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Popular music

by Chris Bourke

Drawing on a rich mix of cultural influences – including Māori and Pasifika culture – Aotearoa New Zealand’s popular music has evolved into a distinctive sound.

Origins of New Zealand popular music

Emerging from a nation of immigrants, New Zealand’s popular music has developed from outside influences. Music respects no borders, and popular music is rarely pure. Due to the creativity of New Zealand musicians, what was once imported, borrowed or imitative has become a distinctively New Zealand sound.

What is popular music?

The term ‘popular music’ has come to refer to a commodity: music which is mass-produced, marketed and sold. It has been a cornerstone of the entertainment industry since the late 19th century. How people heard it has evolved from live performance to sheet music, player pianos, records, tapes, compact discs and digital files. It has been performed in theatres, opera houses, music halls, town halls, parlours, pubs and parks.

Earlier, ‘popular music’ described music genres that appealed to the masses but required no marketing to be widely heard. These included bagpipe music, brass bands, light opera, choirs, dance bands and music performed at informal gatherings. This popular music resembled folk music in being passed on orally, although, unlike folk songs, the songs were usually composed by identifiable writers. In public settings, the familiar music performs a social function: it is the soundtrack to a community’s shared experiences.

Māori music

Māori songs serve purposes beyond entertainment. Karakia are used for social or religious occasions; traditional waiata describe past events or lament lost loved ones. In haka, warriors challenge rivals, using aggressive movements. Pātere are rhythmic recitations in which the performers might defend a reputation.

Musical meetings

When European explorers first arrived in New Zealand, they found that the indigenous people already had a rich musical tradition. The first musical encounter between Māori and European was on 18 December 1642, when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed into Golden Bay. Māori paddling waka greeted his two ships by blowing on a shell ‘which gave sound like the moors’ Trumpets’.1 The Dutch sailors responded with notes from the ships’ baroque trumpets.

Music to his ear?

British explorer James Cook considered Māori songs ‘harmonious enough but very dolefull to a European Ear’2, an opinion later explorers shared.

It was the opening fanfare in a long musical conversation between Māori and Pākehā. The combination of the two influences can often be heard in popular music that is distinctive or important to New Zealand. Whether by Māori alone, or Māori composers writing lyrics to borrowed European melodies or working with non-Māori songwriters, the fusion of the cultures has created some of New Zealand’s most cherished songs.

Māori and European instruments and songs

Soon, thanks to traders, whalers, sealers and sailors, Māori played European instruments such as music boxes, Jew’s harps, violins, flutes and pianos.

Missionaries brought a repertoire of hymns for spiritual comfort and conversion. Four hundred copies of a book containing hymns and other biblical writings translated into te reo Māori were printed in Sydney in 1827. It was through psalms and hymns that Māori became familiar with more formal Western music.

    • Quoted in John Mansfield Thomson, The Oxford history of New Zealand music. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 9. Back
    • Quoted in The Oxford history of New Zealand music, p. 10. Back

Early settlers, 18th and early 19th centuries

Sealers and whalers

Working in extreme conditions, the early Pākehā sealers and whalers recorded their experiences in ballads such as ‘David Lowston’, about a marooned sealing gang, or ‘Shore cry’, which finds an ex-sailor exchanging tales about whales in a Bay of Islands tavern.

True story

The ballad ‘David Lowston’ is based on real-life events. In 1810 a group of sealers led by David Lawrieston were dropped off by the ship Active on Open Bay Island near Westland. The Active subsequently foundered and did not return to re-provision the party. The men made it to the mainland on a small boat they had been left with but were not rescued until 1813, when they returned to Sydney.

Australian influence

The developing colony also had another musical influence. From the late 1700s songs performed by visiting Australian traders, bushmen and shearers often provided the model for the first New Zealand songs. ‘Whalers’ rhymes’ – sung by Waikouaiti whalers in the 1840s – evolved from the Australian ‘Pommy’s lament’, which used the melody of ‘King of the Cannibal Islands’, an English music-hall song.

The gold-rush standard ‘Shanty by the way’ was originally an 1865 poem from the Victorian goldfields which crossed to New Zealand with Australian gold-diggers. Another goldfields song, ‘Digger’s farewell’, describes a digger wanting to return to Australia as New Zealand’s goldfields become depleted.


Immigrants from Europe were advised to bring along musical instruments for entertainment. Some brought pianos, which – along with the more common fiddle or recorder – were played by their owners during the voyage, providing amusement and accompaniment for dances. Many migrants brought bound volumes of sheet music compiled from their own collections, as a portable reminder of home.

Once in New Zealand, the immigrants were not isolated from the latest popular melodies and dance styles in Europe, which were imported as quickly as a ship’s journey would allow. The styles of music were broad, but reflected the displacement of the immigrant: classical favourites and lieder, romantic ballads and songs that reflected nostalgia for the ‘mother country’ or patriotism for a new land.

Also popular were hymns, Scottish and Irish melodies, US ‘plantation’ songs and vulgar or sentimental songs from music hall. Sheet music was quickly distributed, and dance teachers demonstrated new steps such as the quadrille, the waltz and the polka. At balls during the colonial era, the styles were varied, as were the social classes of the dancers, not because of egalitarianism, but to make up the numbers.

Shows, musical groups and songwriting, 1860s–1910s


The popularity of light opera and minstrel shows in the 19th century is reflected in the many visits by overseas performers from the 1860s, and the number of towns where building a local opera house or Theatre Royal was seen as an essential sign of civic maturity. The fare was not elitist: it was more likely to be comic opera or minstrel and classical songs than grand opera. Vaudeville flourished from around the start of the 20th century until the 1920s, when the pit bands were more likely to be accompanying silent movies than vaudeville singers.

Mixed bag

Vaudeville shows were a series of diverse and unrelated acts which performed in one theatrical show. Acts included music, dancing, magicians, acrobats and lecturers.

Some original light operas and musicals were composed, the most famous being Alfred Hill’s Tapu (1903) and A Moorish maid (1905). Although born in Australia, Hill spent his childhood and received his musical education in New Zealand, providing the background to his well-received songs ‘Waiata poi’ and ‘Home, little Māori, home’, and his cantata Hinemoa (1896).

Musical groups

Choral groups were a feature of pioneering life, usually under the auspices of local churches or musical societies.

Brass bands emerged from the British military regiments stationed in New Zealand, which provided music at official functions, parades, balls and public concerts. They were preceded by informal bands attached to local militias in the 1840s. This tradition led to the founding of local groups such as the Timaru Artillery, the Wellington City Rifles, the Auckland Artillery Band and many others.

Besides creating a familiar soundscape for public gatherings, the brass band movement provided a training ground for many of New Zealand’s leading jazz and orchestral musicians. Alex Lithgow’s tune the ‘Invercargill march’, first performed in the city in 1909, became a standard in the international brass-band repertoire.

World famous

The ‘Invercargill march’ was still played by brass bands around the world in the early 2000s. In 2009 Invercargill celebrated the march’s centenary. The city’s mayor, Tim Shadbolt, described it as one of Invercargill’s most internationally recognised exports and said Queen Elizabeth loved it.

Bagpipes arrived with some of the earliest European settlers, but organised pipe bands were not established until 1896, when the Caledonian Pipe Band of Southland was founded in Invercargill. Pipe bands became a much loved – and highly competitive – feature of New Zealand’s musical life.


New Zealand songwriting progressed in the early 1860s. Charles Begg established his influential music store in Dunedin in 1861, and began publishing original songs including the ‘Dunedin polka’ and ‘The Southern Cross’. These were followed in the 1870s by songs such as the ‘Zealandia waltz’, ‘The Mataura Valley polka’ and ‘The moa march’.

‘On the ball’, written by Manawatū accountant Edward Secker in 1887 about his province’s low-scoring rugby team, became New Zealand’s first published song to be successful internationally.

Other widely disseminated early songs include:

  • the lullaby ‘Hine e hine’, written by Te Rangi Pai (Fanny Rose Howie), around 1907
  • ‘Hoea rā’ by Paraire Tomoana (1917)
  • ‘Pōkarekare ana’, arranged by Tomoana (between 1914 and 1917).

The lyrics to ‘Pō atarau’, also known as ‘Now is the hour’ and ‘Haere rā’, are attributed to Maewa Kaihau (1920) and set to the melody of ‘Swiss cradle song’ (1913) by Australian composer Clement Scott. Its origins are still the subject of debate, however.

Recorded music, radio and dance music, 1900s to 1930s


Recorded music became widely available from 1901, when firms such as the Gramophone Company, Edison and Columbia began distributing musical discs and cylinders in New Zealand.

In 1901 the Talkeries retail chain was established, specialising in the discs that superseded the Edison cylinders. In most provincial centres, the chain held ‘record concerts’ for the public to hear new releases. In 1905 the Wellington branch alone imported 15,000 discs.

By the mid-1920s most New Zealand homes owned a record player, and the British-owned New Zealand branch of His Master’s Voice (HMV), established in 1926, was the dominant distributor of recorded music.

Early recording artists

New Zealand artists were quick to take advantage of the new medium, but they needed to record overseas. Before the First World War sopranos Frances Alda and Rosina Buckman were recorded, the latter in England in 1914 with a rendition of ‘Waiata poi’. After the war, the first to record a significant catalogue was the tenor Ernest McKinlay, who had been a member of the Kiwis entertainment troupe at the front. He was an early champion of Māori popular songs such as ‘Pōkarekare ana’ and ‘Pō atarau’, which became ubiquitous in the national repertoire.

Don’t need noise control

Ana Hato loved parties, and honed her voice at singalongs with family and friends at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua. Her niece recalled that ‘nobody in Whaka closed their windows when they had parties!’1, attesting to the quality of Hato’s voice.

Overseas recordings

In 1927 an Australian mobile recording unit visited Rotorua during a tour by the Duke and Duchess of York. They took the opportunity to record Māori soprano Ana Hato performing Māori popular favourites, many of them in duet with her cousin, the baritone Deane Waretini. Released on the Parlophone label, these became New Zealand’s first locally made commercial recordings, and sold in large numbers. Three years later, another Australian team recorded the Rotorua Māori Choir performing Māori traditional songs, love ballads, hymns, greetings and farewells, mostly composed in a European style. These also sold for many years.

In the 1930s acts that wanted to make commercial recordings had to travel to Australia. Among them were Wellington crooner Billy Hart and Nelson-born country singer Tex Morton. In 1930 three members of the Tāhiwi family from Ōtaki recorded 22 songs in Sydney. These included songs they had written themselves, and Māori and European popular favourites.

All Black George Nēpia recorded Walter Smith’s ‘Beneath the Māori moon’ and ‘Haere rā’ (‘Now is the hour’) in Britain for Decca in 1936.


After the country’s first radio programme was launched in 1921, New Zealanders were quick to respond to the new medium. At first, musicians acted as the patrons of radio, with many amateur and professional groups performing in the studio for broadcasts. Live broadcasts of popular singers and dance music – often from cabaret venues – were featured almost from the beginning, alongside the classical music favoured by the cultural gatekeepers.

First singer

The first New Zealander to sing on the radio is believed to be Violet Gyles of Wellington. She sang unaccompanied on Charles Forrest’s radio programme in 1922.

Despite the 1930s economic depression, ownership of radios increased exponentially, offering cheap, instant access to the latest music styles from Britain and America. Thousands of people attended community singing events in town halls and theatres.

Dance music

In 1929 the first sound film was screened in New Zealand, and the musicians who provided the live accompaniment to silent movies were soon out of work. Many of them moved to perform in cabarets, playing dance music that would evolve into the most popular style of US jazz: swing. ‘Light music’ was a flourishing genre that suited conservative broadcasters and those wanting a style of popular music that was more accessible than classical, but had more pretensions than jazz. Among the big names were Gil Dech (famous for the piano solo ‘Remembrance’), band leader Henry Rudolph and multi-instrumentalist Ossie Cheesman.

    • Quoted in Chris Bourke, Blue smoke: the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music, 1918–1964. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010, p. 34. Back

Wartime music and early recording, 1930s and 1940s

Impact of war

The Second World War had a deep effect on New Zealand popular music. Many top bands lost musicians and singers as they joined up, but others replaced them to play dance music in cabarets and halls throughout the country. There was no shortage of work, as people needed a place to relax and meet – especially once the US troops arrived in 1942.

Dance band musicians also played in the military bands. In the European, Middle East and Pacific theatres of war, the Kiwi Concert Parties provided musical entertainment for the servicemen. The troupe was a sanctioned alternative to the risqué songs the soldiers sang after hours.

Patriotic songwriting proliferated, but the closest New Zealand came to having a national song was Anania Amohau’s stirring ‘Māori Battalion marching song’, written to an American melody. While fighting in Italy, many in the 28th (Māori) Battalion became familiar with Italian songs, influencing Māori popular music for a generation.

Apple a day

One of the more unusual patriotic songs was about apples. Export difficulties resulted in an oversupply of apples, and New Zealanders were urged to do their bit to consume the glut. ‘The apple song’ was played every morning on commercial radio stations for weeks in 1941 to keep the fruit on listeners’ minds.

Recording situation

Since the mobile recordings in Rotorua in 1930, there had been no professional recording of music intended for commercial release. From about 1935 studios recorded advertising jingles, and radio studios made recordings of live music broadcasts. These were only cut onto acetates, custom-made discs that deteriorated after being played just a few times. Occasionally, individuals and groups made primitive recordings in these studios, for their own use.

The Second World War – and lack of interest from HMV, which controlled New Zealand’s retail record industry – prevented local artists being recorded and released.

Local recording

The breakthrough came in 1948, when the Wellington-based radio manufacturer Radio Corporation decided to make its own records to sell with their radiograms. The company launched its own label – TANZA (‘to assist New Zealand artists’) – and its first release was ‘Blue smoke’, written by dance-band pianist Ruru Karaitiana.

‘Blue smoke’

‘Blue smoke’ marks the birth of the home-grown recording industry. It was the first song written by a New Zealander, recorded and processed locally and released on a New Zealand label.

Ruru Karaitiana wrote the song in May 1940 while on board the Aquitania, which was taking New Zealand soldiers to war. The song was inspired by the sight of blue smoke emerging from the ship’s funnel, drifting home to their loved ones. There are reports of the Māori Battalion performing the song in Egypt and Italy and at informal singalongs.

Pixie plays on

In 2011, 13 songs recorded by Pixie Williams between 1949 and 1951 were re-released on an album called The Pixie Williams collection. The original master recordings no longer existed, and the album producers had to create new, digitally remastered songs from old shellac records.

After the war the song seemed to take on a life of its own, and was published as sheet music in 1947. Karaitiana chose a young Hawke’s Bay singer, Pixie Williams, to record the song for TANZA, and after its release in 1949 it sold over 50,000 copies on 78-rpm discs.

Pop on the radio

In 1946 the influential pop radio programme Lifebuoy hit parade (named after a brand of soap) was launched on the ZB stations. Each week, for 30 minutes, it broadcast the latest pop songs according to the sales charts in the United States and Britain. Although the selections passed through the producers’ filter of what was acceptable, rather than reflecting the actual charts, for 19 years the programme was essential listening for pop fans, whether they liked songs from musicals, novelty hits or dance tunes.

New recordings and genres, early 1950s

Record labels and artists

TANZA and the Auckland-based Stebbing and Zodiac labels – both owned by Eldred and Phil Stebbing – led the first wave of New Zealand pop recordings in the 1950s.

Among the early releases were:

  • female singers Esme Stephens, Mavis Rivers and Pat McMinn
  • male soloists Buster Keene and Fraser Daly
  • vocal groups the Knaves and the Duplicats
  • country artists the Tumbleweeds, Jack Christie and Johnny Granger
  • jazz recordings by Julian Lee, Crombie Murdoch and the Astor Dixie Boys.

Silver lining

A man of diverse musical talents, Julian Lee didn’t let blindness get in the way of a long career. Born in 1923, Lee played for the Jubilee Institute for the Blind’s brass band as a child and was a regular player in the dance music scenes of the 1940s and 1950s. He moved to Australia in 1956, where he was shoulder-tapped by the visiting star Frank Sinatra, who encouraged him to move to the US. Lee saw his blindness as an advantage, and believed he wouldn’t have received so much musical training if he had been able to see.

HMV soon responded with recordings of its own, beginning with acts such as the popular pianists John Parkin and Jack Thompson, Dunedin country singer Les Wilson and Wally Ransom’s Rhumba Band. Variety was the guiding principle: there were many local acts in genres that had never been recorded and the fledgling industry tried all styles.

As well as the expected pop acts, the early 1950s also saw recordings of Māori choirs, brass bands, light-classical songs featuring Īnia Te Wīata, and novelty recordings created by Julian Lee.

US influences

Besides vocal pop, two other styles imported from the United States dominated the recording scene: Hawaiian-style pop, and country and western. The vogue for Hawaiian music had been building since the beginning of the century, thanks to visiting acts and romantic films about the South Pacific.

Stage fright

Daphne Walker recorded prolifically, but her confidence in the studio didn’t extend to the stage. She ‘couldn’t face singing in public … I’ve always been like that – I just freeze’.1

Two Tongan-born lap-steel guitar players, Bill Sevesi and Bill Wolfgramm, were stalwarts of the local Hawaiian sound for 40 years. The leading singer in the genre was Daphne Walker, who appeared on the first local album, South sea rhythm, recorded with Wolfgramm in 1955. Two songs she recorded became the best-known New Zealand originals in the Hawaiian style, Sam Freedman’s ‘Haere mai (everything is kapai)’ and ‘When my wahine does the poi’.


While songwriting had been a popular activity since colonial times, New Zealand’s lack of a recording and music publishing industry meant that few approached it professionally until after ‘Blue smoke’.

With the surge in recording from the early 1950s, songwriters emerged who specialised in the sentimental (Sam Freedman) or the satirical (Ken Avery and Rod Derrett). In the early 1960s Peter Cape’s social satires were both astutely observed and popular (‘Down the hall on Saturday night’, ‘Taumarunui’, 'She’ll be right’).

    • Quoted in Chris Bourke, Blue smoke: the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music 1918–1964. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010, p. 223. Back

Rock ’n’ roll and the Howard Morrison Quartet

Rock ’n’ roll, which emerged in New Zealand in the mid-1950s, was seen as music for teenagers, and – in the wake of the 1954 Mazengarb report on New Zealand juvenile delinquency – a bad influence. Radio programmers, used to playing it safe with bland pop, were disdainful of what they saw as a short-lived fad for a niche audience. But many New Zealand teenagers responded immediately to rock ’n’ roll, taking their lead from film soundtracks, jukeboxes and entertainment magazines rather than radio.

‘Rock around the clock’

In mid-1955 HMV’s New Zealand branch realised it had made a mistake turning down a hit song from the US, Bill Haley and the Comets’ ‘Rock around the clock’. They recruited Māori country singer Johnny Cooper to record a local version with a group of Wellington jazz players, which was released in September 1955.

When Haley’s recording appeared on the soundtrack of youth film Blackboard jungle, it accelerated interest in the controversial genre. The song received another boost in September 1956 when the film Rock around the clock reached New Zealand cinemas.

The following month, a group of Auckland jazz musicians led by drummer Frank Gibson began playing regular rock ’n’ roll dances at the Trades Hall, soon to be renamed the Jive Centre. Rock ’n’ roll bands were also appearing elsewhere in New Zealand, in places such as Papakura, New Plymouth and Wellington.

Johnny Devlin

Johnny Cooper’s foray into rock ’n’ roll was brief. After recording a colloquial original, ‘Pie cart rock ’n’ roll’, he moved on to running his own talent quests. He inspired a young Whanganui country singer, Johnny Devlin, to take up the genre.

In early 1958 Devlin moved to Auckland and began a residency at the Jive Centre. Other prominent rock ’n’ roll bands already in the city included the Keil Isles and Red Hewitt’s Buccaneers. When Devlin recorded a version of the Lloyd Price song ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, it became a massive success.

Helping hand

During Johnny Devlin’s national tour of 1958–59, promoter Graham Dent unpicked the threads of Devlin’s shirt sleeves so they could be more readily torn off by excited fans.

From late 1958 Devlin and his band the Devils toured the length of New Zealand for six months, with a rock ’n’ roll variety show that attracted headlines, full houses and occasional riots. In just over a year, he had become New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley, and was on a boat to try his luck in Australia.

Howard Morrison Quartet

Another entertainment phenomenon that began in 1958 reached a much wider cross-section of New Zealanders. The Howard Morrison Quartet was a music and comedy act from Rotorua, capable of polished vocal versions of pop standards and originals, song parodies and humorous patter.

Morrison, the leader, had grown up listening to sweet vocal harmony groups such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. His love of Neapolitan music was nurtured by veterans of the Māori Battalion’s campaign in Italy – he described himself as ‘Mario Māori Lanza’.

The group’s first hit was ‘Hoki mai’, a spirited version of Hēnare Waitoa’s sombre ‘Tomo mai’ that became a favourite at sing-alongs. But their biggest successes came from parodies, written to the melodies of overseas hits. ‘The battle of Waikato’ was a satire of the New Zealand wars. ‘My old man’s an All Black’ commented on the 1960 ‘No Maoris, no tour’ campaign, which opposed the exclusion of Māori players from a planned All Black rugby tour of South Africa.

Besides Morrison’s personality, central to the Quartet’s success was the humour and musicianship of guitarist/singer Gerry Merito. His acoustic guitar strum, which evolved from pre-war Māori concert groups, was emulated by amateur players nationwide.

Morrison influence

The success of the Quartet encouraged New Zealand record companies to release many novelty and comedy records, many celebrating Kiwiana or gently mocking Māori culture. While the sentiments would later be considered anachronistic, the musicianship was often very accomplished. Rim D. Paul’s ‘Poi poi twist’ was one of many to take advantage of the Twist fad, framing a generic rock ’n’ roll song with the traditional Māori stick game ‘E papa’.

New sounds, late 1950s and 1960s

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.

    • Quoted in Chris Bourke, Blue smoke: the lost dawn of New Zealand popular music 1918–1964. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010, p. 318. Back

Pop-music scene, 1970s and 1980s


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.

Split Enz

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.

Surprise guest

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.

'Tally ho!'

The Clean’s 1981 debut single, ‘Tally ho!’ gave the fledgling independent music label Flying Nun its first hit, reaching number 19 on the New Zealand singles chart. Through 1981 and 1982 the band enjoyed further success in the New Zealand Top 20 with ‘Beatnik’, ‘Getting older’ and ‘Anything could happen.’ Their 1981 EP, Boodle, boodle, boodle, reached number 5 and was eventually certified gold.

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.

Māori and Pacific music, 1980s and 1990s

Māori musicians have always made a significant contribution to the popular music industry, but apart from the Howard Morrison Quartet’s occasional recordings of Māori popular standards, there was very little that celebrated Māori culture between the 1960s and 1980s. The Māori show bands of the 1960s were skilled musical comedy acts that mostly worked overseas, though they did spawn important figures such as John Rowles and Prince Tui Teka.

Rastaman vibration

In 1979 Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley visited New Zealand. His politically conscious songs struck a chord with Māori and Pacific people, as well as left-leaning Pākehā concerned with social justice. While reggae music had been heard in New Zealand before 1979, Marley’s visit raised the genre’s profile and encouraged the establishment of local reggae bands – many of them focusing on Māori issues.

Māori renaissance

In the early 1980s, a Māori cultural renaissance – which emphasised issues such as sovereignty, tikanga and the survival of te reo Māori – also stimulated an awareness of identity among Māori musicians. Bands such as Herbs, Aotearoa and Dread Beat and Blood borrowed the reggae rhythms of Jamaica, but their music reflected life in the South Pacific. Singer-songwriter Hirini Melbourne composed a suite of songs in Māori inspired by bird calls that became very influential on the kōhanga reo (preschool language-learning nest) generation.

‘Poi e’

In 1982 Dalvanius Prime, a Taranaki-born singer who had worked for years on the Australian club circuit, wrote a song with East Cape writer Ngoi Pēwhairangi. He recorded ‘Poi e’ with the Pātea Māori Club, a Taranaki kapa haka group whose town had recently been deeply affected by the closure of its main employer, a meat-freezing works.

Back in the charts

‘Poi e’ made it back into the upper echelons of the New Zealand music charts in the 21st century. In 2009 it was used on a Vodafone website, which temporarily raised the song’s profile. Its biggest boost came in 2010 with the release of Taika Waititi’s film Boy, which featured the song. It climbed to the third spot on the singles chart that year.

By combining the breakdance rhythms then current in the US with a traditional Māori action song, ‘Poi e’ saw the Māori language reach the top of the pop charts, the biggest hit in te reo since ‘Hoki mai’, 25 years earlier. But whereas ‘Hoki mai’ was a party song, ‘Poi e’ was political, emphasising the relevance of Māori culture.


In 1988 Upper Hutt Posse was the first New Zealand group to record in the rap genre. Their single ‘E tu’ was a bilingual rap with chorus suggestive of a haka, continuing the tradition of Māori musicians converting an American pop style into something indigenous.

In 1994 Proud, a compilation album of acts from South Auckland, showed there was a new generation of Māori and Polynesian musicians who wanted to assert their identity, albeit often within an American template.

Proud launched two prominent acts. Sisters Underground’s song ‘In the neighbourhood’ showed a more cordial side to South Auckland than the mean streets of the film Once were warriors, while OMC (Ōtara Millionaires’ Club) was the vehicle for Pauly Fuemana’s song ‘How bizarre’ to top charts around the world in 1996. It mixed Māori and Polynesian elements with rap music, a combination present in other prominent rappers of the late 1990s, such as King Kapisi and Che Fu.

The rise of New Zealand music, 1990s to 2000s

The 1990s was a new dawn for New Zealand popular music. After a period in which only the most established acts received airplay on commercial radio, several developments saw young acts receive recognition. Widespread respect towards local music had been absent since the 1960s but now re-emerged.


Former student radio programmers found careers in mainstream radio, bringing a more supportive attitude to new stations such as The Rock, Channel Z and the state-assisted (though privately owned) Kiwi FM. Whereas in 1995 only 1.6% of music played on commercial radio was of New Zealand origin, in 2002 radio stations agreed to aim towards a voluntary quota of 20%. This was subsequently achieved.

Increased radio play boosted the local music scene and exposed listeners to more singers, bands and sounds than before.

Television and internet

From 1993 New Zealand music fans could watch dedicated music channels on television. In 1999 the television show Popstars, which created the band TrueBliss, launched a new generation of talent shows.

The rise of the internet in the 1990s and the music-sharing websites that followed were a challenge to established record labels, but made it easier for musicians and bands to market their work independently and reach new audiences, locally and overseas.


The government’s broadcasting funding body New Zealand On Air (established in 1989) launched several initiatives to encourage more airplay for local acts, such as funding for videos, recordings, promotions and compilations to help programmers’ decision-making.

The costs of recording lowered significantly, so young acts could make quality recordings without needing backing from major labels, just distribution deals.

Home-grown success

Bands that achieved mainstream success in the 1990s included the Headless Chickens, the Mutton Birds, the Exponents, the Feelers, Supergroove and Push Push.

Electronic music started to make its presence felt and some bands, such as Strawpeople, used samples and electronic beats to create their sound. Pioneering electronic label Kog Transmissions was founded in 1997 and released the early albums of P-Money and Concord Dawn.

By the mid-2000s the popularity of New Zealand music had reached new heights. Several artists were rewarded with album sales of between 30,000 and 60,000 – among them the female singer-songwriters Bic Runga, Brooke Fraser and Anika Moa.

A second wave of reggae-influenced acts saw the genre evolve from its Jamaican origins to a more indigenous sound: Trinity Roots, Salmonella Dub, Katchafire and Fat Freddy’s Drop. Similarly acts such as Scribe, Tiki Taane, P-Money and Ladi 6 localised rap.


Kimbra won two awards at the 2012 Grammy Awards for her collaboration with Australian singer Gotye. They won for best pop duo and best record.

Many New Zealand musicians set their sights on overseas success, often helped by the marketing nous of the New Zealand Music Industry Commission, founded in 2003. Among those who received acclaim in the US or Britain were the hard rock bands the Datsuns, Shihad, and D4, and pop acts Evermore, Kimbra and Ladyhawke. Less high-profile acts that found an audience abroad included the Phoenix Foundation, Mint Chicks and Brunettes.

In 2013 Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor), aged just 16, became the first woman to top the American Billboard Alternative Songs Chart in 17 years with her song ‘Royals’. She went on to reach number one on the US singles chart, and won two Grammy awards, for best pop solo performance and song of the year.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Chris Bourke, 'Popular music', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

Story by Chris Bourke, published 22 October 2014