It may seen oxymoronic to write a top 10 list made of novelty songs, since these are the most reviled form of pop music. They’re usually wacky tunes that scream for attention by drawing on the worst aspects of pop music – banal lyrics, endlessly upbeat backing music, and hooks so catchy that they insert themselves into your brain and grate away for days on end. Their clearest attribute is usually grabbing one particular idea or catch-phrase and bashing it to death with the intention of grabbing the most amount of limelight for the smallest amount of effort. In some cases they lean so heavily on the zeitgeist that they provide an entertaining marker of what was society was concerned about at the time; other times they're simply made from combining nonsensical lyrics with a bouncing backing track, which makes them a nice accessible form of music for small kids (not a bad market if you want to get a single on the Top 40). Whatever the case, casting your eye over the set of tracks below gives a strong sense of how the national sense of humour has changed over the past few decades.
Fred Dagg (1976)
Comedian John Clarke released a number of Fred Dagg albums in the mid-seventies and helped capture a national sense of humour that had been largely overlooked by the BBC-influenced television and radio shows of the time. During the previous year, he already had a top 20 single with 'We Don't Know How Lucky We Are' but on this occasion he goes beyond mere musical comedy and into the arena of novelty song with his rigid fixation on our national footwear. A rework of Billy Connolly's 1975 hit 'The Welly Boot Song' (written by George McEwan), the childlike chirpiness of the music and the simple repetitive chorus leaves the melody stomping away in your eardrums long after the song has finished.
Mother Goose (1977)
Led by singer Craig Johnstone, who was never without his floppy sailor hat, Mother Goose arrived in the wake of Split Enz and took on a similar theatrical approach, but without any pretensions of doing more than just providing an entertaining show. This video was filmed in Australia and it was hoped the song would break them in this new market, but instead it gained them a one week spell on the New Zealand Top 40. They moved on to the US next, where they only lasted a couple of years before disbanding. Yet, this video continued to get the odd showing on television throughout the eighties – an odd nostalgia piece from a bygone era.
The Body Electric (1982)
The genius of 'Pulsing' is that it makes fun of the idea of making music using computers, while doing exactly that. Digital technology was in its infancy and the idea of computers becoming a household item was still a novel idea. Mi-Sex had already mined from this subject matter on their hastily written track, 'Computer Games' (1979), which became a shock top 20 hit in Austria (as well as reaching No.1 in Australia and No.5 on our own NZ singles chart). But The Body Electric provide a more striking snapshot of the time with their bizarre music video and equally quirky musical hooks (courtesy of Alan Jansson, later the co-writer of worldwide smash 'How Bizarre'), which kept them in the Top 40 for 27 weeks.
Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang
Monte Video and the Cassettes (1982)
Murray Grindlay was already a master of writing insidiously catchy hooks when he purposefully wrote this number to take himself to No.2 on the charts. He was a jingle writer by trade and he'd already written the music for some of New Zealand's most fondly remembered advertisements – the 'Crunchie Great Train Robbery' ad, the 'Travellin On' Europa campaign (which featured Midge Marsden and Stevie Ray Vaughan) – and he adapted the old country standard 'Dear John' for BASF cassettes. His credits also include more serious work. He was singer for breakthrough blues group The Underdogs and later did the music for countless NZ films. What possessed him to write this nonsensical earworm is anyone's guess, but it put him in the top 20 on both sides of the Tasman. It later inspired a cover version by Spacial Verb that won a competition on Channel Z, which led to the breakfast show hosts, Jon Bridges and Nathan Rarere, appearing on the video and the resulting single also did four weeks on the charts.
Life Begins at 40
Dave and the Dynamos (1983)
The eighties might now be remembered for new wave, post-punk, and the first stirrings of electronica and hip-hop, but in fact the first half of the decade was equally rife with straight-down-the-line rock music (with Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits at the top of the charts). Dave Luther was veteran rocker in his own right as a founder of Hogsnort Rupert, who already had a string of local hits around 1970 including the light-hearted tune, 'Pretty Girl'. Rather than descend into a mid-life crisis, Luther wrote a song about it and ended up with a No.1. Clearly, his dismissive attitude towards aging has served him well since Hogsnort Rupert have continued to perform into the second decade of the new millennium, making them one of New Zealand's longest lasting bands.
The Blue Monkey
Suzanne Paul (1994)
Suzanne Paul achieved fame for selling "natural glow" beauty products via informercials and had not the remotest inkling of talent as either a comedian or musician. This song is certainly the worst on the list, but it is all the more entertaining for how shamelessly it throws together a bunch of samples from Paul’s own ads with a single verse of terrible rapping and a house music hook sung by Boh Runga (Paddy Free of Pitch Black wrote the beat). Nonetheless, it just missed out on making the Top 40 by a whisker (reaching No.41). Over a decade later, Paul was lured back to music by The Jono Project and joined with Scribe to create a bizarre parody video. But this is where her music career started … and should have ended.
The term "white trash" wasn't terribly new at the time when Steriogram released this track, but the rise of the Auckland Westie subculture had been gaining traction in the previous years, partly due to the success of Westie comedian, Ewan Gilmore (who appears in the music video). The track saw the band's drummer, Tyler Kennedy, rapping for the first time and it was probably intended as a joke track rather than a serious single. But it slides over into the category of novelty song due to the sheer repetitiveness with which the lyrics hammer home all the aspects of the white trash stereotype (which are given even greater emphasis in the video). The turntable scratching might've made it seem a bit more edgy at the time, but now just adds to the track's kitsch value as a marker of its time. Of course, it worked – Steriogram got a record deal and found worldwide success when their song 'Walkie-Talkie Man' was featured on an internationally-shown iTunes ad. Five years later, Outrageous Fortune arrived on NZ television and the rise of the Westie was complete.
Indie music in New Zealand is usually too cool for novelty songs, though I would've included 'What's Wrong With Huntly?' by Hugh (Sundae) and the New Zealanders if I could find it online (it managed four weeks on the locals charts in 1995 and is available at Amplifier). However, those two songs have nothing on 'Gravy Rainbow' for sheer wackiness – it even has its own entry on urbandictionary.com (though the applied meaning is a little too disgusting to mention here!). It didn't manage to chart, but got enough views on YouTube (currently over 800,000) that it kicked off an international career for Disasteradio and led to three successive world tours.
JGeek and the Geeks (2010)
On this track, JGeek and the Geeks attempt to find humour in the stereotype of a modern Māori boy and fall into the area of novelty songs due to the sheer wackiness of the video and the clunkiness of the musical content (plodding raps delivered over a thin beat and a catchy hook). It’s all delivered with such good-hearted energy that it’s hard to hate. The group was formed by former C4 TV presenter, Jermaine Leef, and the end result was a No.33 place on the charts, a placing at fourth on New Zealand’s Got Talent (as “JGeeks”), and 1.7 million views on YouTube. The group also spun off a side-project, The Cuzzies, who managed a No.11 chart placing with an even clearer example of a novelty song, a track constructed entirely around phrases from the ‘Ghost Chips’ section of a popular drunk-driving TV ad.
The Cigarette Duet
Princess Chelsea (2011)
It could be argued that the modern version of getting a novelty song on the charts is creating a music video that goes viral. The same requirements seem to be needed – an undue focus on a single subject matter, an insanely catchy chorus, and a video where the every element is cranked up to the extreme (think ‘Gangnam Style’). The odd thing about ‘The Cigarette Duet’ is that it ticks these boxes while injecting a dose of indie coolness to proceedings – instead of having a mile a minute visuals, it takes the opposite approach of starting at an almost frozen pace. The lyrics are all based around a single argument – a guy trying to convince his girlfriend to finally give up having the occasional cigarette at parties (a fairly current theme now that smoking finally seems to be on the way out). It must’ve struck a chord out there in youtube land, because the video now sits at around 20 million views! [Update: as of September 2022 the number of views reached 80 million.]
So that’s the end of the list and it’s time to ask yourself, which of these earworms is still cycling around in your brain? If you dare hear a few more, then NZ On Screen have chosen a few different tracks for their list of NZ novelty songs. In the end, I decided the Flight of the Conchords and Deja Voodoo had too much of a regular schtick going to pick out any particular track as a novelty song. And I also avoided the endless parody songs produced by local commercial radio stations over the years. But if you disagree or want to suggest other tracks then that’s what our Facebook page is for…