The Beginning Is The Enz - Neil Finn's Early Days

The Beginning Is The Enz - Neil Finn's Early Days

neil finn split enz
Neil Finn, 1987 (Photo by Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Neil Finn was the accidental usurper in Split Enz. The younger brother of co-founder Tim Finn, Neil wasn’t even a member of the band for their first 4-5 years and first two albums. When he came on board in 1977, effectively to replace the guitar playing of Tim’s fellow co-founder and co-frontman Phil Judd, he was young, inexperienced, and not known as a songwriter. Neil’s first and only band experience before joining the Enz in London, where they were having a concerted crack at the UK market, had been with a short-lived band called After Hours. After Hours had also included former Split Enz drummer Geoff Chunn and Mark Hough, who, under the name Buster Stiggs would later join Judd’s band The Swingers.

It wasn’t apparent until later, but Neil was quick to contribute as a writer to Split Enz. While his first album with the band, Dizrythmia, was recorded just months after his arrival and didn’t feature any of his songs when the group started working on new material the following year Neil offered plenty. The extensive rehearsal room recordings that finally saw full release in 2007 under the name The Rootin’ Tootin’ Luton Tapes featured a remarkable four tracks written exclusively by Neil, and two he co-wrote with Tim. The Luton recordings of Neil’s’ “Carried Away” and “Holy Smoke” were even included on the belated US and European 1981 release of the band’s 1979 album Frenzy album in the States, which came after Neil had established his commercial bona fides.


The original 1979 release of Frenzy was the first time Neil made his writing and singing talents clearly apparent. While brother Tim’s punk-inspired “I See Red” was the big hit here, the second single was a Tim and Neil co-write and the first of the band’s singles to feature a Neil vocal. “Give It A Whirl” is a fabulous and fabulously quirky pop song that captures the new wave zeitgeist perfectly and sits comfortably next to any XTC or Squeeze song of the era. 

Here’s an obscure one – the A-side of a between-albums single the band recorded in Melbourne with co-producer Tony Cohen and released in 1979. Neil’s second A-side and a cool tune, “Things” went unnoticed at the time and gave no real indication of what was to come next. 


Of course, 1980’s True Colours is where it all came home to roost for Split Enz, and for Neil. “I Got You” made international popstars out of them and helped the band – which was now 7 years old – appear to be riding on the cusp of the new wave. “I Got You”, with its quiet/loud dynamics and that 60s style keyboard in the chorus, was a perfect piece of Pure Pop for Now People and made them absolute hometown heroes in New Zealand, superstars in Australia and genuinely popular in the UK and US. “What’s The Matter With You“ was a pretty neat tune too.


Neil continued his ride with Corroboree, which was Split Enz’s second #1 album in Australia and also in NZ, where it was released under the Mori name of Waiata. The first two singles were Neil’s songs; both were worthy, but if it had been up to me I would’ve released then in reverse order. “One Step Ahead” is probably closer in feel to “I Got You” which probably pleased the record company, but “History Never Repeats” is the absolute stunner. This is one that Fleetwood Mac should seriously consider doing; can’t you just hear Mike Campbell ringing out the opening lick on his 12-string Rickenbacker and Stevie taking on Tim’s magic harmony part in the song’s glorious chorus?! 

While Tim contributed the out and out pop classic on the band’s next album Time and Tide – “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” deserved to be a worldwide smash – Neil had to wait until the fourth single from the album to get a crack at some airplay. “Hello Sandy Allen” was a sweet pop song but probably not the thing that hits were made of; fan favourite “Take A Walk” might’ve stood a better chance. Eddie Vedder obviously loved it; we’ll check out of version from him and Neil as well.

If Neil was perhaps short-changed on the singles on Time and Tide, he had no such problem on the band’s next album, 1983’s Conflicting Emotions. Tim had just released a solo album, so Neil had the lion’s share of the songs on the album. First single, Neil’s “Strait Old Line” was an odd one – the chorus reminds me of something by Godley & Crme, which is not necessarily a bad thing. “Message to My Girl” followed and was a considerably bigger hit and remains one of the band’s most-loved tunes.

With Conflicting Emotions failing to reach the top 10 here (it peaked at #13), and with Tim looking towards his solo career, Split Enz had just one album left in them. 1985’s See Ya Round found Neil brotherless in the band and the sole frontperson. Of course, he contributed the majority of the songs too. “I Walk Away” was a strong single that deserved better than it got chartwise -  the song would be rerecorded for Crowded House’s first album – while “Our Mouth is Fed” was a suitably obtuse number for the band’s final single, and the video even had them donning Crombie suits, perhaps for old times’ sake. Failing to even crack the Top 100, it was maybe a sad way to bow out, but of course, time has been very kind to Split Enz, who remain one of New Zealand’s – and Australia’s – most loved bands. 

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