Counting The Beat – The Swingers
I liked Split Enz when Phil Judd was in it and Second Thoughts was the first pop record I proudly bought – albeit second hand – from Nelson’s Everyman Records. I’d split from the Enz by the 80s not caring what more could a poor boy do, but when Judd’s new venture The Swingers released ‘Counting the Beat’, all was not lost. The punkoid pop anthem was belatedly awarded the 1981 APRA Silver Scroll in 2015, and rightly so. Full of vocal hooks and a smartly driven bass ostinato, the song’s intensity builds lyrically from the first few monosyllabic lines of the verse, doubling the number of words per second (I’m flying through space, I’m an asteroid) and cranking it up again with a monster pre-chorus (thinking about you and me, there ain’t no place I’d rather be). The awkward little wishin’ that you’d be mine love song was full of energy, guitar-clang angularity and flat-out singability to la-da-de-da-lurch up the charts.
Maxine – Sharon O’Neill
Sharon O’Neill’s work was virtually force-fed to me by my 6th form English teacher since she too had been a student at Waimea College. Nothing about the shark-tooth earrings and leopard-print dresses connected, but this hit song from the skilled writer and powerful vocalist did. Somehow, she was able to suspend judgement of the song’s sex-working lead character Maxine, tell her story of risk and regret, worry and warning, and wrap it up in a finely crafted pop song, full of highly detailed descriptors – red and green tattoo … spike-heeled shoes … razor blade … creases in your white dress – even her case number (1352), with one of New Zealand music’s most compelling backing vocal hooks in the chorus: who’s that walking, walking behind you/ who’s that talking, talking about you/ who’s that walking, walking with you, Maxine.
What’s The Time Mr Wolf? – Southside of Bombay
The very local sound of a reggae-infused Ratana-trained brass section, Ruia Aperahama’s big presence and soulful lead, the six-pack cuzzie-bro harmonies melded with Anne Pritchard’s pop keys and Brent Thompson’s fluid bass, filled stages in Wellington during the late 80s/early 90s with a pumping big-band good time. The political challenge inherent in the lyric was cleverly bound in the child’s rhyme which morphed into a classic join-in-if-you-can, hooky-as-all-hell vocal/instrumental call and answer sequence: One o’clock! BAM! Two o’clock! BAM! BAM! Three o’clock! BAM!BAM!BAM! (triplet styles), and on it goes until I’m spooning, spooning, spooning out the dinner. The song had renewed life and chart success when it was synced in the film Once Were Warriors, further proving its ability to hold a message within the party sound, amidst utter carnage.
Down In Splendour – Straitjacket Fits (Brough)
Luckily, at least two singers who could really sing, Andrew Brough and Shayne Carter, wound up being in the same band representing the Dunedin sound: Straitjacket Fits. Big vocal harmonies and wide ringing guitars gave this Brough-penned track spacious production, but the melody climbing through the song gives it an evocative and dreamy dynamic. Here, splendour is shabby, forlorn and transient but at least we’re going down together, the threat of separation imminent because you shouldn’t have to say goodbye. The guitar riffs are simple but sonically important – the dovetail guitar leadline in the verse reintroduces a minor third in the otherwise splendidly major sequence A/D/E. Later, a more urgent double-stop guitar solo riffs on just two notes (A and B) over a E, D and A major progression, but again, finishes minorly on F rather than F#, in general contribution to the haunting musical melancholy. While the lyric uses stage metaphors (blinded in the white light and the crowd/ die slowly in your arms) the lines are unexpectedly and interestingly split so the narrative seems to ebb and flow, like the tide comes rolling in your through your eyes. Tuneful and devoid of agency, the track sounds beautiful to me.
System Virtue – Emma Paki
I loved this song when it was released, for its hope and loneliness, but ultimately its reassurance. Emma Paki’s vocal phrasing is a strange mixture. She alternately swallows and spits out her lyrics, which are a total WTF of images and impressions, referencing TV and Edison one minute and our national anthem the next. But it progresses, soaring forth until I neither care, let alone know, what a system virtue actually is, but somehow the music makes me feel I do. The first two verses are an exercise in suspense. Big open guitar chords that pedal on the bottom E string the whole time, while E major sinks into E minor, then suspends into A major. There’s an exciting voice leading within this sequence (E/D/C#), exacerbated in the second verse by more guitar/mandolin. All very organic, but with a powerful Paddy Free bass drum program beneath. The song makes us wait for the big beautiful chorus, which is a bright and melodic E/A/D major three-chord thrash, while Emma’s no-nonsense delivery makes even her weakest lyric (gather good vibes and you’ll be cool) palatable. The second chorus is followed by a very clever short bridge that drives the melody sky high as the chords race through a one-time only A/C/G progression, and back for a third verse where we’re invited to move gently through the town. The pulse of the song really underpins the universal feeling of the chorus lyric around the world. And it’s a magical mystery tour with Emma Paki at the helm.
Belle Of The Ball – Dave Dobbyn
It’s hard to choose only one of Dave Dobbyn’s songs, but push has come to shove so I chose this uncluttered, self-aware, regretful and utterly present love song. The darker production that Mitchell Froom brings suits the starker, anxious verse lyrics. The descending piano riff, reverberant as a saloon bar upright, evokes the ballroom – the scene of realisation or reconciliation. The chorus is straight ahead, doubled lead vocal, full of alliteration (belle of the ball/head over heels) and rhyme (walk/ball/fall). The subject has floored our singer, and now, he knows the answer, that’s to dance the colour blue, with the Belle of the Ball. And the chorus ends with a solo melismatic vocal swoop from a champion songwriter. The song ends not just with a double chorus but a melancholic horn sob, cymbal washed, minor chord, piano-fading outro. Sort of ragged, sort of theatrical, sort of not quite right, but bitterly pretty.
In The Neighbourhood – Sisters Underground
I heard this when I lived in Australia and the arrangement – guitar/harmonies/feel and low-key vocal delivery – made me homesick as hell. Produced by Alan Jansson, who smashed it later with OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’, this cruisy, acoustic guitar-based piece of day-in-the-life of hip-hoppery was written and performed by Sisters Underground, two young women, Brenda Makammeoafi and Hassanah Iroegbu. They’d teamed up at college in South Auckland, proving once again, it’s the people you meet who make music. The song is built from a three chord sequence (G/D/C major) but the fourth time we hear this, we get a wee tweak (A/C/D), giving really nice support to the melodic shift we hear in the last line of the magnetically joyful chorus: and we’re rolling (in the neighbourhood). The lovely long o’s in rolling are well rolled, and harmonised, with just enough vocal flourish to show us who’s got chops. The softly spoken alright at the end of each chorus brings us back to the song’s intimate conversational style full of great detail in the verse lyrics (It's a cruel June morning on the edge of the city ... and I’m out like bellbottom trousers).
Maybe Tomorrow – Goldenhorse
With effortless vocals and lyrical domestic disconnection, the songwriting/guitaring/vocal powerhouse that is Goldenhorse pushed three of their songs into the APRA Silver Scroll finals three years in a row (2001, 2002, 2003). From the wistful strumming country-esque guitars and rimshots to the pop soul vocals of Kirsten Morrell, the feel of ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ is driving, yet delicate. But its the melody of the chorus that really piques interest with its falling sixths of It won’t be there It won’t be there, in your life. The entire verse/prechorus/chorus is simply repeated with a offbeat near skanking guitar, before the song opens out into the power pop string orchestration Geoff Maddock employs with ease, ably reinforced by Ben King’s vibey guitar jangles, edging the whole song back to rock territory. ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ ends with a repeated prechorus/chorus, a subtle male backing vocal sitting above Kirsten’s lead, way back in the mix, while a lap steel floats around the repeated line, in your life. Weirdly winsome in all its appeal.
Wandering Eye – Fat Freddy’s Drop
While the sprawling, virtually unbound grooves of Fat Freddy’s Drop have kept legions of punters bopping and hopping, this track was radio friendly, because – in the words of Emmylou Harris – it had a beginning, a middle and an end. Troublesome or troubling, a wandering eye was made to sound delicious, stepping through the city streets, with a propelling bubbling, urban feel provided by the exquisitely groovy Julien Dyne, overseen by the ever watchful Chris (Mu) Faiumu. This is a clear concept and enough repetition for you to get the idea that here’s danger – but damn, it feels good. Lead singer Joe Dukie (Dallas Tamaira) is never one for laughs, but here he cuts himself a little slack, lets a little pain go, and actually flirts. Might be the rhythm or the spell he’s under that he wonders and wanders, but he gives into it and even asks her her name. The instrumentation is generous and varied – at times laced with lush vocals, at times stripped back just to the Rhodes keyboard pegging out the chords, but then in swings the tide with the bitchin’ back-to-back shuffle to kick us on again. Sexy.
Bathe In The River – Mt Raskill Preservation Society (Don McGlashan)
The intelligently constructed chord progression in the verse marks the compositional strength of this songwriter. Flowing up and down, it prosodically evokes the majestic twists and turns of any of our mighty awa. Add in a crystal-clear answer to all life’s woes dressed in the hurricane of Hollie Smith’s soulful wail, tempered and supported by a confederated tribe of gospel singers, the Jubilation Choir, and it’s no wonder the track stayed in the charts for weeks, righteously winning Don his second APRA Silver Scroll. Mercifully, no mention of Jesus or his father, but plenty of forsaking, escaping and cooling water to lay my burden down. Only one verse, a chorus, a bridge heralding in an uplifting key change and a further chorus gives the structure deceptive simplicity and leaves room for horns, hearts and voices galore.
Royals – Lorde (Yelich-O’Connor/Little)
For doing what no Kiwi’s done
(Hitting US #1)
For singing it the way she sung
For doing it when very young
For great production (local son)
Bravo to Joel and Ella sum!
Two heads write better than just one.