30 Years Ago: Crowded House Emerge From the Ashes of Split Enz With Their Self-Titled Debut
Crowded House released its self-titled debut album in June 1986. Produced by Mitchell Froom, it's a landmark record: Not only does it contain the indelible Billboard hits "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong"—as well as fan favorites such as "World Where You Live" and "Now We're Getting Somewhere"—but it remains an astoundingly original, wholly unique interpolation of rock & roll.
Vocalist/guitarist Neil Finn was already a music veteran at that point, courtesy of his tenure alongside brother Tim Finn in the quirkier Split Enz, which had mild U.S. success with the single "I Got You" in the early '80s before breaking up in 1984. However, Crowded House was a decidedly new beginning for him—a vehicle where he had to prove himself all over again as a songwriter and frontman.
He wasn't alone, of course. Along for the ride in Crowded House were bassist Nick Seymour and another former member of Split Enz, drummer Paul Hester. Froom (Elvis Costello, Del Fuegos) was chosen to produce. According to Chris Bourke's Crowded House biography, Something So Strong, Finn and Froom clicked musically, and had fruitful pre-production sessions. During the actual recording sessions, the latter also laid down a variety of keyboards, which also helped shape Crowded House's sound.
"It was the first time I had actually worked with a producer that had so much valuable insight and input into the way the songs were put together," Finn recalled to this author during a recent interview. "And also some influences that were American influences I had never really taken on board before–even the use of the Hammond organ, an R&B bassline here and there. Musically, [there were] some exciting developments going on."
Froom's Hammond organ is most prominent on "Something So Strong," a song driven by laid-back grooves that's described (correctly) by Bourke as "Squeeze meets Booker T. and the M.G.s." Yet Crowded House has a bluesy feel on songs such as "Mean to Me" and the shuffling "Now We're Getting Somewhere," courtesy of Finn's full-throated, ragged singing. (The latter also featured rhythm section legends Jerry Scheff on bass and Jim Keltner on drums.)
The strutting "Love You 'Til the Day I Die" is even more aggressive, between its piano shards, Finn's live-showman vocal desperation, and the Heart Attack Horns, who contribute squiggly brass and reedy saxes. Indeed, Crowded House is a colorful, atmospheric album full of unexpected sound effects (the cinematic opening to the INXS-like pop nugget "Can't Carry On"; the Wurlitzer electric piano on "World Where You Live") and inventive melodies with intriguing chord resolutions.
Despite its unique sound and strong songs, Crowded House wasn't an immediate success. In fact, label Capitol Records wasn't exactly sure what to do with the band, since its style of classic, ornate pop was decidedly out of fashion at that point in time, and the group had an offbeat artistic and aesthetic vision.
What eventually helped was getting the band on the road in front of people, and winning over skeptics with powerful, low-key performances. "We did a couple of stripped-back shows, busking-style, at a couple of parties in Melbourne," Finn said. "We realized that we really had a good thing going with it. We learned how to sing together as a result. I think there was a lot of energy—Paul standing and playing his snare drum had a lot of energy in the way he approached [it]. It had a certain power.
"I think it really, in a way, contributed quite strongly to the fact we got noticed. We would play at these parties and promotional things in that capacity and give everyone a hell of a good time. And it was funny and loose. At the time, music was pretty produced—there was a big veneer over most things, so I think the fact we were willing to strip it back…And we could go anywhere—in the BBC, Paul would play a rubbish bin or whatever. It was a versatile lineup as well."
In the U.S., Crowded House did these kinds of stripped-down performances and curried similar buzz. However, to start moving the needle took a little bit of ingenuity. "Don't Dream It's Over" was released as a single in August 1986, but hadn't done much outside of a few radio stations. Crowded House's then-manager Gary Stamler, however, decided to secretly pay $10,000 to independent radio promoters to try and move the needle. Going against the grain, the promotion started in December 1986—typically a dead time in the music industry.
His strategy worked: The song's video started receiving MTV airplay, and the single itself started climbing the charts. Tour dates with Bruce Hornsby followed in February and March, as did an incongruous (but wonderful) appearance at MTV's Spring Break. By April 1987, "Don't Dream It's Over" peaked at No. 2 on the singles charts, kept from the top by Aretha Franklin and George Michael's "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)." Crowded House was on its way.
"The record took a long time to come on and succeed," Finn said. "So it was just all kind of forging ahead, stumbling along, no great master plan, just a lot of willfulness."
"Don't Dream It's Over" continues to endure as a popular cover song—in fact, Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande even covered the tune last year. And Finn himself recognizes the song's continued resonance: During his recent appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he slipped in the aside, "Hear that, Donald?"—in reference to Donald Trump—after singing the chorus lyrics, "They come to build a wall between us / We know they won't win."
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