Wayne Mason (right) and The Mutton Birds perform Nature at the 2001 APRA Silver Scroll Awards. Nature was named the Best New Zealand Composition of the previous 75 years.

It is a compliment for a musician when their song is covered by another artist. For this reason, the APRA Silver Scroll Awards have made live cover versions a central part of the annual celebration, with each finalist having their song reinterpreted and performed by a guest act.

Cover versions were also the topic of an episode of the Blue Smoke radio series by Chris Bourke, who looked at a wide range of New Zealanders who have performed or recorded songs by other local songwriters.


As with that programme, this article looks specifically at studio recordings. In a small country like New Zealand, it is sometimes effectively a statement about the value of local music, confirming that our musical history is worth keeping alive in the minds of New Zealanders. This was certainly the case when Push Push released a version of The Chills’ ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’ to show that their own musical appreciation went beyond hard rock.

The 10 songs below have been picked because the interpretation shows another layer of depth to the original composition.


Down The Hall On Saturday Night by Peter Cape, covered by The Merseymen

Peter Cape is remembered for his Kiwi vernacular standards such as ‘She’ll Be Right’ and ‘Taumarunui On The Main Trunk Line’. He emerged from the late 1950s folk scene and his work can be seen as part of that tradition, capturing local life with humour and a keen eye. ‘Down The Hall On Saturday Night’ is a good example of this, with its wry description of a small town hall where everyone in the district would meet for a dance.

The Merseymen saw that its bouncy rhythm could fit with their style of beat music and its melody adapted to suit being plucked in a Shadows guitar style. The band was formed to play The Beatle Inn in Auckland, a club which banned patrons who were over 18. The band’s job was to cover the Fab Four, so this single was an interesting side project for them. Tthe drummer is Jett Rink, aka Dylan Taite.


Peter Cape songs were later adopted by a new generation of folkies, with this song being covered by The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band – then in 1972 Human Instinct recorded the song on a 45 for the Zodiac label, and in the early 90s, When the Cat’s Been Spayed also did a version.


Nature by The Fourmyula, covered by The Mutton Birds

This is probably the best-known example of a New Zealand band creating a hit with a cover of another local band. ‘Nature’, a No.1 in 1970 written by Wayne Mason when he was in The Fourmyula, was voted the top New Zealand song of the last 75 years when APRA members were polled in 2001. The resulting songs were compiled on the Nature’s Best series.

The original was a folk-rock tune with a psychedelic feel – primarily played on acoustic instruments with echoing multi-layered vocals and bongos tapping out the rhythm in the verses, before the drums kicked in for the chorus. The Mutton Birds swapped the acoustic melody for a fuzz guitar riff and introduced a full drum beat throughout, though they kept the harmonised vocals, with singer Jan Hellriegel adding her voice into the mix. Suddenly – in 1992 – this 20-year-old song was once again a hit, peaking at No.4. 


In turn, The Mutton Birds’ song ‘Anchor Me’ was covered as a charity single for Greenpeace. The subtle drama of the original was increased by replacing the guitar lines with string parts. However, you couldn’t really go wrong with such an impressive line-up of singers: Kirsten Morrell (Goldenhorse), Che Fu, Anika Moa, Milan Borich (Pluto), Adeaze, Hinewehi Mohi, David Atai and Donald McNulty (both from Nesian Mystik).


What’s The Matter With You by Split Enz, covered by The Beths

The influence of Neil Finn and Tim Finn looms large over New Zealand music – whether as solo acts or as part of Split Enz and Crowded House – so it’s not surprising to find that both have had their songs covered. The brothers had their songs reinterpreted by female artists for the She Will Have Her Way compilation, though most acts were Australian. It was successful enough that a follow-up was done with male vocalists (He Will Have His Way). In his radio programme, Chris Bourke described Brooke Fraser’s version of ‘Distant Sun’ as “restrained and respectful”.


More recently, the re-release of True Colours by Split Enz was accompanied by a tribute album. The most popular track was Shihad covering ‘I Got You’. Split Enz and Shihad both became household names in Australia, so bringing the two together created a sure-fire streaming hit. What’s more, the original synth solo works just as well on guitar.


The pick of the bunch though, is The Beths turning the quirky 80s pop-rock of ‘What’s The Matter With You’ into a fast-tempo rock track.


Crush by Tall Dwarfs, covered by The Mint Chicks

When Chris Knox was suddenly debilitated by a stroke, the music community came together to create a fundraising tribute album, Stroke. It includes local musicians and some international indie legends: Jay Reatard, Bill Callahan (Smog), The Mountain Goats, Will Oldham, and Lou Barlow (Sebadoh). One standout is Neil Finn covering ‘It’s Love’ with his wife and children, as the Finn Family.

The track that seems the most fitting is The Mint Chicks’ version of the Tall Dwarfs’ ‘Crush.’ In a way, they took a similar place in the local consciousness as musically rebellious musicians who nonetheless made a name for themselves both at home and overseas. The warped autotune that Kody Nielson applies to the chorus makes the mournful melody sound almost otherworldly, which suits the subject matter of alienation.  


Boogey Man by The Bats, covered by The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra

The ukulele has had a central place in Polynesian music since it was first created in Hawaii in the late 1800s, based on instruments played by Portuguese immigrants. Over the past few decades, it’s become more common for it to be used in popular music. Its accessibility has largely seen it replace the recorder as the instrument of choice in primary schools.

The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra was born out of the instrument’s ease of playing, with less experienced players performing alongside established musicians such as Bret McKenzie, Age Pryor (Fly My Pretties) and Bek Coogan (Cortina, Fantasising, Oona Verse). This helps keep the joyful aspect of the band at the forefront. They’ve travelled around the world, including a month performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013.

Their repertoire has included many great local tracks: ‘Weather With You’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’, ‘Counting the Beat’, ‘Long Ago’, ‘Hoki Mai’, ‘Blue Smoke’, ‘The New Zealand Christmas Tree’, and ‘E Ipo’. Their version of ‘Boogey Man’ by The Bats fits perfectly with the fairy-tale subject matter and is fronted by a singer who is better known for her work as a film/TV producer, Gemma Gracewood.


Sensitive to a Smile by Herbs, covered by The Aotearoa Reggae All Stars

‘Sensitive To A Smile’ by Herbs was the obvious choice when Aotearoa’s best reggae acts joined forces to record a single to raise money for violence-free parenting advocacy charity Mana Ririki. Herbs are a foundational band in the Aotearoa reggae scene and the song reflects on how having a child causes a parent to open up their heart.

The recording was arranged by Avina Kelekolio (Tomorrow People) and Rio Panapa (Sons of Zion) – both talented producers, whose skills in the studio have helped propel their respective bands. They wisely kept the musical backing stripped back and true to the original, which showcases the wide variety of singers. The group included the late Carl Perkins (House of Shem), a former member of Herbs.


Tūī by Hirini Melbourne, covered by Dudley Benson

‘Forest’ (2010) by Dudley Benson might have seemed like an odd prospect – a critically acclaimed indie act covering a waiata written for children. However, Benson wanted to show the artistry that lay behind the work of the original composer, Hirini Melbourne. Through his work as a teacher, Melbourne gained a job at the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education which led him to write waiata that could be used in schools.

Melbourne always had deeper motivations behind his music. At the forefront was his desire to promote te reo Māori, though he was also drawn to political and environmental causes, so his songs about birds also need to be understood in this context. Benson was so devoted to rendering his versions of the songs correctly that he studied te reo Māori at university. His version of ‘Tūī’ shows the delicate beauty of the original. The remix version is particularly striking, featuring UK folk legend, Vasti Bunyan (along with production by Stef Animal).


Drive by Bic Runga, covered by Rose McIver and Lips

Bic Runga is one of the most respected songwriters in Aotearoa, and it isn’t a surprise to find that her songs also shine when done by other artists. Lips arranged the music for the Daffodils movie (2019), which relied upon covers of many well-known New Zealand hits. Many were sung by Kimbra, who also appears in the movie. However, the star, Rose McIver, also has a strong singing voice, which she has used in her previous work – for example, she performed a song on guitar in a crucial scene of the US television show, iZombie.

The original of ‘Drive’ was backed only by plucked guitar, while this version has Lips creating a more filmic atmosphere with trickles of keyboard, ethereal synthesised sounds, and the addition of a drumbeat in the middle section.


Slice of Heaven by Dave Dobbyn, covered by Coterie

The Fisher brothers were born in Aotearoa and have Māori lineage (Te Aupōuri, Ngāpuhi and Ngāi Te Rangi), but their parents were touring musicians who decided to settle in Perth when they were still children. The boys subsequently formed Coterie and quickly found fans across Australia. ‘Slice of Heaven’ was the perfect song to cover, since it was recognisable to their fans in Australia (having been a hit there), but also helped them connect with listeners back in their homeland of Aotearoa.

However, they didn’t want to disrespect the mana of the original, so they sought permission directly from Dave Dobbyn. Their version adds a distinct feel of modern Polyfunk into the mix with the man himself providing vocals for the recording. It’s not the first time Dobbyn has joined newer artists in covering his work: he appears on DLT’s version of ‘Madeleine Avenue’ and sang alongside AKA Brown on ‘Beside You.’


We Light Fire by Julia Deans, covered by Beastwars

Tyranny of Distance by Beastwars is an entire album of local songs reinterpreted by the band. Each of the chosen songs has a dark element which suits them being done by a sludge metal band. However, Beastwars have always been strongest when dealing with primaeval subject matter.

Julia Deans came up with the song title ‘We Light Fire’ after reading that all past human civilizations have been united in the use of fire lighting as a ritual to celebrate or to mourn someone’s death. She was also inspired by her grandfather, who had just passed away when she wrote the song. He had suggested she write something positive, so the song is imbued both with the love of life and the acknowledgement of our shared mortality.

See Julia Deans’ reaction to the song, then listen to the full song below.



Plus one – Under The Influence: 21 Years of Flying Nun

For the 21st birthday of Flying Nun, a compilation album was released which featured many of the label’s artists covering songs by other acts on the label. The following section of the Heavenly Pop Hits documentary (2002) includes Shayne Carter and HDU covering ‘Man on the Edge of A Nervous Breakdown’ then Betchadupa doing ‘Outer Space’, both originally by The 3Ds.