Arguably the most important New Zealand band of all time, and certainly the most successful, Split Enz redefined the way New Zealand wrote, created and enjoyed music, traversing a path from eclectic folkies to stadium filling superstars in their 14 years.
Split Enz emerged from the leftfield of the New Zealand music scene in the mid-1970s, but they gradually built a mainstream audience on both sides of the Tasman. Although based in Melbourne and signed to indie Australian company Mushroom Records for most of their career, they remained as strongly identified with New Zealand as the buzzy-bee and the All Blacks.
In the mid-1970s they gained massive credibility in their home country by avoiding the pub circuit and choosing to play theatres. This was an ambitious and some might say arrogant move but for a band from downunder to succeed in the global music business, the Split Enz story suggests that musicians need talent and ambition in equal portions.
A band that set out to make their own original music and earn a living unwittingly became flag bearers for New Zealand music and cultural ambassadors for their country. They fought the early battles (circa 1980) to get New Zealand music on the radio, endearing themselves to the NZ music community and a generation of musicians following in their footsteps.
Beyond the home front, Split Enz never avoided the “New Zealand” tag, in fact they had to make an effort to avoid the “Australian” tag. The result was that music journalists in the Northern Hemisphere from NME to the New York Times never wrote about Split Enz without writing about New Zealand.
Whether broke in London in 1977 or jet-lagging around the USA and Europe after the success of ‘I Got You’ and True Colours, Split Enz were viewed back home, not just as guys trying to sell their music, but as cultural ambassadors.
Split Enz have a unique position in modern New Zealand music. They are still a hard act to follow.