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?