I distinctly remember the first time I heard Australian New Zealand rock band Split Enz’s song I Got You on Melbourne radio in the summer of 1980. In fact, I Got You was my introduction to Split Enz, even though they had already released a number of wildly ambitious albums during the seventies. Interestingly, this penned Neil Finn gem, taken of their seminal album True Colours, finally turned Split Enz into a bona fide pop & rock act during the early 80s.
The story of Split Enz in rock history is a curious one that saw a revolving line up of musician during the years 1972 to 1984. Originally founded by Tim Finn and his University of Auckland buddy Phil Judd, Split Ends (later Enz) first played as an acoustic outfit before introducing an electric sound to the band. In 1975, after some modest success, the band realised if they were going to make it as a rock outfit they would have to leave New Zealand and establish themselves aboard. The most logical first step was the shores of Australia, whose burgeoning rock scene, suited their stage antics and bizarre look, along with their eclectic elements of art rock, punk and new wave sound.
Following a successful stint in Australia, Split Enz left for the UK where they established a cult following with their outrageous live act. But by the late 70s, with wider success not as forthcoming as they had hoped and facing the real prospect of the band calling it quits, founder and frontman Tim Finn sought to regroup, especially after the departure of Phil Judd. The next record was definitely a make or break album, so Tim Finn changed the band line-up to include his younger brother, Neil Finn. Importantly, Neil’s injection into the band as a songwriter and co-vocalist from 1977 onwards changed the band’s fortunes forever.
While many rock historians agree that Split Enz fourth album Frenzy (1978) with its lead single I See Red was the beginning of Split Enz evolution to a more pop-rock sound, there is no doubt their next album True Colours (1980) truly catapulted them to commercial success. With the change of guard with Neil Finn taking on more frontman duties and songwriting responsibility, Split Enz’s lead single I Got You rocketed to #1 on New Zealand and Australian charts and even peaked as high as #12 on UK charts. The album also reached new highs for the band gifting them their first #1 album on New Zealand and Australian charts.
True Colours was recorded in Melbourne’s Armstrong Studio in late 1979 and featured Tim Finn (vocals), Neil Finn (guitar and vocals), Eddie Rayner (keyboards), Noel Crombie (percussion), Nigel Griggs (bass) and Malcolm Green (drums). It was produced incredibly by 20-year-old British producer David Tickle (Blondie, The Knack, Divinyls), who insisted on being in the thick of it during the recording sessions. “He became our audience, and we responded by giving him the best performances we had. Hence the band feel and spirit in the tracks”, Tim Finn recently said on the 40th anniversary reissuing of the album.
In hindsight, the success of True Colours might not have happened if not for Tickle. The band was so impressed with Tickle production skills on their 1978 track I See Red that it was a no brainer to work with him again on True Colours. However, more importantly, the array of catchy hooks and eclectic melodies on the album were ultimately the reason why the album was so successful. The album in the process earned the Finn brothers much acclaim and respect as songwriters. In particular, it is often said that I Hope I Never stands as Tim Finn’s greatest penned moment. But as important as the Finn brothers influence was over the band, no one should ever forget Eddie Rayner’s integral and uncanny contribution on keyboards, which coloured much of the album’s sound. Poor Boy frequently gets a mention as one of Rayner’s wonderful contributions but personally I love Raynor’s spacey keys on I Got You.
I reckon Time and Tide is the highlight from the double Finn years. The production here kind of streamlines their sound which makes their singles more radio friendly but makes the parent album blander.
It’s interesting you have a soft spot for Split Enz. (Then again, I understand you are from New Zealand which helps.) I read your review on their track ‘Shark Attack’ and made note your preference for Neil over Tim as a songwriter. I tend to agree. Neil grew into an exceptional songwriter. I really like almost everything he did later in Crowded House.
Split Enz were pretty formative for me – I burnt out on the hits a bit, but still love the early stuff and some of the later deep cuts.
Marvellous pop album. Although I love the early, quirky LPs, True Colours is the biz. I’m expecting to write about it at me paying gig soon, so thanks for the warm-up, Robert!