John Grenell – Welcome to Our World (1990)
The first No.1 single of the decade is also the most recent local country chart topper to this day. It’s a genre which has deep, abiding roots – check the Hauraki Plains chapter of Steve Braunias’ Civilisation for recent evidence – but is near hermetically sealed off from the rest of pop culture.
John Grenell’s Jim Reeves’ cover ‘Welcome To Our World’ had three weeks at the top in February 1990, probably because it was the soundtrack to a Toyota Hilux ad, back when Hilux ads were played about 30 times a day, every day, forever.
Any New Zealander of a certain age can play its slow, sentimental lyric in their heads anytime they please. Known in an earlier age as John Hore, before he perhaps wisely changed his name, Grenell has impeccable country credentials, writing the local version of ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ and playing the Grand Ole Opry.
Ngaire – To Sir With Love (1990)
Six years before the Fugees became global stars, Ngaire Fuata, known simply as Ngaire, basically invented their style. She took a sweet 60s pop song, Lulu’s ‘To Sir With Love’, sang it faithfully and dropped a syncopated beat underneath. The result was a smash hit – five weeks atop the charts in October and November of 1990. The production is dated, for sure, but the song was a great choice, a surprisingly sophisticated lyric and melody, delivered in crisply enunciated style. Set against the other 90s NZ R&B covers that hit No.1 – Ardijah’s ‘Silly Love Songs’ – this looks like genius.
Fuata, who is probably the only Rotuman Islander to have a hit single, worked at TVNZ at the time, and there’s a neat clip of her singing it – with awesome instrumental mime by the production duo – on a Telethon fronted by Paul Holmes. Unlike virtually anyone else who ever had a hit, she didn’t throw her day job to the wolves, and works on the television show Tangata Pasifika.
Push Push – Trippin’ (1991)
Push Push’s ‘Trippin’’ is a brilliant tribute to US hair metal, and totalled six weeks at the top in April and May. It’s propelled by a sweet, hyper-processed guitar riff and a young Mikey Havoc’s excitable hollering. New Zealand’s cultural memory tends to airbrush out Push Push and their ilk, who would play multiple band line-ups at the Powerstation in the late 80s and early 90s, in favour of talking up The 3Ds or Loves Ugly Children or something. But ultimately, while great, the Flying Nun bands were pretty niche – this was the sound that the white suburbs were bumping.
Havoc, famously, went on to 95bFM, sporadically brilliant television, and house DJing – before recently ending up at Hauraki, and the music which launched him. Six months after ‘Trippin’’, Nevermind came along and killed this sound stone dead.
Parker Project – Tears on My Pillow (1991)
Another cover from the same team (Dan Barnes and John Cooper – AKA Rhythm & Business) which assembled Ngaire's earlier hit – and a not dissimilar formula. That is, take a semi-obscure 70s soul single and give it a modern makeover. Johnny Nash (of 'I Can See Clearly Now' fame) first had a hit with this sentimental pop reggae single in 1975. It's very anglicised, redolent of the likes of Rick Astley, anguished white haircut pop, but while ridiculous, it's not unpleasant. But, like the Push Push song it replaced, the sense that this is a music whose time had passed is very strong. 'Tears on My Pillow' was released on Trevor Reekie's Pagan label, while the group's name came from singer David Parker, who had done more interesting work in Rhythm Cage. Sadly the 'Jazzy Rap Remix' on the B-side is, as yet, nowhere to be found online.
Hammond Gamble & The Red Nose Band – You Make The Whole World Smile (1992, 1993)
Anyone who gets overly nostalgic for the 1990s just needs to check out the charts for 1992 and 1993. The gems are interspersed with songs like Mr Big’s terrifying ‘To Be With You’ and Eric Clapton’s awful ‘Tears in Heaven’. Everything stayed at No.1 forever. ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ did six weeks, Boyz II Men’s admittedly fun ‘End of the Road’ did seven. Then Whitney’s monolithic ‘I Will Always Love You’ did 11 weeks, which included nearly a month with no charts over Christmas and New Year. Great song, but sheesh.
Another cover, UB40’s horrendous ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’, did another 11 non-consecutive weeks later in the year, only interrupted by the second run of this charity single. Sadly, ‘You Make the Whole World Smile’ fits right in amongst all those horrible, mawkish ballads, with the added bonus of crushing parental sentimentality which, I should point out, should never, ever enter the pop charts. Its only saving grace is the video, which features those ridiculous NZ celebs of the era hamming along. This may also be notable for convincing Holmesy to give singing a crack a decade later.
The Mutton Birds – The Heater (1994)
‘Anchor Me’. ‘Dominion Rd’. ‘Ngaire’. All much more obvious singles to go to No.1 than this sinister, allegorical piece. My theory is that the four track CD single – value alert! – helped get the kids involved.
Musically, it’s hard to imagine on contemporary radio. Dissonant horns, harsh guitars, “upstairs alone with the element/He dreamed of gold and frankincense”. It’s bloody weird, really. But that, along with its effortless chorus, is its charm.
A high school buddy of mine, a virtuoso violinist named Simeon Broom, was obsessed with The Mutton Birds, and while I bought their albums (for my dad, but a little bit for me) I never quite got fully on board. There was always something a little mannered and "musicianly" about them. But through the 90s they were set up as the thinking man’s favourite local band and it seems somehow fitting that this strange song was their biggest hit.
3 The Hard Way – Hip Hop Holiday (1994)
A week later ‘The Heater’ was gone, replaced by 3 The Hard Way’s ‘Hip Hop Holiday’. Reminiscent of contemporary smashes like A Lighter Shade of Brown’s ‘On A Sunday Afternoon’ in its melding of guitar and a breakbeat, ‘Hip Hop Holiday’ felt at the time like one of those high water marks, where our rap catches up with US progression. At the same time it’s very much ours, from the reggae MCing to the comedic intentional mistake in the second verse.
Unfortunately, the enormous 10cc interpolation that makes up the hook was never cleared, thus all royalties from the song flow to a pair of already quite wealthy enough English chaps. Bugger.
Supergroove – Can’t Get Enough (1994)
After the drought in 1992-1993, the dam truly broke in 1994. Supergroove were the biggest band in the country when this spent a solitary week at No.1 in May, a big, rowdy funk-rock mob who seemed inescapable at this point. Their debut album Traction, released around the same time, went quintuple platinum, and they seemed set to blow. Then Che Ness (Che Fu) left, and with him their uniqueness and momentum.
‘Can’t Get Enough’ encapsulates all that made them so popular – Che’s undeniable presence, faintly school-band funk, a gang-chanted chorus, shameless references ("Oh, Rock My Soul"). It hasn’t aged particularly well, but for a generation of New Zealand teens this was the record that made them pay attention to New Zealand music.
Headless Chickens – George (1994)
The final No.1 in this banner year, Headless Chickens had a week there in the frantic run up to Christmas. This came out during the heyday of Auckland’s outrageously good music channel Max TV (RIP), and was on AAA rotate. With good reason – a moody, intense beat and Fiona McDonald’s worn-thin sung-rapped lyric that takes off into a killer chorus.
Their story has parallels with two other 1994 No.1 records – as with The Mutton Birds’ unconventional hit, the less complex ‘Cruise Control’ seems a more natural chart-topper, and like Supergroove, the band would soon be diminished by the departure of their charismatic singer.
McDonald did some great work with Strawpeople, and some very ordinary solo stuff – including, from memory, a spectacularly ill-judged revival of a World War II-era weepie to wish the All Blacks well in the 1999 World Cup. That might be the single worst song to have a Flying Nun catalogue number. This, though, is one of the best.
OMC – How Bizarre (1996)
I don’t think many would argue with ‘How Bizarre’ as the New Zealand single of the decade. Its incredible story has been told at length elsewhere, but suffice it to say, this was a defining moment for New Zealand, the first non-Crowded House NZ single to really smash radio in the US and UK.
That tropical guitar riff over a bed of supple percussion has instant appeal, and Fuemana’s hokey references – "freeway", "jump into the Chevy" "pull in for some gas" – probably helped translate it for a US audience too. That, and a pure Cali video. But more than those elements it’s the late Fuemana’s effortless charisma that shines through, and helped this transcend mere novelty to become a true international pop phenomenon.
DLT feat. Che Fu – Chains (1996)
In 1996 DLT and Che Fu were trying to define themselves apart from the groups – Upper Hutt Posse and Supergroove, respectively – which had brought them fame. Each had something to prove, too – DLT that his production had evolved beyond the bracing but raw UHP beats, and Che that his MCing was not just suited to a funk band. That hunger is palpable right through ‘Chains’, with its RZA/Havoc-informed piano-led beat and Che talking solemnly of “a nation of Pacific lambs to the slaughter” in a somewhat oblique reference to French nuclear testing in the Pacific. His groundbreaking vocal – singing the chorus and rapping the verses, was 15 years from becoming fashionable – and remains the song’s most attractive element. That yearning hook contrasts with a delivery that alternates between authoritative and anxiety-stricken.
Like ‘Hip Hop Holiday’ before it, or ‘Not Many’ a few years later, it functioned as a redefining of the limits of local rap. Of that trio, though, ‘Chains’ has weathered the years best – today it still sounds tough, contemplative and brilliantly realised.
Fred Dagg – We Don't Know How Lucky We Are (1998)
Perhaps the oddest episode in 90s number ones was Fred Dagg’s in the winter of 1998. Graeme Hill/Humphreys, the bFMer-turned-sports broadcaster and Able Tasmans co-founder, had long nurtured a deep affection for Dagg’s ‘We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are’. In parallel was his entirely understandable loathing for the dirge ‘God Defend New Zealand’. “It was a far better sentiment as a national anthem,” says Hill of Dagg’s song. “I thought it’d nice to promote it as such.” Dagg, a bluff, stoic farmer, was a creation of comedian and writer John Clarke, who proved amenable to Hill’s scheme, and conjured a set of patriotic (but not nationalistic) lyrics to suit. Neil Finn played on the re-recorded version, as did Hill himself.
The video’s original theme was to be the mending of fences between former rivals, with both sides agreeing that whatever their difference, New Zealand was bloody lovely. Ultimately, only Paddles and Jeremy Coney speak to that theme, bellowing to one another at the clip’s end. An attempt to bring Lange and Douglas back together was snuffed out by a still-furious Lange.
Hill had forgotten it ever topped the charts, “It did? Great!”
In the final edit all manner of good-humoured personalities mimed along in the video: Bill Ralston, Helen Clark and Richard Prebble, along with a ton of then-prominent sportsmen: Zinnie, Mehrts, Cairnsy and Fitzy, along with Hill’s Sports Café team-mates. Once it was recorded, ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi took charge of getting it to the charts. It was a devilishly complex plan. They just bought all the copies. Hill says the record industry hated his guts, probably because he gamed the system a little too publicly. Speaking to him today, Hill had forgotten it ever topped the charts, “It did? Great!” And it was – a mad, big-hearted caper that came off.
Deep Obsession – Lost In Love/Cold/One & Only (1998, 1999)
The current electronic dance music era has nothing on the late 90s version. The last few years have consisted of David Guetta and a handful of sound-a-likes linking up with already-prominent singers/rappers to own the charts. Already it’s starting to fade. In the late 90s it was all strange Euros. Mousse T, The Vengaboys, Alice Deejay, Sash! – a hard beat, a shameless melody, no backstory.
Deep Obsession were our version of the phenomenon, with a name like a cheap shampoo brand and a painfully thin sound courtesy of their very young producer Chris Banks, who would go on to become a prominent journalist in gay media. Deep Obsession’s public faces were singers Zara Clarke and Vanessa Kelly, who matched the vapidity of the music every step of the way.
As dated and insubstantial as they sound 15 years later, these singles remain somehow compelling
As dated and insubstantial as they sound 15 years later, these singles remain somehow compelling, and milestones of sorts – a true manufactured pop phenomenon created outside the industry’s farm system. Deep Obsession were cheerleader chic – platforms, dyed hair and lycra – but it struck a chord, and their tally of three No.1s is the decade’s best in local music. ‘Lost in Love’ is a cover of a weepy soft rocker by Air Supply, and immaculately selected.
Listening to the original – particularly the opening verse – it fits right in with the current vogue for terrible acoustic covers of pop or R&B songs. So credit is due for their imagining what a monster it could become. ‘Cold’ (actual chorus: “I feel so cold/Please make me warm”) sounds like a parody, and is comfortably the worst of the trio. ‘One & Only’ has a less overblown production (marginally), and a better hook.
But truthfully, Deep Obsession are the decade’s biggest head scratcher – a hilariously terrible band to have any kind of a hit, let alone three number ones. They’re also historic for one more reason – the first local band signed by the newly formed Universal Music. Great A&R job, guys.
Che Fu – Without A Doubt (1998)
‘Without a Doubt’ came two years after ‘Chains’, and is a far more confident work, with Che artistically at ease. Unfortunately it lacks both the urgency of ‘Chains’ and the songwriting that made later singles like ‘Fade Away’ so affecting. Truthfully, it feels more like an album track than a single – it’s so lyrically insubstantial it might even have functioned better as an interlude.
This era in New Zealand hip-hop coincided with a renewed emphasis on the so-called "four elements" – breaking, MCing, graffiti, DJing. While ‘Without a Doubt’ is predominantly sung, this feels like a product of that excessive veneration – even down to the world’s most innocuous scratch break. When referencing hip-hop itself becomes a worthy goal, rather than creating hip-hop worthy of referencing, you’ve got a problem.
This also, unfortunately, carries the stench of the even less noteworthy music to come out of Wellington in years to come – hello, Rhombus – in its sunny, empty positivism. Ultimately that’s why ‘Without a Doubt’, despite some nice reggae MCing, is barely remembered in comparison to The Navigator’s stellar singles.
Ardijah – Silly Love Songs (1999)
I was working at Sounds Rialto when this came out. The store was maybe the most redundant – thanks to being 100m away from the Broadway branch – and least successful of that soon-to-be bankrupt chain’s outlets. That gave me a lot of time to linger over new releases. I remember putting this on when the week’s CD singles arrived and just being astonished that it was being released in 1999. Remember, pop music was going through a great leap forward at the time. Aaliyah and Timbaland’s ‘Are You That Somebody’ had topped the local charts a few months earlier. ‘No Scrubs’ was at radio.
So what was this AOR Paul McCartney cover – five and a half minutes long, too – doing atop our charts? Ardijah had been around for 20 years at the time, and released some awesome Polynesian-inflected 80s funk. It is quite understandable that they would come back with an ill-judged cover 10 years later. It is quite inexplicable that our radio programmers and consumers would send it to No.1.
TrueBliss – Tonight (1999)
In some ways this represents New Zealand music’s most successful export. The Idol/X-Factor era truly began with Popstars, and its raging success showed the world what it could be, if well produced and managed. Unfortunately it also shows how important it is to plug the winners into legitimate top-shelf writing and production talent. ‘Tonight’ sounds extremely cheap and nasty, clearly aiming at the disco-inflected Stannard/Rowe sound that had driven the Spice Girls, but coming up well short.
Even had they nailed it, pop’s sound had moved on by then – Max Martin had his booming synths under the Backstreet Boys and Britney. Despite a sellout nationwide tour, the follow-up didn’t even go Top 10, and a third single failed to chart.
Now TrueBliss are the musical equivalent of comedic disaster Melody Rules – a punch line to show how far we’ve come. It’s extremely unfortunate that the truly innovative idea that birthed them is mentioned only in passing – more than any band, Popstars is a glory whose genesis we should study and attempt to replicate.
Neil Finn – Can You Hear Us (1999)
While hip-hop has ensured that finding quality songs referencing sports is an easy exercise, explicit sporting anthems are a different matter. There are several reasons for this. Lots of musicians were bullied – or marginalised – by jocks at school, and the wounds are still tender. So they either hate or don’t care about sports. That reduces the pool of talent available to write songs. Then there’s the idea of writing an unequivocal song in support of a team – it just doesn’t fit with most artistic temperaments.
Offhand, I can only think of two songs which function well as both supporter’s anthems and songs in their own right. The first is Three Lions, by Baddiel & Skinner and The Lightning Seeds – and Ian Broudie ducked the hard part by abdicating lyrics to a pair of comedians. The second is Neil Finn’s ‘Can You Hear Us’, which spent a week at No.1 in October 1999, around the start of that depressing tournament. It commences with some ghostly feedback before a classic chiming Finn riff, with Neil intoning lyrics like “silver fern on black/Well somehow, it means so much” without dying of shame.
And why should he? Just because the New Zealand artistic temperament doesn’t tend to favour such sentiments doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist. Finn reels them off right through, and holds his nerve to create a rousing, ultra-melodic charmer. Something about his character – how unconcerned he is about the opinions of others, or fashion – gave him the tools to pull off this fiendishly difficult assignment with no little panache.
At a recent cricket test between England and New Zealand, the home crowd responded to the Barmy Army’s passion by singing the national anthem. It was ghastly. Fred Dagg didn’t catch on, but we could do worse than revive this as a semi-official, crowd-sung sporting anthem.