There seems to be considerably fewer songs with a man’s name than there are with a woman’s name. In some cases, those with a man’s name started their recorded history as a song with a woman’s name.
In New Zealand in 1964, Dinah Lee followed ‘Do The Blue Beat’ with a song called ‘Johnny’ that had already been released twice as ‘Joanie’ – and on both occasions as the flipside to ‘Do The Blue Beat’! Americans Ray Rivera and Mark Thatcher released ‘Do The Blue Beat’ b/w ‘Joanie’ almost simultaneously. A copy of one of them found its way to Viking and ‘Do The Blue Beat’ became synonymous with Dinah Lee.
Written by British hit-making team Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, ‘Kitty’ was a track on flash-in-the-pan pop band Racey’s 1979 LP Smash And Grab before American choreographer Toni Basil rejigged it as ‘Mickey’ and turned it into a global hit.
On the international scene, Sue Thompson sang about ‘Norman’, Bacharach and David’s ‘Alfie’ was a hit for Cilla Black and Dionne Warwick. Elton John gave us ‘Daniel’ and ‘Levon’, Michael Jackson delivered ‘Ben’ (about a rat), Blondie’s Debbie Harry set the hearts of all Denises aflutter with ‘Denis’, and Carly Simon crooned ‘Jesse’. Later, Pearl Jam droned ‘Jeremy’, and Eminem was too late to save ‘Stan’.
Back on New Zealand’s shores, Shona Laing preferred to stay mum on the story behind ‘Tony’ from her Australian-recorded Shooting Stars Are Only Seen At Night, while The Chicks couldn’t remember why or how they’d ended up recording ‘Timothy’. “All I know is over the last 20 years I have been approached at different gigs by men telling me it’s all our fault they were named Timothy,” said Suzanne Lynch.
Here are 10 randomly selected New Zealand songs with a man’s name as the title.
‘Andrew’ – Fur Patrol
The follow-up to Fur Patrol’s New Zealand chart topper ‘Lydia’, ‘Andrew’ only received its name after record execs tried to pluck a title from the song’s lyrics and their bass guitarist suggested in jest that they name it after him.
“The record company wanted us to call it ‘I’m Sorry’ or ‘Sorry’, and we’re just like, ‘Yeah, but it’s not about being sorry at all,’” frontwoman Julia Deans told AudioCulture. “And they’re like, ‘Well, you need to come up with a title.’ And Andrew Bain, our bass player, went, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got a really good name for it. What if we call it Andrew?’ like as a joke. We just went, ‘Done’. I think he may have regretted that.”
The song is not about a person but more a rallying cry for self-belief. “I don’t think any of the songs on Pet were about anyone in particular, to the best of my knowledge,” Deans explained. “I think a lot of them were sort of commentary on our social group at that time and just being in that early 20s, working out how life and relationships work. I was in that mindset of not gonna let other people’s neediness impact on my ability to just be myself.”
‘Andy’ – The Front Lawn
Set on Takapuna Beach the day after a birthday party, ‘Andy’ is as much about keeping alive the memory of a deceased loved one when the rest of the family “won’t even mention your name” as it is about the changes to the landscape of their growing up.
“Yeah, this is really about my brother who we lost when I was about 15 ... it’s not really an attempt to create a story too far away from that,” McGlashan told journalist Russell Baillie in 2000.
“When we started The Front Lawn, the songs I was writing during the process, I was learning about storytelling,” he told Gary Steel for AudioCulture. “The musical side was quite often musical storytelling, which had roots back into the Celtic stuff I’d been opened up to in New York – like ‘Andy’ and ‘Claude Rains’. Quite simple things, which were just a way of telling a story.”
‘Aubrey’ – Hogsnort Rupert’s Original Flagon Band
As the first verse points out, ‘Aubrey’ is “a tale about a young male who worried about getting old” but it was in fact written about someone by the name of John who songwriter Dave Luther knew.
“The song is based around a bloke I knew in the 60s, however all towns seem to have one,” Luther told AudioCulture. “Family in the suburbs, on the parent-teacher and progressive associations, local council candidate with one eye on Parliament. Salt-of-the-earth people, couldn’t do without them.”
‘Aubrey’ was released as a follow-up to Hogsnort Rupert’s massive ‘Pretty Girl’ and reached No.5 in the NZ charts in November 1970. It was again produced by Peter Dawkins and features some rollicking piano from Garth Young. Frontman Alec Wishart’s “Don’t you forget, now, my lover, give us a kiss, huh” reprise, this time in a Mexican accent, comes across as unashamedly contrived.
‘Charlie’ – Split Enz
According to Split Enz’s keyboard virtuoso Eddie Rayner, the chilling ‘Charlie’ was written about a woman whose husband’s pet name for her was just that. It came during a period of flux for the Enz when Phil Judd had just left, and Mike Chunn was in the throes of departing.
Yet it was a time of great inspiration for Tim Finn as he zeroed in on the band’s future without his co-conspirator Judd. First at his uncle’s house in Baltimore, USA, and then in London, Finn mined a rich vein of creativity that would push the band forward.
In his book Stranger Than Fiction: The Life And Times Of Split Enz, Chunn explained how Finn wrote ‘Charlie’ after a night with a lady friend: “Back in the confines of the crumbling hotel, he picked up his guitar and wrote a song; a song that poured out in a pure moment of release – the first time it had ever happened. Freed by his previously dormant libido, he wrote a paean, with imagery once again spread thinly over the real subject: the exorcism of Phil.”
On the back cover of the 1977 Split Enz album Dizrythmia, where the song first appeared, the title is spelt ‘Charley’.
‘Ernie Abbott’ – Darren Watson
Blues singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Darren Watson was 17 and a committed socialist when caretaker Ernie Abbott was killed by a suitcase bomb he moved while locking up the Wellington Trades Hall at 5:19pm on March 27, 1984. Abbott was the sole victim of the attack and no one has been brought to justice for the murder.
“I’d been to the Trades Hall and seen Ernie there so when the news broke about the bombing I, probably ridiculously, felt it pretty hard,” Watson said. “I didn’t know him of course, but someone I’d known of and seen pottering around had been murdered while doing his job.”
The story popped into Watson’s consciousness on a regular basis and after a 2019 episode of Cold Case featured the crime, the line “somebody’s got to know” stuck in his head and he wrote the song.
‘George’ – Headless Chickens
When the Headless Chickens were practising and recording demos in the gutted George Court & Sons Department Store in Karangahape Road, Auckland, they would listen back to their work days later and hear anomalies that weren’t apparent when the music was laid down.
Singer Fiona McDonald and bandmate Michael Lawry concluded the oddities were the work of a ghost and christened the spectre George after the drapery shop owner George Court who opened the building in 1926.
“Then we recorded the song ‘George’, very much a band experience, and when it came to naming it, none of the lyrics kind of lent themselves to being the name of the song,” McDonald said. “And then I just thought, well, these spooky little things were happening to that very demo, so let’s call the song ‘George’.”
The video for ‘George’, which hit the No.1 spot twice in New Zealand in December 1994, was filmed at the George Court building. Radio station George FM was later named after the song, as was the son of Headless Chickens guitarist Anthony Nevison.
‘Jack’ – Sam Ford
Every word of Sam Ford’s ‘Jack’ is true! The protagonist is larger-than-life Māori-Irishman Jack McCarthy, who lived on the Waima River, near Horeke in the Hokianga.
“We met him in 1976-77, when we had just come back from living in London and went up there to stay with a friend who lived near him,” Ford said. “Sitting around his huge dining table – they had raised literally dozens of welfare kids – his family would recount all these stories about Jack while he just chuckled. He was one of the most impressive people I have ever met, both in stature and mana.”
Some of the antics Jack got up to in the song included shooting his bulletproof car “once or twice” just to see if it in fact was bulletproof, building a stopbank with a barrow and a spade, and floating houses up the river on forty-gallon drums. The track was a highlight on Ford’s self-produced 1993 album Unhinged.
‘Johnny’ – Salmonella Dub
Featured on Salmonella Dub’s third album Killervision, ‘Johnny’ was accompanied by an action-packed music video that was full of native trees, classic cars, nightclubs and stunts. Greg Rewai filmed the clip in Auckland in 2000.
The lyrics were an ominous warning to Johnny to stay away from a lying woman who would “take you up and suck you dry and go onto the next guy”. But the Johnny the song was named after had nothing to do with the story within.
“Well, Johnny was kinda inspired by a man named Johnny Turner, an awesome Kiwi sculptor and mentor of mine,” lyricist and saxophonist Conan Wilcox revealed. “Johnny was an amazing font of advice and comradeship in the 90s, so the name comes from him, though the subject matter is another story …”
Having left Salmonella Dub in 2007 after an intense European tour, Wilcox returned to the fold in 2022 for shows in support of the band’s Rua – Return To Our Kowhai album.
‘Keith’ – Kaylee Bell
South Canterbury-born-and-raised Kaylee Bell’s ‘Keith’ pays homage to one of her musical heroes, Whangarei-born Keith Urban, and is interspersed with no less than 12 of his song titles. See if you can pick ’em all.
“‘Keith’ was a song that I had the idea for in my sleep, and still features some of the lyrics that I recorded into my phone that night,” Bell related at the time of the song’s 2019 release. “I sat on the idea for over a year as I hadn’t really settled on how to bring the song to life. But in Nashville last year, while recording with Lindsay [Rimes], I took the idea to a writing session with he and Phil Barton. The song really wrote itself and was one of the best writing days I’ve had in Nashville.”
Streamed more than six million times on Spotify, ‘Keith’ is the tale of one long, hot summer and a couple in the fever of young love. They’re playing “a little KU” on the radio, and as the singer looks back some time later, she hopes her beau thinks of her “when you play that Keith”.
‘Sergio’ – Lucid 3
Lucid 3 singer-songwriter Victoria Girling-Butcher named ‘Sergio’ for the drum machine feel used early on during recording. The song is actually a slower version of the band’s song ‘Precious Ace’ and both appear on their 2004 album All Moments Leading To This.
Girling-Butcher: “We liked both versions so kept them on the album. I called the slower one ‘Sergio’ because the feel was originally either from a Farfisa organ’s drum machine or a Casiotone, and I called that particular drum feel Sergio after the Latin samba/rumba mélange we ended up with. I don’t think the drum machine is actually in the mix of either song, however.”
All Moments Leading To This reached No.2 on the Independent Music NZ Chart and Lucid 3 supported UB40, Jimmy Cliff, Brooke Fraser and James Blunt, who reportedly was so impressed by their performance he doubled their fee.