Colours Still True
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:30 August 2020
They developed a strong and loyal following in their home country of New Zealand and soon achieved that—and more—in Australia. At the outset, Split Enz were a quirky art-rock band who puzzled as many people as they entranced with their weird stage costumes (and haircuts, and make-up), with their zany music videos, and most of all their endearingly eccentric songs. But ‘a bit odd’ excludes you from mainstream acceptance and radio airplay, so Split Enz stayed an underground sensation… for about seven years. How, then, did they get to True Colours, a #1 album that sounds fresh, vibrant and irresistibly catchy forty years after its release?
Looking at the covers of the early Split Enz albums—Mental Notes to Frenzy—the trend away from theatrically presented art rock to something more rock and roll and everyday is abundantly clear in the visuals. It’s there in the 1978 single, too: the frenetic and infectious “I see red”. The band had been in the UK, absorbing influences while refining their sound. A key player in this process was engineer David Tickle, who the band insisted on working with for the album that became True Colours.
Tickle was busy working with Blondie and The Knack, so the Enz decided to wait, settling in for some serious songwriting. When recording did begin, the engineer focussed on simplifying their sound (emphasising Eddie Raynor’s synths rather than piano, for example) which resulted in shorter, tighter songs that communicated more directly with audiences. When they worked on “I got you”, it was clear that Neil’s capacity to write memorable hooks and catchy lyrics was growing apace. The song was slated as the first single.
True Colours was released—initially with a choice of three two-colour sleeves designed by Noel Crombie—in January 1980. By the time the accompanying tour began, both single and album were #1 on the charts. So how does the album sound today, some four decades later? The executive summary is this: bloody good. More detail? Here we go…
The album bites from the get-go with the intense garage energy of “Shark attack”. Yet it is not a teeth-bared, take no prisoners mauling. With Eddie Raynor’s swirling keyboards and Tim’s manic vocal this is more battered flake than mincemeat. It’s an exhilarating opening, perfectly balanced by the second track—Neil’s “I got you”—a combination of angst and edge. Neil contributes two further songs to the album, “What’s the matter with you” and “Missing person”. Older brother Tim wrote six of the eleven songs, with the melancholy “I hope I never” closing side one and “Poor boy” being a side two highlight. Another gem is Eddie Raynor’s instrumental “Double happy” with an effervescent bass line and wonderfully jerky bridge. Another instrumental closes out True Colours, the ever-so-slightly disco (think Blondie’s “Heart of glass”) “Choral sea”. It’s a fun foot-tapper.
With a set of great songs, cleanly produced and delivered with confidence, True Colours packs a load of power-pop Zing! The re-issue pressings sound terrific, with a little extra bottom end opening up the baselines beautifully. Anyone with a love of Australasian music and the careers of Tim and Neil Finn should own a copy of this Split Enz classic. The colours are true and they remain vivid.
© Bruce Jenkins, 2020