Charting New Zealand pop success

22:29, Oct 26 2012
Bic Runga
As Simon Sweetman's new book On Song points out, Bic Runga's 1997 hit Drive originally had rain falling "like custard from the skies".

Don't Dream It's Over was oh-so-nearly undiscovered and Bic Runga almost had rain falling "like custard from the skies".

Drive, after being revised to have rain falling from "concrete-coloured skies", would go on to become a massive hit for Runga and unavoidable in New Zealand in 1996.

In another pop revelation, Dave Dobbyn was only commissioned to compose the music for Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale because Tim Finn turned the job down. The move would give the world Slice of Heaven.

On Song
Simon Sweetman's new book On Song.

The stories have been unearthed in a new book, On Song, by Stuff blogger and music reviewer Simon Sweetman, who looks at the tales behind 30 of New Zealand's most recognisable pop hits.

Roughly 12 months of research included drinks on the deck with Jordan Luck's wife while the singer strummed his break-out hit Victoria on an acoustic guitar in their Auckland home, an 11th-hour interview with Shona Laing, and "a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls, a lot of calling in friends of friends".

"What I found doing so many in such a short space of time is how invasive and intrusive it is on people's lives," Sweetman says. "It is asking them to talk about what is essentially a dead duck, in the sense that the song is in the past, they don't have an active product, or tour to promote."


Of course, for most people, songs like Nature, French Letter, or E Ipo, remain very much alive.

On Song opens with Crowded House's Don't Dream It's Over. While Sweetman managed to nab interviews with most of the key artists - assuming they were alive - Neil Finn, for reasons not given, refused.

Necessity being "the mother of invention", he tracked down producer Mitchell Froom, who would go on to produce big names including Elvis Costello, The Coors and Los Lobos.

In 1986 he was new to the game and, more importantly, eager to make his mark. Unlike producers with bigger names, Froom listened through to track seven of Finn's demo tape.

"I was working through these songs - and I wasn't hearing a lot and then that song hit me," Froom recalls. "I remember thinking that this was a song I could do something with."

The discovery would introduce Crowded House to the world, while Don't Dream it's Over would become the New Zealand song that reached the furthest internationally.

(OMC's How Bizarre is the only real competition.)

"I love the idea New Zealand's greatest song may have never been made," Sweetman says.

While talking to Sweetman in a Sony boardroom in Auckland, Runga revealed she penned Drive as a teenager backstage at a Queen St, Auckland open mic night - simply to pad out a set. "How amazing that would go on to become her greatest hit," Sweetman says.

Runga says the song has barely changed since that night in Queen St.

"Well, there's one crucial bit that needed to change. The hook of it, lyrically, was originally 'let rain fall like custard from the skies'."

Selecting just 30 songs - a stipulation from the publishers - was never going to be easy, Sweetman says.

"I could have had half-a-dozen Split Enz songs. You try picking one Don McGlashan song. There were plenty of things that got very, very close.

"My idea for selecting the songs was to think of material that I felt could only have come from New Zealand, a New Zealand writer, a New Zealand perspective.

"We have so many great artists that write very good songs - but they could have come from any part of the world.

"The idea of New Zealand music is problematic in definition but in listening to so many of our greatest songs there are moments you identify with, evocations of our coastline, a mindset that comes from the isolation; songs that are sceptical, songs that are so hopeful, songs that have come from this place. Our place."


OMC, 1995.

Sweetman describes How Bizarre - the song that defined the summer of 1996 - as "one of the greatest, happiest, most absurd and brilliant slices of radio pop this country has ever produced". Ironically, the head of PolyGram New Zealand only got on board when the company's Australian branch pushed for it.

The tale of OMC - short for Otara Millionaires Club - is inextricably linked to that one stand-out hit. It reached No 1 in a dozen countries and in 1997 it was the most played song on New York radio.

"Bigger than Spice Girls," notes record label manager Simon Grigg.

But that success became a hindrance - overseas markets would not play anything else from the group. "They refused to stop playing How Bizarre," Grigg points out.

While OMC scored other hits in New Zealand with songs like Right On and Land of Plenty, nothing came close to How Bizarre.

Overseas, the group will be remembered as a one-hit wonder - it even made it to the top 100 of one-hit wonders in a countdown hosted by William Shatner.


Shona Laing, 1986.

With the editor's deadline just hours away, Sweetman finally got Shona Laing on the phone.

Twenty-six years after the release of (Glad I'm) Not a Kennedy, Laing reveals she still has mixed feelings about her most successful tune.

"It's been hard for me to perform the song as a troubadour, which is what I do really. It's not indicative of what I do as a singer/songwriter but it's also a song that has given me an audience, that has provided an income for me, more so than any other song.

"And it's also a song that I'm baffled by to a degree."

Like so many of New Zealand's most well-known songs, Kennedy was arrived at almost by accident.

With Edward Kennedy on the television news, Laing said to herself, "I'm glad I'm not a Kennedy".

By the next morning the song was written.

"I guess I knew straight away that I had something different. People kept telling me that it was a hit, that it meant something. The feedback was instant."

But the song, as it appeared on her 1985 album Genre, failed to spark until British producer Peter Wilson - who had worked with The Style Council - remixed it.

"He remixed the version that people know, the version that was the hit."

As is so often the case with New Zealand music, Sweetman notes, it took overseas success - this time in Australia - before New Zealanders embraced Kennedy.


The Dance Exponents, 1982.

The pale blue Greerton Motor Inn note paper it was written on, complete with a five-digit phone number - 88 164 - hints at a different time in New Zealand.

The purple detailing on the paper may be from a bygone era but 30 years since Jordan Luck wrote Victoria, it would be hard to find a Saturday night where the line, "Victoria, what do you want from him . . .", is not roared out over a jukebox in some New Zealand bar.

"It was the right time for that song," Luck says. "And it's a calling card now. And I'm thankful, grateful for that song."

Released in 1982, Victoria was written by the 20-year-old singer for The Dance Exponents.

"The songs came quickly," Luck said. "All of them apart from Victoria - it took about five months."

Formed in Christchurch from the remnants of a Timaru band, The Dance Exponents - later simply The Exponents - would go on to a string of hits: Why Does Love Do This To Me, Who Loves Who the Most, and Whatever Happened to Tracey, to name a few.

Victoria itself would appear again on 1983's Prayers Be Answered, then 1986's Amplifier.

When the Exponents this year toured to celebrate 30 years, Victoria remained a highlight.

"It really is something special for me," Luck says. "At some point I found that the songs I was writing at 18 and 23 still had appeal to a whole new set of people turning 18 and 23. And that, I think, is the secret - if it is a secret - of the Exponents' longevity.

"We were a great band - and I'm lucky to have these guys behind me, playing these songs so well. But it is universal material - it's songs from the heart of a young New Zealander and other young New Zealanders have taken them to heart, made them their own . . . and that's humbling."


Chris Knox, 1990.

Derived from a Velvet Underground tale of sadomasochism and bondage, Not Given Lightly weirdly became one of New Zealand's greatest love songs.

Released in 1990 by punk protagonist Chris Knox, it was a surprisingly tender turn for a performer already known to surprise. Knox was well-known for his love of Lou Reed and the title for Not Given Lightly was a direct rip from a line in a Velvet Underground dirge to sadomasochism and bondage: ''Taste the whip of love not given lightly.''

''How very Kiwi,'' Sweetman notes, ''how very low-fi and No 8 wire to take a line from a song about sadomasochism and turn it into an enduring love song.''

The song would go on to some ultra-unpunk rhyming schemes - ''emotions'' with ''oceans'' for instance - and the catchy hook: ''It's you that I love; and it's true that I love.''

But a punk sense of destruction soon returns, as Knox mocks his own choice of medium: ''What can I say? The words destroy all meaning; there's only cliche to get across this feeling.''

Knox would later go on to trivialise what was his biggest hit, often improvising new lyrics to replace those heartfelt ones he originally penned.

Sweetman says: ''Despite any attempt, ever, for Knox to trivialise or turn Not Given Lightly into anything resembling a novelty song it has endured - becoming a national favourite. A candidate for the great New Zealand love song, it is perhaps When a Man Loves a Woman bashed out in a Grey Lynn shed.''


The Chills, 1984.

In a morbid twist on life imitating art, Martin Phillipps wrote the lyrics for Pink Frost about a man waking up to find he had killed his girlfriend during a nightmare.

Many years later he read about the grim scenario happening in real life.

''I don't know what became of the boy,'' Phillipps says.

What became of the song, though, is well-documented - making APRA's list of New Zealand's top 100 songs and inclusion in the Nature's Best compilation, multiple covers, and just last year featured on a compilation of songs deemed influential by United States indie band MGMT.

Not bad for a song which, by Phillipps' admission, came ''out of nowhere'', pretty much fully formed in a single evening.

''The music came first and I realised immediately that I had to have a story to explain such an atmosphere . It is a little naive but it works - the guy wakes up to find that he has killed his girlfriend during a nightmare.''

For Sweetman, the song is quintessentially New Zealand.

''Once again the rugged character and coastline of our country is carved out in song. It feels like Norsewear socks with a hole in the toe, like enamel mugs of Milo warmed over a fire, Swanndri bush-shirts and Holdens, woolly hats and beads of sweat.'' Or more simply: ''He created his masterpiece.''


The Fourmyula, 1969

It must have been an easy ''sorry'' to say, when Wayne Mason apologised to producer Peter Dawkins for his early reluctance to release Nature as a single.

Written on a porch in Upper Hutt in 1969 for his band The Fourmyula, Mason considered it a good tune but never thought of it as a stand-alone. Dawkins disagreed and - as history has proven - was spot-on. ''I took a lot of convincing on that one,'' Mason recalls. ''It turned out he was right. Of course, I was happy to apologise later.''

Nature hit No 1 in the charts then, three decades after its release, was named by the Australasian Performing Rights Association as New Zealand's top song of all time.

''I've never really thought about why the song has such an appeal,'' Mason told The Dominion after the win. ''Maybe it is because of it being about nature. New Zealand is a very physical, very natural sort of country. It does sound very 60s with its lyrics, but when I wrote it, it was a very serious attempt at writing about how I feel, creating this big picture which I tried to describe.''

The song enjoyed a second life when The Mutton Birds covered it in 1992 with Jan Hellriegel on backing vocals.
Sweetman notes the cover not only gave the song a new audience and launched the career of The Mutton Birds, but also ''reminded people of a song that just feels right; as if it has always existed''.

On Song, by Simon Sweetman, published by Penguin, $65.

The Dominion Post