Monday, 12 April 2010

8 & 9 Time And Tide / Frenzy - Split Enz

Purchased : April 1982 (Frenzy came free with Time And Tide)

Frenzy Tracks : I See Red / Give It A Whirl / Master Plan / Betty / Frenzy / Stuff And Nonsense / Marooned / Hermit McDermitt / Holy Smoke / Semi- Detatched / Carried Away / She Got Body / Mind Over Matter / Livin It Up

Time And Tide Tracks : Dirty Creature / Giant Heartbeat / Hello Sandy Allen / Never Ceases To Amaze Me / Lost For Words / Small World / Take A Walk / Pioneer / Six Months In A Leaky Boat / Haul Away / Log Cabin Fever / Make Sense Of It

This was a bit of a gamble since my knowledge of Split Enz's music at the time extended to "I Got You", "History Never Repeats" and "Six Months In A Leaky Boat". I saw an ad for it in Record Mirror offering the free album package for £3.99 and instructed my friend Anthony who visited Manchester's record shops every weekend to get it for me.

As the VFM package only helped it to number 71 in the charts, Time And Tide is the most obscure LP we've considered so far. It also marks a parting of the ways with Helen as it was the first one of my purchases she never bothered to listen to. My brief spell as her tastemaker was over. To be fair to Helen my own ambivalent reaction to these albums wouldn't have encouraged her to give them a spin.

We'll start with "Frenzy" because I listened to that first, reasoning that the current stuff would be superior so best to build up to it.

First, a bit of background. This “Frenzy” is not, despite having the same title and cover painting , the record released as their fourth LP in 1979. Perhaps influenced by The Cure’s reshaping of their debut, this is a re-mixed (by their keyboard player and most talented musician, Eddie Rayner) version which drops some of the original tracks and replaces them with different songs from an earlier recording session which became known, fabulously, as The Rootin Tootin Luton Tapes (not finally released until 2007). All the tracks were recorded during their sojourn in England in the late 70s and mark a turning point in the band’s musical development , toning down their artier leanings in favour of a more mainstream pop direction (as signified by the cover art of the band in casual clothes rather than Noel Crombie’s avant-garde costumes) . They also bear witness to the growing influence of the younger Finn brother, Neil (although Tim is still the predominant songwriter). What it definitely is not is a synth-pop (in the vein of “I Got You”) album which meant I was listening to unfamiliar music with no comfort breaks whatsoever.

It kicks off with the single "I See Red" a slice of New Wave pop somewhere between The Cars and Barry Andrews-era XTC. It's a similar tale of resentment from a dumped lover to future label mate Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him " though the self-pity is more overt, the first verse concluding "poor old me". That goes to the heart of so much of Tim Finn's songwriting ; you're getting the point of view of the loser, the discarded lover, the neglected child, the small man overcome by the cruelties of the world. Here we have the stuff of Eels twenty years early but Mark Everett looks the part whereas Tim Finn is a well-built, good looking guy who pulled Greta Scacchi. His voice (tentatively I'll say it's a tenor) can sound a bit pinched and mawkish on certain songs and it does here. Musically it's dominated by Eddie Rayner's impersonation of Steve Naive on the keyboards before the switch to Tim's beerhouse piano for the middle eight accompanied by a comedy "Grrr" which doesn't do the song any favours. It's a sparky introduction but its themes are better realised on subsequent tracks.

"Give It A Whirl" brings Neil Finn to the fore as co-writer and lead vocalist. The intro sounds quite strikingly similar to Jethro Tull's Christmas single "Ring Out Solstice Bells" then Neil launches into a positivist song about making the most of life -"There's a thrill you'll never know if you never try ". The last couple of lines of the verse start building in a way that recalls "I Got You" (the only moment on the album that does) but then goes straight to the second verse rather than a euphoric chorus. The second time we do get the chorus but it's a disappointing repetitive chant of the title.

"Master Plan" is a better song, written by Tim and sung by Neil. It starts with a hard beat and piano rumble vaguely reminiscent of post-Gabriel Genesis and Rayner's keyboards also sound proggy on this one. In some ways it's a contradiction to the previous song championing the advantages of careful planning "not taking any chances". It ends with a big , drum-heavy chant reminiscent of "Hey Jude" though thankfully not as long.

"Betty" sees a switch to the third person for a sympathetic song about a working class girl who can't do any better than casual sex at the weekend- "leaning up against the fence breathing hard and trying hard to cry". It starts like The Eagles with a steel guitar and acoustic strumming then it's just Tim at his most plaintive with an acoustic for the first verse. Drums and new wave keyboard stabs come in on the (comparitively weak) chorus. The middle eight sees the first real guitar solo on the record before Tim switches to a more general observation "There's always someone left behind, the crippled boy the last in line, the lost soul". I don't know why, despite the obvious compassion, it fails to move me- perhaps it's just the magpie musical mix that's too distracting.

No such problems with "Frenzy" which is pretty horrible. Tim co-wrote it with Rayner and while the keyboard player was the band's most accomplished musician his appearance in the writing credits usually bodes ill. The galloping intro with its buzzing bass and military whistling similar to "Generals And Majors" leads up to a spoken verse in the insinuating vein of B A Robertson's "Bang Bang" about losing control. After the first chorus we are treated to a verse of haka noises and grunts (possibly a Maori translation of the previous verse ?) before a chorus that happily proclaims "everybody's round the bend". It's also the first song to demonstrate their recurring tendency (which Neil carried into Crowded House) to end their songs with a cacophony.

After that it doesn't bode well when the next track commences with a jingoistic dedication to the All Blacks but "Stuff And Nonsense" turns out to be one of their most affecting songs. Combining the self-abasement of Dean Friedman's "Lucky Stars" with the pragmatism of Meat Loaf's "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad" Tim sings the first verse and chorus to just a piano then the strings come in for the second verse. The others join in on the second chorus before a meditative middle eight on the piano and finally the drums kick us into a rousing last chorus to fade. (We will get to Belinda Carlisle's insipid cover in due course).

Bewilderingly we change gear again to Rayner's brief ditty "Marooned" which is musically clever, his keyboards imitating distress beacons and train whistles and the band's Bez/Eno figure Noel Crombie tapping out morse code on his sticks, but completely throwaway in the lyrical department.

Side Two begins with the most difficult track to assess. I hated "Hermit McDermitt" (ironically it's the only one to feature synths) on first hearing for its nursery rhyme title , smartass rhymes and Tim's in character (think Ray Stevens) vocal but appreciate it more now for how dark it is. To a background of edgy synths similar to Squeeze's "Take Me I'm Yours" McDermitt at first appears a harmless eccentric leaving the rat race behind. Then in the second verse his retreat is revealed to be a result of maltreatment but the third chills the bone. The music drops down to a low buzz as McDermitt declares he's not alone in his resentments and "One day soon we'll all return and kill you in your beds" after which we get increasingly frantic repeats of the chorus with incongruous shouts of "yeah " from the others while Rayner plays descending scales in the manner of Napoleon XIV. Not very pc and as a macabre vision it's outgunned by the extraordinary next track but one.

First though we have "Holy Smoke" the first of two Neil Finn solo compositions and immediately we're in Crowded House territory both musically and lyrically. Neil starts singing straightaway to an acoustic strum then a very George Harrison guitar line catches up in the third line. Lyrically it's the same scenario as CH's classic "Into Temptation" the Catholic boy struck with terror after a sexual transgression. After the second chorus the cosy strum is suddenly interrupted by a rockier section evoking the religious terror. Neil's "It's all I can do " exclamation is strikingly similar to Billy Joel's "There's nothing else I can do" in "All For Leyna". After which the flow of the song continues as before although the drums have become more aggressive.

There was always a sinister side to their music and it finds full expression in "Semi-Detatched" which has become more chilling still in light of the Christopher Foster nurder case. Aginst a rumble of bass piano chords and sung in Tim's lowest register we are introduced to a man at the end of his tether, in pain and bothered by "Debt collectors, slap-dash, noisy children" each syllable painfully stretched out. Then the chorus briefly opens out with Rayner's questioning keyboard line and Tim's "We're semi detached and we'll burn like matchsticks" providing the awful answer. A prowling electric guitar underscores the next verse as things are set in motion and "In my garden cats entreat me "Spare Us" " much as you imagine Foster's dogs and horses doing the same. But it gets worse as Tim supplies the final reason "I think I heard a neighbour say "He'll amount to nothing, he's pathetic " " . You hear those neighbours in the aftermath of every Hungerford or Dunblane parading their good judgement and never reflecting on how their attitudes might have influenced the perpetrator. After two runs through the chorus the drums finally appear also ushering in a searing guitar solo which does the job despite a marked similarity to Dave Gilmour's at the end of "Wuthering Heights". Then it's just the piano for Tim's last run through the chorus ending in an eerie Mmmm.

The rest of the album suffers by comparison. Neil's second song "Carried Away" suggests a familiarity with The Moody Blues "Question" in its song structure starting with fast-strummed acoustic guitars (and Tim's Chas Jankel piano chords) for the first two verses and choruses then it slows down for a more meditative verse with a different melody on the piano before getting going again. Lyrically it's a slight song about sexual excitement ; the only other interesting thing being a "Go Your Own Way " guitar solo.

"She Got Body" is a lightweight Tim love song with an acoustic swing, the points of interest being Tim's Elvis inflections, the call and response backing vocals and a thudding ending similar to Kate Bush's "Sat In Your Lap". "Mind Over Matter" a co-write by the brothers, is a paean to physical training and combines driving hard rock with Crombie's infamous spoon playing. Which leaves "Livin It Up" a brief curiosity from bassist Nigel Griggs which starts with drums like Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" then becomes a punk thrash with a campy Steve Priest- type vocal presumably from Griggs himself. It also mentions The Stones and Steely Dan but to what purpose isn't clear.

It is a very uneven album from a band who seem to take a delight in wrongfooting the listener. For a long time, until at least 1990, I regarded it as the runt of the litter in my collection though I've since purchased much worse . Now it's somewhat rehabilitated though the gap between its best and worst tracks is one of the widest quality gulfs of any record in my collection.

So, with expectations considerably lowered I turned to "Time And Tide". Three years on the band had slimmed to a five piece following drummer Malcolm Green's departure with, for this album only, Crombie being trusted to occupy the drum seat. It's a much more homogenous album than Frenzy with two new elements funk and folk being thrown into the musical mix.

The first of these is immediately evident on "Dirty Creature" with its clipped guitar and prowling bassline showing the influence of Talking Heads as does Tim Finn's stuttery vocal. Although a co-write with Neil and Griggs the song is an extended metaphor for Tim's struggle with depression and as such follows on from "The Green Manalishi ". Anyone who's been similarly afflicted will recognise lines like "Tentacles on the brain, keep me from falling asleep". The condition is also compared to a taniwha, a water-dwelling creature from Maori mythology. The music is inventive too coming to an abrupt halt in the first verse as if they've had a collective panic attack while the middle eight where Rayner plays some ragged piano features background chatter and even the odd Michael Jackson "ow". The chorus is more melodic with Rayner playing soothing synth chords while Tim introduces the first of many nautical meetaphors on the LP by wailing "I don't want to sail tonight ".

"Giant Heartbeat" brings Neil to the fore. Written with Griggs this is less funky built on the sort of questioning guitar lines employed by British New Wavers like The Passions and The Cure . Though the lyrics are quite opaque I am guessing it's about the onset of agnosticism with age "The boy's hand will squeeze the giant's heart" . The song uses a guitar solo and swirling keyboards to emphasise the confusion but shrinks to a cramped guitar similar to the opening of XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" for the key lyric "If anybody's listening, a giant heartbeat is fading."

We stay with Neil for his solo composition the driving rock song "Hello Sandy Allen " inspired by his meeting the world's tallest woman on a talk show in New York, hence the blaring sirens in the intro. The only song across both albums that really resembles "I Got You" , it's a very straightforward account of Neil's favourable impression of her though it signs off with a wry comment on their own long struggle for recognition "Must be when you're number one you don't have to try so hard ". I haven't found any record of what Ms Allen thought of the song.

Back to Tim for "Never Ceases To Amaze Me" something of a more optimistic flip side to "Dirty Creature" the similarity in the music despite the added chattering percussion being slightly disappointing. It's interesting that in the second verse Tim declares "It pays to sell yourself " in exactly the same tone as David Byrne's "And you may find yourself ... " on "Once In A Lifetime". With little melodic content it's probably the weakest track.

"Lost For Words" another co-write by the brothers with Griggs bears some similarities to their producer Hugh Padgham's recent clients, The Police with its sparse abrasive guitar and frantic rhythm and despite the line "tell me sir" seems to be about the disintegration of Tim's marriage -"The damage has all been done and talking is useless". Strangely the middle eight is an extended drum solo which recalls Bow Wow Wow or The Jam's "Funeral Pyre " but Crombie isn't given a writing credit.

"Small World" with its rumbling percussion and air of menace recalls another of Padgham's clients Peter Gabriel. A still-topical (apart from the second verse's Cold War references) musing on over-population from Tim it's the best thing on Side One. At two points in the song Tim's frustration breaks out to a furious guitar jangle "wanna shout about it" but his futile protest is washed away by Rayner's Duran Duran synth chords and the soothing fatalism of the line "Small world and it's getting smaller ". Then it's capped by the best moment on the album , the beautifully sung (the Finns are up there with the Everlys) Taupinesque line "Yes and it's a strange place for bringing up your children when there's no guarantee they'll have a future in a small world".

Side Two opens with more whiteboy funk on "Take A Walk" but this time its a Neil song about the push and pull aspects of leaving home and the comforts of the familiar "Heading off down beaten tracks try to get that feeling back ". The harmonies are excellent and Rayner's keyboard washes evoke a sense of wonder and discovery.

Next up we have Rayner's "Pioneer " ostensibly a two minute instrumental but in context it's clearly an extended intro to the following track ; there's the same keyboard motif running through both. One suspects it was a royalty issue particularly as the next one is credited to "Tim Finn and Split Enz" though whether it benefitted Eddie to have a sole credit on the LP or he lost out from not having his name on the obvious single is one for the accountants. On its own "Pioneer" is a bit dull despite the waves and gulls which herald the nautical theme taking centre stage and it threatens to break out into "Chariots of Fire " at any moment.

Instead it leads into "Six Months In A Leaky Boat " one of the band's best known songs and subject to a nonsensical ban in the UK on the grounds that it might undermine morale while the task force was sailing to the Falklands . Wikipedia's Tim Finn entry has it that the song is really about the break up of his marriage but I'm not convinced by that. I think both this song and the next are preparing the ground for his imminent departure from the band - this was his last album as a full participant with them- and the sea represents escape from the compromises of being in a band and indeed New Zealand here referred to by its Maori name Aotearoa. The line "Aw come on all you lads let's forgive and forget, there's a world to explore, tales to tell back on shore" clearly anticipates trouble. Musically the star is Rayner with his swirling keyboards and a striking middle eight which reduces to a fairground organ and whistle before the song starts up again. Tim then adds a mournful coda on the piano with some soft wordless vocal accompaniment.

Then we've got "Haul Away" a Tim solo composition which basically tells his life story in the form of a sea shanty. It's hard not to view it as a valediction. The band are described as an "odyssey" which "motivates me still" ; it of course speaks volumes that he has to say that. Musically this is the most inventive track on the album with the instrumentation changing on each verse from bongoes and glockenspiel on the first verse about his birth to the phased keyboards that zoom from speaker to speaker when he reaches 21. There's an interesting line- "Young men are waiting lapping at my heels" - which you have to think refers to Neil. The last verse refers again to his recent nervous breakdown and ends abruptly leaving you wanting more.

My moody 17 year old self thought that "Log Cabin Fever" was the best track putting myself in the shoes of its reclusive protagonist. Now it seems a bit self-conscious; Neil attempting to write a song with the same psychological depth as the best of his brother's work. It revisits the themes of "Hermit McDermitt" but this time the hermit is despondent rather than angry and wants to "rejoin the human race, see what I'm missing". Musically it builds nicely from the brooding strum it opens with to its rocky conclusion with Hugh Padgham finally allowed to use his famed gated drum sound. There's also what sounds like a Rolf Harris wobble board in there although he's not credited on the sleeve. The middle eight where the hermit decides to re- emerge into the world sounds quite similar to the sunnier bits of Tubular Bells while the hard rocking conclusion reminds me of Argent's "Hold Your Head High".

The final track is the group composition "Make Sense Of It" a guardedly optimistic song with echoes of that other one hit wonder (in UK chart terms) group from the fringes of the English-speaking world, Martha and the Muffins. The guitar riff seems like a truncated version of the deathless "Echo Beach" one , the first chorus begins with the line "When you're driving home from a day at work" and the whole track shares the Muffins' trademark mood of restless unease particularly Rayner's eeerie synth washes which see the album out.


No comments:

Post a Comment