'Sierra Leone' was one of those songs that quickly stood out from the pack. Andrew McLennan's synth-pop track won his new band Coconut Rough a deal with Mushroom Records, then became a runaway hit in 1983. The video, slick for the time, features bright colours, a running motif, and African imagery. But the pressure of being in demand for a single song became an albatross around the band's neck. As McLennan told website AudioCulture, "‘Sierra Leone’ became the only song from our repertoire that people wanted to hear and no matter what we did we couldn’t follow it up."
The Mockers had a breakthrough year in 1984. Their sixth single 'Swear It's True' caught New Zealand's attention, and in May their debut album peaked at number four on the Kiwi charts. In June they played Mainstreet for one of 1984's batch of Radio with Pictures specials, spawning the live album Caught in the Act, which was released in July. Vocalist and part-time poet Andrew Fagan cuts a piratical figure in his sailor's jacket and trademark fingerless gloves. Dunedin band The Idles were a lesser known proposition. They made ripples in 1984 with their first EP, 'Agroculture'.
TVNZ series Viewfinder was aimed at making news and current affairs accessible to a teen audience. Topics ranged from underage drinking to the new breakdancing craze, to a campaign to see School Certificate exam papers after they had been marked. Reports were filed by the show's three presenters. Over the show's run these included Phillipa Dann (in her first presenting gig), Uelese Petaia (star of 1979 movie Sons for the Return Home), David Hindley (also a gay rights campaigner) and Michael Barry. The show's distinctive synthesiser opening infiltrated many young minds.
The fall of the Iron Curtain was still several years away when Shona Laing wrote her first APRA Silver Scroll winner 'Soviet Snow'. The world had been "teasing at war like children" over decades of the arms race and Cold War brinksmanship and the threat of nuclear winter was very real. The video is a suitably chilly but dizzying montage that marries Russian iconography and Soviet imagery to the song's urgent synthesised beats. Laing later stripped 'Soviet Snow' of its synthpop trappings in an acoustic version on her 2007 album Pass the Whisper.
Musical shapeshifter SJD (short for Sean James Donnelly) released second album Lost Soul Music in 2001, early in a career that has seen him blending synthesisers, backwards voices, and a love of melody — all while working to ensure that each new album heads somewhere different from the last. His vocal on single 'A Boy' shows echoes of Beck, an artist some have cited as an influence. Co-directed by his brother Kieran and Dominic Taylor, the music video mixes lively, childlike animation with shimmering images of an unusual room and the boy inside...whose head is often a blur.
Harking back to early New Zealand electronica (e.g. Body Electric) The L.E.D.s programme is to synthesise music made by man and machine. Evolving from the group Thomas:Parkes, the synth-popsters made their grand entrance in 2007 with the samples, blips, beats and beeps fuelled debut "... We Are The L.E.D.s", via a home pressing in Christchurch. The critically acclaimed release was followed in 2008 with Still, described by the band as "harder, faster, better, stronger and simply more - more synth, more bass, more drums".
The video for BRF's second single contrasts images of youths in gas masks with This is New Zealand-style panoramic scenery. The song ominously describes a complacent society ignoring apocalyptic possibilities: it could be the theme song to The Quiet Earth. But like BRF's UK contemporaries the Cure and Joy Division, behind the brooding, melancholic music is a pop song with deceptive hooklines. The haunting melody emerges slowly from a funereal marching beat, while the chorus is almost ecstatic, with phased synthesised strings that seem to take flight.
Boh Runga and Stellar* enjoyed a breakthrough year in 1999 with their synthesis of guitars and electronic beats realised on Mix, a chart topping debut produced by Tom Bailey (of Thompson Twins fame). Jonathan King's video for 'Part of Me', the album's second single, creates a repressive, futuristic world of glass, concrete and steel where the only plants seen are those grown in strictly controlled conditions. But in amongst the soulless conformity, surveillance cameras and sterile suits, it might be too soon to completely write off Mother Nature.
SJD (aka Sean James Donnelly), winner of the 2013 Taite Music Prize, talks samples, lyrics and home studios in this series made for secondary school music students. Donnelly demonstrates his fondness for old synthesisers (he admits liking their crankiness, and the way they make their most interesting sounds as they start to fall apart). Talking a couple of years after the release of second album Lost Soul Music, he traces the origins of Lost Soul single ‘A Boy’, and its music video — which features his son, and was animated and co-directed by his brother Kieran.
United by a love of synthesisers, Mark Turner and Johanna Freeman began making pop music together in 2007. Their sole album, Owl+Owl (released on label Lil' Chief Records), won enthusiastic reviews the following year. Turner began playing music at a young age, from wind instruments to guitar and drums. Little Pictures split in 2009. After forming band The Eversons, Turner won controversy in 2012 for a song seemingly aimed at Freeman. After relocating to London in 2015, The Eversons eventually morphed into indie popsters Superorganism, after recruiting young Japanese vocalist Orono Naguchi.