Overnight Success

Overnight Success

The Essential Dave Dobbyn 1979-99


“The torch songs on the radio

made the rain dance with the windscreen wipers.”

‘Blindman’s Bend’, 1998



Dave Dobbyn says that since day one, he has had a tune in his head: “Even in a state house, the bathroom echoes.” In the 1960s, Glen Innes may have been bare of trees, fences and other luxuries. It was then a fledgling suburb, and is still a long bus ride east of downtown Auckland. But a slight boy with a head of ginger curls could find plenty to occupy himself, even if he didn’t play rugby.


The middle child of a large family, Dave Dobbyn spent his time daydreaming. His imagination would be fired up by a matinee session at the Civic, or at home, twiddling the knobs on the radiogram, “travelling the world in music.” Across the road was a church, full of songs in which to hide. Now he realises what he learnt there. “After being exposed to such emotion, how could you not sing?” But there was also that radiogram, where he could listen to the rock’n’roll pirates on Radio Hauraki, or play the Beatles and Motown 45s he inherited from a cousin.


“I got a good sense of ‘the song’ growing up. It was regarded as this precious thing on the radio. And when you got the records, you didn’t have to wait to hear the magic.”


 To be a singer-songwriter is a vocation. For some, it’s about poetry, or polemics. To Willie Nelson, it’s something modest: “What I do for a living is to get people to feeling good.” It isn’t about being a master singer, or a brilliant songwriter; a wordsmith, melodist or intellectual. Your work must have an emotional impact on your audience. You’ve got to make them feel good: about feeling good or feeling bad.


Dobbyn describes the job of a performer in similarly modest terms. It isn’t about indulging yourself on stage, he says. “It’s a celebration where everyone celebrates.”


The Essential Dave Dobbyn is a celebration of songs, and their singer, both of which seem to have been around forever. For many, it’s the soundtrack to their coming of age. But it also traces Dobbyn’s growing up in public, a portrait of the artist as a young man.


The shy schoolboy – too nervous to perform, although he made his classmates laugh the moment he arrived – became a peroxided pop star in Th’ Dudes. In DD Smash he was “the Pleaser”, a star from the hinter to the heartland, a pub-rock trouper and pop magician. He made an album called The Optimist, gave us a slice of heaven and sang of love and loyalty.


In his 30s, as Dave Dobbyn, he made music like a personal weathervane. There were occasional showers, but the forecast was “otherwise fine”. Even at his most melancholic, there were melodies as positive as rainbows. For 20 years now, his music has been making the rain dance with the windscreen wipers.


Yes, he’s another singer-songwriter who always takes the weather with him. That’s part of the appeal: there’s a nakedness, an honesty, about his music and performance – even when he was chasing that elusive international hit, giving his songs a Sydney shine.


Dobbyn started writing before he became a singer; in Peter Urlich, Th’ Dudes already had the perfect pinup frontman. But when Dobbyn shed his peroxide disguise and stepped in front of the microphone, he threw his heart and soul into it: “Aaaasian cigarettes … a few cans, if you can.” ‘Be Mine Tonight’ became an anthem to the pub-rock crowd, as did ‘Bliss’, a later song intended to parody the demanding drunks in the audience.


After Th’ Dudes, he spent time experimenting in the studio with another former bandmate and schoolfriend, Ian Morris. At Stebbings, they deconstructed those old Beatles and Motown 45s. A couple of eccentric singles would result (‘Lipstick Power’, ‘Bull By the Horns’); their idiosyncrasies would always remain part of his songwriting style.


It was DD Smash that exposed the songs and sound of Dave Dobbyn to the world. The songs came from a smorgasbord of radio pop, not so much the Beatles (like so many, his world turned from black-and-white to colour the day he heard Sgt Pepper), more the 1970s. The chugalug glam rhythms of David Bowie, T Rex, Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed. The timeless melodies of solo McCartney, Stevie Wonder. The pop smarts of Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello.


Vocally, it was immediately apparent that he was unique. He was just as capable of the intimacy of a balladeer as he was a voice from a Warner Brothers cartoon. The soul emerged from deep in the diaphragm, and would get twisted on the journey past the larynx. He didn’t just sing, he had a vocal vocabulary. There were leaps, yelps, growls, the barking repetition of an auctioneer or testifying of a gospel preacher.


The quirky, infectious pop songs seemed to come naturally (‘Outlook for Thursday’, ‘Magic What She Do’). So did the no-nonsense rock’n’roll of ‘The Devil You Know’ (note the lack of an intro: it has all the punch of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’).


But the purity of a classic songwriter was always there. In DD Smash, he’d take time out for ‘Guilty’, his torch song debut. ‘Whaling’ is a timeless sea-shanty, written on a beermat one lonely night and now an unofficial national anthem. ‘You Oughta Be in Love’ parodied his romantic tendencies, and became a hit nevertheless. But with ‘Loyal’ he seemed to find a new simplicity, which later reached a more organic level with the ethereal ‘Naked’ and confessional ‘Beside You’.


The beauty of simplicity is that there’s usually so much more under the surface. Take the hidden depths of ‘Belle of the Ball’, as richly coloured as a stained-glass window, or ‘Language’, which keeps developing on its opening statement, like a Bach fugue.


And then there’s ‘Slice of Heaven’, the song with everything – and plenty of space to hear it all the bits: The dah dah da-dum-dum hook like a doo-wop plainchant, the breathy ocarina flute sound, somehow stirred together with a Keith Richards guitar hook and a ‘Bluebeat’ ska rhythm. It was all things to all people, as integrated as a country public bar (where they have the best jukeboxes). No wonder it spent eight weeks at No 1 in New Zealand, and four in Australia.


With ‘Slice of Heaven’, Dobbyn came into his own as a producer. It was a natural style he’d be encouraged to return to later, by low-fi producers Mitchell Froom (Lament for the Numb) and Neil Finn (Twist). On The Islander Dobbyn produced himself, and it had an honest, modest sound, without frills or affectation. “It had to happen,” he says, “ to get more grounded to where the music springs from.”


Now, Dobbyn has come full circle. He has returned to the studio with his lifelong friend and musical collaborator Ian Morris. They have revisited ‘Be Mine Tonight’, a song that quickly became a standard. (In Stranded in Paradise, John Dix suggests it was an influence on the ‘Dunedin Sound”).


For years, it was such a chestnut for Dobbyn, he refused to play it. “It was more well-known after Th’ Dudes, but I don’t know why I was embarrassed by it,” he says. “I wanted to move on: it’s impossible to have a career concurrent with what you’re up to now, but I’ve learnt you have to play the hits.”


But if revisiting ‘Be Mine Tonight’ with Morris was an energising release for Dobbyn, so too was a return to their old stamping ground Glen Innes. The new ‘Madeleine Avenue’ pays tribute to the wrong side of the tracks on the wrong side of town. The notorious street was recently pulled down and re-named. “It was just over the hill, straight out of Once Were Warriors. Calling it ‘the street of shame’ was insulting: it was a place where people lived and died.”


In the days of the DD Smash showband, he had a soul song called ‘Itinerary’. In the middle of it, he’d go into a stream-of-consciousness rap, referring to Glen Innes and “Mr Tim Finn’s line about the tyranny of distance”. The last 20 years have been a strange itinerary indeed. If anyone has suffered from tyranny of distance, it’s Dave Dobbyn. But if he’d experienced overnight success, the journey may not have lasted 20 years.

Chris Bourke, September 1999.