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Split Enz

The stamping ground for TIM FINN (and for that matter his younger sibling NEIL FINN), New Zealand’s finest pop-rock export of all-time, SPLIT ENZ, developed their brand of arty-rock and pre-power-pop over the course of a dozen years or so before petering out in 1985. The brothers FINN would also combine, although very briefly in the early 90s, in the gloriously mainstream CROWDED HOUSE set, `Woodface’. While SPLIT ENZ could be accused of mirroring aspects of British Invasion pop from the mid-60s such as The BEATLES, The KINKS and SMALL FACES, no one could doubt that their “goofball” image and quirky musical muscle led to a raft of similar new wave doyens like DEAF SCHOOL, DEVO, XTC, SQUEEZE, The POLICE and Australia’s own MENTAL AS ANYTHING – all “Mental Notes” indeed. Unforgettable tracks `I Got You’, `Bold As Brass’, `My Mistake’, `Poor Boy’ and `Crosswords’ were partly overlooked by the majority of fans from the day, only to subsequently transpire into bona fide long-lost classics.
Formed in October 1972, Split Ends – as they were initially known – set about putting their small Antipodean country on the musical map. Comprising Auckland University students Tim Finn (vocals, piano) and London-born Mike Chunn (bass), plus Phil Judd (vocals, guitar), classically-trained, Sydney-born Miles Golding (violin) and the reluctant Michael Howard (wind), the quintet dispatched their acoustic debut 45, `For You’ (b/w `Split Ends’), before they succumbed to one of their many personnel adjustments; without Michael and Miles, they added Wally Wilkinson (lead guitar) and Mike’s younger brother Geoff Chunn (drums) – to supersede Div Vercoe – while Robert Gillies (sax/trumpet) was added part time.
On entering their country’s New Faces TV talent show, E.M.I. pressed up their second single, `Sweet Talking Spoon Song’, a pastiche of the vaudevillian era. Further personnel upheavals saw the addition of Eddie Rayner (keyboards, synths) and colourful costume creator Noel Crombie (percussion), while Emlyn Crowther (drums) took over from Geoff. A theatrical SPLIT ENZ were now fully operational, stylising their own brand of tongue-in-cheek prog-pop, inspired no doubt by GENESIS, STACKRIDGE and SUPERTRAMP.
Refusing at first to conform with the group’s extrovert philosophy, Judd preferred to stay at home to co-write the songs, only to be egged out in the open by the others when their cult following garnered them a contract at Australia’s Mushroom Records. Recorded in only a fortnight, but rehearsed over the struggling months leading up to their big break, debut set MENTAL NOTES {*7} was released in July 1975. Eccentric and arty as the album sleeve shot depicted, the madcap 7-piece were confusingly progressive; co-pensmith Tim’s newfound Mellotron swathes complementing the acoustic accompaniment. `Under The Wheel’, `Stranger Than Fiction’, the quavering `Spellbound’ and the rinky-dink 45 `Maybe’ (coupled with the un-straight-jacketed `Titus’), were unique among any Australasians yet to experience the advent of prog-rock.
But with this imperfect beauty came a resolution to make up for its slight foibles by re-recording – with PHIL MANZANERA at the decks – a handful of cuts (`Walking Down A Road’, `Time For A Change’, `Titus’ and `Stranger Than Fiction’) for the re-worked and unnecessary SECOND THOUGHTS (1976) {*6}; Wilkinson had now made way for a returning Gillies. Weirder-than-weird hair-dos aside, and signed to Chrysalis Records in the UK and US – the new romantic aplomb was possible born right here – a re-working of another early piece, “129”, was re-booted as the single `Matinee Idyll’, while the album was confusingly delivered as “Mental Notes”.
Taking their follow-up title from circadian dysrythmia (aka “jet lag”), DIZRYTHMIA (1977) {*8} marked a sharp commercial upturn in the septet’s happy-go-lucky buoyancy; brother Neil Finn (vocals, guitar), plus Englishmen Nigel Griggs (bass) and Malcolm Green (drums) – ex-LOVE AFFAIR, ex-HONEYCOMBS, ex-OCTOPUS – filling the respective berths of Judd, Chunn and Crowther. The former of the three had left behind the pop-fuelled, SPARKS-esque `Sugar And Spice’ (and also the collaborative `Jamboree’ and old-school `Nice To Know’), but these were far overshadowed by the buccaneering `Bold As Brass’, the manic `My Mistake’, the coolly catchy `Charlie’ and their crossover to new wave, `Crosswords’.
Frustratingly AWOL in 1978 as British and American acts were sweeping the boards under the new wave banner, 1979’s Gillies-less FRENZY {*6} was not issued for Chrysalis, who’d resented any talk of writer’s block at a time considerably crucial to impending success. Helped by a healthy grant from the New Zealand Arts Council and subsequently surfacing from a Luton studio, SPLIT ENZ stripped out the excesses of their prog-ish past, wholly and hungry on the likes of ones-that-got-away (at least overseas), `I See Red’, `Give It A Whirl’ and `She Got Body She Got Soul’; incidentally, the “Frenzy” LP of 1981 was slightly altered when finally remixed and released by A&M Records in the States.
With Tim’s more melodic sensibilities increasingly to the fore, the band enjoyed some belated worldwide success with the Top 50 TRUE COLOURS (1980) {*7} album. A single penned by Neil Finn (and not Tim), `I Got You’ – which topped the Australian charts for over two months – bubbled under the UK Top 10 and US Top 50, while the SQUEEZE-like `Shark Attack’ and `Poor Boy’ confirmed SPLIT ENZ had completed their new wave makeover. Taking a leaf from The BEATLES in part (`What’s The Matter With You?’) or 10CC (in the “I’m Not In Love”-like `I Hope I Never’), the sextet excelled without garnering much fuss.
1981’s “Maori”/party-inspired WAIATA {*6} – or “Corroboree” the equivalent title in Australia – seemed rushed and somewhat darker than its predecessor, resulting in poor sales in the discerning UK. Despite a handful of decent turns by way of `History Never Repeats’ and `One Step Ahead’ (homeland hit singles both), SPLIT ENZ were beginning to think way outside the box; they dropped Green forthwith. Despite their pop charm, the band’s latter day albums such as TIME AND TIDE (1982) {*7} – featuring the nautical pair `Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ and `Haul Away’ – and CONFLICTING EMOTIONS (1983/4) {*6} sold relatively poorly outside Australia/NZ. In the meantime, while TIM FINN worked on his own “Escapade” album, Neil was also given an equal opportunity to present his own songs, three of his best so far (`Message To My Girl’, `Strait Old Line’ and the funky `No Mischief’), notably inclusions on the latter set.
The re-shuffle of all re-shuffles came about when Tim (soon-to-be married to actress Greta Scacchi) decided the boat was duly sinking – not leaking – and now with a non-original quintet of leader Neil, Nigel, Noel, Eddie and fresh drummer Paul Hester, the dispirited SPLIT ENZ came up with the Antipodean-only swansong SEE YA ‘ROUND (1984) {*4}. Predominately the work of Neil on side one, side two mostly catered for solo contributions by the others.
A farewell live-in-concert set, THE LIVING ENZ (1985) {*5}, it sealed the fate of a great band out-of-sync that just couldn’t get into full gear. Whether they were just too ahead of their rivals, or just lazy enough to think it, when it all got pedestrian and mainstream, well, that was for others to judge. Anyhow, Neil duly formed CROWDED HOUSE, which later included Tim; A year later, Judd, Crombie, Griggs and Michael Den Elzen formed their own outfit, SCHNELL FENSTER, who released two quirky-funk/jazz sets. All parties concerned were responsible for their live (March ’93) reunion set, released two years on as ANNIVERSARY (1995) {*5}. SPLIT ENZ have since re-formed on occasion, none more enterprising than for a New Year’s Eve millennium gig in 1999, and a few to herald in re-issues of their classy sets in the mid-00s.
© MC Strong 1994/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2015

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