Split Enz were a New Zealand rock band that formed in 1972, a formation that landed New Zealand on the rock and roll map across the world. Their most notable song, “I Got You” was the beginning of an eclectic following of art rock, punk, new wave and swing all fused into a visual and audio trend.
Formation and Early Sounds
Beginning in the early 1970s as an acoustic folk band, the group began to record their first album and substituted electric instruments to produce a progressive rock sound. Founders Phil Judd and Tim Finn established the group together at the University of Auckland with band members Mike Chunn, Robert Gillies, and Noel Crombie. Tim Finn had known Chunn since boarding school and after meeting their counterparts, music overtook their studies, as they practiced in music room 129 (later to be the name of a Split Enz song), Phil and Tim quit school to officially create the band.
Finn relied heavily on the influences of British pop bands like the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Move, while Judd worked on the lyrics, melodies, and form. It was their work together that painted the early years of the band’s success and unique sound. Most of the material that was formed for these early years were stockpiled from Judd and Finn’s jam sessions together. With Golding playing the violin, Mike Howard playing the reed, Split Enz achieved their acoustic sound.
Golding contributed extensively to building the band’s neo-classical tunes. In 1973 the band released their first debut single, “For You” with the financial support of their friend, Barry Coburn who later became their manager. Golding left the group to continue his education in London, while Howard quit soon after.
Introducing Electric Sounds
The departure of Golding and Howard almost led Finn and Judd to give up on the band altogether, yet Chunn continued to champion introducing more electric sound to the band. This included the introduction of drums, lead guitar, and brass. After the release of their song, they toured Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington.
As the band members left their university commitments to take on music as a full time occupation, they entered the New Faces TV contest in 1973. They recorded their song “129” as well as “Home Sweet Home,” and a retro sounding “Sweet Talking Spoon Song,” finishing second in the competition hosted by Television New Zealand. With their prize they also recorded a 30 minute concert that was also aired on the TV station and spurred a tour.
The live attention discouraged Phil Judd, who found the negative reactions to the band as counterproductive, sending the band into eighteen months of refining and creating new material. As he wrote alone at home while the rest of the band toured, he gradually was introduced back into the performance. Two singles he created during the period would go onto their compilation album The Beginning of the Enz.
The addition of the Mellotron, the Professor, and NZ
Anthony Edward Ray joined the band after seeing their TV performance. Nicknamed the professor, he remained an important member to the band until it retired. Tim Finn added a Mellotron keyboard to the band, and Ray’s expertise in self taught musical talent gave the group depth.
The band line up changed constantly before its official formation, when they named themselves Split Ends and later changed it to Split Enz in 1974. The change in the name is attributed to putting New Zealand, abbreviated as NZ, on the rock map.
The band no longer wished to perform along the bar scene and would only perform in theatres and concert halls. This gave them the space and creative capacity to flush out more visual performances to match their audio skill. Their visual appearance had set them apart from other local groups. In a mix of circus, pantomime, gothic horror, surrealism, and psychedelia, their on stage antics and bizarre look gave them a pop edge and eclectic feel. They began to include costumes, makeup, and dramatic hairstyles. Some of these costumes are available for viewing at the Victorian Museum of Performing Arts.
By 1974 Judd had been reintroduced to the band with Geoff Chunn and Rob Gillies leaving indefinitely. With Noel Crombie’s introduction to the band, his somber presence became iconic to Enz fans, especially as the band began to introduce random events into their shows, like Crombie’s spoon solos. Rayner’s aunt was even brought to tap dance.
As the band’s success became cemented in New Zealand, they branched out for their first performance in Sydney, Australia in March of 1975. It issued its third single, “No Bother to Me” with independent music label, White Cloud. While there were other theatrical bands already in motion in Australia, the Split Enz were much more theatrical than the others. While touring in Australia, the band members decided to use their middle names as their stage names.
During 1975 the band was later signed to Mushroom Records label in Melbourne and produced their first album called Mental Notes. It was engineered by Richard Batchens and produced by David Russell, their tour manager between 1975-1976.
They sold 12,000 copies in Australia and reached number 7 on New Zealand’s music charts, and reached 35 in Australia. The cover of the album itself was designed by Phil Judd, painted in 1973-74 and can be viewed in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarwea.
English Tour and International Acclaim
In 1976 the group left to London to produce their album Second Thoughts. Tracks were re-configured from their LP, Mental Notes, with other songs added. The group received mixed reviewed in the UK yet still had their cult following for their bizarre on stage performances.
They created a new album in 1977, “Another Great Divide” and began to tour in the US. They received a warm reception in San Francisco. But one particular performance left Judd vulnerable, who had already been offset by criticism before. At one performance Judd’s guitar was not tuned, and he left the stage without finishing the set. When Finn went back stage and challenged Judd, the two got into a physical altercation. Judd left the band, and Chunn left at the end of the tour.
With the need for a new line up Tim began to reorganize and recruit for the group, bringing in Finn’s younger brother, Neil in 1977. As the group faced collapse, the infusion of Neil into the group revived them, and Neil began to draft more material, leading vocals, and increasing the group’s repertoire. By 1980, he became the image of the band.
Their ability to truly penetrate the international scene came with Neil’s leadership with their 1980 album, “True Colours,” released under Mushroom Records. It became their best selling album and reached the top of the lists in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, number 12 in the United Kingdom, and peaked to number forty on the US charts. Its number one spot in Australia lasted for weeks, spurring sales of their previous albums.