New Zealand’s most successful music export, Split Enz, began in Auckland in 1972 when Tim Finn and Philip Judd formed an acoustic band called Split Ends.
They added violin, flute and bass to create an airy, gentle ambience and released three singles in New Zealand. They eventually grew into a sprawling electric seven-piece band and became Split Enz.
Shortly after they moved to Melbourne in 1975, Michael Gudinski signed them to his independent label Mushroom, and they began work on their first album, Mental Notes.
Split Enz took Australia by surprise. Audiences didn’t know what to make of the band’s quirky, idiosyncratic music.
Record sales were modest. They were an arty contrast to the prevalent pub rock of the time and preferred taking their oddly theatrical stage show to the university circuit.
With their eccentric costumes (designed by percussionist Noel Crombie), high-rise hairdos and strange facial expressions, they came across as a troupe of mentally disturbed clowns.
Not everyone was put off by their weird appearance. When the British art-rock band Roxy Music toured Australia in 1976, guitarist Phil Manzanera was so impressed with Split Enz that he organised for them to record their second album, Second Thoughts, in the UK and offered to produce it himself.
The band signed an overseas deal with Chrysalis and based themselves in London for a while. But England in 1976 was in the grip of the punk rock explosion, and it was the wrong time for what audiences perceived as ‘Art Rock’.
When Phil Judd quit the band in March 1977, Tim Finn’s younger brother Neil was summoned from Te Awamutu as his replacement.
The band continued to spend lengthy periods in England, improving as a live act but getting nowhere, even though their 1977 album went gold in Australia and New Zealand and spawned the hit single My Mistake. After touring the world to promote their album, the band recorded Frenzy (1979), which reached #24 on the Australian charts.
Frequently changing their appearance, lineup and sound, Split Enz returned to Australia, released the catchy Top 20 rocker I See Red and spent the rest of 1979 playing the pubs.
The big breakthrough came with the True Colours album.
Released early in 1980, it sold 250 000 copies in Australia (quadruple platinum). The single I Got You was a smash, going to #1 in Australia for ten weeks, #1 in New Zealand, Top 20 in the UK, Canada and Holland and Top 40 in the USA.
Neil Finn had blossomed as a pop songwriter – His melodic pop songs made Split Enz’s music more accessible, and coupled with some noteworthy video clips, helped to broaden their audience. During his time with Split Enz, Neil wrote and sang many of the band’s most popular songs, including the Top 10 singles I Got You, One Step Ahead, History Never Repeats and Message To My Girl.
The albums Corroboree (1981) and Time And Tide (1982) both went to #1 on the Australian charts. The band toured America, Europe and Canada where Six Months In A Leaky Boat topped the singles chart. With a lead vocal by Tim Finn, the song typified his enormous contribution to the band’s commercial success in the early 1980s when he wrote and sang hits like I Hope I Never and Dirty Creature.
When Tim left Split Enz in 1984 to pursue a solo career, Neil briefly continued with the band. Following a farewell studio album, See Ya Round, and the Enz With A Bang tour in late 1984, Split Enz called it quits. After nine albums, they had been unable to make significant inroads into the US market.
Neil decided to start from scratch with a new band, initially known as The Mullanes, which eventually found huge international acclaim as Crowded House.