Walking Down The Road; Split Enz in the U.K. 1976
The first interview I ever did was with Tim Finn of Split Enz, in Bath, England in October 1976. I sent the piece to Nation Review, but never heard back. Thus it is published here for the first time.
‘Split Enz are on the road becoz travel broadens the mind’ blared the full-page ad in Sounds last week. ‘Surreal Maoris’ Hair Raising Tale’ ran the headline in New Musical Express. ‘Split Enz—a new band to watch out for’ and ‘One of the few bands of any originality to have emerged in the last twelve months,’ said Melody Maker in its review of the recently released album Mental Notes. This seven-piece New Zealand band, who spent a year in Australia before coming over here in March, are certainly arousing some interest.
Their Australian album was experiencing something of a renaissance in my house (due in no small part to a mate of mine from Adelaide who was staying with me and got himself hooked on it). So when a small ad appeared in the music press advertising Jack the Lad and Split Enz live at Aylesbury (a mere hundred miles away) preparations were immediately made for the journey.
Complete with cans of Fosters and cassettes of Bruce Springsteen, we thundered up the A420 from Bath to Aylesbury through high winds and torrential rain. Visibility was down to about thirty yards and despite some daredevil driving we were an hour late. To find that the concert was sold out.
Complete with cans of Fosters and cassettes of Bruce Springsteen, we thundered up the A420 from Bath to Aylesbury through high winds and torrential rain.
However by some frenzied begging and pleading (‘We’re Australians … we’ve driven all the way from Bath … oh God, I don’t believe it’) we did manage to gain entry. Split Enz were half way through Walking Down The Road, a song from their aforementioned Australian album. They looked bizarre. Black and white patterned suits, black and white face make-up and the strangest assortment of hairdos you’re ever likely to see. Timothy Finn, the lead singer, with his hair shaved in a three-inch arc above his ears and Noel Crombie, the percussionist, with his Pinocchio nose and flying wedge of hair, looked especially impressive.
After Walking Down The Road, they played two new numbers. A powerful song called Just Another Great Divide and a jaunty little song about necrophilia called The Woman Who Loves You, featuring a very entertaining sortie on the spoons from Noel Crombie that had the crowd entranced. They were called back for an encore by an enthusing crowd and treated us to a rousing rendition of So Long For Now.
Talking to the roadies after the show, we discovered that the tour was going to be in Bath the following weekend. During the week, I phoned Chrysalis, the band’s record company, and arranged an interview for before their concert.
‘We took a bit of a gamble in coming over really, for although Chrysalis had heard our tapes and Phil was keen to produce us, there was nothing definite. It was the stage act that finally convinced them.’
The start of the concert was delayed due to the late arrival of some equipment and things were rather frantic with people rushing in and out of the dressing room. I talked mainly to Timothy Finn, who despite obvious pre-concert tension, was friendly and answered my questions readily. First up I asked how the band find themselves on this nationwide British tour backed with a new album on the prestigious Chrysalis label.
‘Well, it all dates back to when we supported Roxy Music at a concert in Sydney in May 1975. At that time we had been in Australia for two months. Phil Manzanera, Roxy Music’s guitarist, spoke to us after the concert and said he would be interested in producing us if we were to come to England.
‘We took a bit of a gamble in coming over really, for although Chrysalis had heard our tapes and Phil was keen to produce us, there was nothing definite. It was the stage act that finally convinced them. We played a special concert for them in Southampton, they liked the act, and we signed with them soon afterwards.’
The album Mental Notes (later released in Australasia as Second Thoughts) was recorded with Manzanera in April and May and since then the band has been rehearsing, writing new material and waiting for this tour to come along. The tour, as support band to Geordie-folk rockers Jack the Lad, covers twenty-five venues in five weeks; an intensive schedule in anyone’s book. I asked Noel Crombie how it was going.
‘When we first saw the schedule we nearly died,’ he said with a smile. ‘But playing in a different town is O.K. here because the country is so compact. Not like Australia where you have to travel vast distances between gigs.’
And the audience reaction? ‘Positive so far. Even if people don’t like the music they usually enjoy the act. And even if they hate it, they’ll certainly remember it! The visual presentation is a way for people to come to the music. An extension of the music if you like.’
Tim Finn was resplendent in his black and white paneled suit and bow tie and looked like the last of the Iroquois as he stomped around the stage with his hair piled high on his head.
The act certainly doesn’t lack impact. I saw the full set on display in front of a young university audience that, after the initial shock, grew more and more approving as the set progressed.
Tim Finn, Bath 1976 – photo by Sally Thomas
Tim Finn was resplendent in his black and white paneled suit and bow tie and looked like the last of the Iroquois as he stomped around the stage with his hair piled high on his head. Noel Crombie stood off to one side in a pair of tights, one leg black, the other white, performing slow-motion calisthenics and discreetly inserting his percussive effects. Jonathan Michael Chunn bumbled around the stage looking like a miniature Buddy Holly with a bass guitar. Eddie Raynor like a teenage Phantom of the Opera, leapt around his bank of keyboards, Robert Gillies blew a mean saxophone from behind a clown’s face paint and the drummer looked on amused.
It was easy to overlook Phillip Judd amongst all these theatrics, but as one concentrated on the music, it became apparent that the small menacing figure with the blackened eyes and close-cropped hair was actually the musical lynchpin of the band. Not only were his guitar riffs the base of most of the songs, but he also played some searing lead.
The songs were mainly from the new album. The set opened brightly with Matinee Idyll and Amy Darling, both cheerful and bouncy songs with some tasty mandolin from Phillip Judd and brisk keyboard work from Eddie Raynor. Some wild sax featured on the next song Lovey Dovey, before things became a little more serious with the epic Stranger Than Fiction segueing into the hauntingly beautiful Time For A Change.
It was easy to overlook Phillip Judd amongst all these theatrics, but as one concentrated on the music, it became apparent that the small menacing figure with the blackened eyes and close-cropped hair was actually the musical lynchpin of the band.
The arrangements are complex, with sudden stops and abrupt changes of tempo abounding, but the playing is impeccable. The theatrics, far from detracting from the sound, give visual expression to the dynamism of the performance. Everything is integrated to produce a coherent and impressive artistic statement.
Once again they finish off with Walking Down The Road and The Woman Who Loves You; Noel Crombie again knocking ’em dead with his amazing spoons routine. They crowd called for an encore, but due to the delay in starting there was unfortunately not enough time.
The future looks bright for Split Enz. They are getting favourable press reviews, airplay on the BBC (courtesy of John Peel) and by the end of this tour they will have been seen by around thirty thousand people. And with Chrysalis they have a record company that is big enough to put some weight behind them, yet also small enough to spend some time with them.
‘We’re trying to establish ourselves in the same way an English band would,’ Tim Finn told me. ‘We will be concentrating most of our energies here, although we aren’t really based anywhere at the moment. We’ll be going back to Australia in December for a tour and we’ll be playing New Zealand in January. Then the plan is for us to go to the States in February. Chrysalis is releasing our album over there in January and they want us to go over and do some gigs to promote it.’
Tim Finn is well pleased with the album. It was worth the year’s wait, he tells me wryly. I asked him about the decision to include five of the tracks from the Australian Mental Notes. ‘Well, since we recorded the Australian album we’ve had a change of line up with a saxophonist replacing a second guitarist, which meant the songs had new arrangements. And we felt we didn’t really do them justice in Australia. Phil Manzanera agreed with us, so we decided to record them again.
As a debut album, Mental Notes is an impressive and original work. Favourable comparisons are already being made with Roxy Music’s first album which burst onto a sleepy and unsuspecting scene back in 1972. There are similarities between the scene then and the scene now, with the top groups content to trundle along in their well-worn grooves and companies wary of backing anything new and unknown. A symptom of this current sterility is the meteoric rise in prominence of the punk rock bands like Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, who although playing loudly and often badly, are at least exciting on stage.
Split Enz have it over the punk rockers in that they are good musicians as well as being exciting and different on stage. Comparing the new album with the Australian one, it is apparent that the Split Enz sound has matured considerably over the past year. The music is fuller and richer, without the starkness and manic edge that was such a feature of the Australian Mental Notes. The addition of saxophone gives the sound more punch and broadens the base they can draw on to concoct their distinctive blend of sounds.
Take time out to see them on their forthcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand. You may have to wait quite a while before you see them again.