In March 1975 the band departed for Australia as support act for Aussie glam rockers Hush, at the time the group comprised Tim Finn (guitar, vocals), Mike Chunn (bass), Paul Crowther (drums), Eddie “The Prof” Rayner (keyboards), Phil Judd (guitar, vocals) and Noel Crombie (occasional vocals, percussion, costumes). The Australian music scene was evolving as Daddy Cool, AC/DC, Skyhooks and Sherbet emerged to replace the old guard of Johnny O’Keefe, the Easybeats and Billy Thorpe. New more experimental radio stations like Sydney’s 2JJ welcomed quirky types like Spilt Enz, and the ABC’s Countdown became the portal through which many bands, including the Enz, would pass to fame, and sometimes fortune.Mushroom Records MIchael Gudinski (above) and Skyhooks alumni Redmond “Red” Symonds and Bob “Bongo” Starkie checked out the Enz at Coogee’s Oceanic Ballroom, and despite/because of the left-of-centre aesthetic of the group they were impressed, and were duly signed to what was then the biggest label in the country. An early performance at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion in support of AC/DC and Skyhooks, was greeted with derision by the crowd, but they gradually found an audience at such “head” venues as Melbourne’s Reefer Cabaret, where the Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, probably the only local band that could be compared to the Enz at the time, had reigned supreme. The band secured a support slot on Roxy Music’s tour of Oz, their guitarist Phil Manzanera (below) was impressed by the Enz and offered to work with them in the recording studio, and both he and Brian Ferry praised the group upon their return to the UK.The band were constantly touring in support of such acts as Lou Reed and Leo Sayer, so their 1975 debut album was literally thrown together, producer Dave Russell (below) was preoccupied with tour management duties and the recording sessions, conducted in Festival’s Sydney studios, produced the album Mental Notes, described by one critic as “ completely non-commercial art rock, filled with ambitious arrangements and slightly disturbing themes.” (Chris Woodtra, of allmusic), it charted at #7 in NZ and staggered to #35 locally.In the wake of the album’s flop, guitarist Wilkinson and manager Barry Coburn were sacked, Eddie Rayner collapsed with an acute case of tonsillitis, Judd’s insecurities about live performing resurfaced despite his growing intake of tranquillisers, and Chunn’s panic attacks were increasingly linked to his growing addiction to LSD, the band was living on the edge, and threatening to implode.Meanwhile back in NZ, Neil had decided to forgo university and pursue a career in music, he joined with guitarist Geoff Chunn, novice accordion/mandolin player Buster Stiggs (aka Geoff Hough, future drummer for the Swingers) to write songs and record some early demoes, while he continued to work as a nurse at the Tokanui Hospital to augment his meagre earnings, also gigging with his band After Hours, and Split Enz whenever they returned to NZ.The Enz left for England in 1976 to record some demoes with Roxy Musiic’s Phil Manzanera at Island Music’s Notting Hill studio, initially to rework songs from Mental Notes, but both Manzanera and his bandmate Brian Eno (above) agreed that the songs were overly complicated, especially for a market that was about to embrace the two-chord mayhem and nihilism of punk rock. For the next year Tim experienced severe writer’s block, and his relationship with former best friend Phil Judd, plunged to an all-time low, however he did meet exotic dancer Liz Malam, and they commenced a long-term relationship. The re-heated Mental Notes was re-released as the band’s second album in August 1976 under the title Second Thoughts, it charted #25 locally, but the band were musically treading water.Relocation to LA in 1977 resulted in more bad reviews, poor crowds, drug and alcohol abuse, a fist fight between Finn and Judd, and ultimately Judd’s sacking from the group. Soon after 18-year old Neil Finn would join Split Enz and head to London for a recording session there with his brother and new bandmates, but Mike Chunn had tired of the touring grind and nomadic life fueled by drugs, and followed Judd out the door. Replacements Nigel Griggs (bass, below), Mal Green (drums) and Neil Finn (guitar, vocals), along with their Enz bandmates, went into London’s Air Studios with producer Geoff Emerick in late 1977 to record their third album Dizrhythmia (a medical term for jet lag), which would deliver their first top twenty single.The irresistible My Mistake, was another self-flagellating Tim Finn confessional, with just enough vaudevillian herky-jerkiness to stamp it as an Enz song, but with a more evident pop sensibility, that saw the record climb to #15 and the album to #18, the reviews both here and in the UK were generally favourable. Tim farewelled his former best mate Phil Judd with the track Charlie, a slow, mournful, waltz-tempo outpouring of grief and regret at the end of a bromance that had begun when they were undergraduates at Auckland University.The madcap promo clip for My Mistake begins with most of the group in front of a stage performing in a dimly lit amphitheatre, Tim Finn the ringmaster walks onto the stage and begins to sing, the stage is illuminated, other band members join Tim as he performs magic tricks with the assistance of special effects. Tim scat sings along with a trumpet solo by Robert Gillies, and as the clip ends Gillies trumpet disappears as does Eddie Raynar’s piano. Neil appeared in his debut Enz clip, madly strumming his guitar and pulling faces like a deranged lunatic – it was whimsical, quirky, and oddly appealing.
Before the band would record their fourth album Frenzy at Ringo Starr’s Starling Studios (London), the band delivered yet another desultory public performance, this time on the BBC program Sight and Sound in front of a viewing audience of about 10 million people. The band had alienated the strictly unionised BBC staff by insisting of doing their own makeup and lighting, mysteriously the sound mix on their live set was dreadful. To make matters worse Neil’s guitar malfunctioned, the studio audience refused to clap along when encouraged to do so by Tim, and it became yet another high-profile fiasco, coming hard on the heels of their Hordern Pavilion flop in Sydney, and their memorable sending off at Auckland’s Great Ngaruawahia Festival.Phil Judd told Tim he wanted to return to the group, Finn made room for him by sacking brassman Gillies, soon after Judd departed again, claiming he couldn’t support his family on the band’s meagre earnings, the Enz were also in debt to Chrysalis Records for £300,000 who subsequently dropped the band from their roster in 1978.The Enz got back into the recording studio with the assistance of 60’s pop star Ray Colombus and a $5,000 grant from the NZ government, and went into the Quest Studios in Luton (UK) to record demoes of their next songs, including I See Red, which was ultimately produced by David Tickle at Starling Studios and featured on the album Frenzy. Tim had developed the song whilst living in the largely Greek, north London location of Osborne Rd, Palmers Green with Liz Malam, he initially thought the song was boring and predictable and convinced Tickle to speed it up to sound punkier, more manic, and new wave, it became the second top twenty single for the Enz in Aust. at #15, and the album crept to #24 nationally.
The music video for I See Red begins with Tim Finn angrily ripping his hair out as he can see a woman out a window walking along as the first line of the lyrics indicates “When my baby’s walking down the street/I see red, I see red, I see red”. Finn then resumes his regular position with the band and completes the song. The band, including Finn, are all wearing grey suits with black markings and white crosses on them with white shirts and red ties. The studio is low lit with a white or red spotlight on different members of the band, though occasionally lighting up a backdrop completely, though still predominantly keeping to white and red light. At the very end of the song, the music stops suddenly instead of fading out or stopping at the end of a bar, due to the tape running out during recording. In the music video at this moment, the band members disappear from the performance area leaving the space, with only their instruments in place.The album cover for Frenzy featured a striking painting of the band by Noel Crombie’s partner Raewyn Turner without their wacky costumes and greasepaint, it signaled a move away from emphasis on the theatrical dimension of the band, to focus on their music, a direction they would unerringly pursue with their fifth album, the brilliant True Colours. In a way the Frenzy album, produced by American Mallory Earl (except for the track I See Red) and condemned by Neil Finn as “sound that comes at you from behind a pad of cotton wool”, represented the end of an era for Split Enz.The band’s image and musical style would evolve as their quirky, zany, brand of existential oddness, and art rock was now appearing more contrived than inspired. Their sound would become fuller, more resonant, and commercially accessible in the future, the splendid True Colours album, produced by Brit David Tickle would remain on the charts for 60 weeks, and as the seventies wound down the band’s future direction seemed clearer. The promo clip for I See Red was the last time that a Split Enz video would dial up the quirkiness to extremes, with band members jerking around like demented marionettes, resplendent in panda eye makeup, sporting asymmetrical haircuts, not pretending to play their instruments, and exhibiting a weird and vaguely threatening persona