Crowded House: Something So Strong
ISBN 0 7329 0886 8
Seven Voices: Tales of Madness and Mirth
Purple Egg Press, $29.95
ISBN 0 473 05021 8
In Crowded House: Something So Strong, Chris Bourke has turned a huge amount of detail, collected specially in interviews, into a very thorough account of the musical, business and personal history of the band. Mostly he stays in the background, allowing his interviewees to make his case, with just an occasional thumbnail sketch revealing an acerbic view of minor figures in the drama.
His book begins with the Finn brothers’ childhood, the story of Split Enz and Neil Finn’s initiation with them into the big time. The Finns, Tim and Neil – and the Chunns, Mike and Geoff – were musically well-educated compared with most rock musicians before the era of polytech rock music courses. There were piano lessons, jazz and pop records in the home, social harmony singing; also, they were encouraged or at least permitted to play music for a living, at a time when rock music was only just developing as an art form and an industry.
Both this book and Mike Chunn’s bring out how British their influences were, in particular the Beatles. The United Kingdom has been the major influence on New Zealand rock generally, and along with styles taken up by Maori musicians – Hendrix, reggae, funk – makes for a different, richer mix than, say, in Australia.
Crowded House: Something So Strong hits its stride with the beginnings of Crowded House. Extensive interviews with managers, sound engineers and record company employees make it an exemplary guide to the industry. Indeed, it would be an excellent case study for courses in the rock music business. You learn not only about the writing and arranging of the songs and their production in the studio, but also about personnel and policy changes within the record label, and the way they affected marketing strategies and, ultimately, sales.
Formed in 1984 from the ashes of Split Enz by its two youngest members, Neil Finn and the Australian drummer Paul Hester, the band took the unusual tack of seeking a record deal before playing live. They signed with Capitol, and their first album – recorded in Los Angeles with the then little-known Mitchell Froom giving it the stripped-down, natural sound that characterises their hits – was released in mid-1986.
Already the essentials were in place: the songs, and the sound. Two sounds really: on those trademark anthemic ballads, the plaintive yearning voice, the guitar’s bell-like chords and chugging rhythms, on the fast side, the frenzied guitar and wild singing over rather stiff but energetic riffs, very reminiscent of White-Album-era Beatles (an extraordinary number of these songs sound like “Glass Onion”, right through to “In My Command” from the last album).
Part of their appeal too must be in the lyrics: again and again, the persona of the songs aspires to an undefined redemption from the world’s evil: Christian imagery sits politely but comfortably at the centre of many of the songs. From the book too, you get a sense of a sort of nature mysticism, a romantic religious sensibility, tempered by a tendency to satire and bathos – chiming perhaps with the rediscovery of hippie ideals of the late 1980s.
One thing that came easily to the band, and which became the hallmark of their appearances, whether on TV or on stage, was intimacy: talking to the audience, jokes and stunts, improvised singalongs – the reverse of rockstar aloofness, a thing that not only endeared them to their audience but made converts of many within the industry, especially at their record company.
After a slow start, and with the help of some then unusual “unplugged” promotional concerts, the band had its biggest success, getting “Don’t Dream It’s Over” to number two on the US pop chart, in April 1987. Another song from the album, “Something So Strong“, did nearly as well, and the album reached number 12 during 24 weeks in the charts – an extraordinary showing, though the band later became less popular in the US than in Britain, Europe and Canada.
The second album, Temple of Low Men, despite two archetypal Finn ballads, “Into Temptation” and “Better Be Home Soon”, was not a chart success, partly through problems in Capitol’s marketing policy, partly because the band was tired and did not tour until five months after the album’s release in August 1988. Problems arose within the band, including the temporary sacking of bassist Nick Seymour – an episode that brings out a rather autocratic, driven side of Neil Finn, an insistence on being true to himself that could be destructive, and seems to have ultimately broken up the band.
Neil’s difficulty in writing new songs for the band led to Tim Finn’s temporary membership – the brothers’ songwriting sessions had produced songs that the band needed. These made up over half of Woodface (released in mid-1991), whose two singles, “Fall at Your Feet” and “Weather with You”, both did well in the UK charts, but it again failed to take off in the US, perhaps because its release coincided with the advent of grunge bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, perhaps because Capitol’s marketing was again less effective.
In various ways, the Crowded House machine started to fall apart about this time. Paul Hester, for years the happy comedian, became increasingly morose and negative about the band, eventually leaving in April 1994; many of the supportive people within Capitol had gone; the band felt they needed a new producer to capture their wilder, less predictable and less song-focused live sound, there were tensions between the band‘s two managers, and the band’s members lived increasingly in different countries. But the success in Britain was encouraging. The final album, Together Alone, recorded at Karekare Beach, west of Auckland, with the English producer Youth allowing a chaotic ambience to stretch the song structures, seemed a positive departure (though many people involved think the finished record safer and less radical than the original rough tapes). The album, released in late 1993, did very well in Britain, reaching number four immediately, staying on the charts six months, and for the first time overcoming critical perception of the band as cute and safe. But it did badly in the US, a casualty perhaps of a new regime at Capitol.
Finally, after two more years of vacillation and outside projects, Neil Finn called a halt in mid-l996. The band played a final concert at the Sydney Opera House, to 250,000 people, in November 1996.
Part of Crowded House: Something So Strong overlaps with Mike Chunn’s Seven Voices: Tales of Madness and Mirth, which is a series of pictures from different stages of Chunn’s life, from boyhood through to the time after Split Enz and his own Citizen Band. The pictures of childhood and adolescence are the most evocative, a story of gradual rebellion against a suffocating Catholic education, and of early forays into music. The most affecting story in the book is of Chunn and another boy being caned for sneaking into the school hall to play piano.
Later sections seem to require knowing the Split Enz story (about which he wrote in Stranger Than Fiction). I could have done with more of his tales of life on the road, and a fuller explanation of the significant moments, where a strange extravagance of style obscures what’s actually going on. The treatment of what must have been crippling agoraphobia, and its eventual resolution, are similarly distanced by a jokey tone. The book ends with a moment of insight at the beach, a cosmic revision of his childhood faith. Chunn comes across as likeable, cheeky, a bit of a tearaway, quite different from the moody, fastidious, volatile Neil Finn.
One thing that emerges in both books is the strain on the musicians of success at this game. Mike Chunn’s is the story of someone with sufficient talent and skills but debilitated by agoraphobia to the point of being unable to continue with Split Enz. Usually, the problems are less extreme but have the same basis – the claims of home and family over the need for long and intense promotion overseas. Certainly such pressures contributed to the difficulties and eventual breakup of Crowded House.
The up-and-down trajectory of the band is typical of bands generally. Musically, bands (as distinct from individual artists with a backing group) are temporary groupings, much as in jazz, with a specific sound and personal chemistry. It takes an unusual combination of factors, and a lot of hard work, to achieve even a brief moment in the public eye. As soon as crucial members feel a need to move on, or anything else goes sufficiently wrong, that’s it. Crowded House did better than many for ten years in the world of singles, videos and sales charts – a world trying continually to track down new tastes while exploiting the established to the maximum.
Split Enz and Crowded House are among the glories of New Zealand rock, our biggest pop successes so far (though less influential internationally than bands like the Clean from the Flying Nun stable). Bourke’s book is not only a worthy tribute to Crowded House, but a milestone in NZ rock writing, for its seriousness, its depth of research and its broad view of the music industry.
Bill Lake is a Wellington musician.