“If music be the food of love, Split Enz is the silverware!” Split Enz founder and frontman Tim Finn bigs-up during the final song intro of the excellent (and kind of accidentally hilarious) Split Enz 30th Anniversary Holmes special.
Their fierce originality made Split Enz frustratingly obscure for less adventurous ears, which sadly limited their commercial appeal to begin with; the world wasn’t ready for their Dr. Seuss-level fabulosity.
Split Enz’ early live shows are the stuff of legend. For their 1974 Buck-A-Head tour, sponsored by a radio station, the group opted to perform in theatres and concert halls that would better suit their theatrical presentation, which was often punctuated by ‘happenings’. Keyboardist Eddie Rayner’s aunty was invited on stage to perform an impromptu tap dance during one song at an early concert, but although her act was a huge success, the band decided against taking her on tour, instead substituting percussionist/stylist Noel Crombie to play a spoon solo.
After catching Split Enz live – being booed while supporting Skyhooks and AC/DC, no less – Michael Gudinski immediately wanted to sign the group to his fledgling Mushroom label, but recalled several people tried to talk him out of it. “I’d always look for bands that were unique, ahead of their time, individual and eccentric,” Gudinski pointed out during an interview, “and Split Enz were every bit of that.”
The year of True Colours’ release, Neil Finn told Keri Philips: “With this one, we were determined to keep it simple, really streamline it so everybody could understand it.”
“It was a make or break record in a way,” Tim said of the record, to Dan Condon. “We were able to survive and we were pulling good houses – we were playing a lot of gigs – but we really, really wanted to get on the radio and fulfil that kind of destiny of reaching a wider audience.
“It felt like we had the momentum at last, and all the pieces [in place].”
Prior to True Colours, Split Enz spent a huge amount of time in the UK, where they perfected their live show and developed a cult following. “It was huge,” Crombie has said of the group’s UK adventure. “We arrived in ’76 and landed in the middle of the punk revolution, which was really interesting. It divided audiences, obviously, but it was inspiring as well. There was so much happening.” (Suddenly the punk-fuelled Shark Attack, which opens True Colours, makes a hellavu lot more sense.)
Kate Bush was laying down her debut album The Kick Inside (which contains Wuthering Heights) at London’s AIR Studios around the same time Split Enz were recording Dizrythmia (1977), of which Rayner recounted, “We used to talk in the corridor and I took [Kate] for a coffee a couple of times downstairs to the Angus Steakhouse in Oxford Circus. She was just this little girl, 17 years old, and we used to hear her overdubbing her vocals. We thought it was quite a funny little sound, but then she became Kate Bush! She was a really nice person, very supportive. I think she’s written since that Split Enz were one of the bands she admired at the time.”
Although Rayner has since stressed, “There was never really any talk of giving it away,” the time Split Enz spent in the UK proved disenchanting and they were always skint into the bargain. “When we were in London we decided we’d sack everybody – we sacked our management, our agent, our record company – as we felt they weren’t doing the right thing by us,” Rayner remembers. “We soon realised how difficult it is to work without those administrators around you to get things moving, make all the calls and do the legwork.”
We’re tipping Tim felt inspired to pen the following I Hope I Never lyrics during this bleak London period: “I’m gonna move to a new town where the people are nice…” A true master of the minor key (mondegreen alert: when I was little, I used to think Tim’s In A Minor Key was actually ‘In A Monarchy’…), the melodies Tim masterminded to wrench our hearts out throughout I Hope I Never do the job, before you’ve even copped this song’s crestfallen opening lyrics: “I fall apart when you’re around/When you’re here, I’m nowhere…”
Perhaps Tim also wrote Nobody Takes Me Seriously Anyway (“I don’t want to suffer these conditions no more/Haven’t I the right to say?”) around this time? Actually, probably Poor Boy’s choruses as well…
But thankfully, the New Zealand Arts Council came to the rescue with a $5,000 grant, which enabled Split Enz to book a small 8-track studio in Luton. Laying down 28 new songs in less than five days, Split Enz’s new direction was captured on the hilariously named The Rootin Tootin Luton Tapes, from which the berserk, Tim-penned I See Red was lifted to become lead single on the band’s Frenzy record of 1979.
Legend has it that Luton’s Quest Studios were so cramped that Crombie was forced to set up his drumkit in the toilet, and Rayner, plus keyboards, was situated in a position where he was almost constantly nudging Tim in the head with his elbow while playing. After a lengthy campaign initiated by Frenz Of The Enz, Split Enz’s devoted fan club, The Rootin Tootin Luton Tapes was finally released as an official record in 2007.
“I See Red was set up in England in ’78 when we were on the bones of our arse,” Tim recalled. “Somebody suggested this young guy [then-18-year-old English engineer David Tickle] that they thought would be worth trying. It was an experiment.
“We ended up at Startling Studios, which was John Lennon’s house when he and Yoko were doing Imagine and all that. So it had acres of legendary pathos and meaning for us to be there.”
Between working on I See Red and True Colours, Tickle worked on The Knack’s My Sharona and Blondie’s Heart Of Glass (under the guidance of Mike Chapman).
“The record [I See Red] worked out so well… It was a no-brainer for us,” Tim has said of the band’s decision to enlist Tickle for True Colours. “Michael Gudinski, to his credit, said, ‘Yeah, go for it,’ because he knew the power of I See Red.”
(Fun fact: I Got You, the lead single from True Colours, became one of the biggest hit singles Mushroom ever released.)
Split Enz were outliers and just about as arty as you could get. “We reacted against anything that was boring and silly about early ‘70s music, and refused to have any image that had anything glamorous or sexual,” Tim told Caz Tran of the Crombie-designed Split Enz aesthetic. “We just went right off on a tangent, and looked different and sounded different.”
But going into True Colours, Tim bristled: “People had been calling us zany, wacky, weird for years, and although I could see why they had, it annoyed me. Those tags annoyed me because in our hearts we were songwriters and we wanted to be known as songwriters… We were deliberately stripping things back.”
Undoubtedly right up there among the best songwriters on the planet, brothers Neil and Tim Finn – who were sharing a house when they wrote the songs that would become True Colours – are deadset melodic wizards. “With True Colours we felt like we were being recognised purely for our ability to write good songs and that gave us the confidence to present ourselves more simply,” Tim shared during an interview. “I mean, how can you communicate with an audience when you look like a parrot?”
On the radio show Enzology, Neil said of True Colours: “We went through a period where we shunned it ‘cause it was so successful. We were sick of playing it. But it’s a fantastic record. Lean and tight, energetic and up. Good songwriting and I love the sound of it now… There’s a tendency for bands to turn on the record that makes you successful and regard it as a curse, but now I think it was a blessing in every respect.”
Neil joined Split Enz when he was just 17 years old (“plucked from being a hospital orderly to recording my first album in London”). As Tim remembers it, Neil hesitated, saying, “I’ll think about it,” when his brother asked whether he wanted to join Split Enz. Then an hour later, he agreed.
“When I first joined the band, I flew from Auckland to London and got driven to rehearsal before I’d even checked into our accomodation!” Neil marvelled.
Neil’s first lead vocal and songwriting credits appeared in Split Enz’s Frenzy (1979), but True Colours captures him coming into his own as a songwriter.
As an example of the kind of thing the Finn brothers would sing when prompted to at family gatherings when they were kids, Neil and Tim performed a spontaneous a cappella rendition of Terry, a song by Twinkle about a motorcycle, when they appeared on Campbell Live. Following this spontaneous sing-song, the host asked their Dad, Richard Finn, whether he thought his sons were “mad” or “wonderful” at the time. “Well it was great, but I’m sure their mother and I thought, ‘They’ll grow out of this, of course. It’s nice while it lasts, but…’,” Mr Finn admitted. “And then it got worse. Do you remember some of the outrageous outfits Split Enz had? Well, we had to live with that. Put up with sympathy, patronising remarks – all sorts of things.”
Tim remembers Crombie’s outfits “produced some magnificent reactions from passers by”, during his “eccentric displays”: Crombie would parade up and down Auckland’s main street modelling an outfit of his own creation every Friday night.
“I just kind of saw the whole stage as a picture in a way,” Crombie has said, “and it was good to have different focuses on the stage. You’re not just watching the singer.”
“To us they weren’t only funny, the costumes and makeup,” Finn said during another interview, pointing out that Split Enz often favoured “dark, twisted” looks: “like where you give a middle-class Christian boy a tab of acid and sort of ask him to write down what he sees – it would probably bear some relationship to what we looked like.”
After being impressed by Split Enz when they competed on New Faces “as an acoustic act with the flute and violin” in 1973, Rayner recounted, “I just loved it; I loved the sound of Tim’s voice.” And so Rayner “wormed [his] way” into the band, adding, “It was what I’d been waiting for.”
Of Rayner, Neil told Keri Philips back in the day: “He’s such an incredibly talented musician, and the things he does are always incredibly interesting. He’s got a big part to play [because] when you’ve got keyboards and guitar it can be quite difficult at times because there aren’t many spaces left. You’ve got to sort of work in. But he’s very good at putting just enough in, putting a lot in when it’s needed and not much when it isn’t.”
Simultaneously released, True Colours and the album’s lead single I Got You topped the respective album and single charts in Australia and New Zealand. True Colours held the #1 position in Australia for ten weeks and I Got You went on to become the highest-selling single in the country that year, holding pole position for eight weeks.
True Colours eventually sold 200,000 albums in Australia, the equivalent of one copy in every 10 homes. In NZ, one in every three households boasts a Split Enz album within their collection.
I Got You was introduced during Eddie Rayner’s ENZO: The Songs Of Split Enz, by the keyboardist himself, as “the song that saved our arses back in the 1980s”.
During a BBC Radio 2 show, Neil revealed I Got You started off as just the title: “Tim and I were having sessions where he’d throw me a title and I’d throw him a title and we’d go off to our respective rooms and write a song. And he gave me the title I Got You and I went in and I wrote it, and I thought the verse was pretty good but I thought the chorus was only a bit average and I should change it at some point, but in fact it was never changed. It just goes to show I don’t know a hit when I hear one, really.”
This wonderfully eerie and wonky, Neil-penned ditty also broke the band internationally, especially in Canada, the US and UK.
Crombie designed and conceived the I Got You music video and Neil remembers he had his wisdom teeth taken out a week before the shoot and, since he hadn’t yet fully recovered from this surgery, reckons his face looks puffy in the clip.
The True Colours cover, also designed by Crombie, was initially released in four colourways – yellow and blue, red and green, purple and yellow, and blue and orange – but would ultimately be given another four makeovers, with releases in lime green and pink, hot purple and burnt orange, gold and platinum (to mark the record’s respective sales milestones) and, finally, yellow, blue and red.
“In the end there were 11 covers,” Crombie clarified. “The rarest one is the black and white one that got sent out to the press. There’s about 100 of them, with Textas to colour your own. So, if you’re really keen, you’ll have 11 [copies].”
In 2020, a new 40th anniversary expanded mix of True Colours was reissued in multiple coloured vinyl, picture LP and CD editions (with bonus live tracks to prove Split Enz were indeed a Hard Act To Follow).
“For some reason when we mixed the original True Colours we must have had some kind of prejudice against percussion, because we left a lot out on the mixes,” Rayner – who personally re-mixed the 40th anniversary reissue, hoping to restore and improve the record’s overall sound – told Scott McLennan. “I’ve actually put a lot of Noel Crombie’s stuff we recorded back in, which was omitted from the original mixes. In The Choral Sea those bits of Tim singing are on the original, I just made them a bit more audible.”
For an example of Crombie’s striking percussive flourishes, look up the reissued version of Wouldn’t Dream Of It, during which the restored percussion absolutely pops.
We’ve prayed Split Enz will re-form for a full tour since their stunning one-off reunion to play at Sound Relief back in 2009. Their performance at the MCG that day was incendiary, so much punk-rock attitude and with all band members sporting cream suits that would have have totally worked as costumes for The Wizard Of Oz’s Scarecrow.
A fully embroidered monochrome backdrop completed the surreal stage design and Split Enz showed every other band who took the stage that day how to slay. There couldn’t have been more cowbell during Shark Attack (“And I’m lost at sea and I’m an amputee/And there was slaughter in the water when I fought her…” – I mean…). Just add Tim swimming with his arms – various strokes, mainly frantic freestyle –while propelling himself around the stage, feet moving so quickly they’re ablur, and what unfolds is an unforgettable performance we would definitely break the History Never Repeats rule to experience (at least) once more.
As the much-missed #1 titan of the Australian music scene was prone to, Gudinski pithily summarised Split Enz’s history (to date…): “If England had Pink Floyd, New Zealand had Split Enz. I wish they would’ve become what they really could’ve become.”