Television of the 1970s showcased mainstream pop acts such as the Rumour, Hogsnort Rupert, the Hi-Revving Tongues and Craig Scott. C’mon evolved into the more middle-of-the-road Happen Inn. For much of the country, the early-1970s talent shows Studio one and New faces were essential viewing. While often a platform for family harmony groups, extroverted children and easy-listening vocalists, talent shows did introduce some significant original acts. Shona Laing was just a teenager when her song ‘1905’ became a nationwide hit in 1972, leading to a long career as an assertive singer-songwriter.
In the mid-1970s two pop shows that primarily consisted of videos – pre-recorded film clips of songs – became essential viewing for fans and musicians. Radio with pictures concentrated on underground rock acts, while Ready to roll was a countdown of the week’s top 10.
From Auckland in the early 1970s came art-rock band Split Ends, a group that verged on psychedelic music-hall mixed with Dada (a European art movement) and progressive rock.
Renamed Split Enz, the band was an ambitious, original act that did the most to break down the tyranny of distance felt by New Zealand’s pop acts as they enviously observed developments overseas. With Australia as a supportive base from 1975, Split Enz recorded many albums, had many hit singles and secured substantial followings in Britain, the US and Canada.
Out of place
In 1973 Split Ends (as the band was still called) played at the Ngāruawāhia Music Festival. The headline act was British metal band Black Sabbath, and Split Ends’ appearance on stage with a mandolin, violin and flute didn’t go down well. However, their set was cut short because the event was running behind schedule, and they survived their encounter with 18,000 metal fans.
As they evolved, the emphasis was less on the theatrics and more on the radio-friendly songs written by band members – and brothers – Tim and Neil Finn. Between them, the Finns created a substantial catalogue of songs that resonated for decades: ‘I got you’, ‘I hope I never’, ‘I see red’, ‘History never repeats’, ‘Six months in a leaky boat’, ‘Message to my girl’ and many others. Split Enz disbanded in 1984.
From commercial pop to punk rock
In this period there were many other prominent acts in New Zealand pop. In the mid-1970s several assured (if derivative) performers were accepted by the public and broadcasters: John Hanlon’s lightly polemical folk, Mark Williams’s slick soul and Rockinghorse’s country-funk.
The live scene was controlled by the two major breweries, who insisted ‘pub bands’ perform familiar hits. Three bands that evolved out of this period with credibility and originality – albeit influenced by the Rolling Stones – were Dragon, Hello Sailor and Th’ Dudes (the latter featuring Dave Dobbyn). Another factor that helped combat the prevalent ‘cultural cringe’ towards local acts was the supportive stance of the free monthly newspaper Rip it up, founded in 1977.
Dragon was renowned for theatrical gigs and outrageous behaviour, typically drug and alcohol-fuelled. At an Auckland gig in 1974 a 6-foot-tall, pregnant, bald stripper walked on stage and tore off her clothes before a stunned audience – even Dragon fans were taken aback. The band left Auckland to go on tour soon after.
It was a pivotal year. The conservative musical climate was shaken up by the iconoclastic punk acts from Britain, which encouraged punchier, less indulgent songs, provocative live concerts and confrontational fashions. Over the next few years New Zealand saw an explosion in the number of bands, but radio programmers and the major record companies were oblivious, trapped in a commercial circle of signing and broadcasting acts that suited radio playlists recommended by overseas consultants. Besides Split Enz, Sharon O’Neill and Jon Stevens were two of a very few local acts that suited radio’s risk-averse formats.
Outside the established music industry, bands playing original music thrived on a live concert circuit, and recorded for feisty independent record labels such as Propeller, Ripper and Flying Nun, with little support from commercial radio. Acts such as Toy Love, the Swingers, the Screaming Meemees, Blam Blam Blam, the Chills, the Clean, the Bats, and the Verlaines helped create a new wave of New Zealand pop, which was often critically acclaimed but only occasionally saw success on the mainstream charts.
Absence from the airwaves
Through the 1980s New Zealand commercial radio playlists – both private and public – rarely featured local pop music. Student radio was an exception, but these stations did not have a wide audience. Even well-known names came up against barriers. Neil Finn’s trio Crowded House – formed with two Australians after the demise of Split Enz – received little airplay until his song ‘Don’t dream it’s over’ made number two in the US charts. Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Slice of heaven’ was one of the biggest hits of the decade on both sides of the Tasman, thanks to its inclusion in the film soundtrack to Footrot Flats rather than airplay.
Radio’s lack of support for New Zealand pop music rankled with musicians for two decades. The music industry’s lobbying for a local quota – which had proved successful in Australia – was resisted by the broadcasting industry. Compared to the 1960s, when local musicians and radio stations worked together to create a vibrant industry, even the most mainstream acts seemed to go underground.