Don McGlashan played French horn and percussion in the Auckland Symphonia. He would leave classical rehearsals to play punk-infused music and was a member of From Scratch; the idea being that instruments were created from scratch. Here McGlashan’s classical percussion training would give way to PVC pipes being hit with jandals.
His songwriting first announced itself with Blam Blam Blam. McGlashan was the band’s drummer and vocalist. He composed the music for Richard Von Sturmer’s biting lyric, There Is No Depression In New Zealand and won a New Zealand Music Award in 1982 for Don’t Fight It Marsha, It’s Bigger Than Both Of Us.
After Blam Blam Blam McGlashan combined his pop-songwriting instincts with his performance side, working with Harry Sinclair as The Front Lawn to create songs that played with Kiwi vernacular (How Are You Doing) and celebrated a simplicity within the New Zealand identity of the time (Tomorrow Night).
There were two albums from The Front Lawn, off-kilter pop music that might have been underappreciated in its time – but McGlashan still performs songs from the band in his solo sets now, particularly When You Come Back Home and the moving Andy (written about the passing of his brother).
McGlashan composed the score for the movie version of Janet Frame’s autobiography, An Angel At My Table and moved into the 1990s with a new vehicle for his songs, The Mutton Birds.
Since The Front Lawn McGlashan had moved out from behind the drum-kit, the guitar was now his chief instrument and with The Mutton Birds the songs that Kiwis know and love started to pile up. From the debut, self-titled album, Dominion Road, She’s Like A City, Your Window, White Valiant, A Thing Well Made and Giant Friend are all examples of songs that offer more than “moon in June” rhymes and boy-meets-girl ideas. McGlashan’s songs are stories, there are characters that draw the listeners in. The characters aren’t always human. Dominion Road distracts and plays a part – a literal dividing line for a couple falling out – in the first song on the first Mutton Birds album. Elsewhere it’s a city (Christchurch) that is the star (She’s Like A City) or a car (White Valiant).
The Mutton Birds featured four incredible musicians – all pushing and pulling at the songs, guiding them into place, stretching them to bridge genre-gaps.
But the majority of the band’s music came from the pen of McGlashan.
The Mutton Birds failed to crack the international market – despite best attempts. Certainly McGlashan’s songwriting was consistent and 1999’s final Mutton Birds album, Rain, Steam, And Speed offered Pulled Along By Love – an enduring classic.
McGlashan returned to the world of movie music and his involvement in the 2005 film, No. 2, saw a country-ish ditty turned into a modern-day gospel-soul workout; McGlashan providing Hollie Smith with the biggest hit of her career thanks to her version of his song, Bathe In The River.
The following year McGlashan launched his solo career proper with the release of Warm Hand. The opening track, This Is London instantly reminds of The Mutton Birds. It was a welcome return. Toy Factory Fire and Harbour Bridge are further examples of songs where the story pulls the listener in, the setting of the story working as a character in its own right.
In 2009, with backing band The Seven Sisters in tow, McGlashan released Marvellous Year.
He sits alongside the Finns and Dave Dobbyn as one of New Zealand’s great songwriters. And through reunions with Blam Blam Blam and more recently The Mutton Birds, as well as his own solo performances, he continues to offer versions of the McGlashan songbook to adoring audiences.
Lucky Stars, released in 2015, is his best and finest solo album to date. Collaborations with Shayne Carter and Dave Dobbyn have been hugely successful and continue to show McGlashan in fine form as song interpreter and live showman.
Don McGlashan has put so much of New Zealand into his songs – our character, psyche, our places and people. It’s getting harder to understand the idea of New Zealand music as a genre, as one single idea, but McGlashan’s songs are a huge part of the ideal of music that is typically, identifiably Kiwi.
Some of the text here first appeared as an essay in the book On Song