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Night Flight’s 1983 “Take Off to the Australian Invasion” featured Tim Finn of New Zealand’s eccentric artsy septet Split Enz
Night Flight’s “Take Off to the Australian Invasion” — which originally aired on November 11, 1983 — profiled the early 80s Aussie scene and featured music videos by a wide variety of artists from “down under,” including Olivia Newton-John, Jo Jo Zep, Men at Work, Divinyls, Midnight Oil and INXS, among others, but today we’re focusing on New Zealand’s eccentric artsty combo Split Enz, whose former co-leader Tim Finn was already by then launching a successful solo career with his first solo album, Escapade. Watch the video for “Through the Years” now on Night Flight Plus.
Originally forming Auckland University in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1972, as an eclectic jug band duo calling themselves Split Ends — comprised of Brian “Tim” Finn (piano/vocals) and Phil Judd (mandolin/guitar/vocals) — the quirky avant-garde ensemble eventually grew into a full-blown theatrical art rock septet.
They were admittedly quite a sight to see, with their weirdo clown-ish face makeup and unusual, geometric haircuts, wearing white shirts and matching black ties.
Finn liked to introduce songs onstage with mock-Shakespearean soliloquies, but often sang with his eyes closed due to extreme stage fright.
Their visual influences — including French pantomime, German Expressionist cinema and various forms of abstract modern art — were only matched by the group’s musical output, which ranged from humorous Monty Python-ish vaudeville and old-fashioned English town hall ditties to epic ballads to swingin’ cabaret jazz to zany neo-new wave pop (and, remember, this was years before new wave was even considered a genre).
The full seven-man band — in addition to Finn and Judd, the original lineup (who, all but Judd, decided to go by their middle names) included Tony “Eddie” Rayner (keyboards), Jonathan Michael “Mike” Chunn (bass), Emlyn Crowther (drums) and Noel Cromble (percussion/spoons) and, later, Robert Gillies (sax/trumpet) — got a big boost after winning the first heat in a nationally-televised talent show called “New Faces,” although the show’s judging panel would eventually have them finishing seventh out of eight acts, deeming them “too clever” (by the way, New Zealand had only one government-run TV channel until 1975).
After emerging in a music scene that was a somewhat isolated micro-climate, they would soon be able to say they were the first band from New Zealand to achieve some level of worldwide success.
In April 1975, Split Enz (they’d added a “Z” to the last part of their name sometime in ’74) signed with Australian-based Mushroom Records, with Tim Finn and Phil Judd signing a separate songwriter’s deal with the label’s publishing company.
In Australia, where the ensemble spent most of their time playing shows, they opened for Roxy Music, Lou Red, Flo & Eddie and Leo Sayer, and in July 1975, three months after signing with Mushroom, the band released their first album, an underrated art rock offering called Mental Notes, with a wonderful gatefold cover art painting by Phil Judd (with assistance from designer/photographer Graeme Webber).
Mental Notes — released on Mushroom in Australia and on White Cloud, the label their then-manager Barry Coburn ran, in New Zealand — was only a moderate success, making only a slight impact beyond those who had experienced the band live, selling just 12,000 copies in Australia (#35 on their album chart for one week only) but peaking at #7 in New Zealand.
Coburn would soon be replaced by John Hopkins, who was a tour manager and sound guy for an Australian glam band called SkyHooks, based out of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, where the band would soon be moving to themselves, believing that getting out of New Zealand was the next necessary step for the band if they wanted to survive.
They began looking for an overseas record deal, which they also viewed as a key to financial success and creative longevity, and they formed a new management company, Mental Management, with their partners at Mushroom.
Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera agreed to work with the band as a producer for their next Mushroom album, recording the eccentric Second Thoughts in London, in April of 1976. Despite the fact that punk was exploding at the time, the album’s released brought the band some much-needed love from the UK music press despite its poor overall sales (the album had also re-worked new versions of old songs which the band may have been tired of playing by then anyway).
Nevertheless, NME called Second Thoughts the “debut album of the year.”
By the end of that year they were headlining their own tour and developing a cult following who called themselves Frenz of the Enz, but Finn and Judd had stopped writing songs together and there was internal strife in the group.
1977 saw most of the band now living in Melbourne, while Tim Finn was living in Sydney, Australia, and given the geographical separation it should come as no surprise that soon the band were undergoing personnel changes: Chunn, Crowther and Phil Judd (who had always disliked playing live gigs anyway) left the band, leaving Tim Finn as the new leader.
Joining the band soon thereafter were Nigel Griggs (bass), Malcolm Green (drums) and 17-year old younger brother (by five years) Neil Finn, on guitar, who had previously opened for the Enz when he was just fifteen years old on their “Enz of the Earth Tour.”
The addition of Neil Finn also begin writing songs, now that Judd wasn’t contributing (Judd would form a new band, the Swingers, with future Midnight Oil bassist Bones Hillman, writing the 1981 hit “Counting the Beat”).
Soon, this new lineup — which thereafter seemed to be in a constant state of flux, with new members coming and going periodically — were signing with Chrysalis Records in the UK, and seeing their debut released in America (through the U.S.-based Chrysalis imprint), followed by their third album, Dizrythmia.
Their new label put them on tour for six weeks in an attempt to break the band in the States, but the band ended up being dropped by Chrysalis, who were looking for radio-friendly hits from a group that really didn’t care about having hit songs.
The band spent the rest of 1978 writing songs and rehearsing often, but without a record deal or stable management, they languished, and if it weren’t for a grant from the New Zealand arts council which kept them from starving, it’s likely they would have broken up.
When a fan gave them free recording time at a studio with a new producer, 18-year old recording engineer David Tickle, they managed to come up with their first radio hit, “I See Red,” a punk-popper powered by buzzsaw guitar and manic farfisa organ, bearing the clear influence of British bands like XTC and the Buzzcocks.
The single climbed to #15 on the UK Singles chart and #12 on the Australian charts, and the song once again provided them with a much-needed kick in the pants.
Split Enz ending up touring the States, releasing their fourth album, 1979’s Australian-only Frenzy on Mushroom. “I See Red” wasn’t on the original vinyl release and was only added later after it had already climbed the charts; when Frenzy was eventually released in the U.S., half of the tracks had been replaced by songs from the band’s legendary Rootin’ Tootin’ Luton Tapes sessions, which had been recorded in 1978.
Meanwhile, a Tin Pan Alley-ish little ditty “My Mistake” — a track from Dizrythmia — also caught on with radio a few years after it had been released, and by 1980, a reinvigorated Split Enz, bolstered by the radio airplay, was being signed with A&M Records UK arm, who released the band’s new album True Colours.
The new album saw a dramatic shift away from the eccentric tunes of the band’s first eight years towards a more Beatlesque pop and new wave sound. It was a significant sound change, away from their quirky early material and back to Tim Finn’s first love — simple, concise, accessible, high-energy guitar pop (the style change gained them more new fans than the older fans who panned the new sound and faded away).
True Colours — originally released in laser-etched vinyl in multicolors — was propelled up the charts by a hit single, “I Got You,” which topped the charts in both New Zealand and Australia, where it remained at the top the Aussie chart for eight weeks, and the album charted for ten weeks.
“I Got You” would be the band’s highest-selling single in Australia for the year (#12 in the UK), while the album sold more than 250,000 copies in Australasia, even landing in the U.S. Top Fifty.
Two more singles — “I Hope I Never” and “Poor Boy” — also did well, and increased the band’s profile exponentially.
Split Enz were paired with another strong Australian-based band called the Sports for a national tour (“Sporting True Colours”) even though the bands were quite different and not really a good fit for each other.
After the tour, Split Enz headed back to the U.K., signing a new management deal in the U.S. with Champion Entertainment, a company headed by Tommy Mottola.
The band were on the verge of international stardom, their UK label A&M touting them as the “next Supertramp,” another act on the label’s roster, but they still weren’t breaking out in America, where “I Got You” had stalled at #40 on the charts.
Then, A&M blundered by releasing a new album by the UK band Squeeze just a few weeks prior to True Colours, and found that their promotions team couldn’t work both and tended to favor promoting Squeeze to radio and press, which was unfortunate for Split Enz, who realized that their biggest hit still wasn’t good enough for the American market.
Over the next several years, Split Enz delivered a new album each twelve months — 1981’s Waiata (but called Corroboree when it was released in Australia), ’82’s Time and Tide, ’83’s Conflicting Emotion and ’84’s prophetically-titled See Ya ‘Round — and scored a few more hits, notably the Neil Finn-penned “History Never Repeats” and “One Step Ahead,” but by the mid-80s, the band’s momentum had stalled after hitting their creative peak, and they never quite recovered.
The band’s last hit, Neil Finn’s “Message To My Girl,” came along just before the band called it a day in 1984, but by then older sibling and original co-leader Tim Finn had already taken a break to record his debut solo album for Mushroom Records, Escapade.
The album was recorded with an all-star session group including producers Mark Moffatt (Divinyls, Ross Wilson) and former Beach Boy Ricky Fataar, who besides working with the Beach Boys, had also been “Stig O’Hara” in the Beatles parody band, the Rutles.
Escapade, released in June ’83 in Australia, was a major success in the greater Australasia region, spawning several hit singles, including “Fraction Too Much Friction” (it cruised to the top of the charts in both New Zealand and Australia) and the gospel-tinged “Made My Day.”
The U.S. single (and video) for Finn’s “Through The Years” was released in the U.S. in November of ’83, the same month that this “Take Off” episode aired.
The video appears to also feature authentic home movies — we’re not entirely sure, but we think perhaps we’re seeing both Neil and Tim Finn when they were little kids in their hometown of Te Awamutu, in the North Island of New Zealand. (We could be wrong, though).