The Life and Times of Phil Judd

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Phil Judd 1982

 

New Phil Judd album:

https://philjudd.bandcamp.com/

 

This article is but a brief sketch of a man who has lived a very full life – better is the man speaking about himself in the four part audio documentary  series – ‘The Life and Times of Phil Judd’. It’s a fascinating and detailed account that covers all aspects of his creative life and I will forever be grateful to him for his spirited candour.

 

 

‘Sugar and Spice’ by Phil Judd performed by Split Enz (1977)

 

 

I was a wet behind the ears 13-year-old when I arrived at Sacred Heart College Auckland in 1976. From deep down country I knew little of anything and knew nothing about myself.

The first thing I discovered was music. Music was a big deal at the school and a decent music collection was a valuable social cache. Punk and new wave were just beginning to break and these sounds, combined with the Led Zeppelin and Bowie which otherwise proliferated, were real eye opener for a farm-boy who had been weaned on the MOR top-forty styles of Radio Waikato.

While I was coming to grips with this cacophony of new music my eyes kept turning toward a poster that appeared sometime during the year down the older boys end of the dormitory. It featured a group of guys, dressed in strange clothes decked out with make-up and bizarre off the wall hairstyles. The words read; Spilt Enz ‘Second Thoughts’.

It was an odd and compelling image that today I would easily describe as vaudevillian, but back then; it was something outside of my visual experience. Every time I passed by, it invited me to stop and converse with it. It asked me questions like, who were Split Enz, what kind of music did they make, why did they dress the way they did, what mysterious secret knowledge did they share?

Largely composed of a group of old-boys that had preceded my arrival at the school by 4 years, the band was already shrouded in mythology and whispered about in reverential tones. Sadly, no one in my circle had any of their records and so any thoughts I had about the music behind that poster were scant imaginings.

Sometime later in the year I found myself browsing through the ‘cheap-bin’ at the local record store in Glenn Innes when I came across their debut album, ‘Mental Notes’.

This was the closet I had yet been to the band. I ran my eyes over the liner notes eagerly absorbing the names and searching for some indication of what the music might be about. My eyes stopped abruptly when they hit the name Phil Judd. Not only was he a musician and songwriter, but also the artist responsible for the surreal cover art.

It was one of those rare moments of revelation when something indefinable became clear. I knew nothing about Phil Judd, but in that moment, without having heard a whit of his music, I was a fan. If I had of had the money I would have purchased the album there and then, but the scant .50c they were asking for the record was beyond my means.

Another year went by before I finally got to hear the band. It was the start of a break period at school and I had bussed home. My dad collected me in central Hamilton and left me in the car with the radio playing while he went off to conduct some business.

It was typical Radio Waikato stuff and I was only half listening when this ‘very particular’ song came on. It was strange, oddball and totally at odds with the music it was being played against. Without hesitation, I knew I was finally hearing Split Enz.

The track was ‘My Mistake’ from their third album, Dizrythmia, and it fulfilled all my expectations. As I sat there in the car, the chorus repeating itself over and over in my head, I wondered what part Phil Judd had played in its making. I didn’t know it yet, but Judd had already left the band and was back in Auckland working on the project that would catapult him to Australasian superstardom. Still the Judd stamp was all over an album he helped compose, the last of a line before this strange vaudevillian band transformed itself into a huge selling pop unit.

 

Split Enz performing Spellbound (Mental Notes album) on NZ TV show Grunt Machine 1975.

 

Only a handful of years earlier, the young Phil Judd, already a self-taught artist of some considerable skill, had left his hometown of Hastings to study art at Auckland University. It was here that he stumbled across a group of former Sacred Heart College boys who had formed a covers band that played mostly “Elton John and Leon Russell tunes.”

Comprised of a core that included Tim Finn, Mike Chunn and Rob Gillies, Judd found himself hanging out with them and trying his hand at various instruments. He eventually decided upon the guitar and purchased up a cheap Yamaha acoustic. Within days he was wrestling sounds from it.

The band had no aspirations to do originals but found them-selves drawn to the tunes that Judd was picking out.

“Tim would ask me what I was playing and I would say I didn’t know. He started singing along, adding words and suggesting melodies and it just grew from there.”

It all happened pretty quickly after that. The boys dropped out of Uni and by 1975 they were living in Australia and signed to Michael Gudinski’s influential Mushroom Label. ‘Mental Notes’ was released and sold reasonably well, garnering positive critical attention and cementing the bands reputation for unabashed originality. Otherwise they were holding down an intensive touring schedule that included support slots for artists like Lou Reed, Frank Zappa and notably, British band Roxy Music.

Phil Manzanera  (Roxy Music) took a liking to the band and swept them off to Britain where, under his tutelage, they rerecorded ‘Mental Notes’. The resulting album, ‘Second Thoughts’, was something of a mixed blessing for Judd. While he enjoyed working in a big studio with top engineers, he felt like the band was retreading old ground. Cracks were also beginning to show within the bands texture and Tim and Phil, once inseparable, were drifting apart, personally and creatively. It was during the bands 1977 American tour that simmering tensions came to the boil.

Judd’s wife and child were back in NZ, broke and surviving on porridge and baked beans. His wife had given him an ultimatum: “Come home and look after us or it was over.” He was stressed, worried and at the end of his rope when he found himself in confrontation with Tim. A few punches were thrown in an incident that Judd has forever regretted and in the blink of an eye, he was out of the band and back in Auckland.

He found work as a photographer’s assistant at the Auckland City Art Gallery and in his spare time found himself back in front of the canvas. He was selling a few pieces and in his own words, “I could have just carried on working by day and painting by night and happily forget the guitar,” but despite his best intentions, he found himself drawn to the musical sidelines where he stood watching the first wave of local punk bands explode onto the Auckland scene.

He didn’t much like the music he was hearing and was more amused than anything by with these middle-class boys and their anti-establishment affectations but something of the raw energy of the sound seeped into his bones. Before he knew it, the guitar was back in his hands and he was on fire.

In Buster Stiggs, (Mark Hough), and Bones Hillman, (Wayne Stevens), he found the driving rhythm he was hankering after. “They were rough around the edges but I saw the potential.” They joined forces and The Swingers were born.

Their first single hit the stores in 1978. ‘One Good Reason’ found an immediate audience as well as critical kudos. In no short order, they were making enough money to quit work and go the Swingers full time. Judd couldn’t quite believe his good fortune.

In 1979 two of their songs appeared on the compilation ‘AK79’, a masterful snapshot of the Auckland punk scene as it was for a moment in time, which further cemented their growing reputation for originality, energy and deft punk flavoured rock.

Just as it had happened with Split Enz only a few years before, they found themselves in Australia and signed to Mushroom. History was repeating and Judd had been offered the brass ring for a second time.

The pace that Gudinski had set was frantic and the only time the band had to develop new material was during sound-checks. They had been jamming on a particular track for several days and Judd noticed that whenever they played this tune the sound guy would start bopping away behind the desk. He suspected that he was onto something and Gudinski agreed.

‘Counting the Beat’ was recorded and released to immediate success. Rocketing to the top of the charts on both sides of the Tasman, the song became a behemoth that swamped everything that was to follow including the album ‘Practical Jokers’.

 

Judd recalls endless gigging with big expensive sound and light rigs that cost more than the band was earning. The Swingers guitar parts were complex and with the added front man duties and financial stresses, Judd was slowly falling apart. On some days it took a bottle of brandy just to get him out of bed and up to the mike.

By 1982 The Swingers had run their course but Gudinski offered the exhausted Judd another bite of the apple. The result was ‘Private Lives’, his debut solo album. Recorded in LA by sometime Dylan producer Al Kooper, it was a commercial failure whose creation was so emotionally draining that Judd has not been able to listen to it since it’s release.

Dream’n’ Away from Private Lives (1983)

Let go by Mushroom, he found work scoring music for films before finding his way back into a band. Schnell Fenster, (Quick Windows), comprised Judd and former Split Enz stalwarts, Nigel Griggs and Noel Crombie. With a $250,000 advance from a major German Label they produced two albums, 1988’s ‘The Sound Of Trees’ and 1990’s ‘OK Alright A Huh Oh Yeah’ but it wasn’t working, neither for the public nor for Judd. The band broke up in 1992.

Schnell Fenster (1990)

For several years he scored for television, a lucrative occupation that allowed him to buy his current house and property and build his own studio. When the TV work finally petered out, fully equipped with latest technology, Judd began making music for himself again.

He has since recorded 3 solo albums, 2005’s ‘Mr Phudd and his Novelty Act’, 2008’s ‘Love is a Moron’ and 2014’s ‘Stranger Than Fiction’.

On ‘Mr Phudd and his Novelty Act’, Judd lets it all go with a searing and confronting concept album of the psyche. Mr Phudd is Judd’s elemental doppelganger. As chaos dressed in clown suit he tears out Judd’s heart and with visceral delight, tramps all over it.

By 2008s ‘Love is a Moron’ Mr Phudd has lost control. Riven with depression and soaked in alcohol, there was an incident with some neighbourhood girls, nothing sinister just a big misunderstanding that Judd handled badly. It got a little crazy and he wound up in jail. Things were eventually sorted but Judd walked away bruised, battered and somewhat socially alienated. Like ‘Private Lives’ before it, ‘Love is a Moron’ is a work that Judd looks back upon with a degree of fragile discomfort.

 

‘No One’s Best Man’ from Mr Phudd & his Novelty Act (2006)

 

He ‘sorted his shit out’ and headed back to the studio in 2012 and emerged two years later with 2014’s triumphant ‘Play It Strange’. Quintessential Judd, it is an inventive and playful affair that is somewhat lighter than his previous two works and demonstrates a man at the top of his musical game.

In a class of his own, Judd, by his own account, “has always been ahead of his time.” Somewhat lost to new generations, he nevertheless stalks the musical landscape whenever ‘Counting the Beat’ is played. A perennial favourite for advertising campaigns it continues to provide Judd with a modest income.

These days Phil, aged 62, is frail. He suffers two heart conditions, bares the effects of a minor stroke and struggles with his greatest ongoing demon, bipolar disorder, an affliction which both fuels his restless creativity and haunts him with dark chaotic storms of the psyche. Painting is beyond him now. He has neither the stamina nor eyesight for the large detailed works he likes to do. All he has left is his music, his son and his beloved dogs.

 

The last word to musician Andrew McLennan (Pop Mechanix/Coc0nut Rough) who joined The Swingers as a vocalist toward their end in an attempt to relieve Judd of some of the pressure he was struggling under as front man and guitarist:

“He is complex. Both aloof and genial, he isolates and suffers. He is intense and hilariously funny, sometimes dark and unfathomable – he can be a right prick as well as utterly charming. I know he has had his demons, perhaps its a price the gifted pay, I don’t know how, but he keeps on producing Juddesquely brilliant music. I remain a fan and I’m still in awe of his talent. He is unique.”

 

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Phil Judd (2016)

More Phil:
Beyond the music Phil is a noted fine artist. His original artwork for the Split Enz album ‘Mental Notes’ is part of the NZ national collection at Te Papa – Museum of NZ with two other  works included in the The National Gallery of Victoria collection in Melbourne.

http://phil-judd.deviantart.com/

_t_a_b__by_phil_judd

T.A.B  –  Watercolour by Phil Judd

http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/phil-judd

‘Rendezvous’ from Private Lives (1982)

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3 Responses to “The Life and Times of Phil Judd”

  1. My art blog Says:

    Delighted to Come Upon This

  2. anjohnstonescommunity Says:

    I think you will find that Phil was exonerated. Really all it takes is a little effort to check the details online. So sad that people still cling to this horrible moment in his life rather than make the effort to check.

  3. Denise Millett-Gasperini Says:

    Impressed – thank you PHIL for you work

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