Righto, 10 New Zealand songs whose craft has inspired me. So, in no particular order aside from the first one, here we go.
Yes, We’ll Leave The Lights On – Ritchie Pickett & The Inlaws
The first song in which I consciously recall hearing place names I could relate to. “She sold her daddy’s farm and moved over to Sydney … 38 acres of King Country lasted her six weeks.” Written by Ritchie and his former Think bandmate Allan Badger, it started life as a ballad before getting some twin-guitar raunch and becoming a rocker on the Gone For Water LP – much to Allan’s disappointment. Possibly autobiographical, what with Ritchie’s immersion in the Sydney drug scene of the late 1970s. “Will you try crawling home this time, little darling?” The girl in the song doesn’t make it home, but she is reassured the lights will be left on for when she does, if ever. I just adore it and it’s first because it opened up my songwriting to my location.
Long Ago – Herbs
Willie Hona’s “country song” about his mum; written with his Herbs bandmate Tama Lundon. I’d never heard of Herbs when I won the brand-new Long Ago album in a radio phone-in competition on 77ZK (Hastings). The opening song with its simple-but-clever “Long ago was so long ago” lyric, those big, beautiful voices and the ascending three-note saxophone hook sucked me in. It was like the singalong party songs I’d grown up on, but with a message about how the downfalls and misdirections of your past bring wisdom and how life is all about living in the now. It may have been a song about Willie’s mum and family and their long ago, but its karere was universal. The album introduced me to the band and its weighty back catalogue.
Itinerary – DD Smash
The flipside of ‘Outlook For Thursday’, a 1983 single. I’ve never heard that version, but I would like to. The one I know appears on the live album from later that year, Deep In The Heart Of Taxes. It finds Dave Dobbyn in the throes of transitioning from the pub-rock bluster of Cool Bananas to blue-eyed soul. Nifty recurring guitar figure and horn stabs throughout and Dave unashamedly gets away with rhyming “itinerary” and “Tipperary” while declaring a belief “in something more than the road” as he yearns to reunite with a loved one. The bridge reveals a lyrical reference to Tim Finn and ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ from the year before. That took a bit of confidence for a writer not yet on the same plane as the Finn brothers. Big vocal harmonies from three of New Zealand’s finest: Jacqui Fitzgerald, Suzanne Lynch and Kim Willoughby.
Otaki – The Fourmyula
“People turn on in Otaki, I think I will stay.” That lyric alone is enough to put it in my list. The Otaki Wayne Mason wrote about in 1970 or so must have been a vastly different place to the one I drove through 20-something years later. Or maybe not. Wayne says, “It was originally St Louis or some American place name.” The song is a rollicking good time from the opening Martin Hope guitar riff he fluked in the studio while trying to get something different to the usual 12-bar backing. It comes across like a simple blues chord structure, but that riff and Ali Richardson’s bass line mixes it up nicely. One can only surmise the “little girl” in the bridge is in Otaki, which is why the singer is going down there to stay, right? Wrong. According to Martin, it’s the result of two completely unrelated songs being joined together. Well, I guess that explains the “no, no, no”.
Still In Love With You – Dragon
‘April Sun In Cuba’ gets all the glory, but for me this is Dragon at their best. Written by Paul Hewson and intended to be his lead vocal debut on record, Peter Dawkins told me he recorded a vocal track by Paul and one by Marc Hunter and let the Portrait label bosses decide which one they wanted on O Zambezi. Of course who could compete with Marc Hunter? Kicking off with a barrelhouse Hewson piano intro, it could almost be a country song till you get to those pretty trademark chords of his in the chorus and bridge. The lyrics have all the hallmarks of a country song: a bar, drinking, smoking, a cowboy, a train, cards. The bridge introduces the dangerous Dragon undercurrent when you cotton on the girl is not yet out of school – a familiar theme in the band’s songs of the time. The original video has an unguarded look of love between the Hunter brothers in the last chorus before Todd disarms the moment by deliberately sniffing Marc’s armpit!
Lydia – Fur Patrol
Written by the band, it’s a perfect marriage of lyrics and nonchalantly aching vocals from Julia Deans. Don’t you want me, don’t you need me, don’t you love me? What’s worse? Julia asks all three, but seems resigned to the fact “my baby” is going to choose Lydia and she even suggests he treat her right. She plays it so cool, but her performance in the final choruses and tag give away her true feelings. Wonderfully understated guitar solo from Steven Wells. Favourite lyric: “Her legs are wide and so’s her smile.” From 2000, the most recent song on my list. I’m not sure what that says about me. Took me three or four watches to realise Julia played both women in the tongue-in-cheek, in-performance-without-instruments video clip.
Should I Be Good Or Should I Be Evil – Hammond Gamble
Not “should I be good or should I be bad” but “should I be good or should I be evil.” That ramps proceedings up. Written by Hammond, his Street Talk mate Stuart Pearce and American producer Kim Fowley, it grew out of some verses and a bridge Hammond had called ‘Prayer’. According to Stuart, Fowley wrote the chorus lyrics, Stuart played some Don Henley chords and Hammond belted out a new chorus melody – all in what seemed like 15 minutes. It then sat around for a couple of years until Hammond’s self-titled solo LP. The singer sits in the dark while his lover weeps and he concludes he’ll have to cheat. Well, in the original version, anyway. By 2006’s Recollection, cheating doesn’t cross his mind; he wonders if they should stay together and make it through alright. I think Hammond’s mellowed a bit. As the original lyric predicted, “It’s with deep regret that I look back at how I used to be.” A duet rendering by Hammond and Beaver featured in a 1985 movie of the same name, starring them and Harry Lyon.
Apple Wine – John Hanlon
What’s so appealing about the songwriting here is that all of the action described in the lyrics occurs in less time than it takes to sing the song. Teenage boy throws stone, nearly hits his sister, she tells on him, 6’5” father comes out and chases boy through the fields till he jumps in the river nursing his bottle of apple wine. The dad just has to grin because he can’t swim. Inspired by John Hanlon’s teenage years working in the burning sun with haymaking contractors, the recording kicks off with two tracks of Mike Harvey piano licks before settling in to a moderate country-rock feel. “And the whole world’s looking rosy and I don’t give a damn / If you want some of my apple wine, catch me if you can.” Believe me, I know what it is to have a 15-year-old boy who’s talking jive, and I have another approaching that age.
Rose (Can I Share A Bed With You) – Toni Williams
Firstly, has there ever been a better voice recorded in New Zealand than Toni Williams’? Secondly, has guitar legend Peter Posa written any more lyrics, and if not, why not? Written, arranged and produced by Peter, it’s my understanding the track stems from a period where he and Toni were both battling their own demons. Consequently, it’s a believable performance. Rose’s identity is never disclosed, but it’s evident she’s not a permanent proposition because the protagonist wants back to the luxury life he once led. As the lyric states, “I miss my kids, my dog and my friends.” Just when you think he’s finished – “I miss the loving comfort of my wife.” Surprisingly, being a Posa production, there’s no lead guitar and the required pathos is provided by the pedal steel guitar of Red McKelvie.
Not The Girl You Think You Are – Crowded House
Another songwriting master class from Neil Finn, this one would be at home on The Beatles’ Revolver. It’s just beautiful from the double-tracked lead vocal in the verses to where Neil harmonises with himself in the bridges in that gorgeous, frail falsetto that’s become more and more prominent in his later work. Paul Hester’s elegant waltz-time brushwork brought in with a magnificent splash of a cymbal that any other production team but Mitchell Froom, Neil and Tchad Blake probably would have mixed right back. Not to mention the obligatory introduced record surface noise. A smorgasbord of cryptic Neil Finn word play of bathroom mirror distortions, convertibles and men who will neither deceive nor tell the truth. A song impossible to follow. Thus ends 10 New Zealand songs whose craft has inspired me.