Article by Matt Kumma
Neil Finn has been my king of rock n’ roll for nearly 35 years. He’s written some of the best songs I’ve ever heard, has several slots on my top-albums-of-all-time list, was invited to join one of the greatest rock bands ever, and always has good hair.
I was a Split Enz fan, saw their videos on MTV, bought their albums, and still think their catalog is fantastic. But I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love the first Crowded House album when it was released in 1986.
I was working at a mall record store in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. The initial Crowded House 12-inch single came with a hype sticker attached that said, “Specially priced 12-inch single featuring Neil Finn formerly of Split Enz.” As far as hype goes, it was pretty low-key, and it undersold how life-changing this release was going to be. The songs — “World Where You Live,” “Mean to Me,” and “Something So Strong” — hit me like a lightning bolt. These tunes still feature in their live show to this day. I played them over and over and over.
The album was released in August 1986. The hype sticker was, once again, pretty low-key, but this time it had more information: “Neil Finn emanates from New Zealand. During his seven years with Split Enz, he was responsible for writing and singing some of their best songs such as: ‘I Got You,’ ‘One Step Ahead,’ and ‘History Never Repeats.’ Along with Paul Hester on drums and Nick Seymour on bass, Neil has formed a most interesting musical unit whose influence now reaches us here in the Northern Hemisphere.”
That is all true, but where was the sizzle? Every song on the album is ridiculously good. Classic pop songs, memorable and meaningful lyrics, and hooks for miles. And, in “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” one of the greatest, most loved songs of its era. My brain is still programmed to expect to hear the songs in the original U.S. vinyl running order, with “World Where You Live” as song No. 1. And, depending on which version of the vinyl I happen to be listening to, I get a jolt when “Can’t Carry On” comes on instead of “I Walk Away.” I still get thrown a little when the CD or reissue vinyl start with “Mean to Me.” I was braced for the album to hit the top of the charts right away because surely quality music had to be recognized and embraced, right? Well, maybe not.
The album didn’t explode. The hype didn’t translate. Capitol Records knew that the best hype for the album was the band themselves, so they booked them on a promo tour of key cities in the U.S. People from radio and retail were invited to see the band and enjoy some free food and booze. On November 12, 1986, I went to Salty’s on Alki, a legendary seafood restaurant in Seattle, known for its stunning views and its gluttonous brunch buffet. Most people went for the free food and booze, but I was there to see the band (and for the free food and booze). Crowded House played a fantastic set, with Paul Hester up front on a standup drum set. The Crowded House live show was always about more than the music. The chemistry between the three members, their sense of humor, the banter with the audience, and those glorious songs made everyone in the room feel like they were a part of a very special and memorable experience. Special bonus was hearing Split Enz songs live.
I fanboyed all over Neil, Nick, and Paul that night. Praise was given, records were signed, thanks were traded back and forth. It was one of the best live music nights of my life. Neil was so gracious and so humble and so charming, and everyone walked out of the room a huge Crowded House fan. Those of us who were already huge fans walked out knowing we’d just had our rock n’ roll lives changed.
Then something amazing happened. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” became a hit. The song first broke in the Pacific Northwest market. The free food and booze at Salty’s must’ve paid off. A few months later, in February 1987, Crowded House came back and played a show at Parker’s Ballroom in Seattle. It was my first full, proper Crowded House show (featuring Eddie Rayner of Split Enz on keyboards). Despite being in a larger venue, the show was just as intimate and just as memorable, and the room exploded, with the crowd and band feeding off each other. People danced and sang along and laughed. I fanboyed all over again that night. There was a distinct feeling in the room and in the band that – to paraphrase one of their songs – now they were getting somewhere.
I drove to Portland, Oregon, with some friends to see their show the next night, the first of many Crowded House-inspired road trips. We ended up giving Nick a ride from a record store where they had done an in-store appearance to the hotel where we all were staying. He was grateful for the ride but concerned about my friend’s driving skills (“What does it take to get a license in America?”). The show was a blast at a packed Starry Night, so much energy, so memorable, and so much more fanboying afterward. In a not very rock ‘n roll lifestyle move, Paul came up to our hotel room that night after the show to watch Letterman.
“Don’t Dream” hit No. 2 on Billboard in April 1987. “Something So Strong” hit No. 7. The album made it to No. 12. In September 1987, Crowded House played the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, filling the Seattle Center Coliseum. There were thousands of people there that night and the band killed it. Over the course of 10 months, I’d gone from seeing them in a room with a few dozen people to rooms with a few hundred people to a room with thousands. Each show was different, with the setlist changing every night. Post-show fanboy time was almost a victory lap, a celebration of “I knew it would happen.”
Every time I look at my original vinyl copy of the first album, I relive all those memories of that fantastic and unexpected year. I had a front-row seat to their well-deserved success story. Paul’s signature and doodle he drew on his chest make me think of his sweet smile, his quick wit, and my likely-stunned face when I opened the hotel room door in Portland and saw him standing there. I’d peeled off my Bumbershoot backstage pass and stuck it on the back cover of the album. Was that the smartest place for it? No. Does it make me smile every time I see it? Yes.
Temple of Low Men was released in 1988. It’s a stunning record, probably darker and deeper than the first album. “Better Be Home Soon” is so beautiful that I can hardly stand it sometimes, and “Love This Life” never fails to cut me off at the knees. Once again, I did the Crowded House-inspired road trips, seeing them in Vancouver, Canada, two nights at home in Seattle, and a night in Portland. They had somehow become a better live act. No two setlists were the same — audience requests, random covers, weird tangents. Each night was unique, each night justified the long drive to see the show. At one of the Seattle shows, I was having a poster signed. Neil made a joking comment along the lines of, “Don’t you have enough of our stuff signed already?” I was both surprised that he recognized me and embarrassed because he was right. It was time to be less of a fanboy and a more appreciative veteran.
Things took a bit of a turn in the Woodface era in 1991. Neils’ big brother, Tim Finn, was in the mix now. They played an album release show in Seattle at the Improv, now the Showbox. The show was great, as expected. Seeing the brothers on stage together for the first time was a thrill, hearing Tim’s Split Enz songs live, and I broke my “no autographs” rule (thankfully, Neil didn’t notice). The Finn brothers singing together is one of the best sounds in the world. Their dynamic made the overall Crowded House dynamic change a bit. Woodface has some truly brilliant singles — probably the best batch of singles of any Crowded House album. There are insanely great album tracks like “She Goes On,” but it’s not my go-to album. I did the familiar loop on this tour again — Vancouver, Portland, Seattle (once again, at the Bumbershoot Festival). The Tim era didn’t last long. He left and was replaced by Mark Hart. If Mark were a baseball player, he’d be called a utility player. He could play and sing anything. The Crowded House dynamic once again felt in balance.
If I had to pick a favorite Crowded House record — and thankfully I don’t — I might pick Together Alone. Or the first one. Or Temple. Or Time on Earth. Or maybe it will be the Dreamers are Waiting when it comes out later this year. But, more often than not, it’s Together Alone. I have to credit Mark Hart’s presence and producer Youth for helping take the limits off what a Crowded House record could sound like. If Neil could imagine it, with Mark and Youth in the mix, it could happen. It’s a stunning record, hitting impressive emotional and sonic heights. Unfortunately, Paul left the band mid-tour in April 1994. That tour didn’t make it to the Pacific Northwest until May 1994. I’ve never seen a bad Crowded House show, but on the Seattle date of that tour, I saw a difficult Crowded House show. After Paul left, they were using opening act Sheryl Crow’s drummer for a few dates until they got a temp drummer of their own. Temp guy was good, probably really good, but this band thrived on spontaneity in the live setting. They were sticking to the script, making sure they hit all the marks. The casual fan didn’t notice the difference, but I did. The next night in Portland, temp guy was gone, and Sheryl’s drummer was back. The night after in Vancouver was the last night of the U.S. tour and the band was back to something close to full strength. It was a few rough shows in support of a brilliant record. I didn’t know it at the time, but Crowded House was changed forever.
Soon after, Neil announced that the band was over, and a huge farewell concert was scheduled for the steps of the Sydney Opera House. Neil started his solo career, releasing the glorious Try Whistling This album (can we get a vinyl release of that, please?). He’s since released several solo records, each with its own personality and sound. He and Tim released a couple of Finn Brothers records, and – in keeping with the keep-it-in-the-family vibe – he did a record with his wife, Sharon (Pajama Club), and one with son, Liam (Lightsleeper). He didn’t tour as often as he did in the Crowded House days, but when he did, I was there, usually in multiple cities. I joined the Crowded House fan club many years ago, my first fan club since the Kiss Army. It was run by the Peter Green (godlike genius) and had great perks, namely access to official, fan club live CDs. While not in crazy Pearl Jam live CD territory, I do love knowing I have many audio souvenirs of many Crowded House/Neil Finn/Finn Brothers shows, with multiple versions of “Throw Your Arms Around Me” (if you know, you know).
Dear Paul Hester, St. Paulo, died in 2005. He will be forever missed.
Neil did the proverbial “get the band back together” in 2007. Time on Earth and follow-up Intriguer are both really strong records, worthy of the Crowded House name and legacy. They never made a bad album. It takes a band this good to have a B-sides-odds-and-ends record (Afterglow) that stands strong on its own. The Time on Earth tour brought them back to Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival. Neil’s son, Liam, who makes crazy good records on his own, was in the touring band. That turned out to be prophetic as he’s now in the Crowded House full time, along with younger brother Elroy. Having Mitchell Froom in the band now makes a ridiculous amount of sense, as he was a huge part of those first three albums, producing and playing on them.
Between Crowded House, Finn Brothers, Fleetwood Mac (!), performances with Liam, and solo shows, I’ve seen Neil perform live 25 or 30 times, I think. I stopped counting years ago. Each time is a treat. Each time brings me back to that night at Salty’s. Seeing thousands of people sing along to “Don’t Dream” at a Fleetwood Mac show with Stevie Nicks on harmonies made my head explode. Neil looked to be having the time of his life at that show. He seems to really be living his life on his own fantastic terms.
Neil Finn has inspired legions of crazy fans, although we all think the others are the real crazy ones. Eddie Vedder is one of those crazy fans. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen him jump on stage with Neil (or Crowded House or Liam) in Seattle. I met Johnny Marr many years ago and we talked about how much we love Neil. Members of Wilco and Radiohead travel thousands of miles when Neil calls and says, “Let’s play some shows.” Fleetwood Mac asked him to join their band. I might be one of those crazy Neil Finn fans, but at least I’m in really good company.
Back in 1986, Neil signed my Salty’s party invitation and wrote “For Matt. Have a nice life.” I had no idea at the time exactly how big and important a part of my life he and his music would be. I have had a nice life, and Neil Finn’s music has been playing for most of it.
Published in partnership with EMI Music. Images courtesy of Matt Kumma.