Split Enz – Extravagenza

Being a child of the ‘80s means I missed many fine things: I missed The Doors and The Beatles on Ed Sullivan; I wasn’t alive to watch Elvis’ slide into mediocrity and prescribed drug abuse; I was more than a decade from being around to see Bob Dylan shock everyone again with Blood On The Tracks. The birth of punk came well before my parents had even met.

Indeed, all these landmarks have been experienced second-hand, tiny chapters in a musical history constructed by me from articles in magazines, film clips seen on Rage and the reverential speech of those who were there and saw it happen. I can only imagine the visceral thrill of hearing the Sex Pistols being rude and dirty and disgusting after years of saccharine disco dribbling all over the charts (and if I need help imagining, I put on some Donna Summer or Dreamweaver and watch my still-a-bit-punk parents try to hold back the tears). I can only guess what it was like to hear Revolver for the first time, before it had been so neatly contextualised and compartmentalised by decades of laudatory music criticism. I have to imagine these things in the same way I imagine Henry the Eighth wanting a son or Caligula ruling over the Roman Empire with a no-doubt-slightly-moist fist.

And, thanks to my day of birth, I missed Split Enz bursting on to the Australian scene. And from what I hear, I’m all the poorer for it. Those older than me – who were paying attention, anyway – seem to recall something magical about those boys from New Zealand. There they were, all of a sudden, wearing make-up and dancing oddly. Where did they come from? What were they doing here? And, most importantly, how did they write such beautifully perfect songs?

Over the years, the band – the Finn brothers, Mike Chunn, Robert Gillies, Phil Judd, Paul Hester and artistic mastermind Noel Crombie – would be based in New Zealand, Australia and Britain. But by all accounts, they seemed to transcend geography, along with any attempts to fit them into genre boxes. Were they art rock, punk or pop? New Zealand arts students gone mad with guitars? Savvy marketers with an ear for a chorus? Who could really know?

When the band flew over the Tasman back in 1975, the reception was apparently lukewarm – the Skyhooks were one thing, but these Split Enz guys were really bloody out there. It was only when Michael Gudinski signed the band – after they spent nine months touring – that they were given the opportunity to enter the mainstream.

When they scored support slots with Lou Reed, Skyhooks and, uh, Leo Sayer, they were well on their way to finally establishing themselves in this wide, brown land. And over the next few years, they became an institution, a much-needed fringe band in the mainstream, reminding the punters of the possibilities that so often lay dormant in popular music, blurring the lines between art and music.

Oh, and they wrote blood good songs too – the kind of songs that you hear once and can sing one thousand times. Six Months In A Leaky Boat. I See Red. I Got You. One Step Ahead. These are big bloody songs, sung along to in supermarkets, listened to while you’re on hold, played daily on classic hits radio. The hits are bigger than the band themselves, taking on a life of their own, living somewhere in the back of your head all the time, the notes and words ready and waiting to be brought alive.

Those massive hits – and nineteen other songs – are collected here on Extravagenza, a live album remastered from the reunion gigs of 1993. And lord, it’s good. The band sound like they’re playing for their lives, age clearly not having wearied them. When Neil Finn sings ‘I don’t know why sometimes I get frightened,’ you know it’s going to be in your head for days, maybe weeks. The chorus is that big, and that bold, and that urgent, and Neil sings it like he means it: ‘I want you to sing it now… turn the tent into a helium balloon,’ and the intro starts up and the crowd goes buckwild.

Later, when they play Six Months In A Leaky Boat, you wonder how the tent stayed on the ground. How did it not float away into the night sky when they played One Step Ahead or Poor Boy? What a way to go!

Everyone sounds so excited that it’s like we’re all there in 1975, and this is all fresh and new. It’s like we’re all choosing between Darryl and the Sherbet boys or Neil and the Split Enz boys, and we’re all going for the cute, fun, smart Neil. It’s like we’ve wearing flares wrapped around our legs and shiny, garish pendants around our necks. It’s like the make up is on, and the dancing is odd, and these weird boys from New Zealand are showing us how exciting pop music can be. It’s just like you’re there in 1975. And it’s beautiful.