“There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup …”
Now there’s an affecting anthem for Antipodeans if ever there was one.
Neil Finn may hail from New Zealand, but, having formed in Melbourne in 1985, Crowded House are unquestionably Australian national treasures. Though almost from the moment that their breakthrough anthem Don’t Dream It’s Over hit the charts, Finn’s work has been clouded by comparisons to Beatles tunes. That a mass audience heard the influence of Paul McCartney and John Lennon in this most blissfully maudlin of songs was understandable.
Moreover, according to Neil Finn, you can’t put a “paper cup” in a song without it being a reference to Lennon. So why not go the whole hog? In The Beatles’ Across The Universe, its words are flowing ‘like endless rain into a paper cup’. As he contemplates obstacles to life and love, Finn’s cup is rich with feeling, and earnestly attempting to contain a veritable flood.
What is it about this melancholic but hopeful anthem of a song? The point of view of the lyrics is reassuring, even protective in a traditional sort of way. It’s got a singalong hook, but it’s an almost desperately frustrated one; it’s a defiant message that sounds like it’s about to fall into a state of defeatism. The other half of the relationship seems to be having doubts. We learn that the world is coming to “build a wall” to separate them (very topical in 2020 and the era of Donald Trump generally), and we’re reassured that “they won’t win”.
That ‘against all odds’ defiance is made more affecting by the palpable sincerity in Finn’s voice, and one where the expansive melodic line of the song’s chorus encouraged hope. It encourages us to stand by our dreams and to stand by each other. Too often, we’re divided by walls or the imaginary concerns of the world.
But there is something else lurking in the lyrics, an element of Weltschmerz – sentimental pessimism – anchored in to a jaded soul. On further listens, wry fatalist William Burroughs seemed to have slipped a stanza into the three-minute tune: “Now I’m towing my car / There’s a hole in the roof / My possessions are causing me suspicion, but there’s no proof / In the paper today / Tales of war and of waste / But you turn right over to the TV page…”
There’s an insular, even escapist side to the song, but it’s all vague and it’s precisely this vagueness that helps give the song its universal resonance. Don’t Dream It’s Over was serious song for the weary (and possibly homesick) traveller or expat. Before long, bands visiting Australia began to include it in their sets as a tribute.
Proving that he’s not much more than a serial covers crooner, Eighties balladeer Paul Young even had a minor hit in Britain with it, taking the song to No.20 in 1991, which—brace yourselves—was better than Crowded House ever managed. The video is taken from the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday concert where Young debuted his version in front of a packed out Wembley Stadium (including yours truly). Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad rendition. He even gets brownie points for giving Neil a namecheck, and then promptly loses them for getting the opening line round the wrong way.
In chart terms, the Brits were inexplicably immune to the original’s charms, awarding it 27th place on the singles rundown dated 27 June 1987 (coincidentally, the day after I officially became an adult), and then—marginally better—in with a rubber bullet at 25 in November 1996, just as the band were about to call it a day with a ceremonious farewell in front of a record-breaking crowd of 200,000 on the steps of Sydney Opera House. Hello hiatus No.1.
Nevertheless, Don’t Dream It’s Over remains the band’s biggest international hit, reaching No.1 in New Zealand and Canada, and, on the American Billboard chart of 25 April 1987 it was prevented from doing the same only by the double trouble of Aretha Franklin and George Michael’s immovable I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).
The song’s music video was pretty cutting edge at the time, and seemingly captured the inner workings of our distracted minds. Filmed in Sydney’s Balmain, ten miles from where I’m writing this piece, Finn gives you a surrealist walking tour through a house in which other members of Crowded House are sitting around, sometimes playing their instruments. And words scrawled across the bottom of the film added new layers of meaning. Not to mention the abstract objects floating through the air and smashing on the screen.
It’s a scene of nostalgic Oceania worthy of Men At Work’s novelty hit Down Under. The house is a weatherboard; we even see a slice of toast spread with Vegemite. No wonder the song became an anthem for Australians overseas. When producer Mitchell Froom’s doleful airlifted-from-1967 organ solo comes (reviving an old school concept that seemingly died out after Light My Fire and A Whiter Shade Of Pale), the windows of this house are suddenly arched and have stained glass. It’s fitting in this retro hymn to home.
Talking of home…
There’s no doubt that Neil Finn is an astonishing songwriter. The hit hooks and harmonies, rock-based beats and haunting Maori guitar rhythms, and his own ingratiating voice — fearless, wistful, cynical, tender — never seem to strike a false emotional chord. He may be a huge David Bowie fan but other than slipping into a little Bowiesque mockney on the line “In the paper toda-ay” he clearly eschewed showy Bowie artifice for ‘Aussie’ authenticity.
For the record, in 2007 Neil listed his five favourite songwriters in spinner.com as:
Finn has said it was listening to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory that first awakened him to the craft of writing soulful, lyrical pop. In that context, maybe a little too much of the Beatles – Crowded House connection has been made over the years, though it is certainly there for all to hear in Don’t Dream It’s Over, where Lennon could easily have written the narrow melody of the verse, all stepwise incremental intervals and as bracing as the wind. The famously uplifting chorus, though, is pure Finn.
Has he ever bettered it? That’s open for debate, though, personally, I’m
almost just as fond of a tasty triumvirate of singles from 1991’s Woodface, the FM radio friendly third album that saw the band briefly expand their line up to include another Finn, Tim; Neil’s older brother and former colleague in Split Enz, New Zealand’s top new-wave draw back in the day.
The brothers sing in Beatlesque harmony through much of Woodface, and there’s a lovely simplicity to It’s Only Natural, Fall At Your Feet and Four Seasons In One Day that are irresistibly understated yet utterly endearing, and yes, admittedly, they do sound like they could be long lost gems from the Fab Four’s early to mid period albums, a Beatles For Sale-Help!-Rubber Soul hybrid that was only released in a Kiwi parallel universe.
Neil even sounds like a young McCartney on Four Seasons, though he really carries the bulk of the load on Fall At Your Feet, the album’s preeminent slow burner, which demonstrates his knack for rendering nuanced sophistication as infectious pop music, while the gorgeous George Harrison-indebted It’s Only Natural quickly became a live favourite.
When it plays, all of a sudden the world makes sense in a three-minute pop song. It’s a fantastic feeling and why you wouldn’t want to try to parse the song for meaning. You’d be puzzled by the contiguity of chords and lines like “shaking like mud/ building of glass.” Only as a whole does It’s Only Natural endlessly bloom in your heart.
In commercial terms, that trio of 45s paled against the popularity of another track extracted from Woodface though; and I don’t mind admitting that the contrary old bugger in me slightly sneered at the joyous Weather With You at the time, chiefly became my housemate Joanne was a little too obsessed with it. Plus, being English, it seemed a little too sunny. Remarkably, it gave the House their only Top 10 hit in Britain, though, even with a great lullaby-sounding couplet (“There’s a small boat made of china / Going nowhere on the mantelpiece.”), you’d be hard pressed to call it Finn’s finest.
As a lyricist, Finn is a musician first. He once told my former employers at MOJO magazine that he often chooses words purely for their euphony. “Initially, I get just a natural image like sky, sea, sun, earth and then something very domestic like washing,” he says. “The juxtaposition of those things is endlessly interesting.” That acute eye on quotidian reality, the snapshot of mundane possessions, charged with vertigo, is in fact one of his signatures.
Lost in the march of popular music over the past three decades has been not only Neil Finn but also the kind of exquisite song craft that he embodies. Rock evolved not just from Muddy Waters and James Brown but also from pop formalists like Barry Mann and Carole King, the 1960s Brill Building stars who were themselves indebted to George Gershwin and Cole Porter. This is the tradition that Finn has inherited, honoured and translated into songs that stun us with their sophistication and beauty.
Crowded House released three further albums before folding the tent on their recording career in 2010. And if you thought Pineapple Head (from 1993’s Together Alone, the last “real” album before the first parting of the ways) sounded familiar, play Norwegian Wood from a certain Scouse quartet and you’ll realise Neil does it without realising. They’re in his DNA.
Another that sprang to mind was Not The Girl You Think You Are, which appeared as a bonus track written for Crowded House’s first Greatest Hits album Recurring Dream in 1996. And in the course of a little fact-checking it turns out that in that instance Neil was actually trying to write a song that sound like The Beatles. Play When I’m 64 from Sgt. Pepper and then Lennon’s God straight after and you’ll see what I mean.
Since then, Finn, 62 next month, stretched his skills further with four solo works, in addition to two enchanting collaborations with brother Tim and, keeping it in the family, 2018’s Lightsleeper, a slightly meandering team up with his son Liam.
Lightsleeper, though not without its charm, is a reminder that for the last couple decades Neil has had an uneasy relationship with his reputation for earnestness and sweet melody. Call it “McCartney syndrome”, but it’s often led him to steer away from his strengths, an approach that is laudable but also can lead to frustration.
If the father and son album appeared under-promoted, well, there’s a good reason: in a rush of sixty-something creativity, Neil had just been confirmed as the latest member of the Fleetwood Mac extended family, replacing an unceremoniously dumped Lindsey Buckingham.
Despite the loss of one of their greatest songwriters (though it could be argued the band simply replaced Bucks with New Zealand’s greatest songwriter), I caught the return of the Mac at a somewhat ridiculously monikered Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio that October. It’s since been renamed, even more incongruously, the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Even more bang for your buck. Probably.
Incredibly, even in Hicksville USA the wide-waisted hot dog and piss weak beer-quaffing crowd knew the first of Finn’s star turns, an almost-but-not-quite solo spot for the hit he wrote for Split Enz “in Sydney, in a small flat”, yup, the fabulously paranoid I Got You, replete with scary monster video show.
But there’s more. A second slice of Sydney showbombing in the American midwest, a wizened wild-haired Finn performed Don’t Dream It’s Over as duet with haunting songstress Stevie Nicks (and no, there was nothing visible blowing up her billowing dress either.). Not having been aware of how successful the track had been in the US at the time, it was a lovely surprise to witness the reception another Finn creation received.
To address the huge elephant in the sports hall: No, Buckingham didn’t merit so much as a mention during the two-and-a-half hour show. Introducing the band, drummer Mick Fleetwood welcomed Finn and the other new boy, former Heartbreaker Mike Campbell “to this crazy band… we’re so lucky to have them in our ranks.”
They were good, though I would rather catch Finn in his natural setting some time, with a band celebrating their 35th anniversary this year.
In fact, I had hoped to catch Crowded House proper live for the first time at Bluesfest in Byron Bay this very Easter but, alas, the festival was cancelled very last minute, and as with the Pet Shop Boys and assorted acts affected by the coronavirus pandemic, their European tour has been shifted an entire year until mid 2021. In the meantime, there’s a battle ahead.
As the song says, don’t dream it’s over. Stay safe everyone.
Steve Pafford, Sydney
Bonus slices of Sydney… (with some Beatle boy stuff to follow)
In 1999, Neil performed and duetted with Sinéad O’Connor at the Concert For Linda, a benefit show for Paul McCartney’s late wife organised by the Beatle and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. George Michael, Johnny Marr, Marianne Faithfull and Tom Jones also appeared.
Last word to the Macca:
The Fab One held a Facebook live chat in 2007 with Tim Minchin to announce his OneOnOne tour, and guess what? Paul McCartney finally addressed the long-running rumour that he once referred to Neil Finn as the world’s greatest songwriter.
After being teased by Minchin that he doesn’t even like Finn’s music, McCartney joked back, “I didn’t say that. I don’t, but I didn’t say that… I love his songs actually.”