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Dogs in NZ music: barking up the right tree


You are in a pub, or at a dinner party or a social event anywhere in New Zealand and someone starts a conversation about the nation’s five or six defining popular heroes. There would, one imagines, be some fairly robust back and forth. Sir Peter Blake? Ed Hillary? Pinetree? Katherine Mansfield? Billy T. James? Kiri Te Kanawa? There are plenty of worthy contenders and it could, probably would, get heated.

How to calm it? Easy: there is one name that would smooth dissent and make the list. Mention The Dog and all heads would inevitably smile and then nod. Some might even start nah-nah-nah-ing that song’s infernal hook. Despite that, our contender was both fictional – so much so he only arrived via the pen and imagination of a cartoonist – and he didn’t actually even have a name. 

However, New Zealanders took to Murray Ball’s dog (actually it was Wal’s dog, but Wal was only real in so much that he was a little bit of all of us) and one suspects most of us would’ve happily taken that scraggy mutt home, real or not. We loved that dog so much that the 1986 Footrot Flats movie was sensibly subtitled The Dog's TailTale and the dog was the star, thus becoming the first New Zealand movie star to gross over $2 million dollars. 

And of course, he was also the star of the massive hit single from the movie, Dave Dobbyn and Herbs’ trans-Tasman No. 1 ‘Slice Of Heaven’ – indeed, “dog” hits the screen in that hit single’s video some 10 seconds in, shortly after Dave himself and well before Herbs (who arrive after a minute). If pushed, we all know who the real star of that video was, right?

Lest we forget: 
  

Be it from our farming past, or a happy chink in our national DNA, New Zealanders have always adored dogs, so much so our music is full of references to hounds of all kinds. The hardest Kiwi hard-man almost always rolls over for a wag or nuzzle from a mutt. 

Dogs feature heavily in pop music the world over and always have – where would Elvis have been without Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s ‘Hound Dog’, or Rufus Thomas without ‘Walking The Dog’? Marvin was totally ‘Doggone’, while Iggy and The Stooges wanted to be your dog (best we leave that thought right there). Paul McCartney was devoted to his large Martha who went everywhere with him, even into song.

There are many, but I like to think that we New Zealanders have a special affinity to doggies (I know I do) and thus, dog songs. Let’s look at a few.

The Librettos: ‘I’m A Dog’

 

Wellington’s early-beat stars had a couple of canine tunes: ‘Walking The Dog’, a cover of The Rolling Stones’ cover of the Rufus Thomas song, gave the band a credible hit in 1965. But it is ‘I’m A Dog’ from the band’s debut (and only) album, released the same year, that is the band’s ace doggy tune. A slightly out-of-time release, in that it probably would not have sounded out of place on the first Rolling Stones album, but these were fast-accelerating times musically. But this R&B tinged often-overlooked classic was penned by the band’s Rod Stone and Brian Peacock. 

Ken Avery: ‘The Strip at Dunsandel

John Hore: ‘McKenzie And His Dog’

Two songs which capture with deft humour, New Zealand’s deep ties to its rural past (and present of course, but we don’t seem to write songs like this anymore). Ken Avery was a Wellington based, Dunedin-born, jazz musician of some standing in the music community who also often turned his hand to affectionate and gentle folk-parodies of a New Zealand now mostly passed. His 1949 release ‘Paekakariki’ was the second single issued on the new Tanza label (and has been much covered since), and in 1956 his band backed Johnny Cooper on ‘Rock Around The Clock’, New Zealand’s first rock’n’roll record (and possibly the first outside the USA). In 1963, under the alias of Ash Burton And The Nightcaps, with Wellington journalist Alex Veysey on vocals, Ken issued his timeless and appropriate Kiwi equivalent to Paul Anka’s ‘Puppy Love’:

I bought in my terrier to get him fixed up
And the more was the merrier when you bought your pup.
By the dog dosing strip at Dunsandel I fell in love with you.

John Hore’s [John Grenell] cover of ‘McKenzie And His Dog’ is from his fine 1968 album of New Zealand compositions, one that his record company was not keen on releasing: New Zealand Songs. It was credited to folksinger and writer Bob Edwards and may be the best known version, however the earliest known recording was by the Australian-born, New Zealand-residing musicologist, writer and photographer Les Cleveland. On a rare 1959 Tanza EP it was credited to Les, with The Billy Black Boys. The fact is, nobody knows who penned this traditional ode to the infamous Scottish sheep herder James Mackenzie and his faithful four-legged friend Friday. This may be the only song on this page that has a companion statute, as both are remembered by a fine representation in Fairlie, the gateway to Mackenzie Country in South Canterbury.

In the years after John Hore Grenell’s version, the song was also recorded by, among others, Brendan Dugan, Danny McGirr and Rudy Sunde.

 

Barry Crump’s ‘A Dog Named Blue’ feels like it has lived with us forever (as did much of Barry’s humour and his well-worn and universally known face), but it only dates back to 1970 when it was issued as a single on Kiwi. That said, I remember it in my high school years as an NZBC Sunday request show staple and like much of the country I knew most of the lyrics off by heart. Barry delivered the song slowly in his renowned gravelly drawl: 

Bought a dog off a bloke who was passing through / for a retread tyre and a beer or two
Its name and breeding no-one knew / it was black and tan, so I called it Blue

As we headed into the 1970s, Farmyard – a band who evolved in part from Wellington garage band, cum prog-rockers Tom Thumb (we will get to them) – had an underground hit with the rambling country rocker ‘Me, The Dog, Ma And Dear Ol’ Dad’, penned by Rick White.

 

John Hanlon’s best album, Higher Trails, released in 1975, had a lovely, if poignant, paean to a free-spirited pooch entitled simply ‘Dog Talk’, although by the time it arrived on Spotify it had mutated into ‘My Dog’ for some reason. 

 

Hi dog, how is your lonely life / seems to me you’re running free
S’gonna bring you strife / they’re coming out to get you / try and bring you down
track you down and wrap you up / put you in the pound

Awww….

In complete contrast, Auckland latter-day punkers No Tag took the strident ‘Legalised Dogs’ – a song about the uniformed boys in blue that their fans battled with daily – into the Top 20 in 1981 as part of their Oi Oi Oi EP. Meanwhile, across town, punk purists The Henchmen recorded The Stooges classic ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ in 1984, although it remained unreleased until 2000. Further south, The 3Ds’ David Mitchell and Denise Roughan sang of a ‘Dead Dog In Port Chalmers’ in clamorous Celtic rock and roll fashion in 1991 on a now rare Xpressway 7" single, and in 1987 Auckland drumming legend Frank Gibson Jr.’s Jazzmobile – a local jazz group that matched some of the countries best composers with young musicians – included Mike Nock’s ‘Gospel Dog’ on their much-lauded (and only) album Spreading The Word

The Verlaines had ‘Bird Dog’, Peter Cape penned ‘Talking Dog’ about a cheerful sheepdog for his 1962 Kiwi EP With A Woman Like Mine You Can't Win and The Renderers released an album they called That Dog’s Head in the Gutter Gives Off Vibrations in 1994.

 

We had a few other canine cover versions, with early rock and roll guitar ace Bob Paris covering The Everly Brothers’ hit ‘Bird Dog’ in 1962, and, at the end of the decade, the aforementioned Tom Thumb covered Lennon-McCartney’s ‘Hey Bulldog’ in stunning fashion with the band and producer Peter Dawkins adding renowned jazz saxophonist Don Richardson to the mix. They transformed The Beatles’ ace rocker into a terrific jazz-rocker that arguably surpassed the original.

 

We have named bands after our four-legged best friends – Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band, Auckland 70s club band Salty Dogg and the mighty Underdogs are just the three best known. Less well known are Age of Dog and Tommy Adderley’s first local band, Tommy Adderley and the Hounddogs. Venues? How about the Dogs Bollix, Dog House and The Thirsty Dog? A record label called Spotty Dog was prolific between 1984 and 1999 in Palmerston North.

Age Of Dog, 1994: Dale Cotton, Tane Griffin and Victor Billot

Both Roger Donaldson’s 1977 Sleeping Dogs and the Footrot Flats movies had successful soundtracks, but they were from decidedly different movies, with the former’s bleakness having little to do with hounds beyond the title. It did, however, boast a stellar tracklisting from the likes of Jose Rika, Mark Williams and Murray Grindlay, all produced by Alan Galbraith at EMI. And it would be terribly remiss of us not to mention that the Footrot Flats soundtrack included tunes that *were* specifically about the dog (unlike the two hit singles lifted from the movie): ‘Top Dog’, and one with perhaps the most appropriate song title for this page, ‘Let’s Get Canine’, both performed by Dave Dobbyn with Ardijah

The 1977 soundtrack to the New Zealand feature Sleeping Dogs featured three Murray Grindlay tracks as well as his songs being performed Josie Rika and Mark Williams.

Then there was Ticket, a band known through the decades for their incredible wall of amplified live volume, and very extended performances. Yet this powerhouse of a band named their second album Let Sleeping Dogs Lie and wrapped it in a perfectly peaceful sleeve created by the artist Dick Frizzell, one that featured said sleeping dog clearly unaware of the very un-relaxed acid rock he or she blissfully offered to the world.

Ticket's Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, with sleeve by Dick Frizzell, 1972

What else? Country singer Al Hunter used to have a dog that would howl along to Elvis’s tearjerker ‘Old Shep’; Dalvanius, a man of some girth, went almost nowhere without his much loved but tiny chihuahuas and writer Chris Bourke recalled a dinner with Dal where, “he fed the chihuahuas off his own plate.” Fred Dagg, who was signed to EMI by Tom Thumb and Farmyard’s Rick White in his next role as a  record company A&R man (it all goes around), may not have had a specific song about dogs but you knew the dog was always right there with him, confirmed by that inevitable “get in behind” instruction that accompanied the much-missed Mr Clarke’s rural alter-ego. It almost doesn’t need stating that Fred would easily accompany the dog onto the list we started this story with, possibly in pole position.

Peter Beath, manager of the EMI Music Centre, Dunedin, with Nipper (the HMV dog), photographed c. 1975 by McRobie Photography of Dunedin. - Alexander Turnbull Library PAColl-4806-03

AudioCulture writer and acclaimed music photographer Jeremy Templer stayed with Hello Sailor during their famed/infamous LA jaunt and for his sins was allocated the dog-house beside the swimming pool as a bedroom at the band’s Hollywood house, perhaps a safe distance from the murky goings-on inside. Tiki Taane is a long-time supporter of a charity targeted at saving dogs bred for fighting.

And of course, and in no way least, literally hundreds of New Zealand records came out in the 1950s and 1960s with one of the world’s most famous mutts, HMV’s Nipper, on the label. For some forgotten reason Nipper was sent back to the kennel in 1970 and replaced on HMV discs with an op-art image of a girl smiling, no doubt thinking about her happy dachshund.

Label, Don't Let It Get You LP, feauring Nipper the dog. - RNZ collection

Finally, lets finish with one of the great albums of 2018, Tom Scott’s Avantdale Bowling Club and ‘Old Dogs’.

 

We are, we are nothing but some old dogs / running round in the grass
Said we gonna hit the tree / then hit the shot off the glass
We are, we are

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