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The Clean team has innocent fun

Times Staff Writer

Years before Sweden made rock from obscure countries cool, two decades before Peter Jackson made Kiwi chic with the “Lord of the Rings” films, New Zealand was home to one of the world’s great, idiosyncratic rock scenes.

Kiwi pop came from a country that resembled pre-industrial England, and much of the music that emerged was pastoral and melodic, in contrast to the masculine, boozy stuff coming out of nearby Australia: It was almost as if a copy of the Velvet Underground’s elusive third album had been dropped from a passing plane and remained lodged amid the grassy hills, seeping into the water supply.

The group that started it all -- started, at least, the scene that flourished on the seminal Flying Nun label -- was the Clean, a band of fierce contrasts whose life’s work has just been collected on an album called “Anthology” (on the Merge label). Their early sound -- in raggedly spontaneous songs such as “Billy Two” and “Anything Could Happen” -- remains as strangely arresting now as it was at the time.

The band, which opens for Yo La Tengo at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Saturday, lacked punk’s confrontational stance, but it showed that DIY -- punk’s “do it yourself” ethos -- could cross the ocean.

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“It was very hands-on,” recalls Clean bassist and keyboardist Robert Scott of the scene that exploded in the city of Dunedin around 1980. “We’d do the posters, we’d do the cover art, we’d book the shows, we’d work the doors, collecting money for each other.”

The Clean, Verlaines, Chills, Tall Dwarfs and other groups of the era were doing it themselves partly because they had to. “A lot of pubs and clubs wouldn’t take on the new bands,” says Scott, explaining that most of the existing Kiwi scene was pub rock, prog rock and cover bands.

“So there was a big gap for concise, well-written songs with melodies and a good beat behind them. People would come to dance, whether it was pogoing or swaying on the spot.”

Like British pioneers Wire and the Gang of Four, also bright lights of the day, the Clean continue to reunite and record new material but are still essentially figures of the post-punk era. “The Clean was folksy, lo-fi, precious, aggressive, baroque and naive all at once,” writes Jason Cohen in the Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, “and always knew just how many times to repeat a hook.”

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The Clean managed to take all kinds of disparate sources -- spy-movie riffs, garage-rock stomp, the demented organ from the Velvets’ “What Goes On” -- and still sound essentially minimalist, combining flat, affect-less guitars with hummable tunes. Unlike Split Enz, which turned out polished pop, the Clean was lo-fi long before Guided by Voices: The latter’s leader Robert Pollard is reportedly a fan, as is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Stephen Malkmus, whose early music with Pavement echoes the Clean’s odd tunings.

But New Zealand’s engineers didn’t understand these bands any better than the pub proprietors did. So the scene only took off when record shop owner Roger Shepherd saw the Clean play and formed the Flying Nun label to release “Tally Ho,” its first single. The song, a keyboard-driven rave-up that leads off “Anthology” and seems to exist simultaneously in three different keys, was recorded for the equivalent of $25 American, and set the template for the New Zealand sound.

That sound came from what Scott calls “a lot of open chords, a jangly sound, but also a droning thing on the guitar, which some have linked to bagpipes from Scotland, since there are a lot of people of Scottish descent in New Zealand.”

And while the band later used effects such as wah-wah pedals, delay and tremolo, those early songs were recorded with the cheapest effects money can buy: amplifier reverb. Still, the sound was mostly thoughtful and relied on minor chords -- tuneful and melancholy at the same time.

“Australia’s very brash and kinda macho,” says Scott. “New Zealand is, as well. School was tough; there was organized sport that was quite violent. And with the farming culture, you were supposed to be a strong, silent type of guy. But the people who got involved in music were reacting against that."New Zealand’s rock scene has developed since then, opening room for hip-hop and dance music from the Maori, the islands’ native people, as well as bands influenced by such Krautrock groups as Can and Neu! The Datsuns recently added an N.Z. twist to the global garage-rock uprising.

The Clean, for its part, comes and goes. “We just get together when we want to do a project, really,” says Scott, who also plays guitar for the group the Bats and enjoys a lot of contemporary Kiwi bands. “The scene’s very strong at the moment; for the last couple years they’ve sold more local records than ever before. But it’s always exciting when something starts.”

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The Clean

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Where: Henry Fonda Theatre,

6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

When: Saturday(21), 7 p.m.

Price: $16.50-$22.50.

Info: (323) 464-0808.


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