Split Enz – The Rootin’ Tootin’ Luton Tapes

Split Enz - The Rootin' Tootin' Luton TapesFor much of of 1978, Split Enz seemed to have reached the end of the road. Having lost their label contract, their management, and almost all of their live work, the band was stranded in England with only a grant from the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council in their native New Zealand to sustain them through the lean times. At this point, lead singer/songwriter Tim Finn’s younger brother, Neil, had been with the band for less than a year. With no concerts to play, the emphasis was on writing and rehearsing (and, when they could afford it, recording) new material, and with Phil Judd having come and gone again, Neil had his first chance to try to add his own songwriting touch to the band’s sound. In June and July of 1978, the Enz converged on a studio in Luton to record their new material, with songs written by both of the Finns. And the irony of it is that only a few of those recordings have been heard until now.

Approximately half of the songs recorded at Luton were honed further and re-recorded from scratch as the group’s 1979 album Frenzy. The other half were occasionally dusted off (and sometimes re-recorded) as B-sides for singles (this being back in the days when there were still physical singles, and when those singles still had B-sides), while others never saw the light of day. Poised precariously between the original Split Enz remit of arty, complicated rock with ambitious arrangements and challenging tempo changes, and the group’s more sharply-focused ’80s pop-going-on-new-wave sound, these are the Luton sessions, revealed at last after 30 years to satisfy relentless pressure from the group’s loyal fans down through the years.

Is there a reason these recordings weren’t issued at some point back then? Well…yeah. They’re definitely diamonds in the rough, and there’s almost zero stylistic unity in the material. With nothing to lose (how much lower could they go from being unemployed in another country, with no recording contract and no promotion?), the band can clearly be heard revisiting its old sound, taking various approaches to revamping it, and even trying on and discarding whole new styles as they saw fit. The bulk of the songs are still Tim’s, though the tunes written by Neil are a revelation. Some of the songs represent his earliest songwriting efforts, as well as some of his earliest outings as a professional musician. His singing voice is, to be charitable, unrefined in places, but the pure catchiness of his songwriting offsets that. “Carried Away” and “Holy Smoke” originated here, as did “Late In Rome”, better known as “Serge”.

Tim’s contributions aren’t anything to sneeze at, however – “Semi-Detached” (one of my favorite songs that the man’s ever written), “Hypnotized”, “Next Exit” and “Remember When” originate from the Luton sessions, among many others. It’s with Tim’s songs that one can hear the most stylistic experimentation; “Hypnotized” is performed almost in the style of ’50s blues-rock, with a typically Enz twist, and some of Tim’s other tunes are similarly poised between the Enz’ early ’70s music-hall-inspired sound and more instantly accessible styles.

There are other landmarks to be heard here, especially if one has the two-disc version that was made available only to the Frenz Of The Enz fan club. That second disc, not available at retail, consists primarily of early mixes of the songs from Frenzy. Some of them, such as “Frenzy” itself, is in a decidedly unfinished form. But that disc also contains other tunes as well – Phil Judd’s last two contributions to the Enz as songwriter, “I’m So Up” and “So This Is Love”, are on the fan-club-only disc, as is “Livin’ It Up”, a song by relatively new recruit Nigel Griggs, which sees the Enz belly up to the edge of punk…and apparently back away slowly again. Judd’s two songs are a sharp reminder that, as much as some listeners regard him as the architect of the Enz’s weirder excesses, he was as capable of coming up with catchy, three-or-four-minute gems just as the Finn brothers were.

Other unusual writing credits appear; the first disc features a Griggs/Tim Finn collaboration, “Creature Comforts”, “Straight Talk” (co-written by the elder Finn and former Enz sax/horn player Robert Gillies, who had departed the band by this point and embarked on an art career that would later see him serving as, of all things, production designer for Xena: Warrior Princess), and an atmospheric-but-rather-strange song called “Animal Lover” by Eddie Rayner. These songs likely emerged from group jams – it was about as close as the Enz would ever get to an all-hands-pitch-in kind of band. The rest of the time, barring a few Eddie Rayner instrumentals, it seems that the band’s music came from the minds of Judd and/or one Finn or the other. It’s an interesting peek into avenues left unexplored. The first-ever songwriting collaboration between the Finn brothers, “Best Friend”, can also be heard, though it’s not something you’d probably be expecting if your indoctrination into the Finns’ duets was Woodface or the Finn Brothers albums.

It’s worth noting that purists might object to one thing: Rayner remixed many of the recordings, though not all. The two Judd songs originate from an appearance on the BBC’s Dave Lee Travis show, and some were left alone or had been mixed down and couldn’t be remixed. “Semi-Detached” is one such example of a song left untouched, and it certainly didn’t need any revising. But to be honest, purist or no, I’ve never heard the Luton tapes in their original state – and I doubt too many can say that they have either – so it’s not as if I have something to compare this release to so I can hear what’s changed. I also appreciate that the bulk of the Frenzy material is on the second disc only; as Frenzy is still available commercially, these alternate takes amount to music deleted scenes and outtakes (though the band is said to prefer the raw passion of the original recordings). Those who only want to hear stuff they’ve never heard before can do just fine with the single-disc version.

4 out of 4Ultimately, this collection, in either single or double disc form, may really be for-fans’-ears-only material. These aren’t new Split Enz songs (nor are there likely to be any), but the vast majority of the songs on the first disc, and a fair few on the second disc, will be new to most fans’ ears, and I’m not one to pass up on the chance to hear something new – or even just new-to-me – from either Finn. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the group’s “year from hell,” in an English summer three decades ago.

Order this CD

    Disc one

  1. Miss Haps (4:08)
  2. Home Comforts (4:13)
  3. Animal Lover (3:16)
  4. Carried Away (4:37)
  5. Semi-Detached (5:03)
  6. Holy Smoke (3:21)
  7. Message Boy (3:47)
  8. Hypnotised (3:41)
  9. Late In Rome (3:25)
  10. Straight Talk (3:23)
  11. Hollow Victory (3:23)
  12. Evelyn (3:16)
  13. Best Friend (3:04)
  14. Creature Comforts (2:52)
  15. Remember When (3:56)

Disc two – Frenz of the Enz version only

  1. Hermit McDermitt (5:02)
  2. Betty (6:13)
  3. I See Red (3:15)
  4. Mind Over Matter (3:09)
  5. Next Exit (3:54)
  6. She Got Body She Got Soul (2:57)
  7. So This Is Love (4:14)
  8. Abu Dhabi (4:53)
  9. Famous People (4:02)
  10. I’m So Up (2:58)
  11. Marooned (2:27)
  12. Livin’ It Up (1:17)
  13. Frenzy (3:07)

Released by: Rhino
Release date: 2007
Disc one total running time: 55:25
Disc two total running time: 47:28

The Swingers – Counting The Beat

The Swingers - Counting The BeatIf this album is a good example of anything, it’s a good example of how not to pick the lead track of an album. Counting The Beat is an interesting 1981 set by The Swingers, a band formed by former Split Enz guitarist/vocalist Phil Judd and featuring future Midnight Oil bassist Bones Hillman and guitarist Michael Den Elzen (who later sat in as a session player on Tim Finn’s fourth solo album). The problem with Counting The Beat, however, is wading through the first two tracks before getting to the album’s real meat.

The Swingers sound a lot like Judd’s later band Schnell Fenster, with Judd’s trademark wavering, almost-shouting vocal at the forefront of the group’s sound. Some of the songs here are worth a listen – “Lovesick”, “True Or False”, and “Ayatollah” among them – but something about the first two tracks on the CD (“Practical Joker” and “One Track Mind”) consistently hits me as being unappealing. Others’ mileage may vary, and whether or not you can stomach much of Judd’s vocal style will probably a major factor in whether you like those tracks or, for that matter, the entire album.

Split Enz fans wondering if The Swingers sound anything like that band may or may not find some similarities. Counting The Beat was produced by David Tickle, who helped the Enz cement their sound in the 2 out of 4early ’80s with True Colours, and here it sounds like he’s trying to split the difference between the Enz and the Clash. Sometimes it works…and sometimes it doesn’t.

Overall, a cautious recommendation; it helps if you’ve heard some early Split Enz and perhaps the more melodically inclined (and, frankly, better produced) Schnell Fenster first.

Order this CD

  1. Practical Joker (3:18)
  2. One Track Mind (3:46)
  3. Lovesick (3:47)
  4. True Or False (4:13)
  5. More (3:55)
  6. Counting The Beat (3:04)
  7. It Ain’t What You Dance It’s The Way You Dance It (3:02)
  8. Ayatollah (3:39)
  9. Five O’Clock Shadow (3:43)
  10. Funny Feeling (3:46)
  11. Distortion (3:52)
  12. Hit The Beach (4:01)
  13. One Good Reason (2:50)
  14. The Flak (3:41)

Released by: Mushroom
Release date: 1981
Total running time: 50:37

Schnell Fenster – The Sound Of Trees

Schnell Fenster - The Sound Of TreesThis little-known and distinctly 80’s entity consisted of Split Enz alumni Phil Judd, Noel Crombie, and Nigel Griggs (more or less the half of the band who didn’t go on to become regular members of Crowded House) along with Michael den Elzen, who later played guitar on at least one of ex-Enzer Tim Finn’s solo albums. At the same time that Crowded House was treading softer ground with Temple Of Low Men, these other former Enz members were trying to carve out a somewhat more quirky and dance-oriented niche for themselves, not unlike the territory Tim Finn had explored with his very pop-oriented early solo projects. But where Tim was upbeat, his former Enz cohorts were downright weird at times. Not that this is bad – at various times, Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones were also considered weird. Put simply, Schnell Fenster hauled the new-wave pop style out of the early 80’s, dragging it kicking and screaming (the style, not the band themselves) into the latter half of the decade, which was dominated by mechanical quasi-R&B dance grooves and rap. Sometimes, as with the catchy “Skin The Cat”, there’s even a hint of cool swing to the proceedings, and numerous other numbers play the new-wave game to the hilt, including “Whisper”, “Run-a-Mile” and “Never Stop”. I’ve found that there’s nothing on this album not to like, 3 out of 4but if you have never heard of Schnell Fenster, it’s because this is an example of a band and an album out of time. It could’ve gone over huge only four or five years earlier, but its somewhat dated sound, along with Phil Judd’s penchant for whimsy which characterized his reign in the early days of Split Enz, kept it from gaining anything more than cult recognition among Enz fans.

Order this CD

  1. Whisper (3:45)
  2. Love-Hate Relationship (3:59)
  3. Sleeping Mountain (3:44)
  4. That’s Impossible (3:26)
  5. This Illusion (3:42)
  6. Lamplight (3:35)
  7. The Sound of Trees (4:46)
  8. White Flag (3:36)
  9. Long Way Away (3:20)
  10. Skin the Cat (3:05)
  11. Run-a-Mile (3:02)
  12. Never Stop (4:12)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 44:56