Think about it: from Split Enz to the Suburban Reptiles to The Swingers to solo soundtrack work to Schnell Fenster to Mr Phudd. It's quite a stretch, but everything Judd has turned his attention to has contained his tense, acerbic humour and singular take on pop music.
The obvious temptation is to tag Judd as an antipodean Syd Barrett, but that comparison doesn’t quite cut it. For one, Judd didn’t just ooze out a cluster of great songs, take loads of LSD and wander off into the sunset. Although his career path has zigzagged all over the show, Phil Judd’s recent work as Mr Phudd and under his own name still contains the seeds of his genius.
After his conviction for schoolgirl stalking in 2009, Judd revealed that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (formerly known as the more descriptive “manic depression”), which certainly fits the profile of a character who often seems to have sabotaged his own career, and helps to explain why so many of his projects have been short-term: a more balanced, less erratic, moody personality may have figured out a way to extend their lease on life, and make them commercially successful.
Born in Hastings on March 20, 1953 – Phil Judd formed Split Ends (as it was then known) in Auckland with fellow art school students and university student Tim Finn in 1972, and by the release of the seminal Mental Notes in 1975, Split Enz had combined its flair for a kind of underground oratorio with a sense of powerful alienation that was purely Judd’s. With his shaved head, pale zombie makeup and profoundly odd vocalisations, Judd’s muse took the group’s symphonic prog into a realm that a group like Yes (with its cod-New Age philosophy and hobbits and elves) couldn’t have envisaged, turning its odd time signatures into a weapon spurting paranoia and dread.
While the juggernaut that was the phenomenal early Split Enz show wowed audiences around the country, Judd’s fractured and provocative onstage character, echoed especially by the odd puppet-geek costumery of Noel Crombie, inevitably rubbed some good time boys up the wrong way. When I saw the group in Hamilton, there were many stray calls of “Wankers!” and “Queers!” coming from the stalls. (Judd mentioned this phenomenon many years later in a song called ‘Wankers’ on the Love Is A Moron album).
He produced the Suburban Reptiles’ second single, the classic ‘Saturday Night Stay At Home’, and then joined the group for its final furlong.
While Judd’s weirdness had rubbed off on the group’s frontman (and co-writer) Tim Finn, his more conventional showmanship provided a certain balance. The glory was short-lived. After moving to England in 1976, then in the thrall of punk, Judd and Finn fought, and Judd left the band. He recorded a set of excellent demos before returning to join his replacement, Tim’s brother Neil, on tour the following year, but he was soon winging his way home to New Zealand, where he produced the Suburban Reptiles’ second single, the classic ‘Saturday Night Stay At Home’, and then joined the group for its final performance.
Only Phil Judd could have managed the transposition from a group whose most obvious musical reference point was Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, to a group of out-and-out punkers. But by now, punk was growing fins and calling itself new wave. When Judd formed a new group from the embers of the Subs, and called it The Swingers, it was surprising more than shocking, and word quickly got around that here was a new, lean pop sound worth checking out.
Phil Judd is a man now remembered for one song, the unforgettable No.1 smash hit from January 1981, ‘Counting The Beat’. Sadly, this song would become the millstone that robbed The Swingers of long-term success. Now based in Melbourne, things quickly went sour for the group. Some great songs from the group’s live repertoire were never released, while line-up changes and less definitive new songs saw support quickly fade. While ‘Counting The Beat’ has become enshrined as one of the all-time greatest pop songs from New Zealand, the story of The Swingers was over within two years of the release of their only album.
While ‘Counting The Beat’ has become enshrined as one of the all-time greatest pop songs from New Zealand, the story of The Swingers was over within two years of the release of their only album.
Judd’s first solo album, Private Lives, emerged in 1983, but despite its recording having taken place in Auckland, Sydney and Los Angeles (and the production of rock production heavyweight Al Kooper) it sank like a stone.
Instead, he found other outlets to squeeze his creative juices, most notably movies. Judd contributed to the scores of a number of films, including The Big Steal, Death In Brunswick and Rikky And Pete – and television programmes like Good Guys Bad Guys, Stingers and Sky Trackers.
There was to be one more real crack at the pop pie with the improbably named Schnell Fenster, whose excellent debut The Sound Of Trees (1988) featured former Split Enz mates Noel Crombie and Nigel Griggs. A wonderful band – smart, funny and hook-laden – Schnell Fenster inexplicably failed to achieve any great degree of popular appeal, and their equally snappy (if somewhat eccentric) second album, OK Alright A Huh Oh Yeah, proved the group’s premature death knell.
There have been several reunions between former bandmates and buddies Phil Judd and Tim Finn. It’s no secret that Finn has always been a huge admirer of Judd’s talent, but attempts to forge new working relationships have largely failed. In 1986, the two planned to write together on Finn’s album Big Canoe, but in the end, Judd’s contributions to the album were limited to guesting on guitar on a few tracks and contributing a brass arrangement to another.
And in 1990, two Judd/Finn compositions, ‘Precious Time’ and ‘Long Hard Road’, were featured in The Big Steal film soundtrack, the second of which was a single. Both were included on the 1999 album, Other Enz: Split Enz & Beyond (Raven Records).
After years of anonymity, an album emerged in 2006 under the nom de plume of Mr Phudd. Initially sold only through Judd’s website (but later picked up for regular distribution), Mr Phudd And His Novelty Act was a great, if unlikely, comeback. Assuming the identity of a sad, saggy, middle-aged alcoholic with marriage problems and all the other complexities of mid-life crisis, Mr Phudd and its follow-up, Love Is A Moron, were both evidence of a creativity that was just as fertile as ever, together with subject matter seldom (if ever) explored within the pop context.
In Love Is A Moron track ‘Wankers’, Judd exposes the deepening rift and his bitterness towards former bandmate Tim Finn, who apparently failed to invite him to participate in the 2006 Enz reunion. Since then, Judd has railed on his Facebook page about the alleged betrayal.
All this was put in the shade, however, in 2009 when he was convicted of stalking young girls, and received a 12-month suspended sentence. In a surprisingly frank interview with Simon Sweetman the same year, Judd talked about his demons, his “unfriending” of Tim Finn, alcohol, his multiplicity of health problems, and the then-recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
In the past few years, there have been few official releases, but Judd feeds his fans sounds both new and old on Soundcloud, evidence that while Judd’s days as a hitmaker may be over, and despite all his personal issues, our troubled genius is still on fire.
In August 2014, Phil Judd's album Play It Strange was released to strong reviews. Built around a legendary 'lost' Judd song of the same title, performed briefly with Split Enz, it was recorded and produced by Judd at his own studio in Melbourne and included performances from Mike Chunn, Paul Crowther and Wally Wilkinson.
Phil Judd continues to release fine albums under his own name, with UniQue (2016) and Flightless Bird (2019) both receiving strong reviews and support from his not-insubstantial fanbase.
Judd is also an accomplished visual artist, and has incorporated his flair with a brush and paint into his album artwork. His brilliant cover for the classic Enz album Mental Notes is a case in point, although his distinctive visual style can be found dotted throughout his career, even up to the arresting artwork for his last two solo albums. He has exhibited sporadically, and several galleries own his work.