Eulogy For Martin Phillips
Mention the Chills to your local clued-in independent music scholar and, if the name provokes any reaction at all, chances are it’ll be followed by a list of some of the other acts who "broke out" of popular nuke-dodger colony New Zealand in the mid to late 1980s. "Ah… the Chills," your scholar will pronounce. "They were good. But what about the Clean / Gordons / Verlaines / insert name?" And it’s true that NZ, with its relatively tiny population, produced an implausible quantity of noteworthy bands in that period, particularly because most of them seemed to come out of Dunedin, a city I’d always imagined to be roughly the size of Chesterfield (which turns out to be correct to within about 10,000 inhabitants according to Wikipedia, although it has to be said that Dunedin’s looking rather better on it). But, and I’m sorry about this, but those other acts – they were good "indie" bands. The kind that would stand (very) favourable comparison with the likes of the Wedding Present. That order of beastie. Nothing wrong with that. But.
Martin Phillipps – who given that he wrote all the songs and the rate at which he got through musicians to all intents and purposes was the Chills – is a different order of beastie entirely, more deserving of being lumped in with one-off psychedelic pop visionaries like Robyn Hitchcock, (early) Julian Cope – still a fully paid-up visionary, maybe, but abandoned pop long ago – and Newmans Colin and Carl than indie nonentities in the Gedge mould. At its best (the lyric of Song For Randy Newman Etc, for example, or the little run of arpeggiated chords that links the verse and chorus of Tied Up In Chain) Phillipps’ work is as good as it gets short of an Outdoor Miner or a God Only Knows. Easily as good as a See Emily Play or a Sing Me Spanish Techno. That good.
What’s particularly irksome about the fact that Phillipps has not managed to find gainful employment as a cult elder statesman, selling a few tens of thousands of each record to a global faithful indifferent to the blind and dumb tides of fashionability, is that when he was "given his break" – signed by a major off the back of the Chills’ early Flying Nun successes in time for 1990’s Submarine Bells – he did not fuck up. In a kind of aesthetic analogue of the Milgram experiment, tests have shown that roughly ninety percent of acts who establish their audience and modus operandi on an independent label before being scooped up by a major and given access to bigger studios, bigger producers and bigger bags of drugs will offer up work that is both a simplification and a dilution of whatever it was that was good about them in the first place. Not Phillipps. Submarine Bells and its successor Soft Bomb contain most of his finest songs and pretty much all of his most elaborate and inventive arrangements. I’m not one to allow a record to live or die on its production: a smart production can sometimes elevate a mediocre song up to where it doesn’t belong, for sure, but the most cack-handed production in the world can’t entirely remove the shine from a brilliant one. Nevertheless, it seems clear in retrospect that Phillipps’ muse was too voluptuous by far to be suited to the dowdy, undersized indie threads that clad those Flying Nun releases: there are a polychromy and a muscularity at play together on the Chills’ two major label albums that the earlier work almost entirely lacks, good on its own impecunious terms as it is.
Nobody bought these albums. Well, everything’s relative. Not enough people bought them to keep the record label interested, despite reams of printed hyperbole on both sides of the Atlantic, and Phillipps retreated to Dunedin to lick his wounds (he’d done Eden, ha ha – he’d presumably done Roman too, and Greek, pop music fandom being what it is – and found the snake’s attentions not all they’d been cracked up to be). There have been sporadic releases bearing the Chills moniker since, but as far as a move up the pecking order was concerned that was Game Over. In retrospect it would probably have been better had he signed the Chills, when their moment came, to a larger UK or US indie with the financial clout to expand the Chills’ palette without laying unreasonable sales expectations upon his head. But, in truth, at the dawn of the 1990s genuinely independent examples of such labels were few and far between, and those that did exist were mostly in the market for a harder, simpler, less song-based sound. Perhaps Slash were under the impression that they’d bagged themselves the next Crowded House, but if so they’d seriously overestimated the extent to which Phillipps would be prepared to lower his common denominator. The does-what-it-says-on-the-tin (except actually be a hit) Heavenly Pop Hit is as close as he came to churning out to order an attempted daytime radio staple, and is as meta- as you like: a pop song for sale whose chorus states simply that it’s "a heavenly pop hit / if anyone wants it". Phillipps’ often very close to the knuckle meditations on love, time, distance and death never stood a chance in a world that was readying itself to fall firstly at the feet of the one-dimensional bluster of Nirvana and next, worse, into the inane thrall of the Chris Evans generation, the one that made Happy Mondays look like the Fall and the Stone Roses look like Love. Well, maybe not that second one, not quite. There are limits.
It’s heartening that at this point in mourning the fates of various 80s-90s should-have-beens I customarily say something about how much better they would have fared nowadays. Not thanks to the "democracy" of News International’s dwindling myspace project (still being touted by slow-witted commentators as the future of rock’n’roll – there is a role for a user-friendly audio equivalent of Photobucket but myspace in its present form certainly isn’t it) but because the infrastructure now exists, in the form of organisations that used to be accurately described as "record labels", "radio stations" and "print media" but are no longer exactly any of those things, to nurture talents who have neither the slightest chance of shifting mega-units nor the slightest wish to do so. It wouldn’t be any consolation other than financial for Martin Phillipps, probably, but the commodity broker who currently owns the body of work that is "the Chills" should, in light of the above, consider stirring from his or her fat ass to give the cunt (the body of work, this is, not Phillipps) a proper reissue with appropriate fanfare.