TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. During the 1980s, Australia was producing some very interesting bands. But so was New Zealand, where a label called Flying Nun seemed to have a monopoly on the best bands in the country. One of their big names was The Chills. And now there's a newly-released overview of their early years called "The Chills - Kaleidoscope World." Rock historian Ed Ward has their story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING MOON")
THE CHILLS: (Singing) We wander lost forgotten hills, blue sky, green grass, we are still. The mist enfolds us gently smelling, breeze in our ears softly telling of the days of light and laughter long ago. They trace us, taste us, touch our hair, show us a castle and show us to their lair, to their lair.
ED WARD, BYLINE: In the late 1970s, Martin Phillipps had a band in Dunedin called The Same and talked some of its members into joining him in a new group that would feature his own songs. After working for a while as Snapper, they were discovered by Flying Nun and included on a compilation of the Dunedin Sound along with Sneaky Feelings, The Stones - no, not those Stones - and The Verlaines. In 1982, they put out a single of "Rolling Moon," although the fan favorite and the song made their reputation was "Kaleidoscope World."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALEIDOSCOPE WORLD")
THE CHILLS: (Singing) If we were floating in a space capsule I'd look at you and perhaps you'll smile at me, loving my kaleidoscope world. The stars and planets just glide on by, cold and patient like white gods' eyes. We smile a lot, loving our kaleidoscope world.
WARD: This was the kind of jaunty pop sometimes seasoned with a little punk that was the kind of thing that Dunedin bands were doing. But in 1982, Phillipps woke up from a dream with a song in his head that was unlike anything they or anybody else had done.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK FROST")
THE CHILLS: (Singing) I want to stop my crying, I want to stop my crying, but she's lying there dying. How can I live when you see what I've done? How can I live when you see what I've done?
WARD: Creepy, compelling and panicked, "Pink Frost" is the band's best-known song and really needs to be heard in full for the effect to sink in. The anguish of the singer's character as he watches his girlfriend die is very real.
Somebody did in fact die, but not until after it was recorded. Martyn Bull, The Chills' drummer, had played on "Pink Frost," but in the summer of 1982 was diagnosed with leukemia and, after several remissions, finally died a year later. Phillipps wrote a tribute to him but didn't record it right away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE MY LEATHER JACKET")
THE CHILLS: (Singing) I wear my leather jacket like a great big hug. Radiating charm, a living cloak of luck. It's the only concrete link with an absent friend, a symbol I can wear till we meet again. Or it's a weight around my neck while the owner's free, both protector and reminder of mortality. It's a curse - I cannot shirk responsibilities. From the teacher to the pupil, it's a gift to me, so I love my leather jacket and I wear it all the time. I love my leather jacket.
WARD: "I Love My Leather Jacket" is a wonderful song. Bull actually did leave his jacket to Phillipps in his will. But The Chills had other things on their mind for their third single.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLEDRUMS")
THE CHILLS: (Singing) Stay in bed till much too late, scanning situations vacant. The face in the mirror gets withered and old. And my skin is gray, I can't go out, I'm always cold. In the doledrums, on the dole. In the doledrums, on the dole. Counting down...
WARD: New Zealand was apparently having the bad economic times that Great Britain was, and the punning title of "Doledrums" underscores the lyrics. Towards the end of the song, the band listlessly repeats, the benefits come and life goes on. By this time, Flying Nun had opened an office in the U.K. and a changing lineup of Chills recorded and toured throughout the late '80s.
By 1990, they were well-enough known in the United States to get picked up by Slash Records, which released an album, "Submarine Bells," that had a single on it that got a lot of radio play. It was what it said on the label - a heavenly pop hit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVENLY POP HIT")
THE CHILLS: (Singing) Each evening the sun sets in 5 billion places, seen by 10 billion eyes set in 5 billion faces. Then they close in a daze and wait for the dawning, but the daylight and sunrise are brighter in our eyes where night cannot devour golden solar power. Once we were damned, now I guess we are angels for we passed though the dark and eluded the dangers. Then I awoke with a start to startling changes. All the tension is ended, the sentence suspended, and darkness now sparkles and gleams. And it all seems...
WARD: The Chills continue to this very day. They put out an album in 2015. And they're basically whoever Martin Phillipps says they are, making off-center, oddly eccentric pop music. Long may they chill.
GROSS: Ed Ward is the author of the forthcoming book "The History Of Rock And Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963." He played music from "The Chills - Kaleidoscope World." If you'd like to catch up on recent interviews you missed, like our conversations with Bruce Springsteen, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and Gaby Hoffmann, who co-stars in "Transparent," and our interview about the history of marijuana and the laws regulating it, check out our podcast. You'll find those and more.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.