When I was asked to name my 10 favourite New Zealand songs I immediately thought “that is impossible!” Futile even. How many brilliant Kiwi songs have been written and recorded over the years? And me being in my 50s and all, I have nearly six decades worth of tunes to choose from – that is so unfair! I knew immediately what my “favourite favourite” would be, so that left only nine. I decided not to go for the obvious “Nature’s Best” selection. Instead, I chose songs that have truly resonated with me over time. Some are recent releases, some not so. Jeez it was tough. I had a short list of over 50 within an hour! Truth be told, I could make one of these lists every week for the rest of my life. Here goes then...
Girl (if you are who you say you are) – Jesse Sheehan
I’ve been a big fan of Jesse’s since he was a teenager. Such a raw, real talent. A beautiful singer, phenomenal musician, a songwriter with huge potential. I love a song that transports me somewhere else, that takes me out of myself – and with the help of Neil Finn’s luscious production, ‘Girl’ evokes (for me) memories of a love clouded in mystery and doubt. That awful, gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realise she’s not quite as faithful as you hoped she was! I love the way the “jerky” verse melody eases into the chorus line and climaxes with the words “my girl”. Aah, such a release! The bridge and last verse conjure up hopelessness (“I feel my heart, fading”) but then all of a sudden there is an overwhelming sense of hope as the song builds through the final repeated chorus, leaving us wondering if she will ever come to terms with the demon in the back of her mind, calling. So clever – Jesse is indeed a master craftsman with a very bright future. Favourite lyric: “I told myself it was nothing more than fleeting, yes, in the past I’ve been the perpetrator”.
Gone Cold – Gareth Thomas
Oh man, THIS song! I swear I played it 100 times when I first heard it! Gareth is the master of stunningly effective pop simplicity – remember ‘Sophie’ by Goodshirt? ‘Gone Cold’ has a verse built around a repeating bass line over a simple chord structure. Such a sad song, too. We’ve all felt it I’m sure: “We’ve gone cold, we talk about the embers, we’re gonna fold if we don’t remember”. I love the way the bridge gets really bitchy, a stonking guitar part over a lyric which basically says “we’re both to blame, not just me!” The “reply” vocals in the verses are such a hook too – “We’ve gone cold (‘COLD’), we talk about the embers (‘EMBERS’)” etc. Just a brilliant, simple, clever pop song of the highest order. And a fantastic video clip to accompany it! Favourite lyric: “I wanna be, I wanna be reminded, of what it was like, but first we’ve gotta find it”.
Sober – Lydia Cole
I cried when I first heard this song. I’m not sure why. Lydia has this uncanny ability to touch you deep within your soul. That intro tremolo guitar sets the song up perfectly, a classic tale of a one-night stand. “Tonight you’re buzzing on me, tomorrow what will you think?” A beautiful, desperate vocal telling a story we all know so well, over a sparse musical arrangement augmented with subtle Juno [synth] lines. The song really comes to life with the line “Riding around town on the cheap”. The tension builds courtesy of some blistering guitar passages – “We were nothing unique, just a couple of freaks”. Simple, honest storytelling by an artist who always lays herself bare. Haunting, real, close to the bone. Favourite lyric: “And why are you single when you’re such a catch? But you flip it around and now you’re asking me that”.
Cry If You Want To – Jol Mulholland
I call Jol Mulholland the “Todd Rundgren of New Zealand”. Multi-instrumentalist, singer, engineer, producer and a hugely gifted songwriter. ‘Cry If You Want To’ is some sort of weird throw back to the times of ELO and Hall & Oates (with touches of Gilbert O’Sullivan), a simple arrangement with clever lyrics over a pumping beat and a male vocalist who isn’t afraid to use his impressive falsetto range. A man after my own heart! A racing verse lyric makes perfect sense after reading the lyric sheet. “I’m not romantic, I’m pathetic, and I’m an expert at not getting the job done”. Jol is certainly an expert at making lyrics scan perfectly to a catchy melody. Fantastic, organic musical flourishes and a stonking drum sound. The half time breakdown/bridge part is so floaty and soft and the chorus simply soars in falsetto goodness. Pop perfection. Favourite lyric: “Because I have a short memory, kicking dust off a photo of a better me”.
Down In Splendour – Straitjacket Fits
How was this song not a worldwide hit? I always loved the songwriting dynamic between Andrew Brough (who penned this masterpiece) and Shayne Carter – kind of like Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge in XTC. Andrew was the “pop” guy (check out ‘Save My Life’ by Brough’s post-Fits band, Bike) to Carter’s more complex, darker arrangements and challenging lyrics. Why this song? For a start it’s in the key of B! And the feel is so ... languid. Loose and yet incredibly tight. Add to that Brough’s unusual, jerky vocal phrasing, so full of emotion and so, so vulnerable. Musically, the song builds perfectly, with a simple verse and a perfect guitar picking its way stepping-stone style to the pre-chorus which then rises again to the almost anthemic chorus. And the solo is epic too! A triple outro chorus then collapses into a lyricless outro section. I’ve sung this song live many times, just a voice and an acoustic guitar and let me tell you, it stacks up in that format. Always the sign of a brilliant song. Favourite lyric: All of them.
Ballgowns & Smalltowns – Greg Johnson
How best would one sum up the vibe of this song? ‘Wistful’ I think is the word. Melancholy, longing, yearning. Greg Johnson is a master lyricist and probably my favourite New Zealand male singer. The way he paints a picture, he is a true storyteller of our time, and has such an ear for a great pop hook. Melody is Greg’s middle name. ‘Ballgowns’ starts with a classic Ian Morris sample of god-knows-what (some local music troupe at the village fete?) and from the opening strum of the mandolin intro the lead character takes us on a journey. To be honest I’m buggered if I know what this song is about, apart from the obvious “girl moves to small town and goes a bit mental”. It never fails to take me somewhere other-worldly though. Such a catchy chorus melody that weirdly reminds me of the I Dream Of Jeannie melody. Why this particular song is my favourite Greg Johnson song is somewhat of a mystery to me, though having been Greg’s live sound engineer for several years I know a vast majority of his fans feel the same way. There’s just something about it. Magical. Essential. Favourite lyric: “She’ll close her eyes and dreams of killing sheep, she’s no Bo Peep”.
Tears – The Crocodiles
OK, I’m biased about The Crocs because I was actually in the band for about 15 minutes in 1981 but any song that manages four key changes within a three minute 30 arrangement deserves to be on this list! Looking back some 38 years after its release, it’s hard to fathom why this song wasn’t a worldwide No.1 hit. That original Crocodiles line-up was overflowing with musical genius on all fronts. Three truly gifted songwriters in Tony Backhouse, Fane Flaws and Peter Dasent who could all play a bit, backed by a jazz-influenced drummer in Bruno Lawrence, a wonderfully fluent and melodic bass player (Tina Matthews) and the phenomenon that is Jenny Morris on lead vocals. Oh, and let’s not forget lyricist Arthur Baysting! Add those glorious three-part harmonies and a damn clever turn of phrase and yeah, well, bugger ... I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. More’s the pity. Maybe they all had other, more important things to do with their lives? Ha! Like acting, composing, puppeteering, acapella-ing, film directing and topping the Australian charts.
Anyway I digress ...‘Tears’ is as close as it gets to a perfect pop song. It starts off almost doo-wop in feel during the verses, being pushed along by a quite brilliant bass line (written by keyboard player Peter Dasent). The chorus absolutely soars with emotion and heartbreak. “Tears, I feel them on my cheeks, tears, it’s been this way for weeks”. The song then jumps to a quite mental bridge; the most un-bridge-like bridge you will ever hear! And up the ladder again we climb to the last verse before the final chorus and outro. The backing vocal harmonies are so strong in this song, a real hook for me. And yes, I still know my harmony part.
Fane Flaws and Arthur Baysting, take a bow. Genius songwriting of the very highest order. The scary thing is, this is probably not the best song Fane Flaws ever wrote! Favourite lyric: “You said you were an agency for paradise, I went along, it slipped my mind to check the price”.
1905 – Shona Laing
Yes, it’s true, I had a mad crush on Shona in 1973! The long hair and the flowing dresses, the acoustic guitar and that pretty teenage face framed in black & white on New Faces – swoon! For some reason the sharp lyrics and the interesting chord structure of ‘1905’ really resonated with me as a 12-year-old growing up in Glendowie. Packaged up with a lush production from Dale Wrightson, the song sounded fantastic on radio.
Shona has always been a tremendous storyteller, never afraid to speak her mind. Her lyrics bite hard and paint deep pictures. No “ooh baby I love you” pap here bro! Apparently ‘1905’ was written about Henry Fonda. Which begs the question, “why?” A fan letter to the great man perhaps? A schoolgirl crush? Growing up and musically obsessed, songs with mysterious lyrics always spoke to me – and still do. I don’t really need to know what the lyrics actually mean. Mystery creates tension and excitement.
Musically the song is a masterpiece for a writer so young. Full of F major sevenths, C major sevenths and D minor chords, and the transition to the chorus is just heavenly. The chorus begins on an A major seventh ... yummy! For me though, the hook will always be the “Time, Time, TIME” line! The way Shona comes out of the bridge with a C / D / E chord progression then into the chorus again! Brilliant! And to finish the song after the chorus with another refrain of “Time, Time, TIME”, only this time stepping up even higher with a D / E / F# progression … simply stunning! OMG I’m in Form 2 again! Favourite lyric: “Time, Time TIME” (natch!).
Into Temptation – Crowded House
How on earth can one possibly pick a favourite Neil Finn tune? It took me weeks to decide. ‘Message To My Girl’ came ever so close but I chose ‘Into Temptation’ simply for its brutal lyrical honesty. And for its darkness. Come on, admit it, we’ve all been there. The excitement of secret lust, the guilt and shame afterwards and the fear of being found out. Whether or not this was a real life experience for Neil, the song oozes an uncomfortable air of desperation and deceit.
The first verse’s stark rise and fall really sets up some nice tension (“you in your new blue dress, taking away my breath”), which is then released somewhat prematurely when the chorus comes round “knowing full well the earth will rebel”. It seems impossible, but the second verse is even bleaker: “A muddle of nervous words could never amount to betrayal”. The bridge and instrumental section is so Beatles, full of Mellotron and orchestral weaving, the song’s sound canvas majestically mapped out courtesy of the dynamic duo producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake, and to a large extent mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Then back to the last verse, the dawning, the realisation, the “oh my god, what have I done” moment! (“Experience is cheap, I should’ve listened to the warning”). And that haunting chorus again (“deep in the wide open arms of hell”). I love the very end of the song too – “no way to break this spell, DON’T TELL”.
Ouch! Reduced to the emotional level of a small child. “Hey this is our little secret. Even though deep down we know that we can never keep this under wraps, it’s bound to get out”. ‘Into Temptation’ is incredibly brave subject matter, that’s for sure! I’m such a massive fan of Neil Finn’s writing. He is up there with McCartney and Costello in my book. This song definitely highlights his strength as a master of a memorable melody and his ability to pen an honest and revealing lyric. Favourite lyric: “The guilty get no sleep in the last slow hours of morning”.
Be Mine Tonight – Th’ Dudes
And so to my favourite Kiwi song of all time. By a country mile. Everything about this song just reeks of brilliance. Name me one song that comes anywhere near sounding like this masterpiece from Dave Dobbyn (and Ian Morris). It is truly unique. I urge you all to stick a pair of good headphones on and listen to the album version. It is simply sublime. Recorded in 1978 at Stebbing Studios in Auckland, the tight arrangement, the playing, the singing, the production, all of it is world class. And to think the band were barely out of their teens when they recorded it! Insane! And it still sounds brilliant on the radio, 40 years later!
I first heard the song at one of those Radio Hauraki outdoor summer shows at Windsor Reserve in Devonport in 1977 (I was in 6th form) and at that stage the song was called ‘Quite Frankly’. And Dobbyn sang it. I’ll never forget hearing that first line, “AAAAAAAsian Cigarettes” In that one moment it was obvious to me that Th’ Dudes had arrived, big time! Who starts a song with a lyric like that? No one else, that’s who!
The verses revolve around Ian Morris’s repetitive and hypnotic guitar arpeggio, double tracked and unrelenting. Lez White’s Entwistle-like bass part is perfect and weaves its way between guitars, vocals and drums. Dave D’s vocal is achingly heartfelt, a desperate cry for love! “You lit me, you bit me, I’m rapt”. I love the quiet backing vocal reply from Peter Urlich during the verse. Between the verse and the chorus is a short drum fill from Bruce Hambling, a subtle and clever hook from the big man. Bruce’s drumming throughout is strong, powerful and yet so musical. The rhythm section was such a massive part of the success of the band.
The chorus reverts to a jerky double time signature reminiscent of Televison (Th’ Dudes were big fans) which then dives into a descending solo of delight courtesy of Ian Morris and that black 1964 Stratocaster. Repeat the verse and chorus and solo and we’re at the breakdown. Aah, the breakdown, it truly is musical perfection. Take a breath ... that chord sequence – E / F# / B / A, all the while letting those open B and E strings ring out loud and clear. The bass and kick drum thump out a concrete-like platform while that damn arpeggiated guitar of Morris’s continues to attack your brain like an ear-worm on speed.
Up and up it builds until, suddenly ... there it is! That Dave Dobbyn guitar lick! THAT lick, now permanently etched into the psyche of every New Zealander! Seven notes over an E chord, then the same seven notes over an F# … what a hook! And behind the guitar goodness is a series of exploding drum fills reminiscent of Ringo on ‘A Day In The Life’. The breakdown finally succumbs to an outro guitar solo by Dave D that goes on in unabashed glory for two minutes plus. How the hell did they get this on radio? It is pure self-indulgence! On and on it goes, “Dave D Flash” giving it as good as he’s got, making a statement of intent that has done him well through a career spanning 40 years. “I’m here. Ignore me at your peril!”
The recorded version fades out with Dave running out of guitar neck while a Hammond organ wails in accompaniment. Live, it went on until the punters could contain themselves no more. Personally, I could listen to that solo forever. What a song. What a band. What a great recording. And yes, I’m biased. And yes, I am and forever will be, Th’ Dudes’ biggest fan! Favourite lyric: “Another smoke, another can, another talk ... maybe, you”.
Some other great songs that almost made the list:
Split Enz - ‘I Hope I Never’ and ‘Message To My Girl’
Pluto - ‘Long White Cross’
Bressa Creeting Cake - ‘Papa People’
Breaks Co-Op - ‘A Place For You’
Andrew Keoghan - ‘Stuck In Melodies’
Kimbra - ‘Two Way Street’
Gin Wigmore - ‘Hallelujah’
Finn Andrews - ‘Nowhere Man’
Fetus Productions - ‘What’s Going On’
Jan Hellriegel - ‘Melusine’
Graham Brazier - ‘East of Eden’
Blam Blam Blam - ‘There Is No Depression in New Zealand’
Citizen Band - ‘Julia’
Dave Dobbyn - ‘Buried In The Backyard’
Hammond Gamble - ‘Ninety Mile Days’
The Checks - ‘Back of the Restaurant’
The Electric Confectionaires - ‘Lady Marianne’
The Bads - ‘Carry The Weight’