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Throwback Thursday: The gems of New Zealand pop music

New Zealand has a long storied history of pop music, from ‘Blue Smoke’ to ‘Poi E’ to ‘Royals’. Chelsea Jade and Sam Brooks did their best to cover some of the forgotten and not-so-forgotten gems in between.

When the Cat’s Away: ‘Melting Pot’

Chelsea Jade: Let’s dive into the melting pot. It’s a palate cleanser. While I was researching this highly academic undertaking. I discovered that ‘Melting Pot’ is in fact a cover.

Sam Brooks: Yes! Of a Blue Mink song.

Chelsea: I don’t know if I should have known that already. It really shakes me to my core to think of a group releasing covers as singles. The APRA cheques would have been dismal for this group, is where I’m coming from, with releasing covers as singles. Did they all have side-gigs? I need a back story.

Sam: Oh definitely! One of them is Annie Crummer, you’ve got Margaret Urlich who we’re covering later on, and the incredibly Australian-named Kim Willoughby. But I think this was the biggest single any of them had?

Chelsea: Plus-side is that NZ clearly had a proto-Haim thing going on.

Sam: I do love that even in the 80s this was considered a low-budget video.

Chelsea: What this video lacks in budget, it more than makes up for in the type of flair Jennifer Aniston had to pin to her apron in Office Space. It’s human flair – flair personified.

Sam: These women definitely have charisma. Like, I feel if you saw these women do this live today, probably with the more problematic lyrics omitted, it would be a hell of a time. It might be the only number one hit in our country to include the word ‘Chinkee’.

Chelsea: Wow. I feel like this immediately takes it out of the running to be one of NZ’s best? It’s teetering anyway, being a cover.

Sam: It’s an unfortunate lyric from the band who also brought us a cover of ‘Asian Paradise’ 15 years ago.

Chelsea: Special mention to the lyric “lump it all together” which couldn’t have less finesse.

Sam: Ditto “coffee-coloured people by the score”.

Headless Chickens: ‘Cruise Control’

Sam: I have to immediately say that The Spinoff was at a music quiz a few weeks ago and I was adamant that this was the only number #1 that the Headless Chickens had, and Duncan Greive, an actual journalist with actual music experience, thought it was ‘George’. I was absolutely wrong and he was absolutely right.

Chelsea: Let me get this straight – ‘Cruise Control’ was not a number one for them?

Sam: It wasn’t! It was like #4.

Chelsea: Inconceivable! Ahead of their time.

Sam: I know! This song is SO GOOD. Even the lyric “Sometimes days move just like a big fat man” which is hilarious and bad, works because of how Fiona MacDonald delivers it.

Chelsea: It’s so good that it just melds into my mental lexicon of what a song is, in that I can’t hear it being written when I listen to it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I guess I’m saying it just sounds like it landed that way, fully formed and no one was trying too hard.

Like they found this song in a field or something

Sam: Absolutely. You can see this being like, read straight out of the notebook.

Chelsea: Like all good songs should feel.

Sam: Sidebar: My other memory of this song is a documentary we watched in music in Year 9, and I have a vivid memory of Fiona MacDonald saying they did not make a single cent off this single.

Chelsea: Insanity! Someone call a lawyer. It’s also vital that artists don’t look like the most awkward thing in their video (unless intended) and on that note, Fiona carries this whole thing.

Sam: Absolutely. Her voice is the most chill thing in the world, like a ’90s Sophie Ellis Bextor. It feels like it either be like the chill first take or the fifteenth take where she’s so over it.

Chelsea: I had this whole idea that a huge struggle in NZ pop music during the ’90s was a dire inability to record vocals well but not here. It’s kind of perfectly back in the mix – which I usually loathe, but it carries the delivery nicely to tuck it in there.

Sam: It makes me sad this is the only song of theirs that sounds like this? ‘George’ is very much a strange Garbage/trip-hop hybrid, but this is something else entirely.

Deep Obsession: ‘Lost in Love’

Chelsea: I’ve said it before but I CANNOT locate a bad Deep Obsession song.

Sam: They are all so good! They hold up. If you played them in any club today, it would GO. OFF.

Chelsea: I definitely didn’t appreciate it at the time. I felt alienated by the club vibe. And the crop tops.

Sam: I love that this is a NZ song. This is not the song you think of when you think of NZ music. We have this image of it as being like, some dudes in a bar with some guitars.

Chelsea: If I’m honest, this and K’Lee are EXACTLY what I think of. I feel a surge of panic if I have to know anything about guitar bands.

Sam: I am exactly the same. Which is why this list is curated thusly.

Chelsea: I loved pop music fervently until I started following this insanely cool girl around, imitating her bad posture and only now am I straightening my back out again, getting back into unabashedly loving pop music. But yeah, Deep Obsession could have gone global. I would have bought a t-shirt – if it covered my entire torso.

Sam: I’m sure there exists the means to get you a Deep Obsession t-shirt now. Also worth checking out, for avid readers: their other number #1 hits ‘One and Only’ and ‘Cold’.

Chelsea: ‘You Got the Feeling’ didn’t make it to number one? I feel personally responsible, this was the time when I was making a lot of calls to ZM.

Sam: #17. I think you can be held responsible for it getting up to that number, but also for only getting up to that number.

Chelsea: One small child can only do so much.

K’Lee: 1+1+1 (It Ain’t Two)

Chelsea: I love this foray into complete pastiche. This is why American exceptionalism continues to thrive.

Sam: This song is like… half Billie Piper and half Mya. Which means it’s amazing.

Chelsea: I’m pretty sure my best friend at the time went out and bought the exact outfit worn by the backup dancers.

Sam: Oh my god I just got to the dance break.

Chelsea: The dance break is basically PC Music! Cutting edge. Does Danny Harle know about this joint?

Sam: Does Meghan Trainor know about this?!

Chelsea: I can’t move past the styling in this video. That cowl neck thing was such a hot look! The tilted fedora! Couldn’t hold K’Lee and her head-cocks back that’s for sure. I think the overall message I’m receiving from all of this is that NZ invented everything. Also 1+1+1 (it ain’t two) is a PERFECT POP CONCEPT. And to speak to K’Lee’s larger body of work, her cover of ‘Broken Wings’ still completely crushes me.

Sam: Also, insanely: This song only reached #12 here.

Chelsea: Do you think if it came out now, NZ would carry it to its rightful place at the top?

Sam: The song is basically a better version of ‘No’, or an equitable version of ‘Hit ‘Em Up Style‘.

Chelsea: It’s too bubblegum to really sell K’Lee though you know. I guess it was a time when pop albums had to account for the breadth of your week, not just one mood. So they had to put a fun banger in there.

OMC: ‘How Bizarre’

Chelsea: I’ve often let the ubiquity of this song just wash over me.

Sam: This had a big part of the climax of a show I toured around the country last year and it got the biggest laugh of the entire show. I can’t listen to it anymore without having very visceral flashbacks to that tour.

Chelsea: So you’re watching the video on silent?

Sam: I’m not, because I care about #quality #journalism.

Chelsea: Any song with a female feature to cut through a male presence is alright by me.

Sam: I will say this song has ruined the harmonica for me.

I have never singled out the harmonica because I’m too enraptured by the horns

Sam: The horns!

This is a sad song, right? In my show I used it to signify that our main character realised he was only in love with straight dudes, but I feel that’s not how it was written.

Chelsea: That definitely imbues it with something very wrenching, thank you.

Sam: I would venture, maybe even hazard, to guess that this video was shot on a fairly low budget.

Chelsea: I would love to know what a low budget was back then. Probably triple what I’ve ever used for a video. I‘m watching it and adding up what that would cost me to try and pull off.

Sam: I would love for you to do a shot-for-shot remake of it. But with one of your songs. Also, this was famously number #1 in the States for some reason.

Chelsea: A confetti canon is already beyond my budget.

Margaret Urlich: ‘Escaping’

Chelsea: I just got really hungry all of a sudden. Perhaps one could say that this song creates an appetite.

Sam: I didn’t realise we made songs like this!

Chelsea: Okay this song reminds me of the Felicity theme song from one of the seasons. Possibly the first one. It is also incredibly vapour wavy and that is reason enough for me to love it. But didn’t Marge live in Australia by now?

Sam: So this isn’t even a NZ single! It’s a fraud.

Chelsea: I don’t blame you for being seduced into putting it on the list. This song may as well have come out on Cascine (an independent record label) yesterday. Do you think she’s available to mentor me?

Sisters Underground: ‘In The Neighbourhood’

Chelsea: This song is fucking awesome.

Sam: This was definitely used in a commercial during the 90s, right? Like, to promote an entire channel? (Editor’s Note: NOPE. The early 00’s. Here is the terrifying TVNZ promo.It’s SO good. Again, this is a recurring comment, but I didn’t think we made this kind of music here. And the fact that it was a huge hit?

Chelsea: I definitely would have assumed at the time that it was not a NZ song. In fact, I wasn’t even in NZ yet, so it must have been carried pretty far beyond its initial release. It’s got such an easy charm.

Sam: My favourite moment is the part where the flute comes up in the mix? Like it’s so unexpected and it’s just like, FLUTE. How often do you get FLUTE in a pop song? (I might be wrong, I am terrible at recognising musical instruments.)

Chelsea: I’ve always railed against the flute, but I did always think that the clarinet was going to be pop’s secret weapon. Decontextualized it sounds like a pure tone synth pretty much.

Sam: My very first boyfriend lied to me and said he could play the electric flute. I thought he was so cool.

Chelsea: I’m sorry he did that but I’m also kind of glad he did because I didn’t know such a thing existed and now I do.

Sam: A butterfly’s wings on the pond create a tidal wave, as they say.

Fur Patrol: ‘Lydia’

Chelsea: This was such a vital song for me. Liking this was probably the coolest I ever got.

Sam: I had genuinely forgotten about this song. When you put it into the doc I was like, oh you mean ‘Gloria’, right? Even though I read ‘Lydia’.

Chelsea: Are you cross-pollinating Fur Patrol and Zed?

Sam: I am. This is why this is a conversational piece and not just me. Fuck, that last chorus. It’s so triumphant and uplifting, despite the lyrics. I’m obsessed at the seemingly random shifts between ‘Don’t you want me anymore’ to ‘Don’t you need me anymore’ to ‘Don’t you love me anymore?’.

Chelsea: I‘m into the “bip baby”. That would really impress Max Martin, occupying all of the necessary melody. I actually don’t know what I’m talking about. I have a very rudimentary understanding of Max Martin’s methods. I’ve always hated math.

Sam: There’s something very Tori Amos about the way her voice twists and pushes. I also had this song, in my brain, coming out around the time I left high school (07-08), so finding out it came out when I was 10 is pretty mindboggling. It’s so minimalist and like… just lovely.

Chelsea: Yeah it sounds too warm for ’00. Also, RIP instrumental breaks in songs – this is one understated guitar solo I actually couldn’t do without. This song is timeless, inclusive of the production

Sam: Absolutely. I want to play it outside high schools to be like, “LOOK THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE ACTUALLY FEELING!” But not get arrested.

Oceania: ‘Kotahitanga (2nafish)’

Sam: This is another song I had completely forgotten about! They used to play the video on TV3 during like, weekday cartoons all the time.

Chelsea: Move to another country and it will become your safe haven. It’s such a vibe.

Sam: Why aren’t there more club songs in Te Reo?

Chelsea: I’m sure there are but what we’re missing is a database of Te Reo pop music

Sam: That is so true. I hadn’t thought about that, but there’s absolutely no kind of database or archive for Te Reo pop music, which is really shitty. This song, though. I seem to remember it playing at rugby games, but I never went to rugby games. I have gotten much joy of linking the video to people and saying, “REMEMBER THIS?” though.

Monte Video and The Cassettes: ‘Shoop Shoop Diddy Wop Cumma Cumma Wang Dang’

Chelsea: I have no context what so ever for this song. And I’m not sure I ever want to.

Sam: I only found out about it while researching this. There’s something very Las Ketchup about it, but at least ‘Asereje’ makes sense in Spanish.

Chelsea: Las Ketchup was something I was all in on. This has no place in my heart or mind.

Sam: We did choreographed dances to Asereje in intermediate! This was a number #1 hit. Many, many people bought this song. And listened to it, maybe multiple times.

Chelsea: This song is white boys getting away with too much.

Sam: That is the best way to sum up this song, it leaves you with a feeling of, “How dare you?” There’s a SPOKEN WORD BRIDGE in this song.

Chelsea: This is the hell Bob Dylan hath wrought. Is he putting on a British accent?

Sam: I think so? Or some kind of Australian accent.

Chelsea: He’s leaving the ‘t’s off the ends of his words, like he’s auditioning to play Dick van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins.

Sam: On that note, are there any closing thoughts you have?

Chelsea: Just that my preference for t-shirt sizing is an XL and that Margaret Urlich can contact me at [REDACTED, Margaret Urlich if you are reading please email sam@thespinoff.co.nz if you would like to mentor Chelsea’s music career].


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