Every band should be so lucky to have this kind of in-depth documentary.
Everyone’s entitled to one or two really eccentric favorites in their musical life, and we’re not even talking guilty pleasures – we’re talking about bands or albums which bring all pleasure and no guilt.
One of these favorites for me is the storied New Zealand band Split Enz, which started life in the early ’70s as artsy, complex prog rock, and then suddenly pivoted into a new wave success story at the beginning of the 1980s, after years of lineup changes and the kind of sturm und drang that used to get glossed over in VH-1’s “Behind The Music”. The Split Enz story really has it all – lofty artistic ambitions clashing with the need to bring home the bacon with commercial success, polished studio sessions completely disguising the group’s strengths as a live band, and the usual tug-of-war with management, labels, and…a botched dinner with Martin Scorsese!?
Yeah, that took a turn there. But that really is a fairly good representative specimen of the kind of turn the Split Enz story takes in Radio New Zealand’s ten-part documentary series Enzology, which is available for free download in commercial-free podcast form, years after its initial broadcast.
Though there’s a little bit lost in the translation – the group’s wildly stylized look is not something any mere descriptive paragraph can really sum up – not much is lost. Virtually every member of every lineup of the band gets a chance to tell their part of the story, and there’s an amazing selection of live performances, studio banter, unheard demos, and deep cuts, alongside the stuff that came dangerously close to being bona fide international hits. Even if you’ve never heard of this group – trust me, they’re superstars among their fellow Kiwis – the sampling of material is probably enough to get you thoroughly hooked. A decent one-hour TV documentary was produced in 1993 to coincide with the group’s 20th anniversary, but it pales in comparison to Radio New Zealand’s magnificently in-depth effort.
And on the off chance you’ve never heard of Split Enz: their song “History Never Repeats” was the 12th video ever played on MTV’s first broadcast day, meaning that they were ahead of Iron Maiden, the Cars, Phil Collins, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, or Robert Palmer in making their MTV debut. Neil Finn, the younger brother of founding member Tim Finn, joined the band at the age of 19 before his third album; you probably know him better as the frontman of Crowded House. Not that Tim fared too badly: a single from his first solo album, “Growing Pains”, appeared in the movie Sixteen Candles. One of the group’s founding members invented the Hotcake guitar distortion pedal. Oh, and at nearly any point along their history, the band’s music is brilliant.
“Enzology” is also kind of a bittersweet reminder of a bygone age of broadcasting. This was made in the 21st century, and sure, one gets the impression that it may have been a passion project for documentary producer/narrator Jeremy Ansell. But there once was a time when American radio might generate gems like this, back in the days of Westwood One Radio, Watermark Radio, and King Biscuit Flour Hour. But the last thing I remember hearing like this on American radio…was probably a two-hour special I remember hearing in or around 1980, to mark ten years since the split-up of the Beatles. Now, obviously, Split Enz can command ten hours of airtime on Radio New Zealand because it’s a matter of richly-deserved Kiwi national pride. But there are other bands whose epic histories also deserve this kind of treatment. Genesis, perhaps. ELO would be a lovely band to chronicle, especially if all of the surviving band members could have some input. Even BBC Radio still does shows like this, a favorite example being The Record Producers, which has examined the careers of acts as diverse as Todd Rundgren, 10cc, and Roy Wood.
One can dream, at any rate. In the meantime, “Enzology” is worth a spin – it may well be the peak of this genre of broadcast music journalism. Even if you’ve never heard of this band, you’ll wish that bands you have heard of had received this kind of coverage. In the meantime, give “Enzology” a whirl – and then dive into the group’s catalogue itself.