Split Enz first reached New Zealand’s attention with an appearance on the New Faces talent show in 1973, where they finished second-to-last. Their early material was too weird for the mainstream, comparable to early Genesis or Roxy Music, and Phil Judd was a creepy frontman. When the band later broke through in the late 1970s with hits like ‘I See Red’ and ‘I Got You’, they were considerably more streamlined. Their most successful lineup featured Neil and Tim Finn, keyboardist Eddie Rayner, percussionist/costume designer Noel Crombie, and the English rhythm section of Nigel Griggs and Malcolm Green.
Split Enz served as a launching pad for a generation of New Zealand talent. Founding member Phil Judd later formed The Swingers, with their hit ‘Counting The Beat’, while Neil Finn formed Crowded House. Original bassist Mike Chunn became the New Zealand director for the Australasian Performing Right Association, while Tim Finn has enjoyed success as a solo artist. Early drummer Emlyn Crowther invented the HotCake distortion pedal.
In high school, the Split Enz compilation History Never Repeats was all I played for a couple of weeks. It only featured one song from Split Enz’s early art-rock years, instead focusing on the Neil Finn-era when the band played new wave pop. I’ve come to appreciate the artier earlier material since, and this list offers a mixture from both eras.
There was no room on this list for a bunch of hits from their commercial prime, like ‘One Step Ahead’, ‘I See Red’, ‘Poor Boy’, or ‘I Got You’. The latter is the most obvious hit the band ever released, but the arrangement is so stripped-back that it doesn’t stand up to repeated listens as well as some of their other material.
10 Best Split Enz Songs
#10 History Never Repeats
written by Neil Finn, from Waiata/Corroboree, 1981
Waiata reunited the Enz with producer David Tickle, who’d helmed the breakthrough True Colours. ‘History Never Repeats’ was the second single from the album. It’s power-pop, with the focus on Neil Finn’s guitar rather than Rayner’s keyboards. It has some interesting features for a pop song – the bridge is instrumental, and it closes on an optimistic verse rather than a chorus.
There was a girl I used to know
She dealt my love a savage blow
written by Phil Judd and Tim Finn, from Mental Notes, 1975
Several songs on Split Enz’s debut Mental Notes were inspired by English author Mervyn Peake, including ‘Spellbound’. There are two available versions – the 1974 version on The Beginning of the Enz has a Tim Finn lead vocal, while Mental Notes features Judd’s bleating voice. It utilises the distinctive rhythm guitar Maori strum, which Neil Finn would later use for Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’.
Chances are, it’s not that far to go
Chances are, there’s not that much to know
#8 Another Great Divide
written by Phil Judd, Tim Finn, Eddie Rayner, and Robert Gillies, non-album single, 1977
The non-album single ‘Another Great Divide’ was Split Enz’s last release with Mike Chunn and Phil Judd. As such, it marks the end of an era but it’s a fine way for Judd to sign off. Judd left the band suddenly after a US tour and was replaced by 18-year-old Neil Finn.
She neurotic, psychotic
You name it, she’s got it
#7 Take A Walk
written by Neil Finn, from Time and Tide, 1982
The strongest album from the Enz’s pop phase, Time and Tide brings back some of their early artiness while retaining the pop hooks. Tim Finn wrote the first three singles, leaving Neil’s excellent ‘Take A Walk’ as an impressive deep cut. There’s great interplay between Rayner’s jaunty piano and Finn’s angular guitar.
#6 Dirty Creature
written by Tim Finn, Neil Finn, and Nigel Griggs, from Time and Tide, 1982
‘Dirty Creature’ serves as a metaphor for Tim Finn’s panic attacks – he likens them to a threatening creature like a taniwha. The song worked as therapy – Finn later said “as soon as I had the song written, I much more control over it”. It’s the funkiest song the Enz ever recorded, and Finn’s high register sounds great on the chorus hook.
I need a dragon-slayer who can save me from myself
#5 Time For A Change
written by Phil Judd, Tim Finn, Eddie Rayner, from Mental Notes, 1975
Tim Finn’s pure tenor takes the lead on this song from their debut. The lyrics are arguably pretentious nonsense, but the melody is gorgeous and the symphonic parts are lovely.
You act as though you were a blind man who’s crying
Crying ’bout all the virgins that are dying
#4 Six Months In A Leaky Boat
written by Tim Finn and Split Enz, from Time and Tide (1982)
Tim Finn suffered from a nervous breakdown and the end of a marriage in late 1981. These experiences fed into ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’, a salty epic with undeniable pop hooks. The song reached the top ten in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Unfortunately, its release coincided with the Falklands Wars and the sinking of the Argentine boat General Belgrano – the song was black-listed in the UK.
Glisten like a pearl
At the bottom of the world
#3 Late Last Night
written by Phil Judd, from Second Thoughts, 1976
The band’s second album is a confusing affair – half of the songs are re-recorded from Mental Notes. But the new material is excellent, like Judd’s ‘Late Last Night’. Judd’s always an unsettling presence and on ‘Late Last Night’ he plays a creepy Bryan Ferry-ish persona, a smooth barfly.
I saw you standing there at the bar
Your eyes were glazed with passion
#2 Message To My Girl
written by Neil Finn, from Conflicting Emotions, 1983
Conflicting Emotions marked the end of Split Enz’s chart-topping era in Australasia. Tim had released the solo album Escapade and his contributions to Conflicting Emotions were weaker than before. The slick, sophisticated pop of ‘Message to My Girl’ is far removed from Split Enz’s early weirdness, but it’s gorgeous. Built around a lovely piano riff from Eddie Rayner, Finn delivers some of his sweetest lyrics.
It’s no new year’s resolution, it’s more than that
#1 Sweet Dreams
written by Phil Judd, from Second Thoughts, 1976
‘Sweet Dreams’ features Judd’s most memorable chorus for Split Enz. Rob Gillies’ sax playing is great, as is Judd’s propulsive acoustic guitar and Rayner’s piano. Split Enz enjoyed bigger hits later in their career, but they were never as vibrant as on their early records.
I fell for your etiquette
The first time we ever met