Sounds of summer: Notable Kiwis name their favourite summer songs

by Phil Gifford / 19 February, 2019
bill sevesi beach boys

Phil Gifford’s childhood summer sound belonged to Bill Sevesi. Right: The Beach Boys inspired Taranaki “Surfer Boy” Midge Marsden.

Back to the beach with “For Today” – and notable Kiwis’ classic summer songs.

Bless New Zealand summers. In fond memory every one has blue skies, rolling waves, white sand and shade from a welcoming pohutukawa.

Music is top of mind too. My summer day dreams are specific to Waihi Beach, 10km of paradise in the far north of the Bay of Plenty. They begin in my school years with a man called Bill Sevesi, whose band the Islanders played summer dances at the RSA hall. A legend of Pasifika music, Sevesi played lap steel guitar, a liquid, keening sound that haunts me to this day.

But it was decades later when we bought a bach at Waihi Beach and spent almost two decades of summer holidays there, that one song buried itself in the family consciousness. From 1988 onwards “For Today” by the Netherworld Dancing Toys would bring everyone onto the little living-room floor, from old guys doing terrible Ngati Pakeha dance moves to small kids, allowed a New Year’s Eve no-curfew dispensation.

Malcolm Black, lead singer and co-writer of the song, remembers when in 1985, “For Today” came to life. It was in a rehearsal space in what was the old Roslyn woollen mill in Dunedin. “Nick Sampson, who was the other singer-songwriter in the band, brought the song along to rehearsal. I had an idea how it could be done a bit differently. The choruses are his. I went away and rewrote the verses, and brought it back to band practice.”

The band at that stage was the core group of four students, all freshly graduated from Otago University: Black, Sampson, Brent Alexander and Graham Cockroft. They had a hired horn section from Auckland, the Newton Hoons (Chris Green and Mike Russell), and two terrific singers, Kim Willoughby and Annie Crummer. Willoughby and Crummer had blue-blood music lines. Willoughby’s father, Trixie, had played drums in the avant garde 60s rock band Brew, while Crummer’s father, Will, was a pioneering Cook Islands singer.

Read more: Can an anti-camper learn to love the holiday life outdoors?North & South's best summer reads for 2019

At the 1985 rehearsal the band started to run through “For Today”, which they planned to play live on a national universities’ orientation week tour. “We had this gap in the middle of the song,” says Black. “We were just working on it, and someone said to Annie, ‘What can you do with this?’” He laughs. “And that’s what we got.”

Crummer, whose voice is a wonder of nature, launched into just over a minute of the greatest scat singing in New Zealand pop music. Black’s memory is classic understated Kiwi. “When Annie did her piece at rehearsals we thought, ‘Aw, that’s pretty good.’”

By now, he adds, the song “does feel a bit special. So I wasn’t completely surprised when it was a hit. But I am surprised that 30 years or so on, people still like it.”

The band was professional for just one year. “We were originally a 100% student band. We toured in our holidays. After graduation we took the year off to be with the band, then called it a day. “To do that kind of work you have to have a certain personality. I felt like I needed a bit more security. I wasn’t wired to take a big chance on becoming a pop star.”

Black didn’t sing on stage again until last year, when the band played “For Today” at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards. “I started working in the music industry, first as a lawyer and then as a record company executive and what I found was I didn’t feel like performing much. It felt like a conflict. I was a support player to other people, rather than trying to run my own path as a performer.”

The offer of the one-off gig in November last year proved too tempting. “Bands that stop and then 30 years later start again… I’m not sure about that. I always said we’d never do it. Then the music awards came along; it was one song, it felt like a good moment to see everyone again, and it was fun.”

leon russell

RNZ’s Phil O’Brien says Leon Russell’s song “Back to the Island” makes him “wonder if I remembered to put my togs and towel in the boot”.

Kiwi stars' summer theme songs

  • When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was a schoolkid in Morrinsville, summer really began in the family car heading towards Waihi Beach. “The song that always seemed to be playing in the car,” she says, “was ‘Top of the World’ by the Carpenters.”
  • Dame Valerie Adams only needs to hear the words “Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun” at the start of “How Bizarre” by OMC – and in her mind the sun’s out and memories of childhood summers rush back.
  • “Forty-seven years ago,” says Mike Chunn, talking of his days before Split Enz, “Waiheke Island was burning in the sun. Moses, our three-piece rock and roll band, was booked to play the Waiheke Christmas dances at the Ostend RSA Hall. As part of this arrangement, we had been given an empty house to live in. It was surrounded by the longest unmown grass I’d ever seen. On our first day, while waiting to load our gear into the hall, we sat in the grass like crickets and played the radio. We just sat there dreaming and drifting – Wally, Alan and me. In that space of time Seals and Crofts’ ‘Summer Breeze’ played three times as we shifted from radio station to radio station. That song, with its cool arrangement and hooky chorus, totally mirrored the hot day we were immersed in. It captivated us. To this day every time I hear the song I’m catapulted back to that long-grass front lawn in the blazing sun feeling the anticipation of our first overseas gig.”
  • Phil O’Brien, co-host with Simon Morris on Radio New Zealand’s Matinee Idle summer show, says to this day the 1975 Leon Russell song “Back to the Island” makes him “wonder if I remembered to put my togs and towel in the boot. From the sound effects opening of waves crashing onto the beach, through Leon’s I-don’t-really-care-if-I-hit-the-note-exactly attitude to vocals, this song just screams lazy summer days.”
  • The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the band’s whole fun in the sun, 60s surfing ethos sparked such a drive in New Plymouth-based, teenaged Midge Marsden, he got hold of a massive wooden lump of a surfboard, helped his Dad make a trailer sitting on pram wheels, and pulled it with his pushbike along the sometimes steep, always sweaty 5km to Back Beach. “I was useless,” says the musician. “I could hardly even paddle it out. It’s a great song, though.”
  • On the other hand, Crusaders’ rugby coach Scott Robertson lived his summers in the surf at Mt Maunganui. “I grew up on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. ‘Snow (Hey Oh)’ is the banger that gets me going.”

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

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