Knocking The Bastard Off
We did it! We knocked the bastard off!
Not me. Not you. But ‘We’. Not ‘We’ the royal We but ‘We’ the unified national take any credit where we can get it We. What did we do? Well we didn’t conquer Everest first – We did that in the 50’s. We didn’t split the atom first – We did that before the end of the First World War. No we have finally done something that after trawling through the pages of history it can be seen us Kiwis have never managed to do – until now.
A sixteen year old shore girl who goes by the stage name Lorde has hit the top of the US Billboard Charts and that is quite staggering when considering so many have gone before and tried and struggled. Her song ‘Royals’ had to ‘Roar’ past Katy Perry and put a ‘Wrecking Ball’ through Miley Cyrus to get there. Now the cynical will say it’s easy for teen popstars to get a US number 1 and for those superstars in the US it probably is. But if an artist is based outside the US, well history says they’ve got a real fight to get to the top. A case in point would be U2. In their 37 year history they have achieved only two US Billboard number 1’s and both came from The Joshua Tree album. In fairness to these legendary behemoths of rock they have sold 150 million records (with some albums reaching diamond accreditation) and have won 22 Grammy’s which if I’m not mistaken is more than anybody. It’s true the Dublin band have dominated the album charts for decades but the singles charts are as we now know are more a home to solo artists, pop princesses, boy/girl bands and R&B. Still, why has it taken so long for a Kiwi to get to the top of the charts? Let’s have a short lesson in NZ music history shall we?
The pre 1960’s music industry in New Zealand was so insular I doubt even the Australians knew who our best musicians were. In the sixties while there were talented singers and songwriters there was an element of ‘copycat’ styling going on with the likes of Ray Columbus and the Invaders and The Howard Morrison Quartet. That emulation is hardly surprising when you consider the revolution that was going on in music on either side of the Atlantic. It was influencing everybody. It really wasn’t until the 1970’s that New Zealand was really crafting its own musical identity and from those swinging times came our first internationally marketable band – Split Enz. With top 20 hits in the UK and Canada and a few number one albums in Australia, Split Enz was the first group to get noticed as it were. Their legacy would live on with Crowded House but that story is for later…
Meanwhile we had some serious repetition in the eighties and nineties. Any band or artist that made it big at home would immediately cross the Tasman and be adopted like a great big sticky slice of pavlova with kiwifruit on top (see: The greatest trans-Tasman shitfight of alltime…you know what you can do with those strawberries Skippy). But even moderate success in Australia couldn’t bring bring any real notoriety in the UK which was the next logical market – well not until Crowded house but that story is for later…
Where was I? Ah yes the nineties. I used to work at a Mobil Station in Auckland and one day in the mid-nineties I had this real rockabilly dude come in and tell me he was a record producer. He had the leather jacket and the slicked – back hair and said he worked with the Otara Millionaires Club which was a ‘hip-hop’ outfit I had heard of. He seemed friendly and I mentioned this guy to my flatmates they proceeded to tell me he was Pauly Fuemana. I slowly put my brain into gear realising what the acronym OMC stood for. His single ‘How Bizarre’ reached the top of the charts in 1996 in four countries and top 5 in the UK. Like it or loathe it , the single had done better in the US than any kiwi act before. It reached number 1 on the mainstream chart but that was indicative of airplay and not retail sales. It reached number four on the Billboard charts. And that was as close as we had come to a number one, except for Crowded House but that story is for later…ah go on I’ll tell you now.
In April 2001 a mere two months before I left for Europe I was called to a job in Parnell. The customer had a problem with his phone system and he was expecting a lot of calls. I arrived to a rather excitable colleague of mine who told me to go to the basement. The owner of the place liked music. In the basement was a piano, a drumkit, a number of guitars and other instruments. I checked on the phone system. It was small and basic and I really didn’t understand why I was needed. I was then instructed to test the faulty socket in the office upstairs. Well I walked into the office and was greeted with a wall of records. And there, quite near the desk, was ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’ – a number 1 in Canada. I was in Neil Finn’s office! Arguably New Zealand’s greatest musician. ‘Canada? Well that’s just over the border…where’s the USA number one?’ I thought. I spread out the tools in that holy sanctuary and had that phone socket out of the wall. There was nothing wrong with that line but I lay under the desk daydreaming of being an international musician. After disconnecting the buttinski (linemans handset) I realised I was as close to New Zealand rock royalty as I was ever going to get. This man who was getting ready to play a concert with members of Pearl Jam and Radiohead had no idea of the care and attention that was lavished on that phone system. After a thorough scan of the records that adorned the room, I was surprised to learn that Crowded House never had a UK number 1 single. And their peak in the US? Well it was number 2 on Billboard.
Well Played Lorde!