Neil Finn is often cited as a songwriter's songwriter, and for good reason. His career spans his formative years in Split Enz in the late 1970s and early 1980s, through a decade fronting the successful band Crowded House, and onto a number of solo projects and collaborations since Crowded House split in 1996.
Despite a relatively low-key presence in the US, Crowded House made it big in the UK and Europe (Princess Diana said Crowded House was one of her favourite bands after the release of 1991's Woodface) and the band is practically an institution in Australia and New Zealand. Neil Finn's solo work continues to attract considerable critical praise, particularly for his songwriting, and he has a dedicated following, hungry for anything he produces.
For those who don't know the music of Neil Finn and Crowded House, the compilation Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House is a highly recommended purchase. Most reviewers class it as a five-star, must-have purchase, and for good reason.
The Story So Far
Neil Finn was born in Te Awamutu in New Zealand on 27 May, 1958, and despite early career aspirations to the priesthood, by the age of 12, Neil had decided he wanted to be a musician. Neil would perform with his elder brother Tim at their parents' parties, and as a teenager at Sacred Heart College and then Te Awamutu College, he would perform in such local hotspots as hospitals and prisons.
Meanwhile Neil's brother Tim had formed Split Enz in 1972, and headed off to Australia and the UK in search of pop stardom. Despite garnering plenty of critical praise1 Split Enz failed to make a huge impression on the charts, and when punk redefined the UK music scene, the Enz found their music and image somewhat out of kilter with the current fashion. They returned to Australia in 1977 and three members left the band, including drummer Geoff Chunn, and the chief songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Phil Judd.
Neil had by now quit school and was working as a hospital orderly in Auckland, and it was there that he formed his first band, After Hours, which included Geoff Chunn on drums. After Hours' first gig was in Auckland on 15 March, 1977, and watching the four-piece perform was Mike Chunn, Geoff's brother, who was still the bassist with Split Enz. The Enz were on the lookout for a new vocalist and guitarist following the departure of Judd, and Mike Chunn was impressed with Neil's performance. A couple of weeks later Neil received a phone call from his brother asking him if he'd like to join the band, and on 7 April, 1977, Neil flew out to London as the newest member of Split Enz.
Unfortunately by the time Neil joined Split Enz, things weren't exactly going ballistic. The band's record deal with Chrysalis had disappeared in smoke, and by 1978 the band had no international record deal and were surviving on the dole in London. Undaunted, the band soldiered on, and eventually managed to secure an Australian deal with Mushroom Records and an international deal with A&M. Luckily for the band, this was when Neil Finn's contribution to popular music really started.
In 1980, one of Neil's songs, 'I Got You', would storm to number 12 in the UK singles chart, the highest Split Enz chart position ever, and Neil continued to produce high-quality songs such as 'One Step Ahead', 'History Never Repeats' and 'Message to My Girl'. However, despite modest success and even a BBC ban for their single 'Six Months in a Leaky Boat' (which was considered too risqué a title during the Falklands Conflict), Tim Finn decided to leave the band for a solo career in 1984. Neil briefly toyed with the idea of continuing the Enz without his brother, but soon thought better of it, and after a farewell Australian tour and a final album in 1985, Split Enz packed up their make-up and weird haircuts and called it a day.
Early Crowded House
Casting aside the large band vibe (Split Enz typically had seven members, and through its history 14 members passed through its ranks), Neil created a four-piece called The Mullanes, after his middle name, Mullane. Comprising Neil on guitar and vocals, Nick Seymour on bass, ex-Enz member Paul Hester on drums, and Craig Hooper on guitar, the band started off touring Australia and recording demos. Hooper was soon dropped from the ranks, and the three remaining members headed off to Los Angeles in June 1985, where they shopped around for a record deal, eventually settling down with Capitol Records.
The first thing Capitol did was to request a name change, so the band rechristened themselves Crowded House, after the less-then-spacious accommodation they were enjoying at the time. Teaming up with producer Mitchell Froom, who developed a great working relationship with the band and effectively became a fourth band member, the debut album Crowded House enjoyed an American tinge to the sound, and proved an accomplished debut, showcasing some wonderful Neil Finn songs.
Despite this, Crowded House failed to make much of an impact when released in summer 1986, as Capitol didn't exactly pull out all the promotional stops. However, instead of trying to break into the charts by spending a fortune on a huge tour, the band spent their time playing small acoustic gigs for those in the industry, and appearing in record stores to promote the album. Before long their reputation within the industry had grown, and coupled with assured appearances on the talk-show circuit, the band finally managed to push the album into the US Top 40 by February 1987; the album would go on to reach number 12. The singles 'Don't Dream It's Over' and 'Something So Strong' respectively reached number two and seven in the US charts, and the album hit multi-platinum in Australia and New Zealand. The hard work was paying off.
1988's Temple of Low Men was an altogether darker album, and although it contained some wonderful examples of the Neil Finn craft - 'Into Temptation' and 'Better Be Home Soon' are simply beautiful tracks - it only just brushed the US Top 40, and the single 'Better Be Home Soon' only reached number 42. This lack of success meant the cancellation of a planned US tour, and despite Paul Young giving the band some welcome publicity by singing 'Don't Dream It's Over' at the 1988 Wembley Stadium concert for Nelson Mandela, Crowded House had entered a quiet period.
Princess Di's Favourite Band
In early 1989 Neil teamed up with his brother Tim and they started writing songs together for an intended 'Finn Brothers' project. They burned off 14 songs in a short period, and soon afterwards Neil started writing songs for the next Crowded House album. However things didn't go terribly well, and unhappy with his latter material, Neil suggested Tim join Crowded House and that they combine the best moments from the two writing sessions.
The result, 1991's Woodface, was a triumph. The first single, 'Chocolate Cake' failed to make any impact in the US and effectively scuppered their chances Stateside ('Chocolate Cake' is hardly typical of Woodface and doesn't exactly flatter the American way of life). However the follow-up singles 'Fall At Your Feet' (UK Top 20) and 'Weather With You' (UK Top 10) finally broke the album in Europe. Woodface reached the Top 10 and platinum status in the UK, but by this stage Tim Finn, who wasn't really required in the band's live show, had left the band. The success of Woodface was so impressive that it prompted the Queen to bestow the OBE on both Tim and Neil in June 1993 for their contribution to the music of New Zealand, and gushing praise from that well-known music critic Princess Diana only served to bolster sales and reputations.
In early 1993 the core trio got together with a new producer, Youth, dropping Mitchell Froom for the first time, and added the American guitarist Mark Hart to their ranks (he'd briefly toured with the band in the late 1980s). Together Alone, released in October 1993, was a masterpiece, and although it would prove to be the band's swan song, it would garner practically unanimous critical praise and good sales (though not, of course, in the US). When Together Alone entered the UK album charts at number four, Woodface was still selling well enough to be charting, and the band headed off on a successful European tour to promote the new album. However, Paul Hester left the band at the start of the ensuing American tour to spend more time with his family, and having finished the tour with a session drummer in tow, the band decamped back home for a rest.
Collaborations and Solo Work
After the success of Together Alone Neil decided to spend more time on some of the side projects he'd been working on before things had taken off, and he again teamed up with his brother to revive the Finn Brothers project. 1995's Finn was much less pop-oriented than their work with Crowded House, and demonstrated a considerable multi-instrumental virtuosity, as the brothers play almost every instrument on the album.
Bolstered by this work outside of the Crowded House moniker, Neil announced the end of Crowded House in June 1996, and at the same time the stunning 'best of' collection Recurring Dream was released. After a short tour, with drummer Hester returning to the stool for this last stint, Crowded House played their final show to 100,000 ecstatic fans on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, donating the profits to the Sydney Children's Hospital Fund. Such is the high esteem in which Australia holds this band2 that Melbourne's Museum for Performing Arts has an exhibition of Crowded House memorabilia.
Now a bona fide solo artist, Neil Finn released his debut solo album Try Whistling This in June 1998, unsurprisingly to critical acclaim. Before its release much was made of the use of sampling and looping on the album, though only 'Twisty Bass' made this a central theme. The album proved that Crowded House was indeed based solidly on the songwriting talents of Neil Finn, and fans of his former band lapped up his solo work.
In 2000 Crowded House brought out a post-band album of demos and previously-unreleased material spanning the band's whole career, and despite being an album of extras, Afterglow still contains some very strong songs. For fans this is a fascinating collection, though as with most albums of 'odds and ends', it's probably the last album on the shopping list.
Neil's second solo outing One Nil came out in 2001, continuing his development as an exceptional songwriting talent. The album showcased a solid collection of warm love songs, quite a progression from the rock-star life of Crowded House, and another delight for his dedicated following.
Neil Finn continues to write, perform and collaborate3, and he continues to pull in critical praise that, frankly, is totally deserved. His songwriting is exceptional, his voice is warm and atmospheric, and his lack of exposure in the US is more their loss than his.
Crowded House Albums
Crowded House (1986)
Drawing on the US influence of their Los Angeles surroundings, the band's assured debut had a rockier vibe than their later releases (indeed, comparing Crowded House with Together Alone shows two totally different production styles).
The highlight for most people is the beautiful ballad 'Don't Dream It's Over', in which Neil's distinctive lyrical style is most apparent. Crowded House's lyrics are often relatively opaque, taking a leaf from the 'I am the Walrus' book in creating poetry that sounds gorgeous, and whose meaning is, well, often left up to the listener to interpret. 'Don't Dream It's Over' starts off with the following imagery, which is typical of Neil Finn's songs:
There is freedom within
There is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There's a battle ahead
Many battles are lost
But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're travelling with me
Other highlights of the album include the anthemic 'World Where You Live' and the foot-stomping 'Something So Strong' and 'Now We're Getting Somewhere', though 'Hole in the River', a song about the suicide of Neil's aunt, is a considerable (and haunting) contrast.
Temple of Low Men (1988)
Despite some strong songs, Temple of Low Men is arguably Crowded House's weakest studio album, which says more about the high standard of their other albums than anything else. However the highlights are among the best songs the band ever recorded, with particular beauty being displayed on 'Into Temptation' and 'Better Be Home Soon'. The rocky 'Sister Madly' proved to be a popular live number, but some of the rockier songs fail to capitalise on Neil's talent for penning heart-achingly beautiful ballads.
On the other hand, there are those who adore this album, so don't ignore it.
Crowded House's breakthrough album, Woodface contains some incredible songs, though there is a slightly disjointed feeling to the album, no doubt a result of the cobbling together of songs from two different sessions. The input of Neil's brother Tim is plain to see, with the album's standout tracks - 'Chocolate Cake', 'It's Only Natural', 'Weather With You', 'Four Seasons in One Day' and 'All I Ask' - sharing the writing credits between the two brothers.
The solo Neil Finn composition 'Fall At Your Feet' would give the biggest clue as to Crowded House's next direction, but Woodface is a collection of brilliant pop songs and deserves to be celebrated. Some fans feel it's too commercial and poppy, but that belittles the quality of the writing here; it's a warm, upbeat album, and is quite excellent.
Together Alone (1993)
Together Alone is altogether a different beast. Recorded in a lonely beach house in New Zealand above a cove called 'Kare Kare', this album feels like a windswept coastline when compared to Woodface's sun-drenched pop. Arguably this is the style to which Neil Finn's compositions are most suited: certainly Together Alone contains the most emotional Crowded House music of any album.
Songs like 'Fingers of Love', 'Private Universe', 'Distant Sun' and 'Catherine Wheels' are about as far from radio-friendly pop songs as you can get, and each of them is deep, moving and ethereal. The influence of the New Zealand Maoris is obvious from the outset, and it lends a timeless quality to the production, especially towards the end of 'Private Universe', which dissolves into a haunting tribal pounding. The lyrics are beautiful and as poetic as ever; consider this excerpt from the single 'Nails In My Feet':
My life is a house
You crawl through the window
Slip across the floor and into the reception room
You enter the place
Of endless persuasion
Like a knock on the door when there's ten or more things to do
Meanwhile the album's rockier tracks - 'Black and White Boy', 'Locked Out' and Hester's 'Skin Feeling' - take no prisoners, leaving the listener in no doubt that this is not a commercial pop album. If you buy just one Crowded House album... then buy Recurring Dream. But if you buy a second, buy Together Alone.
Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House (1996)
Combining four songs from each of Crowded House's studio albums and adding three new songs, this album is a perfect purchase for those who want to find out what the fuss is all about. The title is taken from a song that isn't included (but which is included on Afterglow), and does indeed represent the very best of Crowded House (though fans will, of course, have favourites that aren't included).
This album is highly recommended. Indeed, the Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, arguably the definitive reference work on popular music, gives Recurring Dream five stars out of five, which is a considerable accolade given that their five stars means 'outstanding in every way: no comprehensive collection should be without this album'. They're right too...
Post-band collections of odds and ends are rarely exceptional, and although Afterglow contains some excellent reasons why this material wasn't previously released - 'My Telly's Gone Bung' is hardly perfect - there are some beautiful gems to be found here.
Probably the most haunting song is the refugee song 'Help is Coming', which came from the band's last ever session; it wouldn't be out of place on Together Alone. Also the version of 'Private Universe' on Afterglow is arguably better than the original, with its stripped-down 'unplugged' simplicity bringing the song's normally hidden guitar playing to the fore.
It is, though, an album for fans of the band, and it doesn't leave them disappointed.
Collaborative and Solo Albums
The first collaboration between the Finn brothers since 1991's Woodface, Finn is a disjointed collection of diverse material that sometimes shines, and sometimes doesn't.
'Suffer Never' and 'Only Talking Sense' are the undoubted highlights of this album, and it's interesting to hear the combination of the two brothers' different styles on these songs... because it works. On other songs it feels as if there's a lack of cohesion, which could be down to the way the album was recorded: except for bass on one song, every instrument is played by the brothers.
A patchy album, but with some special moments.
Try Whistling This (1998)
Neil Finn's first solo outing, Try Whistling This is an album that grows on you with every listen; the first time you hear it the tunes get their hooks into you, but it's only after a few repeated plays that you can feel their tug.
Before the album was released there was plenty of press speculation that Try Whistling This was going to be a highly experimental work, and some tracks, such as 'Twisty Bass' and 'Loose Tongue', do break new ground. Overall, though, Try Whistling This takes the songwriting talents displayed on Together Alone, adds some intriguing production and instrumentation, and produces an album that is excellent without being that different to late Crowded House. Standout tracks as 'Sinner', 'She Will have Her Way' and 'Astro' are wonderful examples of why that formula is so successful, though.
One Nil (2001)
Where Try Whistling This is the sound of an artist cutting himself free from the boundaries of a band and experimenting with various different ideas, One Nil sounds much more like an album produced by a band. The production is consistently full and warm, and there's a consistency of sound across all the songs, from the rock of 'Hole in the Ice' and the rhythmic balladry of 'Wherever You Are' to the country feel of 'Last to Know'.
The sound of an artist settling into the role of experimental solo songwriter, One Nil demonstrates that 21 years after joining Split Enz, Neil Finn still has plenty of ideas and talent to spare.
Neil Finn Websites
Neil Finn Home - Lots of official Neil Finn information, expecially about his last album One Nil and associated tours.
Frenz of the Enz - A great directory into all sorts of information to do with Split Enz, Crowded House, solo Finn activities and more.