A slice of Kiwiana and a feel-good anthem

Slice of Heaven composer Dave Dobbyn in 1986.
On the Ball Productions
Slice of Heaven composer Dave Dobbyn in 1986.

It has been called New Zealand's second national anthem.

But Slice of Heaven starts with a Japanese flute, was penned in Sydney and composed on a Californian synthesiser, and piggy-backed to fame aboard the most Australian of all movies - Crocodile Dundee. Its riff is inspired by the Rolling Stones' She's So Cold.

Even so, the Dave Dobbyn song with Herbs encapsulated the optimism and pride of New Zealand in September, 1986.

Dave Dobbyn and Herbs in the studio recording Slice of Heaven.
Magpie Films
Dave Dobbyn and Herbs in the studio recording Slice of Heaven.

The sharemarket crash was still to come, 1980s fashion was peaking and reggae band Herbs were New Zealand's musical face of opposition to French nuclear testing in the Pacific - seen in hits like 1982's French Letter (re-released in 1995 to protest against the resumption of testing).

Dobbyn had just been cleared of inciting the 1984 Queen St riots.

''I didn't really know what political awareness was until I got busted for a riot,''  he laughed this week.

Having beaten the 1985 charge, Dobbyn got down to writing the soundtrack for Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale, New Zealand's first animated feature film.

Living in Sydney, he had recently bought a Californian E-mu Emulator II synthesiser, with an impressive sound library, including a Japanese shakuhachi flute. It is this that creates the eerie backing to the song's famous intro.

By the standards of the day, the Emulator II was an impressive machine, complete with a five-inch floppy disk drive.

Looking back, Dobbyn most remembers ''staring at a tiny little LED screen for 18 hours a day, writing''.

Getting Herbs on board was the ''icing on the cake''. The band's parts were recorded at Wellington's famous Marmalade Studios.

''That was a great studio. I remember it vividly because we were getting filmed at the same time as recording,'' Dobbyn says.

Ashtrays were scattered around the smoke-filled room, while makeup artists worked around recording.
With the movie trailer coming out, Slice of Heaven was chosen to go with it.

The trailer played before Crocodile Dundee in every theatre in Australasia - catapulting the song to No 1  on radio even before it was released.

Jim Flack, now a communications manager for Greater Wellington regional council, was a black T-shirt-wearing Hutt Valley bogan in the mid-1980s.

He remembers the release of the song, then a subsequent ''non-negotiable'' trek into a Wellington theatre for the movie.

''I went in with my new girlfriend to the movie. In the picture theatre watching Footrot Flats with my spunky girlfriend - it was awesome ... everyone was tremendously proud.''

He remembers going to the Quinns Post tavern in Upper Hutt to see Dobbyn, sans Herbs, in 1988.

''He was huge. He was one of the big acts cruising around at the time. He packed the place out.''

There, Dobbyn played Slice of Heaven but the ''200 black jersey bogans'' kept demanding another song - Bliss, by Dobbyn's band Th' Dudes, of the famous line ''drink yourself more beer ...''.

''He played Bliss right at the end and he spat the words out with venom,'' Flack remembers.

Wellington writer Redmer Yska says Slice of Heaven, with its distinctly New Zealand sound, came at a time of national pride.

A year earlier David Lange got the world's attention in the Oxford Union debate and New Zealand, coming out of the Rainbow Warrior bombing, was leading the world in opposing nuclear-armed ships.

In the anti-nuclear fervour, Herbs were among the loudest voices.

The economy was on a roll. ''The David and Goliath thing that we were standing up to the world.''

On top of that, Slice of Heaven was a feel-good song, ''one that has endured'', Yska says.

In New Zealand it spent eight weeks at No 1 and 25 weeks in the charts. It also cracked the top slot in Australia.

A YouTube clip of the song, describing it as ''New Zealand's second national anthem'', this week had more than 600,000 hits. Twenty-six years after its release, Dobbyn still plays Slice of Heaven regularly.

''I get a kick out of people getting a kick out of it. In a sense it's not mine any more.''

Check out the Footrot Flats-themed video for Dave Dobbyn and Herbs' Slice of Heaven at NZ On Screen.

Contact Tom Hunt
Email: tom.hunt@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @tomdom76

The Dominion Post