In the 1980s, the women of Look Blue Go Purple helped define the Flying Nun label’s Dunedin sound, putting their own enchanted spin on gentle guitar pop. This new comp surveys their catalog.
Look Blue Go PurpleVia
In the late 1970s, punk swept through the UK and washed away any remaining mop-top mods. In Dunedin, New Zealand—among the furthest possible cities from London—kiwi punks applied this self-sufficient ethos and wrote pop songs. Their lo-fi jangle pulled from the Byrds’ ’60s pop melodies, the psychedelia of Pink Floyd circa Syd Barrett, and the Velvet Underground’s corporeal dronings. It would be dubbed the historically influential Dunedin sound after a 1982 compilation from its most iconic label, Flying Nun Records. Two of the bands on that comp, the Chills and the Verlaines, along with their Flying Nun labelmates the Bats and the Clean, would come to define New Zealand’s mid-1980s indie rock scene. Amid all these humbly named acts, Look Blue Go Purple—Francisca Griffin (formerly Kathy Bull), Norma O’Malley, Kath Webster, Denise Roughan, and Lesley Paris—were bound to stand out.
Like their optimistic, kaleidoscopic moniker suggests, Look Blue Go Purple poured vivacity into a scene that was already chock full of cheery, sparkling songs. But unlike a majority of their peers, the quintet never released an LP, which prevented them from finding a foreign audience despite their mainstream success on the New Zealand pop charts. Still Bewitched, a recent compilation of Look Blue Go Purple’s three EPs and unreleased live rarities, promises to expose a new crowd to the band’s enchanting style.
After forming in 1983, Look Blue Go Purple debuted with a tight, distinct sound on 1985’s Bewitched EP. The five women fused the gentle guitar pop that was then well-established by their Dunedin/Flying Nun labelmates with the post-punk experimentation of the Slits and the Raincoats, and to a lesser extent, Swell Maps and Television. Three of Bewitched’s four tracks each focus on a different sound: the whistling synths of “Safety in Crosswords,” the new-age flute and staggered drumbeat of “Vain Hopes,” and the cloudy chill of “As Does the Sun.” But it’s “Circumspect Penelope” that gathers these elements together and affirms Bewitched’s pleasant distance. “She’s been waiting 20 years/And you just walk in/Telling stories of the sea/She should hate you, your Penelope,” the band bitterly scold The Odyssey’s titular character, whose wife has been waiting years for Odysseus’ return. Thanks to the crystalline sound of O’Malley’s organ, Webster and Roughan’s saccharine guitars, and the tight interplay between Griffin’s bass and Paris’ quick crashing drumbeat, Look Blue Go Purple’s condemnation is by far the poppiest, catchiest track on the EP. But their layered vocal harmonies seem to be the murmurs of sirens from a world beyond.
When Look Blue Go Purple returned the next year for LBGPEP2, the band shed their winter coats for a bright new life. A whimsical song like “Cactus Cat” would have been a shock on the staunchly post-punk Bewitched, but on the LBGPEP2 it feels right at home. “Cactus Cat”’s sun-streaked bubblegum style flows into “Grace,” a hypnotic, lilting tune about a girl whose beauty has faded from her namesake to something far more foul. “100 Times” and “Winged Rumor” recall Bewitched’s subdued mysticism thanks to the former’s hushed, airy chorus and the latter’s reverential flute. But the gossamer feel of both songs give way to a ramshackle groove, something Bewitched’s songs never achieved. The spoken-word incantation “Hiawatha” is the band’s most new wave song, though its punctuations of shrill synths and howls surpass in imagination anything their peers were making.
“Cactus Cat” in particular propelled LBGPEP2 to No. 26 in New Zealand’s pop charts in January 1987. The band used the track’s popularity to address a topic that had haunted their press. At the end of the song’s succulent-stocked music video, an anonymous interviewer queries whether there are any difficulties being a female band. “Only the presumption that it means something, that it’s a bunch of females together,” says Webster. “But we just happen to be five musicians who get on well and play music together but it can be a hassle.” Look Blue Go Purple never labeled themselves as feminist, nor was the content of their music remotely political. The only people who seemed to find the band’s gender worth noting was the media; players in the New Zealand indie scene considered it a non-issue. Women “were very active participants in a very creative and politically active era, charged with post-sexual revolution and determination to create anything but typical male music,” says the Chills’ Martin Phillipps. That said, “[It’s] rock’n’roll, gender has got nothing to do with it,” Griffin concludes in the video.
Shortly after the release of 1987’s This Is This, Look Blue Go Purple broke up to pursue other personal and professional ventures (notably, Paris became the manager of Flying Nun). The quintet’s final release is their most indie pop record, and echoed the concurrent work of England’s C86 bands like the Shop Assistants and the Pastels. The bouncy “I Don't Want You Anyway” makes rejection seem fun while the docile “Year of the Tiger” could be a Sarah Records cut. Perhaps because of its spare compositions, for the first time the band’s eloquent lyrics are placed in the limelight. “I’m a fool to believe in love and its channels/I’m a fool to believe in it at all,” Griffin sings on “In Your Favour.” But by the end of This Is This, Look Blue Go Purple fall into the same pattern as LBGPEP2 and return to the sleepy melancholy of their first EP.
Still Bewitched ends with seven unreleased live takes handpicked by the band from their final years—all originals except for an impassioned cover of folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codeine.” The most intriguing of these are the funky sleuthing “Spike” and “A Request,” which show the Raincoats’ abstract influence more discernibly than any of their official releases. The inclusion of these tracks on the compilation is a refreshing peek at what Look Blue Go Purple sounded like in their prime: a little mythical, a little goofy, overflowing with wistful indie pop hooks and eloquence. Without Look Blue Go Purple, any definition of the Dunedin sound is insufficient.