“We started out as being reactionaries in the true sense of the word.”
Tim Finn’s reflections in a 1984 Double Jay interview suggest his band Split Enz had a clear agenda from their very earliest days.
“We reacted against anything that was boring and silly about early ‘70s music, and refused to have any image that had anything glamourous or sexual. We just went right off on a tangent, and looked different and sounded different.”
By 1980, after four albums, a stack of touring through the UK and Europe, and the financial hardships that came with being based overseas, Split Enz were well and truly ready and in need of a big breakthrough.
It came with their fifth record True Colours.
“Most of the albums [prior] have done okay, but none of them have torn the charts apart exactly,” Neil Finn explained to Keri Philips that year. “We’ve always retained our live following, but we haven’t quite managed to get that onto record, and I think we’ve done it this time.”
With True Colours, the younger Finn’s talents were clearly asserting him as a pop songwriter of great note. His song ‘I Got You’, with its shadowy, paranoid Noel Crombie designed and conceived film clip, was flogged across radio and television. The success of the single finally established them as a band of international standing.
“We’ve always been very keen to get a hit single, and make really classy pop,” Neil admitted to Philips, despite the musical eclecticism for which they’d been known. “That’s another pleasing factor about the new album, I think there’s lots of singles on it.
“It’s probably a bit truer to what we’re actually like anyway. We always used to destroy our pop songs with frills in a way, especially some of the early stuff, it was so bitsy, it went over the heads of most people and it always vaguely frustrated us that we couldn’t reach more people on record. So, with this one, we were determined to keep it simple, really streamline it so everybody could understand it.”
A significant factor in helping to bring the songs into focus was English producer David Tickle, who’d previously worked on their single ‘I See Red’.
Subsequently, he’d gone on to work under the guidance of Mike Chapman for The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ and Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’, before being brought back to helm the production of True Colours.
Neil Finn told Keri Philips that Tickle’s influence was vital in disciplining the band as well as arrangement ideas, but that his youth and enthusiasm were most important.
The best you can hope for in this business is for some type of timelessness.Tim Finn — triple j, 1995
“He’s so young and hungry,” Finn said. “He’s done a lot for his age. He’s only 21 and already engineered number one singles.”
In his Split Enz biography Stranger Than Fiction, former member Mike Chunn gives an insider’s view on Tickle’s approach to stripping things back, from drummer Mal Green’s fills to Neil’s guitar being pulled back.
Rayner’s keyboards were ‘even more streamlined, with single melody lines to the fore’, and Crombie’s percussion almost totally removed in the mixing process.
Despite this, Chunn says ‘the sessions were done with a unanimous air of confidence and a concerted intensity,’ and recalls ‘Neil standing in the control room and being simply amazed at the sound he was hearing.’
The band was certainly hitting a new stride in many ways on True Colours.
“We’re all thinking pretty much along the same lines these days,” Neil told Double Jay in 1980. “I wasn’t really very concerned that it wasn’t going to turn out how I wanted it to, it turned out a lot better than I thought it would.
“There’s a certain amount of control [that you relinquish] in that you provide the initial input of ideas but we’re a pretty democratic band. Everybody’s allowed to play what they feel like playing. If it’s wrong, we tell them, but if not, it continues through, so I’m really pleased with how they’ve turned out on the album.”
Keyboardist Eddie Rayner contributes a defining element to the Split Enz sound. Neil was keen to acknowledge Rayner’s role on this album.
“He’s such an incredibly talented musician, and the things he does are always incredibly interesting,” Finn told Philips. “He’s got a big part to play [because] when you’ve got keyboards and guitar it can be quite difficult at times because there aren’t many spaces left. You’ve got to sort of work in. But he’s very good at putting just enough in, putting a lot in when its needed and not much when it isn’t.”
It’s evident over the album’s 11 tracks just how much Rayner’s melodic touches characterise the songs.
Whether it be light flourishes (‘I Wouldn’t Dream Of It’, ‘Missing Person’, ‘Poor Boy’), going toe to toe with chugging guitar riffs (‘What’s the Matter With You’, ‘Shark Attack’), to charging spacey runs (‘Double Happy’, ‘The Choral Sea’) and entrancing, romantically forlorn lines (‘I Hope I Never’).
Although there were many more incredible songs to come on subsequent releases, as an album, True Colours was Split Enz’s biggest and brightest moment in the sun.
“The best you can hope for in this business is for some type of timelessness,” Tim Finn told triple j’s Lawrie Zion in 1995.
Looking back on the calibre of songs on this album and how they paved the way for a fruitful and intense burst of creativity before they decided to call it a day in 1984, clearly the band’s hopes were more than fulfilled.