Aspects of a downhill slide

I came across Wikipedia’s list of songs that have been in the #1 spot in the New Zealand pop charts for over eight weeks continuously. These are the songs that everyone loved and loved so much that they just kept buying them more and more and playing them more and more.

Figuring this says something about New Zealand, I went to YouTube and listened to all the songs. These are my scientific findings.

Dawn featuring Tony Orlando – “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree“, 1973. (10 weeks)
There’s something magical ’bout “Ribbon”. On the surface it sounds like a novelty song, with its oompah beat and simple lyrics. But then there’s a killer melody lurking, and the emotional depths of an ex-con who finds his woman still loves him. I can’t help but love it, and shall tie a yellow ribbon around my ole MP3 player.

Pussycat – “Mississippi“, 1976. (10 weeks)
Where did this song come from? And where did it go? Pussycat were a Dutch girl group, and “Mississippi” was their lament to the popularity of rock over country music. It has that not-quite-America feeling to it, largely due to the Eastern European guitar flourishes. This song seems like a case of pop actually eating itself – a sweet country pop farewelled country music, and then was swallowed whole by punk. Or was it?

Boney M. – “Rivers of Babylon“, 1978. (14 weeks)
“Rivers of Babylon” was originally written by reggae band The Melodians, with the lyrics almost straight from Psalms 137. Boney M’s version took the rough, glorious Jamaican original and added some European glamour and disco cool, turning it into a cheerful pop hit. Its 14-week run also makes it the single with the longest run at #1 (that’s three and a half months). This tune helped reggae cross over and made it an Aotearoan favourite. Without the success of “Rivers of Babylon”, there would be no barbecue dub today.

All Of Us – “Sailing Away“, 1986. (9 weeks)
It’s eight years before another song has a long run at number one, and this time it’s a New Zealand song. But does it have to be “Sailing Away”? This was New Zealand’s attempt at a “We Are the World” style group song. But rather than being in aid of or protesting apartheid, it was virtually an ad to get the general public to support the New Zealand boat in the America’s Cup. The song was a who’s who of New Zealand singers, many of whom are better known as ad jingle singers. Also, those guys from Satellite Spies – whose idea was it get them on board? New Zealand lost, both the Louis Vuitton Cup and musically.

Whitney Houston – “I Will Always Love You“, 1992-1993. (11 weeks)
Hey, Pussycat! Country didn’t die – it was reworked into soul. Dolly Parton‘s ’70s ballad became a powerhouse tune for a pre-crack Whitney Houston to belt out on the soundtrack of “The Bodyguard”. I can’t quite understand why this song was so popular – it’s like a sticky caramel – once is ok, but more than that in one sitting becomes rather unpleasant.

UB40 – “Can’t Help Falling in Love“, 1993. (10 weeks)
Ok, so it’s a cover version (tick), of an Elvis song (tick), in a reggae style (tick), by UB40 (tick) – it’s almost a perfect New Zealand number one song. The video is particularly hilarious, with UB40’s cheery performance cut with scenes from the Sharon Stone shithouse thriller “Sliver”. What was it about the early ’90s that required such massive declarations of love in pop form? (Meanwhile, down the other end of the charts, grunge was getting all up in your face.)

Avril Lavigne – “Complicated“, 2002. (9 weeks)
Hey, Pussycat II! Country didn’t die – it was cleverly disguised as skater punk. I mean, sk8r punk, man. Take the cute teen girl, iron her hair, give her some eyeliner and proto-emo jeans and everyone will be so distracted with her California skater chick look that they’ll overlook the fact that she is singing a bloody country song. The big love of the early ’90s had changed its Facebook status to “It’s complicated”.

Smashproof featuring Gin Wigmore – “Brother“, 2009. (11 weeks)
Finally. It’s a New Zealand song that enjoyed a long run at number one and it’s a really good song. Based on smooth strings, reminiscent of “Unfinished Sympathy“, the song examines the reality of growing up in South Auckland. It took 23 years for “Sailing Away” to lose its top spot, but when it finally happened, its arse was kicked.

Lady Gaga – “Poker Face“, 2008-2009. (10 weeks)
“Poker Face” sounds a bit like ’80s synth pop and a bit like ’90s Euro dance pop, but a song sounding like this would never ever have topped the charts in those decades. There’s a bit of the ol’ Tony Orlando magic there – the elements of a potentially naff song, but something wondrous that pulls it all together into a perfect pop song about poker and/or sex.

Black Eyed Peas – “I Gotta Feeling“, 2009. (9 weeks)
I used to work with a guy who’d sit at his desk, headphones on, singing “Tonight’s gonna be a good night,” over and over. I didn’t know the song, but I imagined that line was a small part of the whole. It turns out that line is pretty much the entire song, an ode to the early, hopeful, exciting part of the evening, when your make-up still looks good and you’re not sitting on the staircase crying into your twelfth wine.

Stan Walker – “Black Box“, 2009-2010. (10 weeks)
Stan’s the 2009 winner of Australian Idol, and this is the winner’s song. Insert pop idol here. It’s a perfectly fine pop song, one that has benefitted from the accompanying TV show to boost its popularity. Curiously enough, “Black Box” only ever made it to #2 in the Australian charts. Stan did better in his homeland, making the efforts of TrueBliss and the NZ Idol winners pale in comparison.

The pop charts of Tony Orlando’s day are very different to the charts of Stan Walker’s time. It’s a careful blend of physical music sales, digital sales and radio play. But it makes me wonder – in 35 years time, will Stan Walker (or indeed Lady Gaga) be as well known still as Boney M, or as delightfully obscure as Pussycat?

Further reading
John-Paul at Man of Errors has a splendid series looking at the New Zealand number one songs in 1973, including “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree“.

14 thoughts on “Aspects of a downhill slide”

  1. Yesterday, on the way to the gym at about 8:40am, a car stopped at the lights alongside me – a rather boy racer looking car but I’m old so who knows – with it’s music blaring. It took me a few seconds but then I worked out that the blaring music was Black Box.
    A: I wasn’t aware that anyone actually liked that song (until now) and B: really? that loud???

  2. It’s interesting that the frequency of these long-term number ones seems to be increasing, with four in the past year. No doubt that says something important about the way popular music is being marketed, though blowed if I can work out what. I can remember ‘MacArthur Park’ being on Top of the Pops for what seemed like blinking well forever in the 70s. Horrible, horrible stuff.

    1. Someone left the cake out in the rain…

      My memory is of “Blue Monday” being number one for about a MILLION YEARS in 1982, but it never actually made it to number one back then.

  3. I’m wondering how long Thriller was at No. 1 – I’m sure i remember it being there for-ev-a…

    1. Whoa – according to WIkipedia’s NZ chart listings, “Thriller” never made it to number one! “Beat It” was #1 for five weeks in 1984, but that appears to be the only single off “Thriller” that reached the top spot. See for yourself – <a href=""1983, href=”” rel=”nofollow”>1984.

      Of course, it could easily have been #2, and the video would have been all over RTR, making extra sure it stuck in our memories.

  4. I reckon that these newer tracks will definitely hold some sort of recognition. Maybe not so much to us, but at least to the younger generation who are spending their money on these songs. Stan Walker might be a fleeting moment on the NZ music landscape but the fact is that he had a number one single for 10 consecutive weeks, which is almost as much as Smashproof managed to do last year. Just the fact it’s a successful local release means that it will probably be remembered for a lot longer than we would care to think about it. Walker also benefited from having the number one song over Christmas, New Years and part of January, which is generally a quiet time for new releases, so there was a lack of competition. This probably worked in his favour but he’s still in the record books and it wouldn’t surprise me if his name is brought up years from now.

    1. You know what’s really interesting about the charts? In the ’70s and ’80s, songs would be number one for long stretches at a time. Then in the ’90s, I think the reporting of music sales was changed to be more accurate and the charts changed. Songs would pop into #1 for a week or two then go away. But now we’re starting to see the return of the longer spells at #1. What’s changed? Is it the rise of the digital single and easy of online purchasing?

  5. It’s my understanding that until the early 80s, the charts were determined in large part by (whole)sales to record shops, rather than retail sales. So when Roy Montgomery in the Chch EMI shop ordered 5 million copies of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, it went immediately to No.1, surprising everyone in the whole world. The system was subsequently changed, probably at about the same time all the unsold copies were returned to the warehouse. (Of course all this is apocryphal and may be entirely lacking in factual accuracy. Some vinyl-y trainspotter will know for sure.)

    1. Looking at the #1 charts in ’81, there’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” popping in for one week, followed by the abomination that is “Stars on 45” hanging around for seven weeks. But “Stars” satanic reign was ended by another Joy Division song – “Atmosphere”, which is apparently the only country where it got to #1. Bloody New Zealand gothica.

  6. I can’t say much about the old days but as it stands the certifications on the albums chart are still based on wholesale numbers. Still, what sells the most in a week will make it to number one but there are a few discrepancies that have popped up lately. Usually, it’s a case of record companies shipping more than they need to or what they think will eventually sell. That means that if a album is number two and its certification shows up as being ‘gold’ then it hasn’t necessarily gone gold but it still sold the second highest amount of albums in the country that week. In NZ gold sales are 7,500 but there have been plenty of times where an album might show a gold certification or even a platinum one and the album hasn’t even reached near those sales. It’s a pretty out of date system.

    There are a few people around with some great stories about cheating the system back in the day but restrictions are a lot tighter now. I still think that there are a few things that need to be changed, but we’re getting there.

  7. As Cheryl noted, the long-running #1 has become a (relatively) common occurence these days. Certainly more so than in the ’80s or ’90s. There are a few different reasons for that but the main one is the fact that digital stock never runs out. iTunes (and co) will continue to sell a tune until nobody wants it anymore… whereas in the old days stores regularly ran out of stock, especially on ‘surprise’ hits that the label may only ever have pressed a limited number of copies of… once that original stock was gone, the song disappeared off the chart.

    Similarly record labels would consciously ‘delete’ a single (or at least stop selling new copies to stores) even if it was selling well if they thought there was a stratgic benefit for them. ie. encouraging buyers who can’t find a copy of last week’s big hit to instead buy the album. Or the artist’s follow-up single.

    Doesn’t happen anymore. The moment an album is released digitally it’s effectively like releasing 14 singles simultaneously. Record labels may market one song over the others, and 99% of the time the public heard will go wherever radio play and TV exposure lures it, but unlike the old days, the labels have no control over which track(s) off an album will necessarily chart, when, or for how long.

  8. I recall ‘Uptown Girl’ Billy Joel; ‘Karma Chameleon’ Culture Club; ‘Westend Girls’ Pet Shop Boys; ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ Cyndi Lauper being number one for multiple weeks on Ready To Roll. I don’t know if that was the official chart, but we sure heard/saw those songs a lot at the end of the show.

    A couple of years ago one of my teenaged guitar students requested ‘Mississippi’. As we listened to it, it rang a bell. He said his Nan loved it. We worked out the guitar parts and the student was happy.

    I loved ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree’, which was on a compilation record my parents had. Randomly one night on National Radio I heard a jazz guitar version of it, and decided to use that song (great melody, chord progression) for my audition to jazz school. The tutors asked, “Why did you pick this song?” Then they turned me down for a place on the course until the following year. To this day I’ve never come across the jazz guitar version I thought I heard on National Radio that night.

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