I love Split Enz. When I think about it (which I’m only just doing now in order to create a subject to blog about) they are probably the band I have liked the longest – equal with The Beatles. I have been aware of the music of the Enz as long as I can remember, longer than The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan or Neil Young. And I have never not liked Split Enz.
I don’t play Split Enz music a lot these days. You tend to catch bits on the radio, on compilations – but every now and then there’s a hankering. Yesterday I played through Spellbound (one of several Enz comps on the market). It’s a pretty impressive collection of hits. Not all of the band’s best known songs are favourites – and there are a few of my favourites not included on this set – but when you hear them all in a row it’s an impressive lineup.
Dirty Creature, I See Red, I Got You, Late Last Night, One Step Ahead, I Hope I Never, Six Months In A Leaky Boat, Take A Walk, Nobody Takes Me Seriously, What’s The Matter With You, Poor Boy, Shark Attack, Charlie, Time For A Change, I Walk Away, History Never Repeats, Bold As Brass, Give It A Whirl, Stuff And Nonsense, Another Great Divide, Matinee Idyll (129), Sweet Dreams, The Devil You Know,Titus, Spellbound
And that is just a partial list. That’s a pretty amazing line up of tunes – from a band that at different (and occasionally intersecting) points housed three of this country’s greatest songwriters (Phil Judd, Tim Finn and Neil Finn).
I like to think that even if you don’t like Split Enz you can acknowledge that the band’s best material is well-constructed, cleverly crafted, honed – and beyond looking at technical songwriting it is also alive and pulsing; bursting with energy, brimming with ideas. But then, I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t like Split Enz.
This was a band not afraid to try things; not afraid to throw everything at the wall to see what would stick. And for all the talk of the hits – even writing them out two paragraphs above – it is the band’s earliest work that keeps me interested; keeps me going back to re-discover the sound. Mental Notes, particularly – but everything up to and including True Colours. From there Tim and Neil were engaged in what would continue as a game of songwriting one-upmanship; often working well for both of them and for the audience, but even though the brothers have learned to bring out the best in each other’s half formed ideas (across the two collaborations as Finn and the as The Finn Brothers and of course on Crowded House’s Woodface) I prefer when Tim Finn was being challenged (and augmented) by the ideas of Phil Judd. And it’s the early material that shows Judd’s use of the ukulele (a full 30 years before it would become a hipster accessory) and his “Maori strum” in the middle of tracks like Spellbound.
I always figured that in a very basic way Neil Finn’s Crowded House continued on in the vein of the final Enz albums; creating simple but evocative pop-rock. And Phil Judd and Noel Crombie’s Schnell-Fenster seemed to pick up right where Judd left Split Enz; the two Fenster albums channel the material of Mental Notes, Second Thoughts and Dizrythmia (in a twenty-years-on kind of way).
I also like the fact that as the Enz sound evolved it was never about fitting in completely with what was fresh at the time but the band was clearly never ignorant, touching on punk and post-punk, moving in to new wave – even if the band was sometimes hated at the time (The Sex Pistols called them the “most unmusical” band in the world at one point. Basically a compliment given the issuer).
These days Split Enz songs are trotted out on Nature’s Best-styled compilations, played at sports grounds and to accompany television footage of New Zealanders achieving on the world stage (provided a Dave Dobbyn song is not available, or is being saved for later in the same broadcast). But it’s worth revisiting the albums, or at least taking in the sweep of hits on one of the decent compilation albums available. Because I cannot see the music of Goldenhorse or The Feelers or Opshop lasting like this has. Music is not a competition and you may not agree – you might like Goldenhorse, The Feelers and Opshop and you might think The Black Seeds write good songs – but, how do I put this delicately? You are wrong.