Who They Are: Split Enz were founded in 1972 as an art-cabaret group by singer-songwriters Tim Finn and Phil Judd, who were then university students in Auckland, New Zealand. From their inception, Split Enz crafted an amalgam of striking musical and visual elements, including strange promotional videos and marketing materials (mostly by Judd, a deeply talented visual artist), unusual song structures with twisted pop elements and ripe arrangements, and garish stage costumes designed by percussionist Noel Crombie, who was also known for (among other things) his old-timey spoons solos during live shows. After a pair of albums (the second of which was essentially a major-label international re-recording of the first regionally-released record, with production by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera), Judd left the group and was replaced by Tim Finn’s younger brother Neil. The group also added an English rhythm section around that point, featuring Nigel Griggs and Malcolm Green, formerly with the exceptional (and, sadly, mostly forgotten) Octopus. The line-up of Finn, Finn, Crombie, Griggs, Green and keyboardist Eddie Rayner produced their period of greatest global commercial and critical success, following Neil’s breakthrough 1980 smash single, “I Got You.” Tim Finn eventually left to begin a successful solo career, and after one half-baked album without him, the remaining Enz went their separate ways. Neil continued his chart-topping success with Crowded House, while Judd had massive (but brief) success in the early ’80s with his group The Swingers, then formed the under-appreciated Schnell Fenster with Crombie, Griggs and guitarist Michael den Elzen, then also went on to a solo career.
When I First Heard Them: My introduction to Split Enz came as a result of a memory mistake. During my most fervent Brian Eno phase in the late ’70s, I would regularly read the liner notes of Eno’s albums and seek out records featuring his chosen collaborators. (For the younger readers, that’s one of the key ways that we found new musical things, pre-Internet era, hard to believe as that might be). Eno’s magnum opus, Here Come the Warm Jets (1974) featured a keyboardist named Nick Judd on two tracks, along with Eno’s former Roxy Music band-mate Phil Manzanera as a key contributor. At some point in some cut-out bin, I picked up an album with a really weird band photo on its cover, flipped it over, saw Manzanera’s name as producer, saw “Judd” as a major songwriter, and assumed this must have been Nick Judd’s band accordingly. Oops. As it turned out, Nick Judd was actually the keyboardist for Free bassist Andy Fraser’s band, Sharks, and not the Judd of the Enz. I didn’t realize my error for quite some time, but I did buy that record (Second Thoughts, 1977) on false presumptions at the time anyway, liked it, filled in the Enz back catalog and kept up with the group on a go-forward basis thereafter. Their somewhat twisted family tree also provided lots of ancillary listening, with precursor bands and posthumous bands providing equal enjoyment. Neil Finn is currently a member of Fleetwood Mac, and has re-launched Crowded House. Phil Judd continues to record and release his quirky, fractured pop gems, and also continues to produce exceptional visual art; he’s always worth keeping up with. Tim Finn has released a long series of solo records, all generally rewarding; I am most fond of his 2008 release The Conversation, which is an acoustic record featuring Rayner and Miles Golding, one of the original university-era Enz members who went on to a successful career in England as a concert violinist.
Why I Love Them: I tend to think of the Split Enz story as being somewhat analogous to the Genesis story: both groups made deeply strange music with visually extravagant stage shows for niche audiences in their early days, before latter-day members emerged to carry their respective groups to massive international pop stardom, as key founding members dropped out along the way. Phil Judd-era Enz often featured unusual instrumentation and shambolic arrangements of strange pop songs with a mostly-acoustic air permeating the proceedings, while the “classic” era band turned into an incredibly tight pop-rock ensemble, capable of punching an audience into euphoric surrender with a never-ending sequence of memorable singalong tunes. The group’s visuals were, and remain, one of a kind, and they tend to evoke strong “love it” or “hate it” reactions from people. Here, you can judge yourself, with an early Judd-fronted video, “Spellbound,” and a contemporaneous Tim Finn-sung one, “Time for a Change.” Pretty over-the-top, huh? And the wardrobe and hair actually got more florid and garish as the years went on. I certainly appreciate the creative audacity of what they were doing, and the fact that they managed to carry something so odd and unique and magical from remote New Zealand to such great global success, then went on to do other interesting things when the group’s story had run its course. While most folks who are familiar with Split Enz and their spawn would hold the early-’80s Neil Finn-era as the group’s high-water creative mark, I actually much personally prefer the earlier Phil Judd-Tim Finn periods, in retrospect, and note with adjacent admiration the fact that the two founders adored and were inspired by Mervyn Peake and his works, as was I. All of those various spin-off groups, and their own creative successes in a variety of musical idioms, play a key part in my appreciation of what the core group was capable of, together, or on their own. Among my ten favorite songs listed below, I note when one of the other groups makes an appearance, and if no specific credit is provided, then it is the Enz themselves.
#10. “Counting the Beat” by The Swingers, from Practical Jokers (1981)
#9. “Late Last Night,” from “Last Last Night” single (1976); later reissued on Second Thoughts (1977)
#8. “I Hope I Never,” from True Colours (1980)
#7. “Matinee Idyll (129),” from Second Thoughts (1977)
#6. “History Never Repeats,” from Waiata (1981)
#5. “Charlie,” from Dizrhymthia (1977)
#4. “Another Great Divide,” from “Another Great Divide” single (1976); later reissued on Dizrhymthia (1977)
#3. “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” from Time and Tide (1982) (Note: the video also includes the “Pioneer” instrumental intro, a separate track on the actual album).
#2. “The Sound of Trees,” by Schnell Fenster, from The Sound of Trees (1988)
#1. “Titus,” from Mental Notes (1975)