Story: Popular music

Page 8. New sounds, late 1950s and 1960s

All images & media in this story

Venues and performers

In the early 1960s nightclubs, cabarets, dine-and-dance restaurants and coffee bars proliferated in the main centres, offering work to performers in a period when pubs still closed at 6 p.m.

Many of these acts were recorded, among them Kahu Pineaha, Ricky May, Marlene Tong, the New Zealand Jazz Quartet, folk trio the Convairs and the female impersonator Noel McKay. Locally owned independent record labels such as Zodiac, Kiwi and Viking were very supportive of these and other popular genres, often in competition with the weight of HMV, which now featured many New Zealand artists in its catalogue.

Folk music

Following the US folk revival of the late 1950s, folk music flourished in urban coffee bars. This scene nurtured performers such as Graeme Allwright, Les Cleveland, Jim Delahunty, Rod McKinnon and Val Murphy, and it was an outlet for the nationalistic folk songs of Willow Macky and Peter Cape.

Immortalised in song

Peter Cape wrote a song about Monde Marie, the Wellington café which was home to the city’s folk scene in the 1960s: ‘In the flat down below there’s a ’cello / Above there’s a whole symphonie / So I’m off for a night / Of the music I like / Down at the Monde Marie.’1

A song-collecting movement emulated the work of musicologists Cecil Sharp (England) and Alan Lomax (US). Stalwarts such as Rona Bailey, Herbert Roth, Les Cleveland and Neil Colquhoun were determined to discover and revive authentic New Zealand folk songs from their pioneering past.

New influences

After the first wave of rockabilly-styled groups in the late 1950s, New Zealand’s bands turned to other influences. Groups such as Max Merritt and the Meteors and Ray Columbus and the Invaders were early to adopt R&B (rhythm and blues), and the Embers, Librettos, Typhoons and Tornados were among many who emulated the cheerful twang of the Shadows from Britain.

Beat-band boom

The beat-band scene was healthy before the first whiff of Beatlemania was felt in 1963, but it was changed irrevocably after their New Zealand tour in June 1964.

Teen spirit

Auckland promoter Phil Warren cashed in on the Beatles’ fame when he opened a nightclub called the Beatle Inn after their visit in 1964. The venue was aimed at teenagers and no-one over 18 was admitted.

It is not that New Zealand groups suddenly emulated the Beatles en masse, though many did. Instead, the energy generated by the beat-band boom of the mid-1960s was infectious: it inspired many bands to form, helped create a thriving scene of teen clubs for live shows, gave many musicians the confidence to write their own songs, encouraged record companies to sign local bands and provided broadcasting outlets with plenty of material.


Television’s first local pop show was In the groove, launched in 1962. It was followed by Let’s go in 1964. Their successor C’mon (1967–69) reached a much larger audience for its Saturday evening broadcasts, in which the top local groups performed – or mimed – their own hits and covered those by overseas artists. Visually, C’mon captured the spirit of the age, with dramatic black-and-white sets and frenetic dancing by go-go girls in mini-skirts.


In the mid- to late-1960s New Zealand popular music was thriving on all fronts, including:

  • the infectious ska of Dinah Lee
  • guitar instrumentals from Peter Posa
  • country-influenced pop from Maria Dallas, John Hore and Allison Durbin
  • hard-edged R&B via the British blues boom (the Underdogs, the La De Da’s, Bari and the Breakaways, Chants R&B)
  • surly rock (Larry and the Rebels, the Pleazers)
  • girl-group pop (the Chicks, Sandy Edmonds)
  • bow-tied vocalists (Mr Lee Grant, Shane)
  • elaborate psychedelic pop (the Fourmyula, the Avengers).

Most of these acts were featured on television and heard regularly on radio. As the decade progressed, ‘underground’ bands also emerged, influenced by acts such as Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin. These bands – among them Highway, Mammal, Ticket and the Human Instinct – were more interested in pushing musical boundaries than having chart success.

  1. Quoted in Chris Bourke, Blue smoke: the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music 1918–1964. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010, p. 318. Back
How to cite this page:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music - New sounds, late 1950s and 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 Oct 2014