Blimey. Where do I start? The truth of the matter is that, though I have worked exclusively as a composer/arranger/producer for over 40 years, I seldom sit down and listen to music for recreational purposes. The music I listen to the most is the music I’m making at the time – and often it is particularly annoying and tiring music. So, for recreation, I chase a golf ball round a course with little success, go fishing with equally poor results or indulge in similar immature and pointless pursuits. The strike rate of great songs per capita in New Zealand is probably the same as anywhere else in the world, so for a population of four million, there will be quite a few good ones but not that many great ones. But here goes: not in order of importance, but probably chronologically correct.
Waiata Poi – Alfred Hill (1904)
“Hang on a minute, he’s a bloody Aussie,” I hear you scream. Yes, I know, but this song was really the first “Moana and the Moahunters” or “Oceania” if you will, and for decades was a song that characterised New Zealand to the rest of the British Empire. It was a “hit” for Peter Dawson in the 1940s and a feature of Inia Te Wiata’s stage performances. Hill spent a lot of time in the early 1900s at Charles Goldie’s portrait studio annotating the waiata sung by his female sitters. He was extremely moved by the music of New Zealand’s “natives”. Unfortunately when he came to write this song he wrote a piece of British operetta that seems to incorporate almost no melody that could be vaguely attributed to Māoridom, but jeez it’s a stirring piece nonetheless. In the late 80s, Ian Morris and I talked at length on doing a “Malcolm McLaren/Trevor Horn” OTT version – but life got in the way.
A long interlude follows … 1905 to 1974. It’s not that nothing happened in this time, there were certainly great records made (‘Dance Around The World’, BLERTA; ‘Nature’, The Fourmyula; ‘How Is The Air Up There’, The La De Da’s; etc, etc). But they were very much a happy coincidence of performance and production, and often cover versions (eg, ‘She’s a Mod’) rather than great songs per se – and so we slip forward 70 years!
Slipping Away – Max Merritt
But this one, to my ears, came out of nowhere in 1975. It was – and probably still is – the greatest soul song written by a New Zealander. The arrangement, with each line being repeated by the backing vocalists, is slightly cheesy but the song is strong enough to survive it. Sam Cooke could have slipped this one in just after ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. Soulful and sad. “I see it written in your eyes and you confirm it with your lies”. Simple and profound.
April Sun In Cuba – Marc Hunter and Paul Hewson
All of a sudden New Zealand had some actual grunty ROCK bands. The band members looked like rock stars and your parents would probably have hit the roof if your younger sister brought one home. With the demise of the sanitised TV pop music shows, full of cover versions of overseas pop hits, came bands like The La De Da’s and Dragon. Released in 1977, this particular song maybe somewhat overfamiliar to us all now, but it still leaps out of the speakers. It’s at least as good as Bad Company or similar overseas rock acts of the time, and lyrically it’s very original. Peter Dawkins sprinkled his production fairy dust on it and it is as good as it gets.
Time for an anecdote break. In the mid-1970s I was having okay success as a session musician in London and one day I was at CBS Studios in London’s West End, all set up and ready to go, playing bass on a recording by (I seem to remember) an early UK girl group, The Vernon Girls. I was warming up when suddenly the door from the control room to the studio burst open and the English engineer stood holding a copy of Melody Maker, the weekly music industry bible at the time. On the front cover was a big photo of Split Enz in full Noel Crombie freak-show “period dress” and crazy haircuts. “Look at these C%#&TS” yelled the engineer. “They come from where you come from!” I was mortified. It’s fair to say the Enz were totally misunderstood by the Brit music press and in fact the whole country when they arrived in England – and the Poms kinda mistook them for “last cab off the rank” glam rockers. It wasn’t until the end of the decade, when I was back in New Zealand that I dared listen again and fell for the music. Now, they dominate my list.
Stuff and Nonsense – Tim Finn
No wonder Tim Finn is writing musicals these days. Rodgers and Hammerstein would have been proud of this one, and Andrew Lloyd Webber might wish he could even write like this. I could just as easily have chosen ‘I Hope I Never’, but the naive innocence of 1979’s ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ won out over the former’s slight melodrama. It is just a wonderful song, that says much more than its lyrics alone. It is typically downbeat in the New Zealand way and I would be very proud to have this in my songbook.
History Never Repeats – Neil Finn
And then there was Neil Finn with a different – albeit still downbeat – take on things. The second single off the 1981 Enz album Waiata, Paul McCartney would have stuck ‘History Never Repeats’ at the front of a Wings album if he had been fortunate enough to write it. Again it leaps from the grooves, aided by the Enz being at their peak as a performing band. This so coulda, shoulda been a worldwide hit but probably it’s the downbeat vibe again that didn’t quite click with the “have a nice day” attitude of the US at the time. The way the song transposes from G to D and back again for the middle instrumental section – but stays in G when it comes up again at the end – is pure Mozart/Beethoven classical-era harmonic balance. Magic.
Pioneer/Six Months In A Leaky Boat – Eddie Rayner/Tim Finn
Let me make a full disclosure here. I sometimes perform in various guises with Eddie Rayner but I must be the only full-time, professional composer/musician in Auckland of a “certain age” who actually has never officially met either of the Finns. It has just never happened. The reason they have so many songs in this list is that they are, in my opinion, just that good! It is impossible to talk about ‘Six Months’ without including ‘Pioneer’. The segue between the songs is probably the Split End masterpiece. Off the 1982 LP Time and Tide, these two pieces would have fitted on Abbey Road perfectly. The contrast between Ed’s harmonically rich and virtuosic instrumental piece and Tim’s stirring yet four-chord simple song is what lifts it into the stratosphere. I’ve had the honour of performing it live with Ed on a couple of occasions and the elevation of spirit in the audience when the final ‘Pioneer’ piano chord segues into “When I was a young boy …” is thrilling to be a part of. Not content with this trick, they go and repeat it again after the nutty sailor’s hornpipe section in the middle, as the tune starts up again with the big flutey sound on Ed’s synths.
Don’t Dream It’s Over – Neil Finn
If you are looking for the obscure choices, maybe I’m not your man and, yes, it’s the Finns again. At last one of them managed to write a song that was lyrically optimistic enough (only just) to be understood by Americans. A truly great, simple, recording of a truly great song. Not much more to say really: Neil sings it like a bird, as good as it gets on the 1986 Crowded House version, but just when you think it’s a “one man song” along come Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande who just nail it as well and with due reverence. Neil has written lots of great ones but this is probably the universal best.
You Can’t Go Back (Sydney Song) – Barry Saunders
From The Warratahs through to now, Barry’s output has been prolific. He is perhaps the only good songwriter in the country who writes and sings about the true experience of being a New Zealander in a totally unselfconscious way. Yet somehow I’ve chosen a song that isn’t about New Zealand … but it kinda is really. Like much of Barry’s work it could possibly have done with one more rub with the polishing cloth before it made it into the showroom, but then maybe it would have been too shiny for its own good. This simple song – from his 1995 solo album Weatherman – speaks to me profoundly about that strange feeling you get when you return to a place/town/house/country that was once your total universe and you have a feeling of total disconnection with that part of your life. It’s strangely haunting in its simplicity. I love it.
Beside You – Dave Dobbyn
It’s so hard to fit Dave Dobbyn in on this list. His records are the true pop soul of New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s and Noughties, but it’s so hard to separate the songs from his very singular performances and his unique and original vocal style. ‘Slice Of Heaven’ is perhaps the New Zealand pop record to many, but it’s virtually uncoverable by anyone not called Dave Dobbyn. I chose this song because I recently shared the stage with Dave and he performed it with just an acoustic guitar, and it was a stunningly brave and electric performance that had the audience transfixed. Yet this 1998 song has been a hit for others. Beautiful.
Get Some Sleep – Bic Runga
How do you single out a Bic Runga song? So many are so good but this to me is so universal. Upbeat, but still shaded in melancholy, it could have been the opening song on the Mamas and Papas’ comeback album, it is so much about New York City. But it could only have been written by a New Zealander. The performance is charming and restrained. I recall showering in the gym around the time it was released (2002) and this monstrous dude with biceps the diameter of my chest was singing it full tilt in the shower. Then, a couple of months later, I was on holiday in San Francisco and it was playing on the sound system of a boutique we were in and I felt a true pang of home. A gem of a song.
Royals – Lorde
Just out of nowhere – er, well, Belmont – came this masterpiece. The originality of its lyrics, melody and production just flew in the face of everything else at the time (2013). I was co-musical director of the first X-Factor New Zealand just before ‘Royals’ broke in the US and it was THE song of the time among the contestants … and then it really took off internationally. Intellectually so smart it could sit on a Steely Dan album without apology, but as cool as a cool thing. Probably the biggest breakout by any New Zealand song in history and not a novelty piece either. Amazing and inspiring.
Jim Hall “cobbled together” a B Mus degree from Canterbury and Auckland universities while touring in the early 1970s backing acts such as Cilla Black and Tony Christie. He has performed on many TV shows including Happen Inn and on innumerable recordings in New Zealand and Britain. Returning to New Zealand he formed Soundtrax, a music production company, winning many awards for composing music used in advertising. He has also produced many albums and composed scores for films (The Crooked Earth) and TV (Aroha). Among Jim’s “greatest hits” in advertising music are ‘There’s A Blue Sky Waiting for Me’ (sung by Al Hunter), and ‘Grey Skies Got the Blues’, and his 2000 album Big Songs from Small Movies collected many of these recordings, featuring singers such as Al Hunter and Fiona McDonald. He was the musical director on the first series of The X Factor New Zealand. The photo below, taken in 1977 by Kevin Hill, shows Jim in the band Shannon, performing in Rangiora. He says, “I wish I still had: The aviators. The T-shirt. The 1968 Les Paul Goldtop. Come to think of it, the body.”