Number 671 - Split Enz
"Message To My Girl"
The origins of Split Enz lay in the friendships that developed amongst a group of young students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After finishing primary school, Tim Finn attended Sacred Heart College boarding school, where he met Jonathan Michael Chunn. They wrote songs and played music together there over the next five years. In 1971 Tim and Mike went to Auckland University, and there they met and befriended a group of art students including Philip Judd, Noel Crombie and Rob Gillies.
The close friendship between Tim and Phil became the core of Split Enz; the band soon started writing together with Phil working out the basic form and lyrics and Tim Finn (who was strongly influenced by classic British pop like the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Move) providing melodies.
As the partnership developed, they began stockpiling songs and decided to form a group as an outlet for their compositions; the material they wrote together in this original burst of creativity provided the bulk of the Enz repertoire for several years. They approached classical trained violinist Miles Golding, reed player Mike Howard and together with Tim's old friend Mike Chunn they formed a five-piece acoustic group called Split Ends in October 1972.
Pass me the mouse
Golding's musical skills helped Tim and Phil to build complex and impressive neo-classical structures and arrangements for their material. After months of rehearsals, and with financial backing provided by their friend and fan Barry Coburn, (who became their first manager), Split Ends issued its debut single, "For You/Split Ends", in April 1973. In March, just before the single was released, Golding left the group to study in London, although they would meet again years later.
With Miles' departure Phil & Tim Finn wanted to give up the band, but at Chunn's urging, the band "went electric" and expanded, adding drums, lead guitar and brass. When the single was released in April, the band started a small tour of Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, supporting John Mayall. Mike Chunn's brother Geoff was called in for the tour replacing original drummer Div Vercoe. The other new permanent members were lead guitarist Paul Wally Wilkinson and their university friend Robert Bruce Gillies who joined part-time on saxophone and trumpet. By this time, the band had become a full-time preoccupation for Tim, and he dropped out of university.
In November 1973, EMI NZ issued the band's second single, "Sweet Talking Spoon Song"/"129". The next eighteen months saw Split Ends refining their material and performances. The TV special spawned a concert tour, albeit without Phil Judd, who decided he did not like performing live — he was discouraged by negative reactions to the band, and felt that their music was too complex for successful stage presentation. He initially opted to stay at home to write and record new material while the rest of the band toured, although he made occasional appearances and eventually rejoined full-time.
Their music at this time was in a broadly similar vein to British progressive bands of the time, albeit rather "poppier" and more melodic than many such bands. Family and Traffic were almost certainly important influences, and though they always balked at the frequent comparisons to Genesis, there was a 'English-ness', and a definite eccentricity that was common to both groups, and which set the Enz apart from almost every other local act.
The band might have made considerably less impact had it not been for the unique visual identity they developed. In the autumn of 1974, their old university friend Geoffrey Noel Crombie became a full-time member. He performed on percussion—and spoons—and sang occasionally, but his primary role soon proved to be as Art Director for the band. His wide-ranging talents enabled Split Enz to present a complete audio-visual experience, showcasing their accomplished performances of the intricate Judd–Finn compositions in a unique live show, complete with wild, colourful matching costumes, bizarre hairstyles and makeup, sets and special effects. 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. The costumes and stage personae also proved to be a useful facade for a group of young men who were, essentially, rather shy personalities.
Crombie's lugubrious stage presence endeared him to audiences and his trademark spoon solos became a favourite feature of Enz shows. His regular 'spot' grew out of one of the typical random events that marked their early shows—they brought Rayner's aunt on stage to perform an impromptu tap dance during one of the songs. It was a roaring success, but they quickly realised that they could not really take her on tour with them, so Noel's spoon playing routine was substituted and soon became an essential part of each show.
In concert, the band was already in a league of its own and their live performances from this era soon became the stuff of legend. An early NZ TV performance had a "desert island" theme; they brought in a load of sand and created a miniature indoor beach, complete with palm trees and a wading pool, with band members dressed as hankie-hatted tourists, reclining on deck chairs and sipping drinks. For a now-legendary live performance of their live epic "Stranger Than Fiction", a woman friend was recruited to crawl across the stage during the song, under pulsing strobe lights, with a bloodied axe apparently embedded in her skull.
For The Beatles see Number 489, #587, #894 & #947
For Genesis see Number 684
What does Rolling Stone think about Split Enz?
Tim and younger brother Neil have made music together around the house and professionally since they were kids. Neil joined Tim's Split Enz in 1977, and Tim joined Neil's Crowded House more than a decade later.
"We perform for each other and against each other so the process is more dynamic and emotional," says Neil. "This makes for good music that is outgoing. Tim has a knack for titles and clear themes, whilst I have a tendency to take a lateral turn or two. Tim likes to do a song and then leave it alone. I tend to tinker and look at it from all sides. Between us, a good balance emerges."
Everyone Is Here, the Finn Brothers' first album together in eight years, is due August 24th. The Finns' second outing as a duo began with a jam session in their native New Zealand. "Both of us had come off a cycle of two solo records, and we knew that together something special might happen," says Tim. "One of the first songs we came up with whilst jamming out on the West Coast of Auckland didn't make the album, but it was about our mother who passed on three years ago, and so we felt her presence . . . and it opened the floodgates."
Labels: Split Enz Part 1