Neil and Tim Finn. The Finn Brothers. We think of them as a pair. We group them together even when they are off making music independently. They have made two albums together under the family surname. Prior to that they have worked together in two bands, Tim appeared on just the one Crowded House album (Woodface). That record was the album that made Crowded House a viable international act, returning them to the world stage after the promise of Don’t Dream It’s Over.
It was also a reunion of two fiercely competitive songwriters. Neil and Tim worked on six Split Enz albums together – never quite at war with one another, but certainly each other’s benchmark, Tim’s contributions to Woodface can be seen as a return-favour for the time/s when Neil helped to steer the Split Enz ship. He spent six years in the leaky boat very much helping to keep it afloat.
Brian Timothy Finn (the earliest version of Split Enz had the members choosing their middle names to take the stage) is the eldest Finn. He and younger brother, Neil Mullane Finn (by the time Neil joined Split Enz the middle-name gimmick had been discontinued, an early name for Crowded House was The Mullanes) enjoyed family singalongs in Te Awamutu with their sisters and parents Dick and Mary. Neil and Tim learned piano and guitar and then when Tim moved to Auckland he met the enigmatic arts student, Phil Judd.
Judd and Finn formed Split Ends; later the band would change its spelling, a tribute to the short-form way of writing New Zealand (becoming Split Enz).
A teenage Neil saw the band perform on television and became a fan instantly. He wrote the band’s name on his pencil case the next day.
Neil Finn supported Split Enz during an early tour of New Zealand. In 1977 he flew to England to join the group. Judd had quit. Bassist Mike Chunn was also out. Neil was very much the new blood.
Tim Finn and Phil Judd had been the main songwriters for the group and in 1979, with the album Frenzy, Neil’s songwriting voice began to emerge. He and big brother co-wrote an enduring Enz song, Give It A Whirl. A year later the band released its best-known album. There had been a changing of the guard.
Neil contributed What’s The Matter With You to True Colours. More importantly he wrote the band’s biggest hit. I Got You is the perfect early example of Neil’s melodic gift – his ability to create a great hook; instantly hummable choruses, the things that so often elude a songwriter, that cause the most frustration.
Tim Finn left Split Enz to attempt a solo career – he was chasing the hit-single his brother had already snared.
Crowded House was formed by Neil (with Split Enz drummer, Paul Hester) as a home for the leftover songs. Neil had taken over the Enz completely for one final album (See Ya ‘Round) and the material was pouring out. Tim resumed his solo career.
Neil’s writing is more confident on its own, Tim is great in collaboration. So many of Tim’s best songs have come from his partnership with Neil and before that with Phil Judd, one of his best solo songs is Persuasion, a tune that paired him with the British folk guitarist Richard Thompson.
Tim is a showman, a born entertainer – his energy in that role has carried many of the songs that he and others have written. But Tim is no slouch in the writing department. The best of his material is instantly accessible – and yet Tim offers more of himself in his songs. We get a picture of his mental and emotional state through his music. We know how he’s feeling, what he’s lamenting.
Neil is songwriting royalty; a world-class player. Nigel Williamson of British music magazine, Uncut, suggested that if you had to go with one songwriter to write a song to save your life Neil was a sure bet, a safe pair of hands. Neil Finn has been a role model since returning to New Zealand after 10 years based in Australia with Crowded House. He toured New Zealand in support of his second solo album, One Nil, allowing student musicians from each city to be his backing band.
In 2001 and then again in 2009 he invited members of Radiohead and other international musicians to New Zealand to perform as part of his Seven Worlds Collide shows. The 2009 version of the event included an album of collaborative songs, The Sun Came Out with money raised for Oxfam.
Neil and Tim Finn have written so many great songs New Zealanders identify with. They had done this together. And alone.
One day there may even be a Finn Family album – with Neil and Tim at the head of a songwriting dynasty.
Neil’s oldest son, Liam, is a dynamic performer in his own right. Working with his dad and his own band Betcahadupa before touring the world as a solo artist; his brother Elroy is also a drummer, guitarist and songwriter. Tim’s children are musical too. That could be quite some album – to hear all of them, or many of them at least, all working together for a set of songs…
Until then we have so much from Neil and Tim already – ten albums from Split Enz, six from Crowded House, two Finn Brothers albums, four solo albums from Neil, one from his band Pajama Club and nine solo albums from Tim. They are thought of, rightly – at least in terms of reverence, as the Antipodean Lennon and McCartney.
Some of the text here first appeared as an essay in the book On Song