The National Anthems

What it is that makes a Kiwi classic?

This week the 10 best New Zealand songs, as decided by an academy of songwriters and experts, were named at the Apra Silver Scroll Awards.

It was a chance to debate the merits of one generation's greatest hits over another's, to have those hooks running around the brain and generally celebrate our musical heritage.

But how did the songs in the top 10 come about and why do we still like them? Here are the stories behind the songs; and Graeme Downes - a veteran songwriter himself with a PhD in music who is now a lecturer in rock performance at Otago University - tells just what makes these great tunes tick.

1. Nature, Wayne Mason (Fourmyula 1969, Muttonbirds 1992) Mason: "It was written on my girlfriend's front porch at 710 Fergusson Drive, Upper Hutt, and there was an amazing front yard of trees and shrubs and yes, 'falling leaves.' All the lyrics came quickly, it was one of those gift spaces you get where everything flows at once. But I had nothing for the chorus and tried to make words up, but it didn't work so it was 'do doo'.

"The Fourmyula never played it live because playing acoustic guitars on stage was technically difficult and we were an electric rock band with Hammond organ and Marshall stacks.

And Nature was an organic type of record, so it never fitted into a gig. It was an experiment in the studio for us and we wanted to record it all at once, sitting in a circle. We didn't want to use drums, because that would be too heavy, so instead we used bottoms of shoes and matchboxes. It's full of that sort of sound.

"We'd come back from England and were influenced by what was happening there. We'd been a pop band and came back as a rock band doing a lot of Led Zeppelin. So Nature was pretty different for us and we tried to convert it to the rock format and for me to play Hammond organ, but it was never going to work. It was a major decision to do it like it is."

Downes: "Having been a hit twice in completely different generations, there's got to be something going on. In terms of lyrics it hooks into something of the New Zealand psyche and the nature of the place we live in.

"I guess it's an escapist thing, but it's someone alone with their thoughts trying to muddle through whatever unstated problems they are having. And they do it by going bush."

On a musical level, it starts with a classic descending bassline in a minor-type groove which is very cool. But it also twists in and out of different keys and modes and you never quite know where it's going, which I think is analogous to the dreamy thought pattern that the lyrics are on about. It fulfils a very cool marriage between music and lyric.

"The 'do do do'? There's a great tradition of this. Repetition and non-verbal communication are useful in pop songs."

2. Don't Dream It's Over, Neil Finn (Crowded House, 1986)

Finn: "It was 1985. I was at my brother's house in Melbourne playing on his piano. I wrote the whole thing in one go, which doesn't often happen, all the lyrics at once - except for the organ solo which Mitchell Froom provided later. It was pretty much intact and I went straight home.

"I think what had happened was that I was feeling quite up and down that day, and these people had come over - I was working at Tim's place because it was private, he wasn't there and [drummer] Paul Hester was living there - and some of his mates came over and I went into the room to escape them and I actually wrote the line, 'They come to build a wall between us', thinking a little about them. I went home and made a demo on acoustic guitar with a snare drum that was a matchbox and sent it straight over to Tom Whalley at Capitol Records, and it basically got me the deal.

"What does it mean? It's a double-edged thing. It could be, 'Hey now hey now don't dream, it's over.' Or 'Hey now, hey now, don't dream it's over.' It's about not giving up. It was written at a melancholy time and it's about finding something within yourself that keeps you going. A lot of things conspire against people remaining close out there in this world, and that is what that song is about, what human relationships are about.

"The words all came at once - I trust those. They are all part of the same thought process."

Downes: [Songwriter] Jimmy Webb talks about a song being a hotwire to the emotions, a direct communication. This song nails that, but it's also intimate and genuine sounding, and that sells a great deal of records. If people can believe the person singing is feeling it, then it sounds that the song is not written but sung spontaneously on the spot. This one draws on fairly traditional harmonic devices and there are not a great deal of chromatic oddities. Better Be Home Soon has a similar musical vocabulary.

3. Loyal, Dave Dobbyn (1987)

Dobbyn: "It was in Sydney. It started with the lyric and I just made it fit, which is much easier than the other way round. It stuck, it's turned into something else. It's now got a life of its own. I never knew what that meant - Neil Finn is always on about songs becoming everybody else's - and I never really felt that until that song.

"The harmonic thing from the beginning came about because I had a new guitar. Just that harmonic was like a doorbell. I thought I've got to put something at the front of this song to get your attention, and it stuck that way.

"Three of us produced it and it was bit of a shambles, but the song survived. We do it much better live. The version we did on that tour we did singing with Bic is real good."

Downes: "That's an interesting one and I don't know what it taps into. When the video came out - Dobbyn walking through a house with the furniture being shifted out, obviously a post-breakup type scenario - a lot of people liked it and others didn't. That may have had a lot to do with it. Universality is something the songwriting manuals talk about - write a song about something everybody's done in some shape or form.

Loyalty is more subdued passion, and maybe that's a New Zealand thing too. Being the somewhat quietly spoken, reserved people we can be, we don't feel so confident about going on a limb of the full 'I must have you' love songs. But here there's an honest blokiness about it which people in this part of the world can relate to."

4. Counting the Beat, Phil Judd, Mark Hough, Wayne Stevens (The Swingers, 1981)

Stevens aka Bones Hillman: "Counting The Beat was born musically at a sound check in the Hillsborough Hotel in Christchurch some time in 1979.

We basically just started jamming and it virtually came from the blue. We put it on a crappy tape deck to capture the magic and Phil wrote the lyrics a few months later. We recorded it in Sydney sometime in 1980 with David Tickle, who produced True Colours for the Enz. And then the master tape became a pawn in a dispute between him and Mushroom Records over money owed to him via the Enz album. And we never saw it again for six months.

The master was located a couple of years ago for use in a K Mart campaign, and when opened it was completely mouldy and beyond any use to mankind. End of story."

Michael Gudinksi, Mushroom Records: "Soon as I heard Counting the Beat I knew it would be a smash. I made them wait four months before we released it, because we believed it was so strong we needed to set it up right. And it became the No 1 hit of the year. It should have been huge in the US but it never got a chance.

"Phil was a great talent, but he was never a communicator and never worked it live, and in America you have to do that."

Downes: "I remember well when it came out and we just couldn't believe how snappy and infectious it was.

"It does the things the best pop music always does - if you isolate any one of the individual riffs, it's stuff that's been played a million times before, but the way it's all been connected makes commonplace material sound like it's just been invented.

"There's something about the freshness, especially the way it gets into the 'la da de-dee' bit. That's magical. There's some quirky little ambiguities in that bit. The very opening is stock standard harmonically, but it's what happens after that, and it's twisted in its own way."

5. Six Months in a Leaky Boat, Tim Finn (Split Enz, 1982)

Finn: "I wrote the song as a piano melody in the key of D, always the most hopeful-sounding of the keys for me. It came at a time when my life was pretty screwed up, and it still amazes me how the intensely personal lyrics seem to strike a chord, not only here but wherever I play it.

"The themes of voyaging and enduring followed hot on the heels of the just written Haul Away. I still love the rush of playing Six Months ... live, fast with a band or slow and raggedy on the acoustic. I made a virtual blood pact with my first best friend, Chris Rejthar, to sail around the world, and in different ways we both kind of did it, although not together as planned.

"The song seems finally to address this common urge towards the unexpected outcome. Part of that outcome will always remain for me a strange and sweet nostalgia for difficult times lived through with good mates."

Downes: "It's got a patriotic singalong connected to it. With New Zealanders and boats there's a universal connection and 'Aotearoa rugged individual' connects with life in bands and trying to conquer the world.

"And that's what it is for New Zealanders; we are so isolated that to get to anywhere to conquer the world, six months in a leaky boat can be exactly what it's like. It's certainly a good analogy for touring the United States."

6. Sway, Bic Runga (1997)

Runga: "I remember it being sunny, and I was sitting on a porch and the line 'sway my way' came first. Paul Kelly rang once and said he'd borrowed a line from one of my songs, and it was that. I was like, 'Well, that's not just a line, that's the chorus of my only hit!' My personal is my universal and people always come and go, and I think that's something people can empathise with, you can't hang on to anything, and that's the line, 'Don't come and go.'

"When I recorded it I didn't want it to be depressing, because there's a tendency when you put some things down on tape to go deep within the depressing vibe of it, which doesn't translate to a record. You have to lift it, and I thought it was getting a bit dour.

"I didn't have any idea it would connect with so many people, but BBC's Radio 2 in England have just started playing it, and I got a call from the programmer who said she gets inundated with calls every time they play it."

Downes: "It's similar to Loyal in that it's honest and direct. It's also very introverted and has a great melody, and she has a fabulous voice. It's a well crafted and well sung beautiful melody. Having the title in the hook is something the songwriting manuals generally recommend."


7. Slice of Heaven, Dave Dobbyn (with Herbs 1986)

Dobbyn: "I was living in Sydney, and the Footrot Flats soundtrack came along and I was writing anyway, so Slice of Heaven is a song I would have written anyway. But the film gave me the opportunity to throw a bit of gear together and muck about with it. I'd used the phrase [Slice of Heaven] before on a song from The Optimist album, it was just a line in one of the songs. It just popped up so I thought, 'I can't let it go by' - love song, Slice of Heaven and this flutey thing - that's all I had, The flutey line was a keyboard sound of a Japanese shakuhachi flute, which is all over the place these days. It's a real old hackneyed sound. The Discovery Channel is full of it.

"Herbs were just right up for it. I had grown up with Tongan and Samoan and Polynesian singing at the local church. I'd loved that sound of vibrato. We had the track well ready by the time they came in to record, and did everything in one day.

"It's kind of got a lot of ska in it. The upbeat is just overstated, which kind of takes you down from the downbeat - it swings in a kind of kooky way. I love that feel. I will probably use that again in some other setting. When they are really up like that you can't but move to them."

Downes: "The way it was recorded with Herbs, and the connection it has with the movie, means it's a song New Zealanders hold close to their hearts because it's so much about what it is to be here.

"It's hard to describe what Herbs bring to it, but they are a wonderful foil for Dobbyn's voice, not the typical backing vocal you'd find in usual pop music. It's kinda dumb, but in an endearing way. It comes down to the characterisation, the blokish quality which is transferred to the movie with Wal Footrot indicative of the New Zealand bloke who is not going to be as articulate in his professing of love as Lionel Ritchie."

8. Victoria, Jordan Luck (Dance Exponents, 82)

Luck: "The writing of it was divided between Timaru, which is basically all the verses, and Christchurch, which is the chorus. It was about my landlady.

"Victoria was 23 and earned the whole apartment block. She was a hard worker. And yes, she read Alvin Toffler. But we'd wake up in the morning and she'd be bruised because her boyfriend was beating her up.

"Most of the song was written straight away. The lyrics were the deciding factor and Brian Jones did the magic guitar line which I think is equally as hooky as the chord. It was bit of departure from the other stuff we were doing at the time. Like Your Best Friend Loves Me Too was like a Cars kind of joke song, and All I Can Do was complete loving Dunedin stuff. Victoria was heavy."

Downes: "Classic hookline - if you get in a songwriting rut you sit down with a book of suggested baby names and pick girls' names and write songs about them. It has been suggested in the songwriting manuals. Let's face it, there are plenty around that follow that route, but this also has a great tune and a chorus that gets you.

"Jordan can hold a tune and has character in his voice with an element of a bark and rasp."

9. She Speeds, Shayne Carter (Straitjacket Fits, 1987)

Carter: "In Dunedin, and it was inspired out of unrequited desire. That was one of the first batches of tunes that we wrote. The Straitjackets started off as a three-piece, and when Andrew Brough climbed on that's when we wrote the first EP. In some ways it became the archetypal Straitjackets' song. We sort of resisted it for a long time because it's horrible if you feel you've shown all your tricks at once kind of thing. But it was, in that it had the quiet-loud dynamic, the big chorus and those backing vocals.

"The whole song is built around this little harmonic figure which is actually quite weird - I've always played weird chords. If you were trying to play straight-ahead chords to it, it would be slightly difficult.

"I was quite a young fellow when I wrote it. More desperate and angst-ridden than I am now - no, I'm still desperate actually - but the thing is, when we wrote it and performed it we meant it, and that is always going to last. That is maybe why the song has staying power.

"I always like cello, it's got such a great, ominous deep-throated quality and it's a really nice touch to that song. It adds to the whole tension and release thing. It's a bit like sex really. Without being creepy or slimey about it, that is what music is about - those moments of release.

"It's good that our song has staying power. I was looking through the list and I thought it was the only one on that top 10 that didn't get played on the radio. It's good that it's actually managed to last."

Downes: "This is one I've pulled apart lots and used in class because it's a brilliantly composed song. Similar to Nature in that it's a great marriage of music with the lyric. The music smoulders. She glides away, she drifts, she's out of here, she doesn't want anything to do with you - and then there's this beautiful subtle modulation from E down to D which just glides and drifts off into the distance in exactly the same way as the lyric suggests.

"The music and lyric are so beautifully intertwined and symbiotic. Apart from that a lesser composer would have repeated the second verse, but not this one. It has the same harmonies involved and references back to the first, but it's completely recomposed. Then there's the explosive entry of the band. There's an element of freedom even though in essence it is just verse-chorus verse-chorus song, but it's certainly not formulaic."

10. April Sun in Cuba, Paul Hewson and Marc Hunter (Dragon, 1978)

With [manager Peter] Dawkin back in Sydney, the band went into the studio to record another album in time for Christmas. Such was their popularity the album went gold on pre-release sales alone.

Dragon slowed down a little in the late weeks of 1977, performing just two or three times a week. The year's hectic itinerary had drained them and they'd picked up some nasty habits of the trail. Many critics claim [album] Running Free was not as strong as its predecessor but by the new year the album had gone platinum and that was just the start. Running Free later turned double platinum and kept on selling.

Again featuring contributions from the band's four songwriters, it was clear that Paul Hewson was coming up with the better hooklines and stronger melodies. Strangely enough given the band's continuing hedonism, the lyrics contained a recurring sense of regret, if not remorse, at opportunities wasted: "Tired of the city life ... I'm waking up to find the curtains falling down."

Yeah, snake eyes on the paradise and hard times at the wishing well and the revolution is in 4/4 time. April Sun in Cuba was the second single lifted off Running Free and is a definite contender for the greatest pop song of the 70s. Written by Hewson and Marc Hunter, it should have been a worldwide smash: instead it had to settle for Australasian classic status, the summer theme of 1977-78. In Australia it stayed at No 2 for three weeks, unable to topple Paul McCartney's Mull of Kintyre, while back home in New Zealand it provided Dragon with their first-ever chart entry (number nine in March 78).

* Paul Hewson died in 1985, Marc Hunter in 1998

Downes: "It opens with the second riff that every guitarist in the country probably learns. Nothing original in that, it's the same chords as Pinball Wizard, just a different rhythm. Where would we be without those chords? But there's a lovely shift in the chorus which is unexpected. The opening verse has such a wonderful big melodic arch, it's as cool as the chorus in its own way.

"The lyrics? Most people like escapism in one description or another, let's face it we all watch the holiday programmes on television. We're slogging our guts out when we want to be doing what Petra and that other guy do. So it's the same thing in a song. When you are sitting on the factory floor and the radio's blaring and that comes on, you're right there."

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We are giving away 10 copies of Apra's commemorative album, which features the top 30 New Zealand songs of all time. And it's your chance to have a say about what the judges might have missed.

The specially minted double CD is a collector's item - it's not yet available to the public. As well as the top 10 featured on these pages, the double CD includes I Got You, Whaling, Not Given Lightly, Pink Frost, Jesus I Was Evil, Weather With You, Blue Smoke, Dance All Around the World, Lydia, Blue Lady, Drive, Bic Runga, Chains, Dominion Rd, Glad I'm Not a Kennedy, I Hope I Never, Tears, Be Mine Tonight, I See Red, Beside You and Home Again. What we want you to do is pen not more than 200 words in appreciation of a song not on the list. We'll publish the best entry and, as well as the album, the overall winner will receive double tickets to next year's Apra awards dinner.

To enter, e-mail us at Features with NZ song contest in the subject line. Or post your entry to us at NZ song contest, TimeOut, Features Department, PO Box 3290, Auckland 1. Entries close Thursday, November 8.

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