Pomp and Circumstance
By Chris Bourke (Liner notes to the Enzso programme, April 1996)
New Zealand’s two biggest bands have finally got together: it’s a time of celebration, even a coming-of-age. It seems entirely appropriate that in its 50th anniversary year, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra pays tribute to Split Enz. This concert celebrates our most successful band – and our most original. For the Enz are the standard bearers, and they got there not by mimicking international fads, but by pursuing a unique creative vision.
‘Particularly in the early days,’ says Neil Finn, ‘Split Enz were a band that almost perversely refused to be categorised. We’d take on a little burlesque, a little classical – anything that seemed to fit. So it makes perfect sense that the orchestra should be playing them.’
It is also appropriate that this orchestral project is the brainchild of Eddie Rayner, longtime keyboardist of the Enz. For Rayner, says Neil Finn, ‘was always the orchestra of the band. He had the full range of things happening – so it makes good sense that he takes on the orchestra proper!’
Rayner is internationally respected for his eclectic technique: he was a one-man keyboard sampler before the technology even existed. He would seamlessly segue from boogie-woogie to Liberace, from cocktail jazz to music hall – with many other styles in between.
‘My fingers have always been able to work well,’ is all he says. Growing up in Howick, east Auckland, Rayner only had four piano lessons. He describes his father as a ‘brilliant’ pianist who could take on any big-band hit at parties. Rayner still envies his talent: ‘I’d love to be able to do that – when someone says, ‘Play a song’, and you can carry the tune and be the whole orchestra. He was one of those piano players who sounded like there were six people playing at once, in a stride style. He didn’t really teach me anything, but I think growing up in that environment helped.’
Rayner is candid about his lack of musical training, even self-deprecating about his abilities. ‘All the knowledge I have, I gained through the Enz,’ he says. ‘It was a great environment to learn in. Otherwise I’d still be doing cabaret. The amount of creative talent was staggering – though we were incredibly wayward musically. I have been accused of over-doing it, quite justifiably, sometimes!’
With this project he has experienced a growth not in his abilities, but in his confidence. ‘I’ve been approached to do film scores over the years, but I’ve always avoided it. Now I feel totally confident to be able to do anything with the orchestra.’
It has taken Rayner a long time to realise this, but now he admits, ‘I seem to be made for it.’
In the same way, the music of Split Enz, with their absurdly diverse style, seems to be made for orchestral arrangement. Writing in Hot Licks, the mid-70s New Zealand rock magazine, Roger Jarrett said: ‘How can one describe their concerts? The Oxford University debating team on acid? Peter Rabbit as played by Syd Barrett? Monty Python visits the Queen Mother under the direction of Pasolini, Marcel Marceau and Ray Davies?’
Quipped Tim Finn in 1992: ‘We were post-modern before it was a concept. Back then, if a musical idea wasn’t arresting in five bars, out it went.’
With their breadth of influence, and their humour, Rayner’s orchestrations emulate the ironic, encyclopaedic approach the Enz had to popular music. They recall the colourful, panoramic style of the golden age of movie composition, when masters such as Max Steiner, Alex North and Alfred Newman would mine the repertoire with a knowing ear – and a tongue in cheek.
The concert begins with an overture of ‘Pioneer’ and ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’, the patriotic rallying call that was given a nautical treatment on the 1982 album Time & Tide.
When Tim Finn wrote ‘I See Red’ in 1978, Split Enz was in a mid-life crisis. The song’s punchy catch-cry gave the band a second wind, at a time when it was under threat from the punk/new wave movement. Here it begins gently, with gospel piano, cor anglais and French horns. It’s a mature rendition, pensive rather than declamatory. But it can’t last: an 1812 salvo shatters the mood to become a wake-up call-to-arms – as it was for the band’s career.
‘Message to My Girl’ is a ballad in the classic tradition, written by Neil Finn for Conflicting Emotions in 1983; it was revived by the Polynesian harmony group Purest Form recently to become a No 1 hit. It opens with Neil accompanied by just string section and piano; the National Youth Choir adds to the power of the middle-eight section’s ‘No more empty self-possession’. The effect recalls the Rolling Stones’ first foray into baroque-and-roll, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, before the restrained arrangement gives way to a cymbal-crashing climax.
‘I Hope I Never’ is a true torch song. From the band’s biggest album, True Colours, in 1980, its soaring melody and operatic style developed the approach Tim Finn took in his 1977 showcase ‘Charlie’. It is given a full dramatic treatment by leading New Zealand vocalist Annie Crummer, with accompaniment from Rayner (in lyrical mode) and choir (in modal scales).
‘Under the Wheel’ is one of the earliest songs Phil Judd wrote for the Enz. Recorded for their debut album Mental Notes in 1975, its portentous recitation (‘It doesn’t seem real … the way things turned out’) is perfect for the inimitable Sam Hunt, removing the song from 70s art-rock to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Just in case the mock-pomposity is in danger of being taken seriously (‘art is just short for Arthur’ – Keith Richards) the climax quotes variations on É ‘Chopsticks’.
‘My Mistake’, from Dizrhythmia (1977), typified the vaudevillian side of the Enz. Here it’s given artful-dodger inflections from Dave Dobbyn, who returns to his earlier squeaky-cartoon voice. ‘That was a conscious decision,’ says Dobbyn, ‘I haven’t sung that way in years. I wanted to tighten it up, to make it pixieish – it seemed natural. It’s a great song to do, it was always so animated. Doing it, you realise how far into your bones it has gone. The end is so crazy, it exaggerates an already exaggerated song: the discords are jolly in a crazed, music-hall way.’
Another Rayner-composed overture, ‘Albert of India’ (from Waiata, 1981) opens the second half. Then ‘Poor Boy’ (1980) shows this was a period when the Enz could not put a foot wrong. After a fanfare worthy of a Russian epic, Dave Dobbyn returns to bring out the Bowie (or Alistair Riddell?) in the lyrics: ‘You’re looking at an interplanetary Romeo’.
The Enz said See Ya Round in 1984; on that album, the original version of Neil Finn’s ballad ‘Voices’ is almost orchestral. Here it has evolved into a Broadway show-stopper, lightened by Rayner’s pianistic flourish in the rippling grace-note style of country pianist Floyd Cramer.
‘Straight Ole Line’ puts the spotlight on utensil virtuoso and Enz image-maker Noel Crombie. When it appeared on Conflicting Emotions, he took the drum seat to provide a swing feel. Here it’s given a ‘four-square’ arrangement by Rayner, to become a march for the brass section. The Zappaesque cautionary chorus remains, however, and throughout Rayner tickles the ivories like an East End parlour accompanist – before the bump’n’grind climax takes us to South Pacific and ‘Honey Bun’.
Herman Hesse and Mervyn Peake gave Phil Judd the inspiration for ‘Stranger than Fiction’/’Time for a Change’. This is the epic, the mind-expanding psychedelic concept piece, the fully blown teenage rock opera seria with opening statement, theme development and recapitulation – and lyrics that could come from the sixth form: ‘Still you try like a fat boy, dancing Gershwin’s blues / But you’d rather sit at home and watch the news.’ Packed with a dictionary of dynamics, it opens with a lovely violin solo, a serenade to founding Enz member Miles Golding, now with the Royal Philharmonic. Take it away, Sam.
The jerky, Morse code rhythms of ‘Dirty Creature’ make the 1982 single perennially popular. Tim Finn warns of visiting demons; syncopated timpani beat like Red Indian war drums; the strings quote from Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ … no wonder the climax calls for Batman.
Eddie Rayner can’t understand how the ballad ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ was so overlooked when it first came out. ‘It’s a classic pop song in almost every way, yet we buried it halfway through Frenzy in 1978.’ Written by Tim, sung here by Neil, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ is like an anarchic school hymn (‘I don’t care about the future, that’s all stuff and nonsense’). Its sweet, earnest melody demands to be sung with hand-on-heart, at the crucial point of a West End musical. Of all the Split Enz songs given new life by Eddie Rayner, this is one that belongs in the catalogue of show standards. But the band was more interested in creating its own traditions.
This series of concerts is a rare, historic event. It is not just a celebration of Split Enz, but of our national orchestra who, over the last 50 years, have also proved there is strength through diversity. This is a pioneering project that can proudly sit alongside other great occasions in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s history, which include being conducted by Stravinsky, performing Lilburn premieres and with Kiri Te Kanawa, and appearing at the Seville expo. The orchestra has travelled endless miles throughout New Zealand to bring a variety of music to its patrons, while developing an international reputation. It is fitting that in this anniversary year that the NZSO celebrates with an evening of contemporary New Zealand music, written by their guests: our most successful musicians in the popular field.