It’s competitive out there for high schools these days. It seems like there are a million exams schools claim to prep their kids for in order to propel them to global dominance. But which high school has produced the most number one albums in New Zealand music history? James Dann investigates.
High school can be a pretty challenging time. You’ve got all these new emotions: feelings about the opposite/same sex, or about hating your parents, or in Oedipus’s case, both. One outlet for these weird new thoughts is music: it’s during their high school years that many music fans start writing music and forming bands. And some of those bands – not many, mind you – will find fame and fortune.
But which schools are most likely to give your son or daughter the best shot at stardom? Of course, producing a top-selling album is far from predictable. And yet around a dozen schools dominate the leaderboard below, with their students making more than half of all the New Zealand-made records ever to top the charts.
Success is a pretty arbitrary construct, but so are the charts. For this exercise, I’ve chosen to focus on albums – specifically, number one albums. Since the mid-60s, the full-length album has been adopted as the gold standard for measuring success. While going gold or platinum probably means more for the bank balance, going number one is still, well, number one. And going number one is hard. Many local bands who are still well loved never managed one. The Mint Chicks never hit the top, nor have any of their side-projects (yet). Fur Patrol, Goodshirt, Evermore, Hello Sailor, The Deceptikonz, OMC and Ray Columbus didn’t do it. Despite the plantations of trees that have been consumed in writing about the importance of Flying Nun bands, only one – ONE! – record on the label ever secured the coveted top spot, The Chills’ Submarine Bells in 1990. It doesn’t mean that these bands were no good, or that the ones that did top the charts were. Sometimes it comes down to luck, what releases were coming out of the States or England that week, or whether you got a spot in an ad that translated to a couple of thousand sales that week. It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s what we’re dealing with.
The first New Zealand album to go number one was Bill & Boyd’s imaginatively titled Bill & Boyd in March of 1976. These two had been on the music scene for almost two decades at this point, having come up in the rock n roll scene at the end of the 50s and into the 60s. They had followed the path of some of their contemporaries – Max Merritt, Ray Columbus, Dinah Lee – who had jumped across the ditch by the mid-60s. However, B&B still had an audience back home, and their self-titled debut climbed to the top of the charts a couple of months after it was released. Bill & Boyd had met when the two of them were at Naenae College, where there must have been something in the water. In 2003, Brooke Fraser had her first New Zealand number one album, What To Do With Daylight. She would go on to have two more, with Albertine and Flags. As well as topping the charts, she also won a Silver Scroll, and earlier this year won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song as the lead vocalist and songwriter for Hillsong Worship. The other notable group from Naenae College were Weta, the thinking man’s Shihad. Though their debut (and only) album Geographica would be many critic’s choice for the best local album of 2000, it would reach no higher than number 8 on the charts.
Though they didn’t get there until their fourth album, The General Electric, Shihad have hit number one more than any other New Zealand band (if you included Pacifier as a Shihad release, which I am). Shihad was formed by Jon Toogood and Tom Larkin when they were both at Wellington High School. The school has produced a number of important musicians, including King Kapisi, and Luke Buda and Samuel Flynn Scott of the Phoenix Foundation, as well as some truly disgraceful ones (Willy Moon), but no other number one albums as yet.
The other big production line in the capital was Wellington College. Barnaby Weir has pretty much defined the Wellington sound since he emerged with the Black Seeds, who have had two number one albums. He was also the team leader for Fly My Pretties, though, with the number of musicians who have featured in that collective, it’s impossible to attribute them to any one school. They got to #1 in 2009, though they might have topped the charts many more times if RIANZ measured tea towel sales. Before he was a FIGWIT or a Conchord, Bret McKenzie had been recruited by his schoolmate Weir into the Black Seeds. After leaving the band, he had a solo project, Video Kid, and then a little bit more success with Flight of The Conchords, who hit number one in 2008. He’s also got a Grammy and an Academy Award to his name, so there’s that.
I said that no other band had as many number one albums as Shihad – which is true – but they do share the record with another solo artist, Hayley Westenra. After her self-titled debut went to number one in 2001, Hayley then repeated the feat in 2003 (Pure), 2005 (Odyssey), 2007 (Treasure), and then 2011 (Paradiso). Westenra went to Burnside High School in Christchurch, where the other most notable musician is Julia Deans of Fur Patrol. Despite the dominance of the single ‘Lydia’ at the turn of the millennium, the album it came from, Pet, peaked at number 7.
Westenra’s mix of classical and pop, dubbed “Popera”, was a bit of a thing around this time, and Christchurch was the home of another of its top-selling local exponents. Before Yulia was cavorting on the floor of Good Morning, she was sending albums to the top of the charts. Twice, in fact. She had gone to Cashmere High School, which had unleashed Zed onto the world just five years before. Their album Silencer had debuted at number one upon its release in 2001, spawning six singles. Their second album was aimed more at the US market and peaked at number four in New Zealand. Zed was managed by ‘She’s A Mod’ legend Ray Columbus, who was a contemporary of Dinah Lee. Lee was a student at Cashmere High on the first day it opened in 1956. She was wildly successful in the rock’n’roll era, and would have four New Zealand number one singles, but this was before the album was the format du jour. However, Cashmere’s biggest critical and commercial success was Bic Runga. After coming third in 1993’s Smoke Free Rockquest as part of a duo called Love Soup, she was signed to Pagan Records, and eventually ended up with Sony. Her debut Drive went to the top in 1997, and two of her subsequent albums, Beautiful Collision in 2002, and Birds in 2005, also topped the charts.
Bic’s sister Boh went to school across town at Hornby High School. Released two years after Bic’s Drive had topped the charts, Mix by Boh’s band Stellar* would hit number one, on its way to going five-times platinum. While their second album, The Magic Line, wasn’t as big, it did still make it to number one. Hornby High can also stake a reasonable claim to another chart-topping band. Hornby High’s entry in the first ever Smoke Free Rockquest in 1989 was Outer Control, which included Pearl Runga (Bic and Boh’s sister) as well as Bobby Kennedy on drums and bassist Clinton Harris. The winner of the following year’s competition was De Funk Express, from Hillmorton High School. De Funk Express was led by Jason Kerrison, who would later recruit Kennedy and Harris, along with Matt Treacy, to form OpShop. Before heading off to build an ark, OpShop would sell a gajillion records, making two stops at #1, in 2008 and 2010. Another Smoke Free Rockquest connection from Hornby High was Anika Moa. After entering the 1998 competition, she attracted the attention of Warner NZ, who released her debut Thinking Room. This went number one in 2001, but it wasn’t her only record to top the charts. Fifteen years later, her Songs For Bubbas 2 would top the charts – and you wouldn’t bet against her doing it again. Maybe even with a comedy album.
This was an extraordinarily prolific time for musicians from Christchurch, even if you ignore the Feelers (Christ’s College, four number one albums). Linwood College could forget about producing Mike Hosking, and instead boast of Scribe (The Crusader, #1 in 2003) and Tiki Taane (two number ones with Salmonella Dub, as well as his own solo record going top in 2011). Linwood could also claim 60s chart-topper Max Merritt, but again, that was the singles era, so he never had a number one album. But from this time on, the charts would, like the musicians themselves, increasingly head north to make it big.
Martin Winch is perhaps one of New Zealand’s most unlikely chart toppers. After joining a band at Northcote College called the Ivys in the late 60s, he had been gigging in bands with phenomenal names like Boneyard Convention, Dr Tree, and Salty Dogg. Through his career he was a proper working musician, playing multiple gigs a week in jazz and big bands, joining in as a session musician for other people. In the late 90s, he recorded an album of instrumental guitar jams for the cafe set called Espresso Guitar, which featured not only a cover of ‘Englishman in New York’, but opened with a Sting medley. The late 90s were a truly disturbing time. After teaming up with marketer Murray Thom, these laid back jams did remarkably well, selling 100,000 copies on their way to number one in September of 1998. Not afraid of the grind, this musical Coffee Dad keep things brewing with an imaginatively titled follow-up, Espresso Guitar Two, which peaked at number three, as well as Music for Coffee Lovers: the Espresso Album. Another Northcote alumnus is perhaps more well-known: Hollie Smith, who has had two records hit number one.
Staying north of the bridge, Takapuna Grammar might as well be re-named (wait for it…) Takapuna Grammy. No, don’t do that. But it is of course Lorde’s old school. Both her albums have gone to number one, and you’d have to assume she will be heading there again before too long. She needs another number one if she wants to hit the top of Takapuna Grammar’s number one album leaderboard, currently reigned over by Gin Wigmore, who has three. A number of other prominent groups have come from the school, including the Veils, and the Checks, but neither hit top spot.
It’s all about the Rutherfords, baby. Or at least for New Zealand’s most successful nu metal outfit, Blindspott. The ‘Spott went where Tadpole couldn’t, and made a metal band with a DJ the most popular band in the country, with their self-titled debut in late 2002. After doing it again in 2006, something happened within the band that I can’t pretend to care about, and the spin-off group, Blacklistt, had a number one album by doing pretty much the same thing under a different name. Another notable alumni of Rutherford High School is Simon Bridges, so I’m trying to imagine how different things could have been, for both Blindspott and the country, if Bridges had followed his passion for drumming and ended up behind the skins in Indonesia’s favourite nu metal band. A real Sliding Doors moment. On a more musical note, another band from Rutherford High were the La De Das, who had a string of hits from the mid 60s through to the mid 70s. Unfortunately, this was still in the singles era, so even though they could lay claim to being the first Kiwi band to release a rock opera, they could not boast a number one album.
Before people were forcing scratching into metal, they were trying to “fuse” rap with rock. One of the only times it really worked was with Supergroove. They had the mix of cultures and styles that could only come from a melting pot of a school like Western Springs College. Their album Traction went to the top of the charts in 1994, and in 2001, their former lead singer, Che Fu, would again hit the top with The Navigator. It was just over a year later when Nesian Mystik, who formed at the school, would take Polysaturated to number one. Another band of note from the school was Goodnight Nurse, who went Top 10 twice, but never to number one – though their lead singer, Joel Little, went on to produce Lorde’s debut, so I’m sure he’s not too worried about it.
But the school that has undoubtedly had the most impact on our musical discourse is Sacred Heart College in Glen Innes. Former students from this school can claim 13 number one records – more than twice as many as the next on the list. Though he only attended the school briefly, Tim Finn might be the most influential of them all. Finn was the main constant in Split Enz, a band that featured a huge number of other musicians, including fellow Sacred Heart grads Mike Chunn, and Tim’s brother Neil. After the latter joined the band in the late 70s, they went on a remarkable run, with four number one albums – one in each year from 1980 to 1983.
About the time that Neil joined Split Enz, another band was forming with a Sacred Heart core. Th’ Dudes was formed by four mates – Dave Dobbyn, Ian Morris, Peter Urlich, and Peter Coleman. Though they were responsible for ‘Be Mine Tonight’ and ‘Bliss’, they never scored a number one album. For Dobbyn, the Yoda of the New Zealand music scene, that would come with his next band, DD Smash. Their album Cool Bananas would have one week at the top in April of 1982, before being knocked off by Split Enz’s third number one album, Time and Tide. Despite penning some of New Zealand’s most iconic songs, including ‘Slice of Heaven’, ‘Shouldn’t You Outta Be In Love’, and ‘Loyal’, and picking up three Silver Scrolls along the way, Dobbyn didn’t have another number one album until his solo record The Islander went top in 1998.
Both of the Finn brothers had enormous success going solo as well. Tim went top with Escapade in mid-1983, while Neil would go to number one with both Try Whistling This in 1998, and One Nil in 2001. Of course, following Split Enz, Neil had gone on to form Crowded House. Though their self-titled debut had topped the charts in Australia, and Don’t Dream It’s Over had massive success in the US, it wasn’t until their third album, Woodface – on which Tim joined his brother in the band – that they were truly accepted at home. Following Woodface, 1993’s Together Alone and 1996’s greatest hits compilation Recurring Dream would also go to number one. The brothers would again taste success with their second record as the Finn Brothers, Everyone Is Here, which topped the charts in 2004. You wouldn’t bet against them adding to this total, especially as I hear Neil’s new band, Fleetwood Mac, are really big with the millennials.