If you’re not from Australasia, chances are that you’re not familiar with Dave Dobbyn – he’s ubiquitous in New Zealand, but obscure everywhere else. When a panel selected the New Zealand’s best ever popular songs in 2001, five Dave Dobbyn songs were included in the top 30 (and ‘Outlook for Thursday’ was at #31). Dobbyn beats out internationally successfully compatriots like Neil Finn and Lorde for the title of New Zealand’s songwriter.
Dobbyn started his career as the guitarist in pub-rock band Th’ Dudes in the late 1970s. Contemporary UK artists like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker make a good frame of reference for Dobbyn. He went on to front DD Smash in the early 1980s, before going solo. He showed a flair for kooky arrangements in the 1980s, with songs like ‘Slice of Heaven’ and ‘Outlook for Thursday’. He toughened his sound for the 1990s, peaking as an album artist with records like Lament for the Numb and The Islander.
I haven’t connected with Dobbyn’s 21st century work, although I appreciate the anti-racism sentiments of 2005’s ‘Welcome Home’. Dobbyn’s never gained an international profile, so he remains an overlooked treasure. In particular, his sheer musicality is sometimes forgotten – he’s a talented guitarist and an imaginative arranger.
Here are my ten favourite Dave Dobbyn songs:
#10 – Outlook For Thursday (DD Smash)
non-album single, 1983
The weather forecast is a big preoccupation in New Zealand – we’re a largely coastal nation, and the weather can change quickly. ‘Outlook for Thursday’ is our best known weather song not by Crowded House (who recorded ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ and ‘Weather With You’ on the same album). Dobbyn shows his flair for arrangements with the horn section – his characterful voice keeps ‘Outlook for Thursday’ from descending into 1980s kitsch.
#9 – It Dawned On Me
from Twist, 1994
Dobbyn returned home to New Zealand after a decade in Australia, and recorded Twist with Neil Finn – Finn and Dobbyn attended the same Catholic high school, Dobbyn a couple of years older than Finn. ‘It Dawned On Me’ is a gorgeous track, with a lovely minimal arrangement – Dobbyn’s voice is accompanied by piano, bass, and Don McGlashan’s euphonium. “Blood red bloom- pohutukawa” is a beautiful lyric to open the second verse.
#8 – Don’t Hold Your Breath
from Lament for the Numb, 1993
Dobbyn joined forces with producer Mitchell Froom and Elvis Costello’s rhythm section for Lament for the Numb. The raw and edgy record is a severe contrast with Dobbyn’s quirky 1980s material. ‘Don’t Hold Your Breath’ features an amazingly restrained performance from Pete Thomas. The drums are absent for the first three and a half minutes; Thomas suddenly drops a dramatic fill then falls silent again, only joining again near the end. The lyrics are as bleak as the music – Dobbyn suggests solutions for various world problems, then intones “don’t hold your breath”.
#7 – Be Mine Tonight (Th’ Dudes)
from Right First Time, 1979
Dobbyn started his recording career as the guitarist for Th’ Dudes, with Peter Urlich serving as lead vocalist. Dobbyn stepped up to the microphone for this classic slice of Kiwi pub-rock. It’s famous for its opening phrase “Asian cigarettes”. Dobbyn later confirmed to the Sunday Star Times that the line referred to an experience with Thai marijuana – he spent hours in front of an open fridge, deciding what to eat, while listening to Brian Eno.
#6 – Loyal
from Loyal, 1988
On his first solo album proper, Dobbyn unleashed the beloved ballad ‘Loyal’. It’s his signature piece, a nuanced, bittersweet song of devotion. It’s a great song trapped in a mediocre arrangement. It drags on over four and a half minutes, and the chiming keyboard countermelody is an essential musical element but is dated – it would have sounded nicer on a piano.
#5 – Maybe The Rain
from Lament for the Numb, 1993
One of the biggest issues in New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s was our relationship with the French. France was conducting open-air nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean, and Greenpeace was protesting. In 1985, their ship Rainbow Warrior was sunk in Auckland harbour by French operatives. Dobbyn protested the testing with the raw and emotive ‘Maybe The Rain’, opening with the line “Well this is horror show time in the heart of the Pacific.”
#4 – Beside You
from The Islander, 1998
The Islander is my favourite Dave Dobbyn record, capturing him in predominantly acoustic-folk mode. Especially gorgeous and introspective is lead single ‘Beside You’. It’s an apology to a loved one – whether it’s autobiographical or fictional, Dobbyn’s remarkably contrite. His falsetto is lovely.
#3 – Slice of Heaven
from Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale, 1986
After he was charged with inciting a riot during a 1984 DD Smash concert, Dobbyn rehabilitated his reputation with this soundtrack for a movie about New Zealand’s iconic cartoon dog. ‘Slice of Heaven’ is another of Dobby’s quirky arrangements; the combination of a synthesised Japanese flute (made with an E-mu Emulator II) and the Polynesian backing vocals of the band Herbs give ‘Slice of Heaven’ an utterly unique sonic palette. ‘Slice of Heaven’ topped the NZ charts for 8 weeks.
#2 – Lap Of The Gods
from Twist, 1994
Dobbyn brought a psychedelic sensibility to Twist, influenced by the mid-1960s Beatles. Some of Twist was written on Karekare Beach, the same place where Jane Campion filmed The Piano and Crowded House recorded Together Alone. The psychedelic guitars are glorious, twisting through the tune.
#1 – Whaling (DD Smash)
from The Optimist, 1984
Perhaps due to its long coastline, there’s a plethora of famous New Zealand songs about the sea – Che Fu’s ‘Waka’, The Mutton Birds’ ‘Anchor Me’, and Split Enz’s ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ are all notable examples. Dobbyn’s contribution is ‘Whaling’, which uses maritime metaphors to explain personal striving. The lovely fiddle playing makes ‘Whaling’ feel like a sea shanty.