From the earliest age the music of Neil and Tim Finn had me spellbound. The music of Phil Judd too - and Eddie Rayner and every member of Split Enz...I was eight years old (or so) and the compilation album Enz of an Era was a revelation. Songs and lineups blurred at first as I appreciated Late Last Night and History Never Repeats - not all that focused on who was writing and singing, just the overall sound of this band was like nothing I'd heard.
And then I found out they were from New Zealand. That meant a lot. It was, for the eight-year-old me, the first understanding of (a) New Zealand music. It was my first time identifying with Kiwi music - these guys made this music? And maybe they lived down the road! (When, some 20-plus years later I would interview Phil Judd for the first time, we would talk about how his art teacher had, years later, been my art teacher; about how Judd had gone to school with my mother - so he did actually live down the road...)
From Enz of an Era to every single Split Enz album - I was spellbound. Never more so than by the song Spellbound. Creepy and strange and ludicrous and wonderful, it was camp pantomime and swirling circus revelry, it was darkness and light. It was almost terrifying but always amazing.
Split Enz was always amazing to me - and from there almost everything that Neil and Tim Finn and Phil Judd did; the main writers for the band. I followed Tim's early solo career, Neil's Crowded House run and his solo albums - the two strong Finn Brothers albums (especially the wonderful Finn album; people called it their "White album" - suggesting Woodface was their Sgt Pepper's. Actually Finn showed that Neil and Tim had gone back to McCartney and Ram I think).
And Phil Judd's Schnell-Fenster albums were so important to me, particularly The Sound of Trees - it feels like a private club, that album. No one seems to know about it, its (obvious) brilliance. But you find people, from time to time, and it's always a great conversation when that happens.
Tim and Neil have made music that has let me down - and as a listener, and a huge fan, someone who has invested so much time into their music, I am allowed to feel let down. That's something we should express if we feel it. But their music - to me - is still some of the most important ever made in this country; some of the most important, brilliant, influential music in my lifetime. It meant so much to me. And it still does.
When Penguin commissioned me to write my book, On Song, I wasn't sure we needed another book about music in New Zealand but the chance to write about individual songs meant that, hopefully, I could shine a light on some songs that hadn't been covered, hadn't been acknowledged. Obviously I would talk about so many of the very best and well-known songs but there would be a way to sneak in a few that were not so much obscure as - quite possibly - undervalued. The very first song I thought about - the very first song I wanted to write about - was Spellbound.
I could have picked so many Split Enz songs but we only wanted to feature one song from each artist. And in Spellbound I hear so much of what went on to become Split Enz and what also informed Neil Finn's playing. Neil was obviously inspired by his brother. Big brother was the one who, as Tim acknowledged himself, "blazed the trail", in that sense he was the first Finn to race toward the mountain. Now many of them stand near the top - or are rapidly approaching it. But Neil was also hugely inspired by Phil Judd; by his playing, by his unconventional approach to songwriting. And you can hear that Tim works best in collaboration - through his work with Phil, then with Neil and when he has worked with other writers (such as Richard Thompson for Persuasion).
Spellbound felt like the right song to write about - in it, that deceptive use of the "Maori strum", you hear a blueprint - a seed - for what would become Don't Dream It's Over. I really believe that. Those swirling sounds of Spellbound infiltrated Neil Finn's psyche. They hung over him and around him. And many years later he took something from it, possibly without knowing it himself at the time, and created his version of the "Maori strum", also subverted, also slyly appropriated. And that was a key element to Don't Dream It's Over.
My book opens with a chapter about Don't Dream It's Over, acknowledging one of the most significant songs to come from New Zealand, one of just a small few to actually make it to the world's stage. And it closes with a chapter discussing Spellbound. An arc of sorts. And in the acknowledgments of the book I make a dedication of thanks to Neil and Tim Finn. For all that their music has meant to me.
Some blog readers and Facebook followers have asked for an extract from my book. Click this link here and you will see the full table of contents for On Song, the closing chapters of the book too: the chapter about Split Enz's Spellbound and a profile of Neil and Tim Finn. A teaser for you; an extract.
Thanks to those who turned up for my first Author Talk at Unity Books yesterday. It was great to meet some readers, sign some books, have a chat. Sharing the stories about some of New Zealand's best-known/best-loved songs hasn't stopped with the writing of a book. In some ways that's just been a starting point for me. Another starting point - part of a life spent listening to this music, loving so much of this music. And the chance to chat about the book, the songs, some of their stories, has been a lot of fun for me. I've been very lucky - and grateful - for the interviews on radio and TV and in print, for the chance to launch the book at Slow Boat Records and celebrate it yesterday at Unity.
Sometimes I think back to the strange hours I kept while writing the book. A brand new baby in the house, frazzled parents, fulltime work and freelance writing always bubbling away in the background as I sleepwalked up and down the hall holding a baby in one hand and a laptop in the other, moving about the house to find the right space at the right time to write. Every day I pass - several times - a framed, signed print of the album cover for Mental Notes. Phil Judd's amazing artwork staring out at whoever walks past, a wee message to me from Phil there in the frame...
That was one of the inspirations in the writing of the book. I'd stop and stare at the creepy, brilliant image. And think about how lucky I was to have the opportunity to write something about that album, about one of the songs from that album and about the brilliant early songwriting of Finn and Judd. That artwork a reminder of me being spellbound from the earliest age...
Every day, still, I stop - several times - and drink in that picture. Oscar is one now. And though he takes in all of our artwork, fascinated by shapes and colours and shadows, that print is his favourite. I see him staring at it. Spellbound. From the earliest age...
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