10 Best Songs by The Mutton Birds

Don McGlashan had already made an impact on the New Zealand music scene before he formed The Mutton Birds. He was the drummer for the punk-influenced band Blam Blam Blam, remembered for fabulously titled songs ‘There Is No Depression in New Zealand’ and ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha, It’s Bigger Than Both Of Us’. He then formed The Front Lawn with actor Harry Sinclair.

McGlashan, however, achieved the most success with his 1990s band alternative-rock band The Mutton Birds. The band took their name from shearwater, seabirds harvested for food in New Zealand. For most of the band’s tenure, McGlashan was joined by drummer Ross Burge, guitarist David Long, and bassist Alan Gregg.

All four of their albums reached the New Zealand top ten, while ‘Dominion Road’, ‘Anchor Me’, and their cover of ‘Nature’ are all among New Zealand’s best-loved songs. McGlashan’s a sophisticated musician – his songs are nuanced, and he’s adept on a range of instruments, including French Horn and Euphonium. Perhaps due to this sophistication, and a lighter sound than most 1990s rock bands, The Mutton Birds never broke internationally, but they’re one of the best New Zealand bands of the 1990s. Here are ten of The Mutton Birds’ best songs:

#10 While You Sleep

from Envy of Angels, 1996
‘While You Sleep’ wasn’t a single, but it appears to be a fan favourite – I found this graph on a long-defunct fan site, so old that it doesn’t include any songs from 1999’s Rain, Steam & Speed.

McGlashan told elsewhere.co.nz that “In the Mutton Birds third album there was ‘While You Sleep’ which I really wanted to be about one moment that would take place in the three and half minutes to sing the song, and no longer. I think I just about got that one right in that regard but there were a lot of other songs on that record where it would be a struggle to be that brief and intense.”


#9 Nature

from The Mutton Birds, 1992
New Zealand didn’t really have much in the way of popular music before the mid-1970s. The hits were often gimmicky, like Ray Columbus’ British Invasion imitation ‘She’s A Mod’ and Shane’s ‘Saint Paul’. The most beloved New Zealand song from the 1960s is The Fourmyula’s ‘Nature’, a hippie anthem from Upper Hutt. The Mutton Birds present the song with a tougher sound for the 1990s, as the closing track on their debut album.


#8 Like This Train

from Envy of Angels, 1996
The Mutton Birds’ third album, Envy of Angels, is their finest, with McGlashan’s tuneful writing supported by veteran producer Hugh Jones. The band relocated to London to try and break through to the UK market. They didn’t reach a mass audience, but they enjoyed acclaim in the UK – Mojo magazine named Envy of Angels the fifth best album of the year in their readers’ poll.


#7 A Thing Well Made

from The Mutton Birds, 1992
In 1990, one of New Zealand’s worst mass shootings occurred – a lone gunman in the remote coastal settlement of Aramoana killed 13 people before he was shot by police. The event inspired songs by The Chills and Goatrider, as well as this effort by McGlashan. In it, McGlashan imagines himself as the salesman who sold the AK-47 – “When a man holds a thing well made/There’s connection/There’s completeness.” The song’s main calling card, however, is the gorgeous euphonium part from McGlashan.


#6 Come Around

from Envy of Angels, 1996
Bassist Alan Gregg emerged as a songwriter on the band’s second album Salty – his sweeter and simpler material complemented McGlashan’s writing. McGlashan told Audioculture “Alan was paralysed with shame about his songwriting early on. He came to me when we were making Salty and said ‘I’ve got some songs. I don’t think they’re any good. If you agree with me then this conversation never happened!'” His best song for the band is ‘Come Around’, the band’s highest-charting single in the UK, reaching the heady heights of #81.


#5 The Heater

from Salty, 1994
The Mutton Birds’ only number one single in New Zealand is one of their toughest-sounding songs. For a band that released their first album in 1992, there’s little grunge influence in The Mutton Birds’ sound. Here the guitars recall ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, although it’s hard to imagine Nirvana including a euphonium lick in the introduction. It’s a love song to an electric appliance, unusual subject matter for a pop song.


#4 She’s Been Talking

from Envy of Angels, 1996
An Irish folk lilt that comes through on some of McGlashan’s material – the verse melody meanders around the lyrics before the song coalesces into the chorus. Long plays some creative guitar as well – his quickfire lead in the second verse and the heavy shoegaze chords in the bridge are both great moments.


#3 Dominion Road

from The Mutton Birds, 1992
Lots of McGlashan’s songs reference New Zealand places. ‘Dominion Road’ is the most famous example, named after a notable street in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. The band’s first single, it’s a sparkling power pop track with a memorable guitar line from Long and some great lyrics from McGlashan. “Dominion Road is bending under its own weight/Shining like a strip cut from a sheet metal plate” is one of New Zealand pop’s great opening lines. A plaque in honour of the song has since been installed – naturally it’s halfway down Dominion Road.


#2 Pulled Along By Love

from Rain, Steam & Speed, 1999
The Mutton Birds followed up the excellent Envy of Angels with a lacklustre final album. Long and Gregg had both left the band, and it only just scraped into the New Zealand top ten. The leadoff single ‘Pulled Along By Love’ is terrific, however, juxtaposing tense verses with a glorious, harmonised chorus.


#1 Anchor Me

It was the fourth single from Salty, but ‘Anchor Me’ has become The Mutton Birds’ signature song. A lovely verse melody, some clever nautical metaphors (we’re a small country with a lot of coast-line), and a crashing, rousing chorus. After the song was used in the coverage of an election win, McGlashan famously said that he “would rather have sex with a very ugly crayfish” than allow The National Party to use his music.

Did I miss your favourite Mutton Birds song?

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Aphoristical
Aphoristical

Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

7 Comments

  1. The Mutton Birds sound pretty pleasant. In this case, I suppose my ignorance of not having heard of them before at least can be partially attributed to their apparent minimal visibility beyond New Zealand.

    I’m also not aware of any other rock band featuring a euphonium – frankly, I had no idea such a thing even exists! Pretty cool how tunes like “A Thing Well Made” seamlessly integrate the brass instrument.

  2. I’ve heard of them…possibly from you on a comment. I’ve heard Dominion Road before and it’s good. I listened to them before I read about them…of course, I would like the power pop one. Anchor Me is a good song as well. I like what I”ve heard so far.

    I’ve listened to both versions of Nature. I like both but I do like where they took the song. Great stuff Graham.

    • Thanks for listening! They never had much success outside NZ but probably deserved some more. They could have potentially cracked the UK – Crowded House did it in the early 1990s, although helped by Paul Young covering Don’t Dream It’s Over.

  3. I liked the way they did with the guitars on the first song. And I also liked the one with a trombone in it.

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