Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Split Enz: Two Finns From New Zealand

How much of an achievement is it to be the greatest '80s band from New Zealand? While you think of the answer to that question, let me tell you about Split Enz.

A couple of years ago, I downloaded History Never Repeats - The Best of Split Enz, and I liked it. So then I downloaded the bands' first seven albums. Which is ... all of their albums, except for two. You know what? They're all pretty good.

Initially, under the leadership of Tim Finn and Phil Judd, Split Enz began as sort of a poppy progressive rock band in the vein of Supertramp or 10cc (even enlisting Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera as the producer of their second album). But right around 1977, Judd left and was replaced by Tim's younger brother Neil. Partly because the music scene was shifting, and partly because Neil could barely play the guitar, Split Enz' songs, such as "My Mistake," became zippier and more concise.

According to Wikipedia, "their 'look' – a mixture of the weird and the whimsical – drew on influences like the circus, music hall, gothic horror, Expressionist cinema, pantomime, psychedelia, surrealism, and modern art – all filtered through the band's bizarre demeanour and crazed on-stage antics." It was as if the group were trying to say, "Hey British bands: you think you're eccentric? We're from New Zealand, bitches, and this is eccentric."

By their fourth album Frenzy, Split Enz began displaying a noticeably heavier influence from British New Wave acts such as XTC and Elvis Costello, as "I See Red" demonstrates. Looks like Tim forgot to take his meds that day.

But soon, little brother Neil was all grown up and writing singles of his own! "I Got You" was the band's biggest hit, reaching #1 in Australia, #12 in the UK, and #53 in the US. Sure, #53 doesn't sound like much of a hit (the album it appeared on, True Colours, did peak at #40, which means that, technically, Split Enz had a US Top 40 album), but apparently the video became an early MTV staple, at least according to a very reliable source: Belinda Carlisle. From Lips Unsealed:
When I think back on those early days of MTV, all I remember seeing is a lot of the Split Enz hit "I Got You." I noticed them because of a funny thing that happened a year earlier when I was living at Disgraceland. It was the night we were having one of the more infamous parties in that place's history, an event we had dubbed the Forbidden Foods Party. It was girls only - no boys allowed. About thirty of us got together, and the two requirements for admission were that you had to wear a negligee and bring the most fattening food you could find.

We were in the middle of this party, drinking from a giant bowl of alcohol punch, dancing around, eating, and acting crazy, when there was a knock at the door. We opened it and Neil Finn and some of the guys from Split Enz were standing there. They said they had just come to town and heard there was a party, so they showed up. It made perfect sense to me. What do you do when you get to town? You find out where the party is and go. So I told them to come on in and enjoy themselves.
Wait, what about the "girls only" thing? Aw, forget it.
How could they not? There were thirty girls prancing around half-naked, eating pizza, French fries, cannolis, and cream puffs. They didn't know what hit them. To this day, whenever I see Neil, he says, "Do you remember that party?" And there's always a twinkle in his eye.
I'll bet there is.

At any rate, after Neil and the others thankfully survived the Forbidden Foods Party, the band released a couple more albums and continued to have Top 10 hits in Australia, such as Neil's "One Step Ahead," but they still couldn't quite capitalize on the success of "I Got You." And that, as they say, was the enz of Split Enz.

However, Neil eventually formed Crowded House, a group which occasionally featured Tim but was essentially led by Neil, and in 1987 they had a small hit with some song that nobody really remembers.

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