For reasons now forgotten, no APRA Silver Scroll - New Zealand’s prestigious annual songwriting award – was handed out in 1981. At this year’s Scrolls in Auckland on September 17, a retrospective Scroll will be awarded for that year, chosen from a shortlist of five songs, all from the eligible period.
(The winner was 'Counting The Beat' by The Swingers, but ahead of that...)
Nick Bollinger has a listen to the contenders and a look at their history.
The Clean - Tally Ho!
1981 was the year Roger Shepherd, a young Christchurch record store manager, decided to start his own label to promote a few of the post-punk alternative bands that were springing up in his hometown and places further south. That September he launched Flying Nun Records with two singles. One of these, The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho’ made it all the way into the Top 20.
The Clean were a trio from Dunedin comprised of brothers David and Hamish Kilgour on guitar and drums respectively, and bassist Robert Scott. Inspired as much by obscure sixties garage and psychedelic bands as the recent punk revolution, The Clean forged a style that has often been referred to as the Dunedin sound. It was tunefully raw and demanded to be taken on its own terms.
With his chorus cries of ‘Tally ho!’ David Kilgour sounds as though he is leading a charge of jangling indie rockers, which would not be far from the truth. But the real hook of ‘Tally Ho’ is an electric organ riff, part-Sir Douglas Quintet, part-1910 Fruitgum Company, played by Martin Phillipps, not a member of The Clean but leader of another band, The Chills, who would also find success on Flying Nun.
The Swingers - Counting The Beat
In 1978, Split Enz co-founder Phil Judd left the band in London and headed home to New Zealand. He arrived roughly the same time as punk rock. Teaming up with drummer Buster Stiggs (Mark Hough) and Bones Hillman (Wayne Stevens) of proto-punks The Suburban Reptiles, Judd formed The Swingers, combining the stark immediacy of punk with some of the art-school sensibility that had defined the early Enz, plus a good dash of sixties pop.
Playing only their own songs, the Swingers presented a challenge to Kiwi pub audiences, accustomed to hearing at least a smattering of familiar covers. But a few of the originals struck home, in particular ‘Counting The Beat’ with its near-wordless singalong chorus and bassline straight out of a Pretty Things song.
Like all but one of the five 1981 finalists, ‘Counting The Beat’ was released locally on an independent label, Bryan Staff’s Ripper Records (though by this stage Ripper had come under the wing of industry major CBS.) Raw and catchy, ‘Counting The Beat’ became the biggest hit of the five finalists, topping charts in both New Zealand and Australia, and has had a long subsequent life as a television sting and supermarket jingle. But no Judd song since has ever recaptured its simple appeal.
Blam Blam Blam - There Is No Depression In New Zealand
Blam Blam Blam’s ‘There Is No Depression in New Zealand’ seems emblematic of 1981. Recorded in July of that year, the month the deeply divisive Springbok rugby tour began, the song didn’t address apartheid or the protests; it had already been written well before events unfolded. But Richard Von Sturmer’s lyric captured the mood of the times, looking with deep irony on what could be seen as a culture of denial.
The tour brought to the surface many issues that had been simmering in New Zealand society, including racism, sexism and unemployment, all of which are named in the song.
A poet and performance artist, Von Sturmer was not a member of the Blams, but the trio of bass player Tim Mahon, guitarist Mark Bell and drummer/vocalist Don McGlashan had all been involved in various past projects with him. The group broke up the following year, after a serious motor accident curtailed a national tour.
McGlashan has gone on to become one of New Zealand’s most loved singer-songwriters; firstly with The Front Lawn and The Mutton Birds, then with a series of solo recordings that continue to project a recognisable and occasionally unsettling picture of New Zealand.
Split Enz - One Step Ahead
It was a year of local indie labels and stripped down rock groups. Of the five bands contesting this retrospective award, only Split Enz went against the grain. Almost a decade after their formation, by 1981 the Enz were a sextet, based in Australia and signed to Mushroom Records.
After Phil Judd’s departure they had gone through a period of identity-searching and self-reinvention. Tim Finn’s composition ‘I See Red’ suggested a viable new direction, shedding the last of the group’s early art-rock trappings in favour of a manic, punk-tinged pop. But it would be Tim’s younger brother Neil, who at age 18 had flown to London to become Judd’s replacement, who became the group’s most reliable hitmaker.
In 1980 his pop anthem ‘I Got You’ gave the group its biggest hit, reaching number one on both sides of the Tasman. ‘One Step Ahead’ didn’t quite repeat that success but came close, rising slightly higher on the Australian than the New Zealand charts. By this time Neil Finn was on his way to a career that has seen him become the most consistently successful and internationally respected songwriter New Zealand has produced.
The Screaming Meemees - See Me Go
When an indie single by a bunch of Auckland teenagers fresh out of high school went to the top of the national sales charts the first week of release it was clear a shift had occurred in New Zealand music.
The four members of the Screaming Meemees had met at the North Shore’s Rosmini College and were inspired by the post-punk pop coming out of Britain. Finding that writing their own songs was easier than replicating covers of other people’s songs, they began to build a repertoire of originals, road-testing them with gigs around Auckland and a national tour as support act for The Swingers.
‘See Me Go’ was picked by Auckland record store proprietor Simon Grigg, and released in 1981 on his fledgling Propeller label. But having scaled such heights with such apparent ease, the Meemees took a blasé approach to their career and after one album and another strong single, broke up. Grigg would go on to start other labels and create a worldwide hit with OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’.