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How our favourite songs became Kiwi anthems

Dave Dobbyn in Anthems: New Zealand's Iconic Hits.

How does a great song become an anthem? A new series looks at the creation of a Kiwi classic.

Yaaaaaaa ya ya ya ya. If you know the Kiwi song Bliss, then we apologise for giving you an earworm for the rest of the day. It was written in 1980, but if Dave Dobbyn and Peter Urlich got on stage now, audiences would still know that opening guitar riff and sing along with the ya yas.

It’s the particular alchemy of why a song goes from great to anthemic that is explored in new local series Anthems: New Zealand’s Iconic Hits (Prime, Sunday, 8.30pm).

Here’s one reason: “I think the simpler the lyrics, the more people will remember them,” says songwriter Dave Dobbyn, in episode one, which explores playing anthems live. Bliss was written quickly as a response to the drinking culture his then band Th’ Dudes encountered in Australia.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“We thought we drank a lot in New Zealand, but when we went to Australia, we saw consumption beyond belief,” remarks singer Peter Urlich. It was, of course, originally given a different title, one that rhymes with bliss. Audiences went crazy for it, and here is the second lesson about anthems. Bliss “is not a solo song,” says Urlich. “It’s a ‘let’s get together almighty audience’ song.”

Tom Larkin, Shihad’s eloquent and thoughtful drummer, agrees. “Most choruses that have a strong effect tend to regard the audience as a component. That’s the key.”

He would know. Shihad wrote many an anthem in their day, in particular Pacifier, which they are seen playing to a massive, arm-waving, singing-back-to-the band crowd at the 2002 Big Day Out.

Debbie Harwood.

Here is another thing about anthems: they connect with people. Shihad’s lead singer and songwriter Jon Toogood explains how he wrote Pacifier for a friend with bipolar.

Of course, no episode would be complete without one of New Zealand’s great anthem writers, Jordan Luck, who wrote a song in 1991 that is still being sung in rugby grounds today. However, first there was Victoria, a song the band didn’t think would fit in a fast-paced set. But it helped, says guitarist Brian Jones, that “Jordan is incredibly charismatic”.

A good frontperson is essential, although anthems can become too big. Debbie Harwood of When the Cat’s Away remembers how their Melting Pot tour “became almost unmanageable. At one point, we had 28 security guards.”

“I got sick of singing it,” confides Annie Crummer.

Other episodes will cover making a hit, finding an audience, taking the world stage and the independent spirit.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.