Across The Line
Wellington Sea Shanty Society (original 1850s, this version 2013)
It seems appropriate to start this list with a song that marks the fact that early immigrants to New Zealand all came by sea, whether coming by waka from the Pacific Islands or by sailing schooner from the other side of the world. I don't know any suitable waiata, so we'll have to settle for this old sea shanty. The particular version I've included is off the improbably titled album, Now That's What I Call Sea Shanties 01, and manages to inject a bit of Pogues-style melancholy into the chorus melody.
Max Merritt and The Meteors (1963)
Surf guitar tracks were popular amongst local sixties rock and roll outfits, since riffing over a sped-up 12-bar blues progression was a good way to fill out the long sets they had to play. Johnny Devlin's Devils had plenty of great instrumentals in this vein (though few are available online) and when he moved to Australia he tried to cash in on the surf craze himself with his self-penned tune, 'Stomp the Tumbarumba'. I was also tempted to include Ray Columbus's Invaders doing their best Shadows impersonation on 'Cruel Sea'. But for me, this tune by Max and his Meteors is the winner, with its Dick Dale heavy picking and a wacky skit of someone being thrown in the water to start and end the track.
Six Months In A Leaky Boat
Split Enz (1982)
There are many things to admire in the songwriting of this mid-period Split Enz number, especially when heard in the context of the album, Time and Tide (1982). As in the video below, it's preceded by a sweeping keyboard piece ('Pioneer') by keyboardist Eddie Rayner, which provides a sense of bombast to get things started. Then Tim Finn leaps in to kick off 'Six Months In A Leaky Boat' itself, which has him drawing inspiration from early explorers to encourage himself onward (though there are hints that he's also using the "leaky boat" to refer to a troubled relationship he's just come through). On the album, the song is followed by a sea shanty ('Haul Away') that sleekly crams his early life autobiography into a rollicking verse line. Even without these related tracks on either side, 'Six Months In A Leaky Boat' is an impressive track and, despite the unusual imagery, it was a top 10 hit on both sides of the Tasman. Even more remarkably, it reached No.7 in Canada.
DD Smash (1983)
Dave Dobbyn’s popular song uses the sea as a metaphor rather than as a literal subject. The lyrics seem to speak of a man away from home, struggling to make a breakthrough (metaphorically whale-hunting) but yearning to get home. Perhaps it was a picture of Dobbyn himself on tour, in the days when DD Smash were trying to break Australia with limited success (the video was filmed there). Whatever the case, the song showed Dobbyn was continuing to challenge himself as a songwriter and firmly on his way to becoming one of this nation's most respected.
All Of Us (1986)
It's hard to write a good fundraising single, so the arrangers of this song just went ahead and stole the melody from 'Pokarekare Ana' instead. It certainly proves the strength of the melody of the original waiata, since the new lyrics are pretty insipid ("one people on the water, one people on the land, it's New Zealand all together, Kiwis working hand-in-hand"). The release was in support of New Zealand's America's Cup bid and had a record run at No.1, but unfortunately the sailors didn't do quite as well and it would take almost a decade before we won the cup (in 1995).
Missing, Presumed Drowned
Straitjacket Fits (1990)
After the previous slice of cheesiness, it seems worthwhile to try a palate-cleanser by picking a raw offering from one of the dominant Flying Nun acts of the time. There are certainly plenty to choose from, whether it's 'Submarine Bells' by The Chills, 'And We Swam The Magic Bay' by the Able Tasmans, or 'Sunken Treasure' by The 3Ds. However, I eventually was swayed by Shayne Carter's fine work in mixing dissonance with melody on this track. In a similar way, the poetry of the lyrics is nicely counterbalanced by his drawling rock delivery. The subject of the song seems to be a man who is metaphorically sinking – "hull full of water and absolutely nothing on deck." We're an island nation after all, so no surprise that a metaphorical drowning is a slice of imagery that seems appealing. If you're a fan of Straitjacket Fits, do check out the interview and live version.
The Mutton Birds (1994)
The idea of a romantic partner as one's anchor in the wild sea of the world is one that makes immediate sense. However, McGlashan toys with this idea throughout the song – for a start, it seems as if his lover is both the anchor and the "deep blue sea" that seems to be giving him problems in the first place. There's also a wonderful bittersweet aspect to the bridge, when he sings “when you lift me high, when you pull me down” as if his love provides both comfort and restrictions.
Che Fu (1997)
The relation of this song to the sea might be a bit obscure if it wasn't for the title. The lyrics only make passing reference to the singer missing his lover, but by titling the track 'Waka', Che Fu makes an immediate connection with the vast sea-crossings undertaken by his Polynesian ancestors. The Cook Island drums help with this impression, given that the southern Cook Islands were one of the last stopping off points on the original Polynesian migration from Asia to New Zealand. The music video makes this connection explicit with Che sailing a waka on his way to meet his duet partner, the sweet-voiced Teremoana Rapley.
The Phoenix Foundation (2003)
The ratio of sea-related metaphors in this track make it hard to even distinguish exactly what the singer (Luke Buda) is going on about – “going fishing on a sea of love, but it's hard to see you sinking, when you're light enough to float.” My guess would be that it's about a couple embarking on a new relationship, but don't quote me on it. The Phoenix Foundation might occasionally dip into the waters of prog and psychedelia, but this track shows that they've never been shy of a good rock number when the mood strikes … and the power of this one helped the band's debut album, Pegasus (2005), hit the Top 10.
Liam Finn (2014)
I was tempted to finish this list with 'Rolling Waves' by Naked and Famous, since they're one of New Zealand's most popular musical exports at the moment, but in the end I decided I liked this low key number by Liam Finn a little more. It also provides a nice symmetry, with his Uncle Tim’s song mentioned at number three.