1983 and the synths that hurt so good

It’s August 2016 and at the moment everyone is obsessed with the Stranger Things, and its evocative take on 1983. The series is full of moody electronic tunes and a few rock hits of the era and it seems to be a show that has people rooting out their favourite tunes of that time. So of course I had to do the same thing.

My criteria:

  • Only songs that charted in New Zealand in 1983.
  • Only songs that I passionately liked in 1983 (I was eight, ha ha ha)
  • No songs that I didn’t like in ’83 but I do now.
  • And no iconic “Now that’s what I call 1983!” hits.

So that rules out “Blue Monday”, which I loathed at the time — I couldn’t understand why such a boring song was so ridiculously popular. It also rules out tunes like “The Message”, “Let’s Dance”, “1999”, “It’s Raining Men” and “Karma Chameleon”.

There were other tunes that I wanted to include but they weren’t on Spotify, and other songs that I had to exclude because Spotify only had the long album version of the song. (Srsly, 6:29 of “Pulsing” is just ridiculous.)

And some observations about the pop of 1983:

  • Synths were everywhere, showing up in the weirdest places.
  • Songs took ages to get going, with meandering introductions (maybe for radio DJs to talk over).
  • And fade-out endings were popular, as if everyone suddenly forgot how to definitively conclude a song.

And for some perspective, here is the top 20 from 4 September 1993, just to demonstrate the broader spectrum of pop hits of the era, in all its awkwardness.

Anyway, here is my playlist and reasons why.

1983: Get those nice things

1. “Bop Girl” – Pat Wilson
“Bop Girl” was a quirky one-hit wonder for the Australian music journalist and singer Pat Wilson. It was one of those songs that showed up being all “notice me!” then went away. The music video, directed by Gillian Armstrong, is notable for being the debut of Nicole Kidman, a curly-haired cool 15-year-old.

2. “Rock the Casbah” – The Clash
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” featured in Stranger Things, I figured “Rock the Casbah” ought to make an appearance. In this remastered version, at 1:51 there’s an electronic sound that sounds like a ’90s cellphone ringtone.

3. “Promises, Promises” – Naked Eyes
I am only including Naked Eyes because for about two weeks in 1983 I had an all-consuming crush on the lead singer. Cheekbones and beady eyes were my thing back then? Oh, and it’s a quite a good song.

4. “Too Shy” – Kajagoogoo
This all seemed so mysterious. A band with a strange name. A singer with a strange name who was a boy and a girl. Lyrics that didn’t quite make sense. That’s what good pop is.

5. “I Eat Cannibals” – Toto Coelo
Like I said, I was eight in 1983. Obviously a dumb-arse super catchy song like this was going to have huge appeal.

6. “Rockit” – Herbie Hancock
Suddenly “Rockit” shows up and nothing is the same. Electronic sounds, turntablism, and Mr Hancock’s jazz background. Even 33 years on, a song like this still sounds alien and edgy.

7. “Buffalo Gals” – Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team
This is probably the first rap song I’d heard. It’s filthy old Malcolm McLaren doing his thing, but it was still introducing brand new sounds and concepts to the pop charts. Also – Trevor Horn pretty much wrote this song!

8. “Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)” – Wham!
Or was this the first rap song I heard? I love that George Michael basically penned an ode to the joys of being on the dole, including the best opening couplet ever: “Hey, everybody take a look at me!/I’ve got street credibility!”

9. “Love On Your Side” – Thompson Twins
I’m kind of including this because I wanted more New Zealand artist and the Thompson Twins were one-third Kiwi. Les Twins had a super pop sensibility and were

10. “Say Say Say” – Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson
It sounds like a Paul McCartney song mashed up with a Michael Jackson song, which I guess essentially it is. I love the massive synth sting at 2:00, another example of how electronica was invading all genres of music.

11. “Send Me an Angel” – Real Life
Every aspect of this song is just ridiculous, but especially ridic is those big doofy synths that seem to be used whenever theres a lull. Real Life were Australian, but the song only reached No.1 in New Zealand and West Germany. Also:


12. “Der Kommissar” – Falco
Falco is the only good musician to come out of Vienna, and that includes Mozart. There was also an English version of “Det Kommissar” in the charts, but it was rubbish and Falco’s original can only be considered die wahre Kunst.

13. “Sierra Leone” – Coconut Rough
Oh look! A fierce New Zealand synthpop song that doesn’t wank on for seven minutes. The song is total fantasy – Sierra Leone is rain forests and savannah, not deserts. And Leone is a two-syllable word.

14. “Love is a Battlefield” – Pat Benatar
This song is flawless. As well as P. Benatar’s snarl and swagger, the song has such a  tight, clean production, giving her a solid foundation to emote over. And the song’s message: love is a battlefield! What a thrilling concept to grapple with.

15. “Muscles” – Diana Ross
I’ve just discovered that Michael Jackson wrote this song. That explains it. That explains all of it.

16. “Every Day I Write the Book” – Elvis Costello
This was the first song I chose, deciding that it had to be the closing track. It just has that romantic, hopeful, cinematic feeling that is the best thing. It’s quite weird coming straight after “Muscles”, but I’ve spent too long mucking around with track order. It stands.

Until the Last Goodbye: 2015 in New Zealand pop

Last year I did a summary of New Zealand pop and I noted that it had been a slow year. This year it’s even slower.

In 2014, 23 songs by New Zealand artists charted; in 2015 only 15 did. And that’s in an X Factor year. But the chart has been slower in general, due to streaming data now helping determine the charts. So songs stick around for longer – if a song is popular on Spotify, it’ll still chart.

But somehow songs by New Zealand artists usually aren’t popular streaming choices. Of the top 100 tracks listened to by New Zealand users of Spotify in 2015, only four were by New Zealand artists, and of those, three were by Six60 (the other was Savage). I have a few theories as to why this is happening.

  1. We speak English so we can happily listen to music from other English-speaking countries, without the need for a local music industry making music in our native tongue. And it means that local English-language pop is up against the best from the UK, America and Sweden.
  2. New Zealanders have a weird attitude towards pop, the national equivalent of a teen who has started wearing black and declaring that they only listen to “real” music by “real” artists who play “real” instruments.
  3. 15 years ago, “supporting New Zealand music” meant buying physical recordings. But now, once all the friends/fans/family buy the mp3, a song needs to be genuinely popular for it to make an long-term impact on the chart. That’s hard to do if the song isn’t a keeper.
  4. It’s hard to get behind amazing pop from New Zealand artists when there just isn’t a lot out there.

But there were still some good tunes released in 2015. Here are 10 in some sort of order.

Disclaimer: If you haven’t listened to chart pop since the ’90s or whenever, you will probably not enjoy anything on this list and should probably just go off and listen to your Smashing Pumpkins compact disc.

Disclosure feat. Lorde “Magnets”

Praise the Lorde. No matter what else New Zealand artists release, we still have Lorde to come along and make everything ok. “Magnets” was a cool and saucy piece of electropop, in collaboration with UK production duo Disclosure. The video has just as much effort put into it, imagining Lorde as a sci-fi SoCal seductress hitwoman. The musical equivalent of #redpeak.

Avalanche City “Inside Out”

This was the only New Zealand song to reach No.1 this year, following one-man-band Avalanche City’s previous chart topper, the cheerful “Love Love Love” in 2011. “Inside Out” is bleak, the heartbreaking tale of a broken relationship, and it seems perfectly attuned for the “crying into a glass of Chardonnay” demographic.

MAALA “Touch”

For ages MAALA’s record company wasn’t saying anything about him, letting his music speak for him, etc. Then finally his true identity was revealed – Evan Sinton. Wait, who? Why was his name obscured? Oh, because he was a contestant on series two of New Zealand’s Got Talent which is approximately the least cool thing ever. As MAALA, Mr Sinton got to reinvent himself with some cool indie electro pop styles, far removed from his crazed NZGT fans and reality TV haters.

Gin Wigmore “New Rush”

2015 was the year of Wigmore dropping the twee folksy pop of previous years and fully embracing her tattooed, pierced, punk-arse style. “New Rush” was noisy and obnoxious and her live performance of the song on The X Factor was one of the few bright moments on that train wreck of a series. The “New Rush” video is very slow-mo Hunger Games.

Jackie Thomas “Until the Last Goodbye”

From what I can tell, Jackie’s new single was delayed to coincide with the second series of The X Factor. But a lot of the heat around her had cooled since 2013, and most Jackie fans would have been happiest if she’d just sang “Skinny Love” again. Instead she had “Until the Last Goodbye”, a sterling piece of Nordic pop, with plenty of that dad-pleasing Lana Del Rey style that saw Jackie win series one. But it didn’t work. She went on a national radio tour, performed it live on The X Factor and did loads of other promo, but the song just didn’t stick. *sadface*

Ginny Blackmore “Under My Feet”

I was going to include Ginny Blackmore’s “Love Me Anyway”, but it throws in an old-style-Eurovision key change and I cannot be seen to condone that sort of behaviour. Instead here’s “Under My Feet”. Blackmore is a good songwriter and a good singer, but a less convincing pop star. But nonetheless, “Under My Feet” is a really enjoyable piece of diva pop.

Beau Monga “King and Queen”

Despite the general awfulness of series two of The X Factor, the winner’s single most unexpectedly ended up being an original composition and one featuring lots of beatboxing. It reached No.2 in the charts, 26 years after Double J and Twice the T’s beatbox heavy song “She’s a Mod/Mod Rap” also charted at No.2. Tbh, I don’t really enjoy beatboxing (ugh, mouth noises), but other people do and this song deserves a mention.

Stan Walker feat. Samantha Jade “Start Again”

In theory, this song seems like it should have been a hit – Stan Walker singing the theme song of a hugely popular dance movie feat. Parris Goebel. But what was it up against in the chart? Really cool stuff like “I Can’t Feel My Face”“Lean On” and “Where Are Ü Now”. Stuff that makes “Start Again” sound so 2013. It had woah-oh-ohs when it should have had heys.

#KiwisCureBatten “Team Ball Player Thing”

How does streaming (or lack thereof) affect the modern charity single? Compare and contrast with the Flight of the Conchords’ 2012 charity single “Feel Inside”. It debuted at No.1 and spent 12 weeks in the charts on sales alone. Whereas “Team Ball” was released in the wild, uncertain world where streaming data contributes to the charts. It debuted at No.2, then quickly dropped to 33 and disappeared entirely the next week. Arguably the song wasn’t as strong as the 2012 single (essentially the same comedy format rehashed), but it wasn’t bad. Just not the sort of song that can even come close to standing up against Bieber and Goulding with streaming.

Six60 “White Lines”

2015 belonged to Six60, so I have to include them. “White Lines” is like a New Zealand version of “Semi-Charmed Life”, a song about taking drugs which matches the manic energy of the drug in question, making its upbeat groove hugely appealing to listeners. Just like cheap speed. Or it can also not be about drugs and just be about getting high on life because New Zealand. It was a double-platinum hit for Six60. And check out the video: made from fan-submitted clips, it shows dozens of New Zealanders hamming to the camera as they get down to their favourite song by their favourite band and it doesn’t even matter what the song is about. A band like this – with their charming, old-fashioned undergrad reggae-pop – can only be huge in New Zealand, but they are properly huge.

Worst New Zealand pop moment of 2015

Before Rachel Platten’s original version of “Fight Song” had even been released in New Zealand, The X Factor final 12 covered it for charity. Despite the individual talents of the contestants, it sounded more like a group rehearsal exercise than a cohesive performance. And then bloody Brendon Thomas jizzed a guitar solo all over it, like it was the 1980s and/or Albania. The X Factor‘s version disappeared from the top 40 after two weeks, while Rachel Platten’s version (sans guitar solo) quickly shot up the charts and became one of the biggest songs of the year. The X Factor version of “Fight Song” symbolises everything that was wrong with series two, post Kills/Moon.

What I actually listened to in 2015

The end of the year is when music critics release their best-of lists, but these lists always seem too neat, too curated. I thought instead it would be super masochistic if I presented the top 10 songs that I’ve actually been listening to on Spotify this year. Guys, I feel very vulnerable right now.

1. “Hey Mama” – David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha and Afrojack

I was on an island watching a French music video channel and they kept playing this song. I love how it feels like it’s assembled from parts, that everyone contributed bits and pieces via Dropbox. Bebe Rexha wasn’t original credited, which is crazy because she sings the best part of the song.

2. “Girl From Sweden” – Eric Saade

I can explain (can I?). Saade is a Swedish pop star and this song wasn’t even a hit in Sweden. But one day I was listening to it on Spotify and decided that the instrumental of the song was dope and I stuck it on repeat and listened to it enough to be my second most listened to track of 2015. FML. The video is fun, at least.

3. “Lush Life” – Zara Larsson

More Swedish pop, this time from Zara Larrson who currently has a legit international hit with “Never Forget You”. “Lush Life” was a massive summer hit in north-west Europe. It is such a tune. If there was any pop justice in the world, it would be a summer hit in New Zealand, but I’ve given up wishing for stuff like that.

4. “Saxofuckingfon” – Samir & Viktor

Sigh. Maybe my excuse is that as I’m learning Swedish, it’s good to have simple lyrics i svenska that I can listen to and understand. Or maybe it’s just fun to listen to novelty pop by a fashion blogger and a reality TV star. Or maybe it’s the thrill of a song with the F-word in it that doesn’t get bleeped and even ends up on compilation albums of songs 4 kidz because Sweden doesn’t care about English swears.

5. “Cool for the Summer” – Demi Lovato

Demi’s ode to summer holiday lady love was co-written by Max Martin, who writes all the good songs. Btw, do you read my weekly Tumblr post Max Martin NZ Chart Watch? If you like over analysis and/or under analysis of chart pop, you’ll love it! Every time I think I’m getting sick of this song I listen again and am reminded of how cool it is.

6. “Froot” – Marina and the Diamonds

This was the first track I put on my Spotify playlist 2015 aka Hot Jamz, so I ended up listening to it quite a lot. Marina uses plenty of fruity sexual innuendo and then throws in her own stuff. And that melody in the chorus though. That’s quite good.

7. “You and I Alone” – Daphne & Celeste

When this song came out, a lot of people alerted me to its existence. I was never into D&C in the ’90s, but I’m happy to pick up where they left off. The song was written and produced by alt pop producer Max Tundra. Best thing – all the confused comments at the Guardian from guys whose logic circuits was nearing meltdown at the thought of a cool producer working with naff ’90s novelty pop girls.

8. “Meet Me Downtown Tonight” – Magnus Carlsson

The video is for the original Swedish version, “Möt mig i Gamla Stan”. This song is schlager, that particular kind of European pop that sounds super cheesy if you’ve been raised on New Zealand chart pop. But somehow something flipped it in my head and I dig it. The song is basically “bb, meet me in the Old Town because I want u”. Jag älskar det.

9. “Elastic Heart”

At the beginning of the year, I did not especially like Sia (I thought she was shouty) but now she’s ok. She writes good songs! The video is great – Shia LaBeouf and Maddie Ziegler do the dirty leotard dance of destiny. They both represent different aspects of Sia’s personality.

10. “Earned It” – The Weeknd

Even though 50 Shades of Grey is one of the worst films ever made (with its shitty fan fic roots painfully evident), it had a really good soundtrack. “Earned It” wasn’t even The Weeknd’s biggest song of 2015. I’ve used the lyric video because the official video is a bit rude, but you can watch it here. Meanwhile in Romania…

11. “2 On” – Tinashe featuring SchoolBoy Q

I’m adding an eleventh track because I want at least one cooldude song. This is from 2014, but I listened to it a lot this year. The song is about smoking marijuana. Tinashe has even explained the song lyrics on Genius.

Here’s my full list of the tracks I listened to the most. I feel like I need to explain the presence of “Sex Show” the 2001 album track by the Feelers.

I was looking up something for 5000 Ways when I saw there was a song called “Sex Show”. And after listening, I realised it was essentially a New Zealand response of Nsync’s “Digital Get Down”, an artefact of the awkward relationship that people had with digital hook-ups in the early 2000s. And it has quite catchy chorus. I eventually started listening to it a lot in private mode, but the damage was done.

The palm trees in the “Uptown Funk” video

At the moment “Uptown Funk” is the number one single in New Zealand and various territories around the world. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ infectious pop-funk song is a bona fide international mega hit. But right now I’m obsessed with the palm trees in the music video.

The video sees singer Bruno, producer Mark and their posse hanging out in a New York-ish but nonspecific “uptown” street. It’s all very neat and cinematic, but it’s clearly a film studio backlot.

That in itself isn’t so remarkable, but later in the video things get interesting. Palm trees can be seen in the background, something that doesn’t fit with the New York-ish buildings. And it’s not one accidental shot – they’re in a lot of scenes.

Uptown Funk palm trees

So there’s obviously no attempt to pretend this is real uptown Manhattan. It’s more like a fantasy world where suddenly stretch limos are cool and not transport for drunk teens. The uptown of the “Uptown Funk” video is like how you imagine New York to be when you’re 12. And the presence of palm trees makes perfect sense because they have palm trees in America and New York is in America, right?

“Uptown Funk” is going to be one of those songs that gets on the playlist of popular bars and wedding DJs, the sort of song that fills the dance floor and who cares what trees are in the video. But right now I just want to have a little moment of obsession with the palm trees in the “Uptown Funk” video and endow them with more symbolism that they were ever intended to have.

Letting live and letting die

On New Year’s Eve, Kanye West released a new single “Only One”, which was also a collaboration with Paul McCartney. This was followed by a few tweets from people joking about how Kanye was a great talent spotter and surely the collaboration would mean great things for this Paul McCartney chap. And then that in turn was followed by outrage from others, highly bothered that the youth of today did not know who Paul McCartney was.

I saw a news report where a reporter asked various teens if they’d heard of Paul McCartney and most of them hadn’t, though the name was vaguely familiar to a few. And it got me thinking. How crazy is it for a teen of 2015 to have not heard of Paul McCartney?

It made me wonder if the teen Beatles fans of 1965 were berated for not knowing the music hall legends of 1915. It’s not quite an equal comparison, because in 1915 – right in the midst of World War I – recorded music wasn’t the thing it was today. Gramophones were still a luxury item and popular radio was about a decade away from starting. People experienced music through music hall shows and home performances using sheet music. There were music hall stars, but in a way, the song composers were better known.

It’s only been since the advent of the recorded music industry in the mid 20th century that the fetishisation of pop stars has started. That leads to Paul McCartney, a man who has been working in the music biz for over 50 years.

Is it reasonable for a teen of today to not know who he is? The Beatles had a huge, excited teen following in the 1960s, but who goes to Paul McCartney concerts now? Other old people. Teens are off see One Direction or Taylor Swift shows. Meanwhile, Macca is off jamming with Dave Grohl and making music for other rock dudes. But maybe some lucky teen might get taken to a Paul McCartney show by their grandparents.

Paul McCartney doesn’t court teen audiences anymore, so why should teens know who he is? Is it the duty of parents and teachers to teach kids about popular music of the 20th century? And if so, how much would that suck the life out of pop?

When I was a kid, Paul McCartney was the guy who sang “Say Say Say” with Michael Jackson. I didn’t start to explore the Beatles until I was about 19, when I could relate to it on my own terms, not via the lens of the previous generation.

I read once that people get angry about things that remind them they’re going to die. Maybe this is one of those situations. Paul McCartney isn’t a floppy-haired teen idol anymore. He’s not even an earnest rock dad singing songs about picturesque Scottish peninsulas. He’s a grandfather with dyed hair, but one who can still write good songs and entertain his fans. Teens don’t know who Paul McCartney is; you’re old, you’re going to die.

There are still going to be teens out there who listen to the Beatles and Wings (especially the super fun ones who declare that all modern music is rubbish), but it’s not unreasonable for a teen to not be familiar with old music.

Unless this whole shemozzle is an elaborate stunt orchestrated by Kanye West. In which case, well done.

Make yiz mine: 2014 in New Zealand pop

It’s the end of 2014 and there are year-in-review lists galore, but I haven’t been able to find one that’s looking at the year in New Zealand pop music. So I have taken it upon myself to produce such a list. There’s more to New Zealand pop than Lorde, you know (but not much more).

First, it has to be noted that 2014 wasn’t an especially great year for New Zealand pop. It’s one of those quiet years where not many New Zealand tracks end up in the charts, but not every year can be as almighty as 2004 was. I was going to make a top 10, but I couldn’t even come up with 10 worthy songs, so instead here’s the golden eight, in some sort of order.

Benny Tipene “Step On Up”

Thank eff for B. Tipene. He also had success with two other singles in 2014 – “Make You Mine” and “Lonely”, but it’s the aggro-folk sound of “Step On Up” that gets him on this list. B-Tipz is like the ideal X Factor contestant: not burdened with winning, and with enough talent and experience that he can immediately start writing, recording and touring without having to first learn the ropes doing gigs at community fun days.

David Dallas feat. Ruby Frost “The Wire”

This is the opening track of David Dallas’ album Falling Into Place and it’s a hearty dose of sonic coolness. Ruby Frost manages to sweep clear her pink-haired X Factor judging niceness, while Ddot gives the best hip hop vocals of the year (lol). The ending is a bit anticlimactic, but the rest of the song is quality.

Broods “Bridges”

Broods specialise in bittersweet electro-pop, and also had success in 2014 with “Mother & Father”. They brother-sister duo work with Joel Little, who is best known as the lead singer of ’00s teen pop-punk band Goodnight Nurse (and he also won a Grammy for “Royals”) so there’s his skilful minimalist electro sound mixed with Georgia Nott’s delicate vocals. And the brother does something as well.

Lorde “Yellow Flicker Beat”

I feel like I’m cheating putting this in the list, like somehow Lorde doesn’t count as a New Zealand artist because… nah, I got nothing. “Yellow Flicker Beat” might have the kind of drama, attitude and sophistication that you don’t normally get around these parts, but it is still coming straight outta Devonport. It feels like the next step between Pure Heroine-era Lorde and whatever form her next album will take. Like, it’s really good, but the thrill comes from knowing that even better things will come. No pressure.

Stan Walker feat. Ria Hall, Troy Kingi & Maisey Rika “Aotearoa”

The X Factor is all through this list. I take great comfort in series judge Stan Walker. In a patchy year, Stan is still there with two quality songs. “Aotearoa” was released for Maori Language Week, cruelly kept from the No.1 spot by the Madden Brothers. It’s a wonderfully upbeat song, and the video will be emotional catnip for homesick expats for years to come.

Six60 “Special”

This is the power of Six60 – “Special” debuted at number one, has not yet left the top 10, is the 10th highest selling New Zealand single of 2014 and the music video hasn’t even been released. Forget Moorhouse or Titanium – if you’re looking for the New Zealand equivalent of One Direction, it’s Six60. Five good looking lads conveniently disguised as a laid-back roots band. It’s the only way a boyband could be accepted in New Zealand.

Ginny Blackmore & Stan Walker “Holding You”

Stan and Ginny met on the set of The X Factor – she a guest performer, he a judge. They combined forces, wrote a song and created a mighty pop ballad. “Holding You” has a comfortingly old fashioned sound, and it’s only the restrained production style that outs it as a release from 2014. By the way, the video is pleasingly nuts and might even be referencing the Bush/Gabriel hugfest of the “Don’t Give Up” vid 28 years prior.

Timmy Trumpet & Savage “Freaks”

10 years ago, Savage was a popular rapper in his own right. After a few quiet years, he suddenly made a comeback via a remix of “Swing” by Australian producer Joel Fletcher, charting at No.2 in Australia. So with his vocals on “Freaks” by Timmy Trumpet (another Australian producer), Savage seems to have found a new niche as an Australasian Lil Jon, shouting exuberant vocals (“The mighty trumpet!”) over dance tracks. The pro-trumpet propaganda anthem charted at No.1 for five weeks and was the best-selling single by a New Zealand artist in 2014, but as it’s a modern producer-led track, Savage only features on the verses, with the chorus role filled by Mr Trumpet’s digital trumpet. It brings to mind the line from “Swing”: I heard somebody yell ‘Savage, where the chorus at?’ Where indeed, Savage. New Zealand pop single of the year? This is what 2014 has given us.

And here’s a Spotify playlist with the eight tracks, plus a few extras from B-Tipz and Broods.

Serious moonlight

I came across a short video with highlights from the 1990 New Zealand Music Awards. There were three nominees in the Top Album category. The first was Straitjacket Fits’ second album, Melt, which perfectly captured the band’s tense combination of noisy and gentle pop-rock. The second nominee was the Chills’ popular album, Submarine Bells, with a diverse track list kicked off by the magnificent “Heavenly Pop Hit”. The third nominee was… Moonlight Sax.

Oh, that’s right. Moonlight Sax used to be a thing. Performed by saxman Brian Smith, it was an album of easy listening saxophone covers of pop classics. Songs to get the Moonlight Sax treatment included “Just the Way You Are”, the Moonlighting theme and “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Are you feelin’ it? Yeah.

The album was released right at the tail end of the trend for the sax in popular music (as previously examined here), but that didn’t make a difference. It was a successful popular album. Not only did it peak at number one in the chart, it was certified platinum. (Bri’s website has a pic of the platinum award, based around a framed CD).

Moonlight Sax followed Carl Doy’s similarly mega successful Piano By Candlelight series of the late ’80s, which established a hungry market for easy listening instrumental CDs. And it’s very important that these were CDs – not LPs or tapes. Fully embracing the fancy new format, letting the sax notes ring soft and clear. Moonlight Sax was followed by Moonlight Sax 2 in 1991, and the Moonlight Sax Collection in 1993.

If cafes had been a thing in New Zealand in 1990, I’m sure Moonlight Sax would have been the ubiquitous cafe soundtrack. Instead I like to think that no dinner party of 1990 could have taken place without the hostess popping the Moonlight Sax CD into the family compact disc player.

There were others in the genre. In 1996, the instrumental albums Beautiful Panflute 1 (there was no sequel) by Max Lines and Romantic Strings by the Starlight String Quartet were both nominated for best album, losing to Shihad’s perfectly named Killjoy, but neither of those album had the impact of Moonlight Sax. Since then, easy listening instrumental albums have been absent from the Tuis.

It’s easy to think of Moonlight Sax as a remnant of the ’90s that would never survive today. But the nominees for Album of the Year at the 2014 New Zealand Music Awards tell a different story. Amid the cool girls of Tiny Ruins, Lorde, The Naked and Famous, and Ladi6, there’s also the trio Sole Mio and their nominated debut album SOL3 MIO. That album contains popera covers of easy-listening classics, including the Fleetwood Mac tune “Songbird” – the very same song that kicks off Moonlight Sax. Therefore, one can only conclude that the dinner party hostesses of the early ’90s are the seniors of today who enjoy going to matinee performances of Sole Mio.

As it happens, it was the Chills who won Album of the Year in 1990, and along with the Fits, they’re lovingly remembered as part of Flying Nun Records’ golden age. But I think the shiny compact disc of Moonlight Sax deserves to be remembered as well. There’s always going to be an audience for music like this.

Here is the final track from Moonlight Sax, the show-stopping medley of saxophonic pop classics from “Careless Whisper” to “Baker Street” with all the boring bits removed so you can totally mainline that cosy, familiar groove.

Bonus! Of course the internet has to be weird about “Moonlight Sax Medley”. Here’s an except from the track – the intro of “Careless Whisper” – seamlessly looped into an epic 16-minute masterpiece. If you listen to the whole thing, by the end of it you will have seduced yourself.

Beards, a moustache, a fiddle and a butter churn

So, while most New Zealanders were enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in (or getting up to go to church?), I was having a Eurovision party in my pyjamas on the couch with tea and toast.

It was a great competition, a giant celebration of music and good times and false eyelashes, with the added bonus of the fair certainty that Mr Putin will have been annoyed by the fact that an Austrian drag queen won with her song of strength and tolerance. (Seriously – Russia was desperate to win Eurovision in 2008 and Putin personally oversaw Russia’s hosting of the competition in 2009.)

But it wasn’t all beardy ladies. Along with Ms Wurst’s “Phoenix”, here are my other faves from the competition, all quality tunes and grand performances.

Conchita Wurst “Rise like a Phoenix”

Conchita’s win wasn’t expected, but it wasn’t exactly an upset either. It’s just that no one really thought she’d get all that many points from the more conservative countries of Eastern Europe. As it happened, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia all awarded points, as did Russia. In fact, Austria came third in the Russian phone vote showing that the real Russia is a bit different to Putin’s #nohomo fantasy.

Pollapönk “No Prejudice”

Also bring a message of tolerance to the stage was Pollapönk, a bearded Icelandic band that makes rock music for kids. Like the Wiggles, they dress colourfully, but unlike the Wiggles, their music sounds more like fun indie rock than kids’ music. As it happens, the red and blue Pollapönks were in an indie band in the ’90s who were mates with Blur. Also of note: the groups’ two backing singers are metallers, one of whom is also an Icelandic MP.

Twin Twin “Moustache”

This is the strange voodoo of Eurovision: France placed last (deux points!), but “Moustache” was the third most tweeted performance, the YouTube video is the fifth most popular of the grand finalists, and the single is in iTunes charts all over Europe. But perhaps it’s true that hip hop never does well at Eurovision, and it didn’t help that they followed the show-stopping Swedish ballad. Anyway, Twin Twin brought the fun.

Sebalter “Hunter of Stars”

A week ago I was browsing the #eurovision tag on Tumblr and there were all these girls (and a few boys) fangirling over Sebalter. He is totes adorbs with ridiculous quantities of charisma. But – and this is the most important part – “Hunter of Stars” is a great tune. The slightly enigmatic lyrics are about trying to woo someone but struggling with self-confidence. And it turns out if you sing a hook-laden folksy song with a Swiss-Italian accent, you can get away with lyrics like “I am so wet, I’m dirty”.

Donatan & Cleo “My Słowianie – We Are Slavic”

Heaving bosoms. Heeeeeaving bosoms. This song is a bit of a pisstake – mocking Polish nationalism, but also reinventing and celebrating it on their own terms. It’s a lively song with modern hip hop and R&B themes, but the thing everyone’s talking about is the heaving bosoms of the non-dancing dancers. This sort of performance is known in the world of Eurovision as a “dad pleaser”. It is boobtastic, but also celebrates the skills of butter-churning and clothes-washing. Oh, how it celebrates.

Protest song

In remembering Nelson Mandela, people are sharing links to their favourite memories of his life. One of these things is the video for the song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA. I discovered that New Zealand was the only country where the song reached #1 in the pop chart. It was a top 10 hit in the UK, Ireland and a few European countries, but New Zealand was the only country that managed #1 – three weeks straight in the winter of ’84.

The song was the first time I became aware of Nelson Mandela. I was only nine at the time, and even though I lived in Hamilton and had been aware of the Springbok tour protests (and how it was making some of the local dads really angry), I still didn’t know what it was all about.

“Free Nelson Mandela” made me more aware of things. Amid the upbeat music, it painted a picture of someone who was in a bad state.

Twenty-one years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?

Was I? I wasn’t sure. But then a year later another protest song came along. The American supergroup Artists United Against Apartheid kept the momentum going and filled in a few more gaps with “Sun City”. Like “Free Nelson Mandela”, the upbeat music contained angry lyrics, criticising the Sun City resort, the cruel fake “homelands” of South Africa and the American government’s response to South Africa. It also urged a boycott of entertainers playing at Sun City – another chink in the decaying armour of apartheid. (The song is also noteworthy as being the first mainstream hip hop and rock collaboration – predating “Walk this Way”.)

It’s easy to think about the 1960s as a golden age of political and protest songs, but the ’80s didn’t do a bad job where it counted, slowly chipping away at the badness.

Also – it says a lot about New Zealand that “Free Nelson Mandela” was followed at number one by “One Love” by Bob Marley.

A journey through saxophone in New Zealand pop in the 1980s

Jerry Rafferty's sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on "Baker Street
Jerry Rafferty’s sax man Raphael Ravenscroft defines the template on “Baker Street

In 2011, American popstress Lady Gaga released “Edge of Glory” which was notable for its saxophone solo by Bruce Springsteen’s legendary sax man Clarence Clemons. “The sax solo is back,” declared the world of music. Except that didn’t happen. (Or maybe Lady Gaga was so ahead of her time that it’s taking everyone else a while to catch up.)

But this brief rebirth of the sax solo is a good enough excuse to look back at the history of the sax in pop. Patient zero was Jerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” whose 1978 hit found a new place for the sax solo in popular music.

This kicked off a decade-long trend for sax in pop. Notable works included “Who Can It Be Now” by Men At Work (1981), the sun, surf and sax of Duran Duran’s “Rio” (1983), the smooth sax of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (1984), through to INXS’s epic “Never Tear Us Apart” (1988).

Coinciding with the rise of the music video, I can’t help think that the popularity of the saxophone was in part due to how cool it looked. It was not uncommon for the sax player being the only musician shown playing his instrument in a video. The sax is a great big shiny brass instrument that is played with full body emotion. Put the saxophonist in a jacket with the sleeves pushed up and you’ve got instant cool.

But what of the sax in New Zealand pop? Were the musicians of Aotearoa immune from such trends? Of course not. So to celebrate this bold, brassy period, here is a history of the saxophone in New Zealand pop videos of the 1980s.

Jon Stevens “Montego Bay” (1980)


When the saxophonist only plays on a small part of the song, what do you do with him for the rest of the video? Jon Stevens’ band solves this problem by putting the sax man on cow bell duty, before he stealthily ditches it and lets loose on his sax for the second chorus. Also, the sax cuts a better silhouette than the cardboard palm trees.
NZ On Screen

Screaming Meemees “Stars In My Eyes” (1982)


The Screaming Meemees were the most indie of all the acts to succumb to the lure of the sax, so it’s not your typical sax appearance. “Stars In My Eyes” has more of a funk brass thing going on, but the video goes all out with this silhouette of the double sax attack. See how the saxes tower over the trumpet, asserting their superiority.

Monte Video and the Cassettes “Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang” (1982)


Neither the innuendo-laden song nor the video includes a saxophone, but the video is set at a bar that features a neon saxophone light. Proof that by the early ’80s, the sax was a visual icon of cool. You can’t quite see it in this shot, but there are musical notes coming out of the sax.
NZ On Screen

Sharon O’Neill “Maxine” (1983)


This is almost as classic as a 1980s video sax solo gets. But as the vid is all about Sharon (and Maxine), the video isn’t interested in who the saxophonist is. We never see his head, only his hands and his sax, playing in a dark bar. (And we know it’s a bar because there is a neon sign reading “BAR”.) This is cut with footage of Shaz looking sensually relaxed, no doubt being soothed by the sax.
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Tim Finn “Fraction Too Much Friction” (1983)


The song is full of sax, but I initially thought the video had taken the bold step of being saxless, instead just focusing on Tim strutting his stuff while holding a ghettoblaster. But the lure of the sax was too strong. While the rest of the band might remain invisible, the video can’t resist a few shots of the saxophonist overlaid with smoky, sparkling fireworks.
NZ On Screen

DD Smash “Outlook For Thursday” (1983)


DD Smash have a lot of fun with the ridiculousness of the sax, using it as both a tool of good and evil. So powerful is the DD Smash brass section that it mortally wounds Dave Dobbyn. Later in the video, we see the gentle side of the brass, gently soothing the hottie drummer as he relaxes in the sun. Perhaps he and Sharon can compare notes on the power of sax relax.
NZ On Screen

Peking Man “Room That Echoes” (1985)


A saxophone features in this alternate video for “Room That Echoes”, but here’s the kicker: no one plays it. It just rests on its stand at the back of the room (that echoes), looking all cool while the Urlich siblings dance around it. It’s almost like some sort of pagan ritual, in which the god of ’80s cool is invoked. And for a song that is more about style over substance, that’s a perfectly logical and successful choice.

Left, Right and Centre “Don’t Go” (1985)


When the sax is joined by another member of the brass family, it’s usually a trumpet. But not when Don McGlashan is involved. This protest song against the planned 1985 All Black tour of South Africa features Don on his euphonium and Rick Bryant on sax. In any other video, this might be enough to stand out, but the joyous heart of the “Don’t Go” video is Chris Knox with a giant mullet and denim cut-offs.
NZ On Screen

Netherworld Dancing Toys “For Today” (1985)


For a song that’s jam-packed full of brass, the “For Today” video exercises great restraint, with only a few brief shots of the brass section. Even during the big climatic build-up, the brass players are seen in the background cautiously jumping around with their instruments. The focus is wisely given to the stars of the video – Annie Crummer and the Interislander ferry.
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Sonny Day “Savin’ Up” (1985)


“Savin’ Up” was a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song originally recorded by his (and Lady Gaga’s) saxophonist Clarence Clemons, so it’s no wonder that the sax player in the video gets the star treatment. Sonny Day’s line-up of backing singers (including Annie Crummer) parts and the tight-trousered saxophonist steps forward to deliver his bitchin’ solo, accentuating the piece with strategic hip thrusts. The backing singers are so impressed they give him jazz hands.
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Peking Man “Good Luck to You” (1986)



This pouty, urban love letter to pre-crash Auckland begins with an amazing shot. Margaret Urlich sits in the window of the much loved cafe DKD. Below her at the cafe’s entrance, the saxophonist poses in the doorway, while playing the song’s introduction. Despite the bitter lyrics of the song, there’s something rather romantic about this shot.
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Tex Pistol “The Game of Love” (1987)


I’m not sure, but the brass on this synth-heavy song also sounds electronic, so it’s further testament to visual power of the sax that it was included in the video. The slick, minimalist video keeps it simple with Ian Morris and Callie Blood having a side-on his-n-hers brass-off (that’s a showbiz term) on the wet, black set.
NZ On Screen

Herbs “Sensitive to a Smile” (1987)


“Sensitive to a Smile” is largely a tribute to the people and environment of Ruatoria. But even the old kuias, the cheeky kids and the dreadlocked bros must step aside for a while to let the sax man have his moment of glory.
NZ On Screen

80 in the Shade “Heatwave” (1987)


This all-star pop extravaganza came together not for charity but to make an ad for L&P with a scorching cover of the Martha and the Vandellas hit. There’s sax all through it, but the saxophonist appears just once near the end. I suspect this is partly because sax was become a bit uncool, and partly because the sax player wasn’t anyone famous, so they drafted in a model to play the part.

When the Cat’s Away “Melting Pot” (1988)


By the late ’80s, the pop sax was on its last legs, with the instrument instead lurking in the background, underscoring the other instruments. But the visual lure of sax was still strong. Near the end of the video, the Cats are seen with three saxophones and two trumpets, showing a much bigger brass sound than what is actually heard. They’re clearly having a ball mucking around with the instruments, which makes me wonder what it would have sounded like during the video shoot.
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Dave Dobbyn “Love You Like I Should” (1988)


Margaret Urlich makes yet another appearance, this time shimmying around Dave Dobbyn in a midriff exposing bolero jacket. But lurking in the background behind Marg and Dave are two sax dudes, playing the bass honks on cue. They are given a couple of shots early on, but the video’s focus is on Urlich and Dobbyn’s folk dancing.
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Holidaymakers “Sweet Lovers” (1988)


By the time I came to watch this video, I’d developed an instinct for sax spotting. I didn’t remember there being a saxophonist in this video, but something told me otherwise. And there it was – less than a minute before the song’s end, the fellow who had previously been shaking some maracas suddenly appears with a sax and squeezes out some barely audible notes. By this stage it seems like the sax was well on its way out, being kept in only for its strong visual appeal.
NZ On Screen

Maybe the sax was part of the bright, exciting, affluent part of the ’80s that started to wither with the 1987 stockmarket crash. It’s not so economical to have a band member who spends a lot of the time standing around, swaying from side to side, waiting for his few seconds of glory. The economical grunge era had no room for such excesses.

The sax didn’t totally die out, but rather than being the cool thing that everyone did, it was left to acts who understood the power of the sax and could harness its power. It lived on in the kids of the ’80s who grew up immersed in the sax pop. Acts like the effervescent Supergroove, jazz master Nathan Haines, and genre mixers Fat Freddys Drop all found a place for sax.

So while the full-on sax solo may have tooted its last toot, that bold brass instrument will always have a place in the world of New Zealand pop. *Honk*