Crowded House

 Crowded House

 Neil Finn – circa 1993

 “So I talked to you for an hour / In the bar of a small town hotel / And you asked me what I was thinking / I was thinking of a padded cell / With a black-and-white TV. / To stop us from getting lonely” – ‘Mean To Me’ (Neil Finn)

Ethnic restaurants sometimes have a small acoustic combo playing to enhance the atmosphere.  Nothing strange about that.  But when that combo is an aspiring band signed to Capitol Records, whose members hail from Australia and New Zealand, it becomes a bit more unusual.  Frustrated by ‘insufficient promotion’ from their record company, Crowded House take this unorthodox measure to drum up interest.  They also play similar acoustic sets for ‘industry insiders’ and at record stores.  It’s a bit zany…but so are the members of Crowded House.

Neil Finn (born 27 May 1958) is brought up in the town of Te Awamutu in New Zealand.  His family has an Irish Catholic ancestry.  Sing-a-longs around the family piano are commonplace.  Neil’s elder brother, Tim Finn (born Brian Timothy Finn, 25 June 1952) goes into the music business.  In 1972, Tim forms a band called Split Enz.  As vocalist and chief songwriter for the group, Tim relocates to Australia.

A shift in personnel finds Split Enz without a guitarist in 1978.  To fill the vacancy, Tim Finn drafts his younger brother, Neil, who debuts on the album ‘Frenzy’ (1979) (AUS no. 24).  Neil Finn matures into a foil for his brother.  His singing and songwriting are added to the band’s armoury and it is no exaggeration to say Tim and Neil share the leadership role.  With Neil Finn, Split Enz go on to record the albums ‘True Colours’ (1980) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 4, US no. 40), ‘Waiata’ (or ‘Corroboree’ in Australia) (1981) (AUS no. 1, US no. 45) and ‘Time And Tide’ (1982) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 71, US no. 58).  Songs written and sung Neil Finn, such as ‘I Got You’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 12, US no. 53) in 1979 and ‘History Never Repeats’ (AUS no. 4, UK no. 63) in 1981, are amongst the band’s biggest hits.

On 13 February 1982 Neil Finn marries Sharon Johnson.  The couple go on to have two sons, Liam (born 24 September 1983) and Elroy (born 1989).  Both go on to join the music industry as young men.

In 1983 Tim Finn begins a solo career in parallel to his activities with Split Enz.  He remains with the group for ‘Conflicting Emotions’ (1983) (AUS no. 13, US no. 137).  In early 1984 another personnel shift sees Paul Hester (8 January 1959 – 26 March 2005), formerly of Australian band The Cheks, brought in on drums.  Minus Tim Finn, Split Enz make one more album, ‘See Ya Round’ (1984) (AUS no. 29) before calling it quits.  Tim returns to join the group for a farewell tour.

At one of the dates on the farewell tour, Neil Finn is approached backstage by ‘a slightly tipsy’ Nick Seymour (born 9 December 1958).  Like Neil Finn, Nick Seymour is the younger brother of a famous figure in the Australasian rock scene.  Nick’s elder brother is Mark Seymour, the leader of Hunters And Collectors.  The younger Seymour tells Neil that he will ‘join any band he is thinking of forming’.  Neil had already been talking to Paul Hester about putting together a new group, so this adds impetus to the concept.  Craig Hooper, keyboards player with Australian band The Reels, is also brought into the fold.

The new outfit debuts with a gig in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on 11 June 1985.  The line-up is: Neil Finn (vocals, guitar), Craig Hooper (keyboards), Nick Seymour (bass) and Paul Hester (drums).  The band is named The Mullanes.  Neil’s middle name is Mullane; it is also his mother’s maiden name.  The group moves to Los Angeles in the U.S.A. for a while, in search of an international recording contract.  In the process, The Mullanes shed Craig Hooper, becoming a trio.  Deciding they need ‘a less confusing name’, the threesome dub themselves Crowded House in reference to their cramped accommodations.  The name change is also at the request of Capitol Records, who provide them with the sought after contract.

Crowded House enters the recording studio with American producer Mitchell Froom.  Offering musical input as well, Froom is ‘nearly a fourth member’ and produces their first three albums.  The sound of Crowded House is, naturally, primarily shaped by Neil Finn as the main songwriter, lead vocalist and guitarist.  In comparison to Split Enz, Crowded House are less arty and quirky.  They are described as ‘a stripped down, back-to-basics combo’.  The Crowdies dispense a pleasant, accessible brand of guitar pop.

The arrangements of their songs tend to be fairly fluid.  What is put down in the recording studio is a snapshot of the song at that point in time, but in later concert performances, the band is prone to developing a song in different directions, perhaps to avoid any boredom with the material.

Though seldom noted, Neil Finn’s songs often explore male sensuality.  Male desire is a very common topic in rock.  There is no shortage of compositions boasting of prowess in the bedroom or expressing lust for a woman.  However, unusually, Neil Finn manages to articulate a deeper sense of eroticism, a masculine vulnerability rarely discussed publicly.

The first single from Crowded House is ‘Mean To Me’ (AUS no. 26), a tale of an overly earnest fan: “She came all the way from America / She had a blind date with destiny / The sound of Te Awamutu [Finn’s hometown] had a truly sacred ring / Now her parents are divorced / And her friends committed suicide.”  Some brassy horns intrude into the arrangement just as rudely as the ‘mean’ fan intrudes into Neil’s life.  Following this comes the debut album, ‘Crowded House’ (1986) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 99, US no. 12).  The album’s biggest hit is ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ (AUS no. 8, UK no. 27, US no. 2).  Over ringing guitar, Neil Finn intones, “There is freedom within / There is freedom without / Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup.”  The song builds to the harmony-wreathed chorus, “Hey now, hey now / Don’t dream it’s over” and the reassurance that “You know that they won’t win.”  The lingering melancholy of ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ is in contrast to the upbeat ‘Something So Strong’ (AUS no. 18, UK no. 95, US no. 7), a track co-written by Mitchell Froom.  A throaty keyboard ushers in the lyrics “Love can make you weep / Make you run for cover,” but the chorus insists that “Something so strong / Could carry us away / Something so strong / Could carry us today.”  Rounding out the package is ‘World Where You Live’ (AUS no. 43, US no. 65).  It bumps like a pinball between keyboards and bass flippers as it croons “I don’t know where you go-oh-whoa / Do you climb into spay-ay-ace / To the world where you live.”

The selling of the first album proves something of an endurance race.  Besides virtually impromptu acoustic sets hither and yon, the trio turn on a charm offensive, appearing on television talk shows in the United States and Canada.  Eddie Rayner from Split Enz joins them for some tour dates to play the keyboard parts the songs require.  Even in Australia, the album takes a lengthy eight months to reach its sales peak.  Despite these difficulties, ‘Crowded House’ is their best album.  It’s the purest expression of the group’s sound and the most resilient to repeated playing.

Neil Finn labours much more over the second album, ‘Temple Of Low Men’ (1988) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 138, US no. 40).  In trying to create a more serious work, the album becomes darker than its predecessor.  It’s understandable that Crowded House would not want to be typecast as clowns, but the loss of humour is felt.  The disc’s best known offering is ‘Better Be Home Soon’ (AUS no. 2, US no. 42).  Though not explicitly stated, the song seems to be written from the perspective of Neil Finn’s wife, Sharon, tiring of his peregrinations playing the pop star.  Over a weary guitar come the words, “And I know I’m right / For the first time in my life / That’s why I tell you / You better be home soon.”  A supportive keyboard appears with the second verse.  ‘Into Temptation’ (AUS no. 67) sees the narrator fall “Into temptation / Knowing full well the earth will rebel / Into temptation / Safe in the wide open arms of hell.”  This is haunting imagery for a Catholic boy.  ‘Into Temptation’ is made all the more effective by Paul Hester’s use of brushes.  Rock drummers are prone to sacrifice subtlety for power.  It’s a tribute to Hester’s talent that he finds a way to make restraint so effective – and this too plays into the lyrics thematic concern of restraint or yielding to enticement.  ‘I Feel Possessed’ (AUS no. 93) is another song on a similar topic.  Over a disorienting keyboard, like the theme music for a hall of mirrors, the song states, “People are strange / God only knows / I feel possessed / When you come around.”  The album also features the forthright ‘When You Come’ (AUS no. 27).  When touring to support this album, Crowded House briefly take on the services of an extra guitarist, Mark Hart.

If ‘Temple Of Low Men’ had a difficult birth, things don’t get easier for album number three.  Though it is not publicised, according to one account, ‘by mid-1989 the band had effectively broken up’.  Neil Finn reunites with his brother Tim Finn with the intent of producing a Finn Brothers album.  The siblings do quite a bit of songwriting together for the project.  Then Neil decides to write some songs for a new Crowded House album.  Not entirely happy with either set, Neil decides to combine the best parts of the two projects.  And so Tim Finn becomes the fourth member of Crowded House.  There is a parallel here to how Neil was brought into Tim’s band, Split Enz, except this time, it’s the other way around, with Tim being brought into Neil’s group, Crowded House.  Tim plays some desultory guitar and piano, but his main roles in Crowded House seem to be assisting with songwriting, harmony vocals, and reinforcing his younger brother.

With Tim Finn in residence, Crowded House release their third album, ‘Woodface’ (1991) (AUS no. 2, UK no. 6, US no. 83).  ‘Weather With You’ (AUS no. 27, UK no. 7) takes a familiar folk saying and turns it into an entrancing song: “Everywhere you go / You always take the weather with you.”  The song also notes that “Julius Caesar / The Roman Empire / Couldn’t conquer the blue sky.”  A similar mix of common expression and atmospheric conditions is present on ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ (AUS no. 47, UK no. 26).  A sad guitar and piano chords underpin sentiments like: “Smiling as the s**t comes down / You can tell a man from what he has to say” and “You can take me where you will / Up the creek and through the mill.”  The album is also home to the single best song in the Crowded House catalogue, ‘It’s Only Natural’ (AUS no. 15, UK no. 24).  This track can be considered a response to the concerns of ‘Better Be Home Soon’.  Launching forth out of novelty horn honks and sound effects, Tim and Neil’s voices harmonise perfectly as they sing, “Ice will melt, water will boil / You and I, shake off this mortal coil / It’s bigger than us, you don’t have to worry about it.”   The jaunty tune asserts that “It’s only natural, that I should want to be there with you /It’s only natural, that you should feel the same way too.”  Fired up to carnality, it continues, “I want you to know I feel completely at ease / Read me like a book that’s falling down between your knees / Please, let me have my way with you.”  These three songs are co-written by Neil and Tim Finn.  ‘Fall At Your Feet’ (AUS no. 31, UK no. 17, US no. 75) is written by Neil alone and pursues the theme of the intimacy of love: “I’m really close tonight / I feel like I’m moving inside her / Lying in the dark / I think that I’m beginning to know her.”  With an aching mix of joy and agony, Neil sings, “Let your tears rain down on me / Whenever I touch your slow turning pain.”

In November 1991, Tim Finn leaves Crowded House.  In 1993 Tim and Neil Finn are each awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) by the Queen.

Early in 1993, American guitarist Mark Hart, who played on stage with The Crowdies during the tour promoting ‘Temple Of Low Men’, officially joins the band on guitar and keyboards.  He plays on ‘Together Alone’ (1993) (AUS no. 2, US no. 73), the next Crowded House album.  This disc is produced by Youth, a former member of Killing Joke.  The songs range from the frantic ‘Locked Out’ (AUS no. 79, UK no. 12, US no. 119) (“I’ve been locked out / I’ve been locked in / But I always seem to come back again”) to the bewildering ‘Pineapple Head’ ((UK no. 27) (“Sleeping alone, the pleasure / The pineapple head / It spins and it spins / Like a number I hold / I don’t remember if she was my friend / It was a long time ago”).  Perhaps the best tracks on the album are the more intimate ones.  ‘Distant Sun’ (AUS no. 23, UK no. 19, US no. 116) uses an astronomical metaphor: “When your seven worlds collide / Whenever I’m by your side / The dust from a distant sun / Will shower over everyone.”  ‘Private Universe’ (AUS no. 46) also mixes the cosmic and the carnal.  Over the nervous tap of a heartbeat rhythm, Neil Finn gently sings, “I will run for shelter / Endless summer, lift the curse / Feels like nothing matters / In our private universe.”

Promoting the album, Crowded House tour Europe.  However, as they begin an American tour, Paul Hester quits the band, preferring to spend time with his young family.  Peter Jones steps in as drummer to complete the band’s commitments before the group returns to Australia.

Work begins on Crowded House’s fifth album, but is set aside as Neil Finn makes a duet album with his brother, Tim.  Trying to get the sessions back on track, both Paul Hester and producer Mitchell Froom are recalled.  Three songs are completed and a title is decided for the projected album, ‘Help Is Coming’, when the work is shelved.  The new songs are instead added to ‘Recurring Dream: The Very Best Of Crowded House’ (1996).  ‘Everything Is Good For You’ (AUS no. 10), ‘Instinct’ (AUS no. 90, UK no. 12) and ‘Not The Girl You Think You Are’ (AUS no. 37, UK no. 20) are the fresh pieces.  ‘Instinct’ is the best of them, featuring some impressive bass work from Nick Seymour.

A month before the album is released, in a London hotel room Neil Finn decides Crowded House have run their course and the group should disband.  As a result of public demand, Crowded House perform a farewell tour (with Paul Hester aboard).  Their final show is at the Sydney Opera House on 24 November 1996.  One hundred thousand fans turn out for the show and it is telecast around the world.  Proceeds go to benefit the Sydney Children’s Hospital fund.

On 26 March 2005, Paul Hester commits suicide by hanging.  Neil Finn: “It’ll always be a sad and mysterious thing and I can’t really say more than that.”

Surprisingly, Neil Finn chooses to reactivate Crowded House.  Joining Neil, Nick Seymour and Mark Hart is new drummer Matt Sherrod.  The resultant album is ‘Time On Earth’ (2007) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 3, US no. 46).  This produces the single ‘Don’t Stop Now’ (AUS no. 34, UK no. 41).

Neil Finn keeps busy, but Crowded House does not always claim his attention.  He creates solo albums, records with his brother Tim, and puts together The Pyjama Club, whose membership includes his wife, Sharon.

The next Crowded House album is ‘Intriguer’ (2010) (AUS no. 1, UK no. 12, US no. 50).  The single, ‘Saturday Sun’ (AUS no. 79), is pleasantly nostalgic.

Whether the rebirth of Crowded House was a good idea, especially in light of Paul Hester’s death, is hard to say.  Certainly, it seemed to please the band’s dedicated fans.  Yet, their best work remains the 1985 – 1996 incarnation of the band.  Neil Finn’s way with a tune ensured that Crowded House retained a vital place in the hearts and minds of listeners.  ‘Like their shows, Crowded House songs possess a defining moment that will stay with you forever.  Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it, but you certainly know it when you’ve heard it.’ ‘Crowded House recorded some of the best pop music of the late 1980s and early 1990s, leader Neil Finn’s carefully crafted songs, meticulous eye for lyrical detail and gift for melody were matched by few other songwriters’.

Sources:

  1. allmusic.com, ‘Crowded House’ by Chris Woodstra as at 10 February 2003
  2. ‘Recurring Dream: The Very Best Of Crowded House’ – Sleeve notes by Peter Paphides (Capitol Records Inc., 1996) p. 2, 3
  3. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Split Enz’ by Bruce Elder (Megabooks, 1985) p. 62
  4. wikipedia.org as at 24 December 2012
  5. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 152, 155, 195
  6. backstagerider.com (16 August 2010)

Song lyrics copyright EMI Music Publishing Ltd

Last revised 12 August 2014

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