Millions of people are born in London, or Chicago, or Barcelona, but Neil Finn is not one of them. On May 27, 1958, he was born in Te Awamutu, a rural town in New Zealand. At that time the country was as culturally isolated as it is geographically remote from the rest of the world. "You had to walk miles to find a museum," Neil remembers, and even when you got there, it might be just an old man's collection of twigs."
Musical entertainment in the Finn household was often a homemade affair. Neil and his elder brother Tim would be called upon to perform at their parents' frequent parties, their mother Mary leading the fray at the piano. The Finns were Catholics and at these parties priests would mingle with drink, to thrilling effect. The sing-a-longs made a lasting impression on the tiny Neil -- years later, playing at the Sydney Opera House for the huge turnout at Crowded House's farewell concert, "I was suddenly four years old again, performing in front of what seemed to me 250,000 priests. It was a strange moment, but that's pop," he shrugs.
Tim, six years Neil's elder, unwittingly kicked it off, like a bike whose power nobody can guess at. With Phil Judd, a mate from Auckland University, he planted a strangely shaped acorn called Split Enz, which grew into a multi-colored oak tree of a band. Split Enz was everything New Zealand music of the time was not: uncompromisingly original, madly impassioned, and artistically unfettered. They dressed bizarrely for gigs, and their stage act was outlandish and theatrical. To schoolboy Neil, they were heroes, up there with The Beatles and Elton John. In 1977 Phil Judd left the band in suspicious circumstances. Some suspected the ambitious Neil of mildly poisoning him, in order to secure for himself a role in Split Enz.
Neil's presence in Split Enz altered the band's dynamics. He penned "I Got You" for them, a simple pop hit, catchy as cricket. In contrast to the willfully uncommercial sound of early Enz it became a hit worldwide, and a rash of great songs ensued from the brothers Finn. Somehow, however, for all their artistic successes in the studio and onstage (their live performances have achieved near-mythical status amongst fans), Split Enz never quite hit the jumbo time. Australasia loved them, and so did Canada; America and Europe (excepting a brief popularity in England) didn't quite get it. Perhaps, though, that is not the point of a band like Split Enz- they were always going to be too vital, too difficult, too clever, for the mainstream to embrace them fully.
In 1983, more than a decade after its inception, Tim left the band. The rest of the Enz briefly considered soldiering on, but decided finally to disband. Neil was left facing the difficult decision of what next to turn his talents to. For a time there was talk of a Hall & Oates biopic, with Neil playing both the lead characters himself, but the project never got off the ground, and Neil decided to form a new band as a vehicle for his prodigious output.
Recruiting Split Enz's impish drummer Paul Hester and Nick Seymour on bass, Neil put together the core of Crowded House. Almost instantly he pulled out an absolutely enormous single off of the self-titled debut -- "Don't Dream It's Over" was classic Neil, its huge chorus propelling it up the U.S. charts. It remains far and away the band's biggest U.S. success, reaching #2 on the Billboard chart. The follow-up, "Something So Strong" made #7. The second Crowded House album Temple of Low Men contained "Better Be Home Soon," a sure-fire smash that perversely failed to trouble the charts much at all. Meanwhile, Crowded House was steadily building a loyal worldwide following on the strength of their stage shows.
For the third Crowded House album, Neil and Tim (the shadowy "Fourth Crowdie") collaborated on songs together, and 1991's Woodface seems both a logical resolution of the brothers' work, and a consolidation of the Crowded Hou se sound. Woodface is stuffed full of top-notch Finnery: "Weather With You" and "Four Seasons In One Day" are impeccably lovely; "It's Only Natural" is perfect skinny pop, crisp and jangling. The record was a great triumph in the UK and is often cited as one of the great albums of the 90's.
Together Alone (1993) was the last Crowded House album proper. The atmospheric soundscapes of songs such as "Distant Sun" and "Private Universe" reflect the imposing surroundings of windswept Kare Kare on the West Coast out of Auckland. It was here that the album was made, under the hippy-ish influence of unorthodox British producer Youth. For the ambitious title track Neil pushed musical and cultural barriers, bringing together a Maori choir, log drummers and a brass band.
In 1995 Neil and Tim cut an intimate album together, Finn. It seemed Neil had leanings towards a career outside Crowded House, and in 1996 he brought the band to a close. A "best of" album, Recurring Dream, was released to huge success and in 1998 Neil embarked on his solo career, with the provocatively titled album Try Whistling This.v Conceived in New Zealand and toughened up in New York, it showcases a darker and more experimental side of the man's talents. So where next?
In April 2001, Neil banded together with Johnny Marr, Eddie Vedder, Radiohead's Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien, Neil's brother Tim, Lisa Germano and Betchadupa (featuring Neil's son, Liam, on vocals) for a 5-night stint at the St. James' Theatre in Auckland, New Zealand. The resulting album and DVD, 7 Worlds Collide, features the best and highly memorable moments from each of the aforementioned artists in what was a week of enchanted evenings. Making a memorable event even more poignant, all artists contributing to the CD and DVD are contributing their royalties to Doctors Without Borders to assist with medical work in Afghanistan.
The rest of the story is to be continued with the release of One All in May 2002.