The legacy of the band that launched Dave Dobbyn is being honoured 40 years on, ahead of a reunion tour.
Take out the period establishing themselves after winning a 1976 Battle of the Bands and Th’ Dudes lasted a little over two years.
But their music became the soundtrack to people’s lives. And not just pub patrons bellowing Bliss (“drink yourself more bliss”).
Th’ Dudes’ songs – written by guitarists Dave Dobbyn and Ian Morris, who died in 2010, – reached beyond entertainment, although they were certainly that. Their singles Be Mine Tonight, Right First Time and Walking in Light – all released in 1979 – set a new standard in ambition and execution.
The enduring Be Mine Tonight – originally titled Quite Frankly, with an unfashionably long guitar solo – pushed the shy Dobbyn centre stage, but by then relentless touring had made their reputation.
Fronted by charismatic singer Peter Urlich, they exuded personality, amalgamating the streetwise rock of Hello Sailor, whose mantle they lifted with phlegmatic punk energy. Out of those attitudes and classic rock elements they created something distinctive.
In mid-1978, their manager, Charley Gray, told them, “If you want to be treated like stars, then you have to behave like stars.”
They did: “We believed in ourselves and a lot of people thought we were arrogant and cocky,” Urlich told the NZ Herald in 2006. They were, but audiences loved them – just not enough to buy their singles. As Grant Gillanders and Robyn Welsh note in Wired for Sound, an official new history of Auckland’s Stebbing Recording Studios, where Morris was an engineer and the band recorded, “their records never notched up chart-topping sales figures”. Their best was post-split compilation So You Wanna be a Rock’n’Roll Star, which sold a gold-status 5000-plus copies.
Their highest singles chart placing was Bliss at 25; others appeared in the top 30, but Walking in Light only scraped in at 50. The records were originally released on the studio’s own Key label. The book notes that it took confidential mediation in 2008 to resolve a dispute between the former band members and Stebbing over unpaid royalties after Th’ Dudes’ recordings had appeared on the best-selling Nature’s Best compilations.
That was just another case of how the songs, by Urlich, Dobbyn, Morris, drummer Bruce Hambling and bassist Lez White, “carried on without us”, Morris said later.
A gifted engineer/producer who had brought Hello Sailor songs such as Gutter Black to dramatic life, Morris had an illustrious career at Stebbing Studios and elsewhere after Th’ Dudes.
Four decades after the golden year that spawned three classic songs – “hits posthumously”, said Morris – Th’ Dudes, who broke up in 1980, are being inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. And, without Morris, they’ll be playing their own tribute slot at this year’s music awards. Walking in light again.
Th' Dudes are playing a reunion tour, their second, in April with Rikki Morris, who worked as soundman for the group in its heyday, joining in place of his late brother Ian. Th' Bliss Tour, Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, April 9; TSB Arena, Wellington, April 11; Town Hall, Christchurch, April 16; Town Hall, Dunedin, April 17; and Town Hall, Auckland, April 24.
The Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards/Ngā Tohu Puoro o Aotearoa, Spark Arena, November 14. Live on Three from 8.30pm.
WIRED FOR SOUND: The Stebbing History of New Zealand Music, by Grant Gillanders and Robyn Welsh (Bateman, $89.99)
This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.