In 1992 I saw The 3Ds in concert at least fifteen, maybe twenty, times. And it became something of a cliché way back then to point out that on record The 3Ds failed to capture the full three dimensions of their live presence; their anarchic pop songs just didn’t translate to CD. A cliché perhaps, but rooted in reality—not the songs per se, but the sound. For some reason it just never sounded anywhere near as good on a stereo. True of much music, I suppose, provided the live soundstage and venue have good acoustics, but especially true of The 3Ds in my memory.
In my mind, Hellzapoppin was their ‘biggest’ album with its ‘hits’ played across New Zealand on student radio—their debut album—the album that broke them. Not only that, but I still think of it as their most melodic effort. So, for Flying Nun’s 30th anniversary in 2011, Hellzapoppin was released on vinyl for the first time, and while it’s still my favourite 3Ds album, the vinyl doesn’t really sound any different to the CD version.
The cover, a model made by lead guitarist/singer David Mitchell somehow sums up the contents quite vividly. First you’ve got those child’s toy plastic letters creating the name of the band and album, then you’ve got some kind of hollow tree spewing out what I take to be mince meat, and finally some sort of plasticine sea with a plastic Popeye sitting in his sailboat. This maritime theme pops up here and there amongst most 3Ds releases. The title ‘Hellzapoppin’ comes from an old Broadway musical, but otherwise I don’t think there’s any thematic connection. Bumstead, time to light the fuse and blow this baby skyhigh…
Outer Space… remains forever in my mind as the 3Ds’s biggest hit. It’s not just a catchy pop song; it seems to combust like fireworks in the night sky. I read somewhere once that it was supposed to be about alienation but it could just as easily be Darth Vader’s last words as he goes spinning off in his Tie Fighter at the end of Star Wars, and all those fiery explosive electric guitars symbolize the Death Star’s big finale. Saunders on vocals: “I turned it down once / I turned it down / I turned it down twice / I turned it down / I turned it down twice and put it back up thrice,” and the chorus: “I dream of a time / I dream of a place / I dream of a time and place in outer space / In outer space / Without a face / I have no place” etc. This is absolute noise-perfect pop, fast and melodic and fizzy—the aural equivalent of a sherbet bomb. Mitchell provides this crazily oscillating lead guitar riff towards the end of the song that makes me think of the muppets. The rhythm is all stutter punk and there are so many fantastic twists and turns crammed into this song that it’s virtually impossible to listen to sitting down. Très exciting.
Ugly Day… this is pure hypothesis on my part, but this equally gripping song has lyrics which suggest the Aramoana killings on November 13, 1990, New Zealand’s deadliest massacre of the modern era. I remember hearing it being reported on the radio at the time it happened and suddenly feeling exposed, wanting to draw down all the blinds in my house. In that incident, one lone dude called David Gray went wacko with a shotgun and killed 13 people in a tiny community, kids included. A few days later a local crowd gathered to watch his house burn down, and the arson was left uninvestigated. To wit, Mitchell (who may have lived not a million miles from Aramoana) grimaces out his intense elastic vocals: “Ghost man smiles / He’s got a life / Cut him down through the day / Took her life away” and “Little little little one / Turning with a gun / Fucking lonely, lonely fool / This could happen to you / The neighbours all back today / Burning on this ugly day.” After its initial opening burst into sudden stoneman rhythm, the very tuneful melody comes down all heavy around a doomy bass line, stabbing down, down, until a point where the pressure builds up and they all let loose in a huge frenzy of crazed distortion. But there’s a murky quality to the recording too, like something dark smothering the song’s potential to fully take flight, despite the wicked guitar theatrics at song end.
Sunken Day… warped spring start, before a slow steady beat and a Roughan vocal, but as always, her blurred-edge voice merges into the bass and I can’t make out the words, except for the lilting surge of the chorus: “It’s a nice day for a dark age / It’s a nice day to be saved / And it’s the right time to be blind” then something like, “We’ll sit together under waves / Say goodbye to all your lonely friends / While I stroke your golden beard / And I stroke your pubic hair.” A slow deliberate riff potters over top of the intense ringing rhythm guitars in the background, and is that an erhu I hear? Ha, the good old spike fiddle. The bass grounds the song, sunken, indeed. Lyrically, the song almost seems like a follow-up to “Ugly Day.” It’s a slower more pensive number.
Swallow… “Forehead bulges dead above my eye / Laying waste to the flight / Swallow / My head is a hole” and later “The sky turns to gray / The moon turns away / Bye bye / Bye Bye” sings Mitchell with all the necromancy and menace in his voice of one who communes with the dead. “Your room’s black and blue / Your mother’s in two / And all the trees stand in line / For the worst day of your life.” This is a strange number, lyrically a little too obtuse to say anything certain about it, but some pretty grim images in there. Even this seems somehow tied to the horror of “Ugly Day” with lines about skies turning ‘gray’ given the name of the gunman, and there’s really no lighter side that I can discern; Mitchell’s voice gets too fierce and impassioned, too dug into the rank groove to suggest any light.
Sunken Treasure… brings back the weirdly melodic pop with a wordy rollicking Saunders lyric, opening thus: “There’s sunken treasure all around the world / A billion girls all around your crown” and then “You slipped in the dark / I held up the sun / I hung it in your room but it came undone / If there be angels you must be one / It turned to black I put it back together.” While his singing and the melody all float good-humouredly over the rhythm, musically it starts to get more and more frenetic, all sorts of messy squiggly lines in amongst the noise, and the lyric is like a salve to the gloomy horror of the previous three songs. Song is hard to grasp the meaning of but seems to be some kind of ode to reviving a failed relationship, perhaps. “He’s building a love that’ll last forever” goes the main refrain in the chorus. But there’s something quite dark in here too.
Hellzapoppin… is much faster, a Side One bookend to the majesty of “Outer Space,” all melodic thrash, and sped-up anthemic pomp. “The things we did / For our long gone friend / We carried him right to the top / And down again.” All singers join for the shouty jubilant chorus: “Hellzapoppin / Hellzapoppin / Hellzapoppin.” I’m particular fond of this next verse: “His eyes shone with silver coins / His mouth wriggled with running beans” before the Hellzapoppin chorus bursts the song open again. And, the last verse, again, slightly disturbing and secretive: “In our fairy ring / In the dancing ring / We took him up / And down again,” followed by the chorus one last time. And the chorus strikes like lightning amidst the high speed rainy torrent of the rhythm section and fiddly guitar work. Seems all the really catchy numbers here are sung by Saunders and the weirder art-spooked numbers by Mitchell and Roughan.
Leave The Dogs To Play… speaking of weird art-spooked numbers, here we get some super-distorted doom-rhythmic angst, whispery backwards effects, and a piercing line of jagged feedback running through much of it. Listening to the lyrics I can’t help feeling that there’s a continued theme running through Mitchell’s songs, all beginning with “Ugly Day.” “Strange it is to be / Nocturnally / Watch the window slay / Watch the children play / Strange being all alone / Strange to belong / Freezed out I’m stoned / Turned out all alone,” and in the second section the colour ‘gray’ sneaks back into his lyric: “Turn that face away / Dress the night in gray / Turn that night insane / Turn the world away / Leave the dogs to play / Now I’m all alone / Now I’m all alone.” Mitchell’s voice also seems to be run through some kind of distortion pedal just to add extra-fried spookiness to his already hair-raising dramaturgic style. The background noise is all bloodied goats-head horrific, red-eyed dogs in a demon pack type stuff. Wondrously disturbing.
Hairs… is such a huge contrast to the previous song, it almost seems comical. Saunders sings in semi-falsetto-lite like he’s been witness to something absolutely nutty. The music too is all super-fast wobbly riffing, swaying back and forth melodies, the musings of a sane person caught in an insane asylum. “I want you to know there’s a weirdo at the door / He’s got something to say / He said, he said, I can’t feel my head.” And the chorus “Crawl around the floor / Sometimes all I do / Is kill time lovin’ you.” Love the singing on this, it’s so tossed off. In the instrumental break, everything speeds up, those squiggly 3Ds riffs changing every few seconds. Great stuff.
Something In The Water… keeps up the dancing pace and huge pop feel: “Something in the water we drink / Makes it hard to think what we’re going to do today / And do tomorrow / A kind of spell’s spun on our soul / But nobody’s sure what we’re heading for.” I’ve always thought of this as the quintessential Dunedin song. The yelling-voice chorus unfortunately gets lost in too much shouty echo and I lose the thread. The churning swing-swung melody keeps this firmly in the pop mode, “People can be like fish in sea / Swimming free / You need not catch them all to see / Some out of water / … / But please don’t take that seriously, oh no.” Very singalongable nevertheless, even if you’re just mimicking wordless syllables in the chorus. Probably the third catchiest song here after “Outer Space” and “Hellzapoppin’.”
Home Necans… is back to another of those deadly distorted rhythms and dark, bleak lyrics. ‘Homo Necans’ means “man the killer” and has something to do with ritual hunting in prehistoric times. “I am true / And I’ve been watching you / I’ve seen the light around your eye / Turning blue / To smother you / You better watch those things you say / You better pray I go away / Cos I drive nails into the eye / Strip the lies across the sky.” The pacing and rhythm isn’t much different to the pop-infused melody of the previous two songs, but here it’s smothered in grunge and squealy white noise feedback, with another of Roughan’s heavy-handed bass lines that always seem to point downward. “This time I crawl up from the cold / Drag my heart up from the snow.” What’s so great about the 3Ds brand of grunge is that there’s a thousand other things always going on, like a writhing electric bathtub full of out-of-control hydrostatic. Yeah, how’s that for a simile? I don’t know what it means either. But in the context of this album it makes perfect sense.
One Eye Opened… opens on a clean warbling riff which gives way to a Saunders vocal. “Got triple vision that only has one eye / Light a candle makes a sign / And he’s burning a spot / Burning a spot til it reaches over your house / Shelter your head from the burning man / Cover your eyes and go and sit on the hill / Above the city and count your lucky stars.” Musically the rhythm and melody are starting to sound slightly derivative by this stage, meaning this song doesn’t really stand out in any strong way. After the noisy interlude, the song almost falls apart, save a couple more bars before it dies out.
Teacher Is Dead… but here we have the witchiest weirdest voodoo song in the whole 3Ds catalogue. Mitchells’ vocals are all strung out in long ghostly lines, beginning with “Teacher is dead” after which nothing else is really discernable. The rhythm makes Tom Waits’s Real Gone period look like kids’ stuff. This sounds like a whole graveyard of zombies thumping pots and pans on the insides of their coffins. (Actually, it’s a kalimba or thumb piano, as recently popularized on Congotronics.) And there’s these creaky door viola parts all squeaking and squealing, like those coffin lids are being lifted one by one. It retains the same rhythm throughout the song while Mitchell intones his drifting ghostly lines. I had a flatmate once, a school teacher, who genuinely begged me not to play this song around him, it scared him that much.
Jewel… is very similar to “Ball Of Purple Thread” at the end of Fish Tales. Roughan’s voice is really pretty here, all soft and high, flowing through the delicate song in time with the delicate guitar part, which again, is also very similar to that song on Fish Tales. After Roughan finishes singing we get Alan Starrett delivering a gorgeous fiddle part, with appalachian dulcimer and accordion too, a lovely piece of whimsical introspection. Reminds me of the Dirty Three a little. The violin section continues for a couple of minutes. Behind all that, a faintly heavy guitar line waves along.
So I would say after twenty years, this is the first time I’ve ever really sat down and paid close attention to the lyrics, at least those ones I can catch. And the more I think about it, the less like “fun” this album seems, a word repeatedly mentioned in the All Music Guide’s review. When the 3Ds sing “Hellzapoppin” it’s deeply ambiguous. Hell may be popping, but how much fun is that going to be really? Not much if your house is on fire and there’s a madman running around killing innocent people. More of this madness too, on 1993’s The Venus Trail.