Written by Te Rauparaha (circa 1820), performed by the All Blacks (1987)
It’s quite surprising to reflect upon the fact that our most popular sports team begins each game with this existential reflection on life and death. The Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha wrote it after hiding from an enemy war party inside a kumara pit, with his wife sitting over him to stop him being seen. The words capture his feeling of this close escape, starting with the opening chant “Ka mate, Ka mate! Ka ora, Ka ora” – “It is death, it is death! It is life, it is life!” After which, he rises up from under his wife into the sunlight and freedom. Of course most New Zealanders know the All Blacks version, which is traced back to the Natives tour of the UK in 1898, and captured nicely in the short film, Warbrick. It was then adopted by the All Blacks, but most teams went through the motions of the Haka very poorly right through until Buck Shelford joined the team in the 80s. He used his mana to push for the team to take the ritual more seriously and thereby injected the true spirit of a death-defying challenge back into Ka Mate. Here he is leading the team before their World Cup win in 1987.
The members of Dragon had no idea what they were letting into their lives when Greg Ollard (a friend of their manager) moved into their flat. Ollard was already a lieutenant in the Mr Asia drug ring and he brought the band into contact with the cheap heroin the syndicate was bringing into Sydney at the time. In the 2015 Dragon TV documentary, Todd Hunter recalls his morning routine included checking each band member was still alive. But when he looked in the window at drummer Neil Storey one morning in September 1976, he mistakenly thought he was happily asleep. It was only when he returned later that he found a police car and ambulance outside their house and was informed that Storey had died of an overdose during the early hours of the morning. The band’s keyboardist, Paul Hewson, wrote ‘Sunshine’ partly from Storey’s perspective – “I’m leaving Broadway, no day, no night, just colours shining, shining down on me, I’m in the sunshine.” Yet Hewson’s own viewpoint seems to come out in the bridge: “This world is just a stairway, how can I understand when my world turns to sand?” The spirit of the song is more of resilience than regret and, as we shall see later in this piece, Hewson himself would continue to dabble with heroin until he was also brought down by it.
I Love My Leather Jacket
The Chills (1986)
Martin Phillipps wasn’t shy of dark material. The standout Chills track ‘Pink Frost’ is from the perspective of someone who has caused the death of his girlfriend (whether intentionally or not is unclear). However, let’s instead focus on the song Phillipps wrote about the leather jacket he’d been given by Martyn Bull, who was a member of The Chills before being struck down by leukaemia. Unlike Shayne Carter’s austere eulogy, ‘Randolph’s Going Home’ (written for Doublehappys bandmate Wayne Elsey), ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’ is a driving piece of poppy indie rock, with fuzzed out guitars and a punchy organ hook in the intro. It is Phillipps recalling his love for his friend, rather than reflecting on his tragic loss. The video shows the band in the UK, where they’d been touring as a flagship act for Flying Nun; this song showed their early potential by dipping into the NME alternative charts.
Headless Chickens (1987)
New Zealand has the second highest rate of suicide in the OECD, with suicide deaths almost double the rate of deaths on our roads. It is particularly bad for young people, being the second most common cause of death. Yet the subject isn’t touched upon much in local art, especially when it comes to music. I will put aside Proud Scum’s track ‘Suicide’, given that wishing a departing bandmate would jump off Grafton Bridge is not quite what I’m thinking about! In contrast, Headless Chickens stare down the subject of suicide in their song, ‘Slice’, creating a slice of New Zealand gothic storytelling that is as affecting as any Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel. The band had formed out of the ashes of Chris Matthews’ previous band, Children’s Hour, and some of the odd noises on this track were actually a rhythm track from one of this band’s earlier songs played backwards. The first line-up of Headless Chickens also included Michael Lawry and Johnny Pierce, but tragically Pierce himself committed suicide at age 23, before this song was even able to be released.
Bruno’s Last Ride
The Warratahs (1989)
Bruno Berens was the drummer for a number of popular Auckland bands in the 70s, including Cruise Lane, Papa, and the Tommy Ferguson Goodtime Band. His partner was singer Corina Fisher and the pair later played with Gladys Knight and Joe Cocker (while their daughter went on to be the singer, Mihirangi). Sadly, Berens died in a car accident in 1988. The news reached Barry Saunders while he was playing with his band The Warratahs on Waiheke Island: “I already had this instrumental which just got into my head, I don’t remember actually writing it. Bruno and I had known each other since we were 16 years old in Christchurch. Someone rang me and told me he had died in a car accident, so I called the piece ‘Bruno’s Last Ride’, thinking that maybe he would have liked it. It’s been a good way to remember him.”
Hello Sailor (1994)
Unfortunately, Dragon keyboardist Hewson was another who died too young. He had just returned to Auckland and was celebrating his newfound freedom after leaving Dragon for a second time, when he accidentally overdosed on home bake heroin. It is fitting that it was the equally hard-living Graham Brazier, who wrote a song in his memory, the Hello Sailor song ‘New Tattoo’ (Brazier’s solo track ‘Motorway’ is also dedicated to Hewson). ‘New Tattoo’ become a surprise hit for the band, reaching No.5 on the charts in late 1994. Brazier brings his straight talking style to this subject matter. “Paul died back in ’85 / sometimes I feel that he’s still alive when I hear his voice on the radio.” The attitude and the hookiness of the chorus seem like a perfect way to remember the songwriting talents of Hewson. Keep an ear out for the backing vocals, by Dave Dobbyn, near the end of the track.
Destined To Be Dead
8 Foot Sativa (2003)
I probably could have filled this whole top 10 with songs by metal bands, so narrowing it down to just a couple was quite difficult (though I’m happy for people to tell me which two I should’ve chosen on our Facebook page). This one hits all the right buttons for me: the lyrics are unrelentingly black and nihilistic while the music backs it up with chugging guitars and pounding drums. I especially like the way there is no guitar solo; instead Sam Shepherd’s drums turn into a steady roll of double-kick and Brent Fox’s bass rumbles metallically over the top, brutal and in-your-face. The song’s lyrics basically reiterate that we are all going to die, over and over, and singer Justin “Jackhammer” Niessen puts a full stop on this sentiment by abruptly yelling out “Dead!” just as the song ends. Be warned, the video is a tad on the violent side.
Here Then Gone
Young Sid aka Sidney Diamond (2010)
Some might’ve been surprised when Young Sid appeared on anti-smoking billboards in 2012, as part of the “Smoking Not Our Future” campaign – the public interest campaign didn’t really seem to fit with the tough, uncompressing nature of his raps. However, this track gives a firsthand account of going through his mother’s battle with cancer, starting with the first phone call from his sister and ending with his mother’s passing. This earnest, moment-by-moment account brings a concrete sense of reality to the heartbreaking events that Sid had gone through. In this respect, Young Sid is a crucial messenger, given his Māori heritage and the 2013 census finding that over 30 percent of Māori smoke regularly (twice the percentage of Pākehā or Asians) and that lung cancer is the number one cause of death for Māori females and the second most common form of death for Māori males. Taken in this context, the song takes on even more power and poignancy.
Tower Of Skulls
Here’s another metal song, though the sound of it is actually quite dissimilar to the 8 Foot Sativa track above – the guitars are sludgy with distortion and the vocals are growling, but somehow brooding rather than angry. Nonetheless, there are some lyrical similarities, since the same nihilistic spirit pervades in the line “In the end we are just born to die.” The band goes on to present a Sisyphean task of resistance: “Come lie with us, deep in the river / let’s try to get in its way.” Without making specific reference to the title, the lyrics seem to paint the image of body after body being laid in the flowing waters of a river until a tower of skulls rises up as a testament to their existence.
Marlon Williams (2015)
It seems fitting to end this list with a bit of a ghost story. Williams’s protagonist is an old man whose wife died in 1989, leaving him alone in their “seven-bedroom home, built upon the bones of fallen soldiers.” The song is pervaded by a morbid feeling of decay and the old-timey melody of the chorus gives it the mood of an old song, played on crackly vinyl in a distant room. The video has Williams as a tramp, hanging out with his partner (Aldous Harding), though things take a creepy turn toward the end.