumless/drift style (see also “What Happened Ray?” by the Great Unwashed), and actually called “Are You Really On Drugs?,” the second being one of his trademark goofy-yet-quite-deep wistful tunes, with a very catchy cautionary titular chorus informing us that “In the Dream Life U Need A Rubber Soul,” and I think I know exactly what he means (that your soul needs to be flexible and bend, not break, when you’re navigating through all the complexities of inner space, and that those good ole Beatles can teach us all a lot about dream life and inner space and how to bring your flexible rubber soul through it with grace, all day every day). “Asleep in the Tunnel” is a quite good Robert Scott number. “Moonjumper” is another jammy instrumental that brings a distinct Greater British Isles fiddle stomp (sans actual fiddle) to that VU snare-hit infinity template. “Factory Man” is another tossed-off-yet-maybe-quite-deep David song about a working class fellow, “a real live factory man,” and you wonder if he noticed the Stones did “Factory Girl” but no one’s done “Factory Man” and just went for it. “Simple Fix” also falls into that semi-improv instrumental category, but something about the chord changes and tinkling piano gets so close to the rarefied vibe of “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s “Next Time Might Be Your Time” that I simply can’t unhear the lovely voice of Patrice Manget singing “Heeeeey baby” after every turnaround, you Blue-heads know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. Already told you about “Tensile” and its freaky vocoder, and then the last song “All Those Notes” goes drumless for that “After Hours” closer move, this one a woozy organ and spaced-guitars ballad sung by Robert, with a bass guitar approach and general underwater slowcore ennui that sounds a lot like mid-period Souled American. (You knew I couldn’t go a whole newsletter without them getting mentioned somewhere.)
The Morricone vibes are strong on “Crawler” by David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights, from their spacey oft-instrumental 2019 album Bobbie’s a Girl.
The DK & Heavy Eights album previous to Bobbie’s a Girl was the 2014 release End Times Undone, and man, it’s really good too, right now cruising through a mid-album heavy rocker (“Dropper”) followed by a classic DK sweet-song move (“Comin’ On”).
Then going all the way back to 1991 for the ultimate DK sweet-songs move, his entire first-ever solo LP Here Come the Cars. “Shivering” in particular is just ridiculous shimmery sweet guitar pop. I mean this song could be placed in 1990s teen movies during romantic montages set in goddamn shopping malls and no one would bat an eye. In a good way! Back in the SPIN guide, Sheffield really nailed that uncanny Cars sound in a single coined hyphenated word: “bliss-buttered.”
Interesting to have heard the 2022 album Tunnel Visions by Tucker Zimmerman & Joshua Burkett before hearing the 2015 album The 9th by Sam Hunt with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s, because the two albums remind me of each other. I doubt Zimmerman & Burkett were looking to The 9th for inspiration, and I believe any similarity is coincidental, but both feature an elder male poet reading startlingly clear and powerful words in a gruff voice over a folk and/or rock accompaniment from a younger generation. And the albums are also quite different, the Zimmerman/Burkett being on the quiet acoustic folk side, not rock at all except for arguably one track on side two, while Kilgour and the Heavy 8s are an actual rock band throughout, playing cinematic guitars/bass/drums music behind Hunt’s heavy readings.
Unabashed Fall homage alert part 2: “Twist Top” from Unknown Country (though really it’s just the Mark E. styled lead vocals, the tune itself is doo-woppy guitar-poppy bliss-out with a chorus that’s hummed in my head for weeks).
After writing all of this up, while going through old (actual paper) folders, I found an unpublished review of Compilation that I wrote (on a typewriter!) in 1996 (!). (Wow, it really took me 26 years to be able to tell those three songs apart.) I’ve gotten a lot better at writing in the last 26 years, so I’m definitely not sharing the whole review, but there was a particular sentence where I was already saying a few of the same things that just got said here: “Another forte of the Clean are these pounding, mostly instrumental surf/spy/VU raveups in which drummer Hamish Kilgour plays the EXACT same beat over and over until your head is bobbing and you’re staring, eyes wide open, at absolutely nothing, putting himself in a league with Moe Tucker and Jaki Liebezeit (of Can).” Love that “(of Can),” so cute. P.S. Out of my 50 Sp****y-generated “Top tracks this month,” 37 of them are from this playlist.
^^^Girls to the front in the “Quickstep (live at the Rumba Bar 1982)” video^^^
The Clean in 2014, still sounding perfect on a late-period USA tour (and that’s not always a guarantee, check out just 9 days earlier in Chicago when they played the most frustrating version of “Point That Thing Somewhere Else” ever):