1. My Old Man’s An All Black (1960)
Howard Morrison Quartet
On the surface, this tune is just a light-hearted re-write of ‘My Old Man's A Dustman’ by Lonnie Donegan, but it's hard not to feel the bitterness when they refer to “a team that ain't got horis to score their last touchdown.” Songwriter Gerry Merito was wryly mocking the All Blacks' decision not to take Māori players on their 1960 tour of South Africa.
2. Damn the Dam (1973)
When the hippie movement finally gained a decent foothold in New Zealand, it was already a fair few years beyond the Summer of Love. One song that captures the mood of the times is this one by John Hanlon. Weirdly, it was originally written as a radio commercial for Pink Batts to encourage people to insulate their homes! The idea being that the less power we used, the fewer dams we would have to build, thereby save our natural environment. The tune went on to be used to protest the building of a dam in Lake Manapouri and became a top five single.
3. Culture? (1980)
Robert Muldoon was one of the most divisive prime ministers that New Zealand has ever had. He took the National Party into office three times in a row and put himself firmly on the wrong side of history with his strong support of the Springbok Rugby Tour in 1981 (though at the time, it probably seemed like a shrewd political move, given that it was an election year and many right-leaning voters supported the tour). However, this song shows that even before the tour many in the music community saw Muldoon as an enemy. He refused to lift a 40% sales tax on recorded music, since he believed popular music was "horrible" and therefore deserved no special treatment. Dunedin band The Knobz self-released this song in response and hit No.5 on the charts.
4. Azania (1981)
You couldn't have a list about political music in New Zealand without featuring Herbs and the harder question is which of their songs to choose. It seems to me that the Herbs song that has best survived the test of the time, and which holds a great deal of political impact, is the first song on their first (mini) album. What's Be Happen (1981) wears its politics on its sleeve. The cover of the record was a photograph of the Ngāti Whātua land occupation of Bastion Point, Auckland during 1977-78. 'Azania' renames South Africa in the original language of its African population and immediately positions the song against the apartheid regime that ruled the country. The musical backing is a heavy form of reggae and it is a gritty guitar riff that provides the track's strongest hook, rather than the vocal melodies (possibly influenced by upfront guitar work of Junior Marvin from Bob Marley and the Wailers, who toured NZ in 1979). It is a sound that holds up well and captures the passion that would drive the country toward the Springbok protests in that same year.
5. There is No Depression in New Zealand (1981)
Blam Blam Blam
The great thing about this Blam Blam Blam song is that how wryly it strikes against the old order that existed within New Zealand society. It came at a time when antagonism between the police and large segments of the nation's youth was at an all time high. Criticism of the police inspired Riot 111's translated and punkified version of the "Ka Mate" haka (1981) and also the ska tune 'Riot Squad' by The Newmatics, which pushed their EP, Broadcast OR, to No.13 on the singles chart (though it was the violence of their bootboy fans that brought them into conflict with the police, before the Springbok protests had even started). Yet 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand' makes a much broader and more interesting statement. It's no surprise that a band featuring Don McGlashan would be able to paint such a cynical commentary of public sentiment during this year of political unrest, but the lyrics for this track were actually written by poet and playwright Richard Von Sturmer. The "she'll be right" attitude of the older generation of New Zealanders is held up to the light; rather than being shown as resilience, it is portrayed as willful ignorance.
6. Don't Go (1985)
Right, Left and Centre
Four years after the Springbok Rugby Tour protests, the All Blacks again polarised public opinion by heading off to South Africa for a tour. Don McGlashan and Chris Knox fronted a protest single in response, reaching No.2 on the local charts. McGlashan probably seemed the more politically motivated of the two singers at the time – he'd also sung about the imperialism inherent in the ANZUS treaty on Blam Blam Blam’s ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha (It’s Bigger Than The Both Of Us)’. However, casting one’s eye over Knox’s massive catalogue shows his constant interest in challenging society’s conventions. Weirdly here, Knox seems at his least aggressive – a weird bloke with a mullet, whose voice in this context seems to match up with that of soul belter Rick Bryant, who stands beside him.
7. Soviet Snow (1987)
Another of the great protest movements of the era was the anti-nuclear movement. Herbs had already taken up the subject of French Nuclear testing in the pacific on their song ‘French Letter’ (originally released in 1982, but also re-released in 1995 when the French re-started their testing program). The more general issue of nuclear bombs also inspired 'Radiation' by The Topp Twins (which was sung at many protest rallies) and, more obliquely, 'Claude Rains' by The Front Lawn. However, this track by Shona Laing is the best snapshot of Cold War nuclear fear and also shows Laing's remarkable evolution from 70s folk singer to 80s pop star.
8. E Tu (1988)
Upper Hutt Posse
'E Tu' marks the final point of a decade-long cultural investigation into our country’s past, which started with the television series, The Governor (1977), and then led to the movie Utu (1983) and two breakthrough historical novels – Season of the Jew (1987) by Maurice Shadbolt and The Matriarch (1986) by Witi Ihimaera. ‘E Tu’ was able to condense the central message of these works into a tidy four and a half minute rap song – emphasising that the New Zealand Wars were not actually an overwhelming show of imperial power and that Māori fought their foe to a standstill in a number of the major battles. All the major Māori leaders from the New Zealand Wars are given their due in the verses and lead rapper, Dean Hapeta, even takes time to point out that the most celebrated Pākehā soldier of the time, Gustav von Tempsky, ended up being shot down during an unsuccessful attack on the pā of Taranaki chief, Titokowaru.
9. Chains (1996)
DLT featuring Che Fu
There is a nice symmetry in Che Ness (Che Fu) appearing near the opposite end of this list to Herbs – his father Tigilau Ness played in the other big Auckland reggae group of the time, Unity Pacific. DLT brought his own righteous credentials to the table – he started out as the turntablist for Upper Hutt Posse.
10. Underneath the Shade (2011)
The last 20 years have seen a decline in the popularity of the political song. Rock stars who write earnest political statements are far more likely to get scorned than revered and so any mention of “the issues” tends to be rather vague. Take, for example, Shihad’s ‘My Mind's Sedate’ – it’s clear they’re unhappy about the current state of the world, but it's more of a cultural commentary than a political statement (though their later work such as the FVEY album would be more directly political). However more often it has been hip hop rather than rock that has been the home for clear statements of discontent. Dam Native’s Kaupapa Driven Rhymes Uplifted (1997) took up the baton from Upper Hutt Posse, while King Kapisi delivered his own sharp criticisms of colonialism from a Pacifikan perspective on ‘Reverse Resistance’. Yet the last two decades of NZ political music seem far less connected to real political action on a society-wide scale when compared to the music of the 80s. Large street protests are largely a thing of the past and even the threat of climate change seems to have roused few to hit the streets (or to write hit songs on the subject). Of course, our grandchildren will no doubt look back on our generation of careless polluters with the same derision we now cast on the racists, sexists and homophobes of previous generations. Therefore, this track seems like a more honest reflection of the current political moment.
I’m sure the above list betrays both my musical and political tastes more than anything else. Dave Dobbyn fans may be disappointed that I left out ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’ but I already allowed myself one cynical song at the end and didn’t want a list dominated by them. The list is also pretty dude-heavy too, so maybe others will feel I should've included Moana and the Moa Hunters (or Melting Pot Massacre, to make myself a little more current!).
Meanwhile, I guess right-leaning readers will just have to check out ‘I’m A Conservative’ by The Eversons since there isn’t much else out there for you. But as usual, do expose my undue biases and blindspots on the AudioCulture Facebook page – we live in a democracy, let your voice be heard!
Radio NZ – No Nukes: How NZ Music helped us Ban the Bomb:
Elsewhere.co.nz - Simon Grigg on New Zealand's patchy history of political songs