Neil Finn: a man I love, a man I hate
I believe the inexplicable has happened. Something that I’d never believed could swing and shift in the space of this one lifetime. That is, I’m beginning to like Neil Finn. I mean, really like him, and with little reservation this time. You see, I’ve always had this love/hate relationship going with Neil Finn. He is a man whose work I could occasionally love, and oftentimes hate. By “hate”, I’m talking about much of the Crowded House-era work, and more specifically, the first self-titled Crowded House album and Woodface. There’s been always something antsy, projective, and bombastic about Neil Finn – particularly in his lyrics and delivery – that ticks me off time and time again. And yet I find I borrow the Crowded House first album off a friend, listen to it, and find with wonderment that I actually quite like it now. Years ago it would have been the Frisbee I would have thrown the furthest.
It strikes me that the eponymously-titled debut album has dated quite well in the space of 23 years. And the album is really a whole lot better than what I’ve ever given it credit for. Astonishingly I find that the bits of the album that used to annoy the heck out of me - and there were loads of those bits - don’t seem to bother me now. Maybe that’s spiritual enlightenment. Maybe that’s what happens when you approach forty. You start to tolerate Neil Finn, and actually like him.
Neil Finn in Split Enz was always the young Amadeus. Precocious and gifted, he mastered with natural ease the art of songwriting at a very young age. ‘One step ahead’ from 1979 is one of Neil’s earliest songs, and it stands today as one of his very best. In it is revealed a true lyric talent matched with an equally striking musical originality. Moreover, you feel the flavour of New Zealand in this great piece. It was a taste of things to come. ‘I got you’ is an indisputable pop classic. ‘Message to my girl’ is a symphonic masterpiece wrapped into the parcel of a three-minute pop song. Yet despite the young man’s undoubtable flair, Neil was somehow held in check by the mighty umbrella of Split Enz, for younger Finn was merely one slice of the Enz pie. When he metamorphosed into Crowded House after the demise of the Enz, it appeared something strange was happening to Neil Finn. He became larger than life. He was screechy, projective, and to my ears, a little painful to listen to despite the wonderful wave of catchy pop songs that flowed from that first album.
We all enjoyed the debut single ‘Mean to me’ in high school, with our bunch learning how to play guitar over Neil’s classic-pop chord progression. Over time I’ve come to detest ‘Mean to me’ up until recently where, after many years in the wilderness, I’ve mildly reconnected to the song’s vitality and unquestionable craftsmanship. Neil’s projective urgency on that debut record was for me, always akin to scratching your nails on the chalkboard. ‘World where you live’ is a brilliant pop song to be sure, though it’s a song I could never take seriously, predominately for one particular line; at the end of the first verse when Neil spits out “…c’mon now there must be something missing”, with all the swagger of a young Elvis Presley. I love early Elvis, but I can’t handle Neil sounding like Elvis. It makes me want to barf and the effusive bravado of the line ruins the remainder of the song for me. And yet, that middle eight is so inventive and brilliant that I’ve copied it for the middle eight in one of my songs, ‘Ride’. Well, I didn’t so much copy it, moreso I was influenced by that ominous suspended chord at the end of the middle eight that leads back into the solo, for powerful effect. I cannot say then, that I’m never influenced by Neil.
‘Now where getting somewhere’ is the one song from the first album that I respected a little more than the others. I liked the song’s Austro-pop feel and its pervasively inspired mood. It’s a brilliantly performed and recorded song too, and unlike most of the remainder of the album, the writing doesn’t come across too overbearingly, all the elements sit rightly in place. ‘Now where getting somewhere’ is the only song on Crowded House that’s recorded without Nick and Paul. Instead, some hefty session cats came in to play on the track, doing a wonderful job in the process and giving the track its definable vintage shuffle.
‘Don’t dream it’s over’ is akin to running an obstacle course, meaning, you have to be highly focussed and alert to avoid being tripped over by some of those shaky lines in the song. Most of the lyrics to ‘Don’t dream it’s over’ are graceful and eloquent in keeping with the wondrous music, but I find my equilibrium is shaken by lines such as “…trying to catch the deluge in a paper cup…”, or, “…my possessions are causing me suspicion but there’s no proof…”, or, the creamy-croon of “…get to know the feeling of liberation and release…” that is spewed forth Elvis-like mid-70s Las Vegas style. There seemed to be many pages dedicated in the Crowded House biography to Mitchell Froom’s lush and creamy organ solo, how it cuts in at the half bar etc, am I’m left wondering if the song is really worth the accolade. ‘Don’t dream it’s over’ is a wonderful song, a modern classic, a standard, though I’ve often found it to be a little too pedestrian for my taste. However, I’ve more recently discovered a performance of Neil playing ‘Don’t Dream it’s over’, posted on YouTube, at the Sydney Opera House in 2008 and it amazed me how together and orchestrated the song sounded with Neil performing it on his own with his acoustic guitar. He even managed to perform the organ solo on the guitar with the chords played simultaneously. Without a doubt Neil Finn is an astounding musician. And I do have to concede that it is a great song.
I never liked the remainder of the album. I always thought ‘Love you till the day I die’ was just hideous, what with Neil spluttering into the microphone all of his marital guilt complexes, “…forgive me if I…tell a lie!!” (Geez just put a plug in it mate, or I’ll just rush for the earplugs myself). But, Neil Finn being Neil, he cannot actually write a bad song. The chorus of ‘Love you till the day I die’ moves into an interesting Enz-y style passage. And the middle eight is just sublimely stellar, one of the best middle eights he’s ever composed. That’s the thing about Neil, you think you have him pinned and he comes out a winner, without fail.
I’ve always dismissed the rest of that album as just rubbish. I was wrong. It’s quite good. I always felt ‘Hole in the River’ to be an exercise in pseudo-pathos but that assertion denies the song’s fine melody and underlying poise. On the whole, amazingly for me, the album dates very well. It’s a mid-eighties album to be sure and yet it sounds quite contemporary. You could say that it’s the closest Crowded House album there is to being a solo album, such that the album is sparked almost solely by Neil’s drive and dedication. Crowded House is the sound of man desperate for success and, with this album, you’d have to agree he’s fairly deserving of it.
Temple of Low Men is to me a major improvement on the first record, and for two reasons. Firstly, the chemistry of the band comes right through to the fore on this record. The album pulses with the uniquely warm, deft touch of Nick’s bass-playing, creating a sound that can only be defined as the “soul of Crowded House”. Paul Hester is as brilliant as ever. Most importantly, the three members, with the help of producer Mitchell Froom’s incidental fruity organ passages, just sound magic together. Yet with the further addition of Tim Finn for Woodface and Mark Hart for Together Alone, the chemistry created by the three original members tended to be washed over a little on these later albums. In a way Temple of Low Men is the Crowdies’ most consistent album.
Neil’s songwriting took up in leaps on bounds on Temple of Low Men. All of a sudden Neil is writing under the umbrella of a definable mood; there is something negative and stormy in the air and Neil’s writing, under its influence, is consistently excellent throughout the album. He’s not writing, like he is on the first album, for the sake of coming out with hits, or to mirror his own sense of musical bravado. ‘I feel possessed’, ‘Love this life’, ‘Under the lowlands’, and many other songs, including ‘Into Temptation’, are all superb. Temple of Low Men remains one of my very favourite albums of the late-eighties and is the source of fine youthful memories for me.
I didn’t get into Woodface too much. The individual songs are pleasing in themselves but as a collection they sound to me like pretty songs written merely for the sake of writing pretty songs, a nice-sounding hit-machine. I’m not a huge fan of the Finn brothers together; I find that Tim tends to cushion Neil’s antsyness so that the songs tend to become “fluffy”, rather than pointed. Yet no one can deny the beauty of ‘Fall at your feet’ or the charm of ‘Weather with you’. My favourite song on Woodface is the little heard ‘Whispers and Moans’. I find that the style of writing endemic in ‘Chocolate Cake’ and ‘There Goes God’ does not bring out the best in Neil. These songs, along with ‘Fame is’ and ‘As sure as I am’, strike me as being beneath Neil’s talent. For all of their charm, cleverness and humour, these are essentially silly, lame tracks. ‘She goes on’ is a “perfect” Neil Finn track but I find it a little too aristocratic for my taste. On the whole I find that Woodface leaves me feeling somewhat worn out and depleted, like having spent a lovely Sunday at Balmoral Beach, but having to deal with traffic congestion, and trawling around to find a parking space with too many wealthy people wafting about flaunting their teeth. You come away feeling icky and tired.
Together Alone is an astonishing departure from Woodface. On this album the primal, stark wonder of the recording’s location, Kare Kare, New Zealand, washes through into the album’s grooves, making it a quite impressionable and powerful work. It was astonishing to listen to the opening track, ‘Kare Kare’, to realise what a huge departure it was from anything that had gone before. I thought the CD I’d bought was given to me in error and I had another band. The second track, ‘In my command’, is amazing; it sits in that magic twilight zone between ‘Revolver’ and ‘Sergeant Pepper’. It would not have surprised me in the least if ‘In my Command’ had been written and recorded during the opening days of 1967. Again there are very noticeable elements of Neil’s pomposity in this song, particularly that spoken/shouted segment about being “…the victim of a holy visitation by the rites that I’ve been given!” But at that point, the song explodes into an incredible burst of melody and harmony that you just have to pardon the little leprechaun.
‘Pineapple Head’ is a most overtly melodic song about nothing in particular, and ‘Locked out’ is akin to a jackhammer drilling through your head whereby Neil’s antsy bombasticity is running on high voltage. ‘Distant sun’ is much better. Yet the one song on Together Alone that I love unconditionally, and remains the exception to all of my criticisms, is ‘Walking on the spot’, a short and sweet song full of flavour and originality where any subversive elements are held in check. The song has a lyrical grace and charm that fuses a New Zealand feel with a faintly Celtic flavour. Incredulously this song was demoed for the first album but rejected in place of the other tracks, which says to me that Finn was hankering after hits, not art.
One of the last songs the Crowdies recorded that I particularly like (barring their recent reformation) is ‘Everything is good for you’ of 1996. There’s an interesting sound to it, almost skeletal with some nice lead guitar riffs travailing over the steady bass and drum parts. The message to the song is the catch for me “…everything is good for you, if it doesn’t kill you, one man’s ending is another one’s beginning, everything is good for you…”. ‘You’re not the girl you think you are’ from that period is, I have to admit, perfection. It’s Neil Finn with a classic Beatles influence. If you imagine the Beatles coming from New Zealand ‘You’re not the girl you think you are’ is pretty much what they’d be sounding like.
It’s not only Neil’s songs that have the tendency to rub me up the wrong way, it’s also his personality. And when you think of it the two go hand in hand. It’s not that Neil has ever taken to the “rock-star” persona in any way. Neil is a happily-married man who has spent much of the Crowdie years raising his sons with his wife Sharon. He’s never had the rough’n’ready “bollocksy” presence of Paul Weller, and nor does he possess the sanctimonious self-proclaimed sense of genius as Steve Kilbey (Steve and Paul being two artists I remain unequivocally fond of). The problem is, for me, that Neil’s ego seems to come out in all the wrong ways. Paul Weller for instance, bounds on stage at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney in 2008 and apologises to the audience for “taking so long to come back”. Steve Kilbey is as humble and appreciative of his appreciators as he is self-aware of his talent. Neil Finn seems to have no humility whatsoever. He bounds onto the stage as if it’s his sacred right, so that all of his sing-alongs are, for me, frankly patronising affairs, orchestrated by a man who sees himself as some self-styled pied-piper of contemporary popular music, lauding it over his audience. I can’t stand it, to be honest. Finn doesn’t seem to give from his own being, instead his live performance takes the appearance of being a mere projection of his own ego, like he’s doing us all the favour of the universe when he performs for us one of his charmed songs, allowing the audience in return to sing along, leaving him to be the precious poodle on-stage who thinks he’s better than everyone else. I tend to find his presence unpleasantly authoritarian. What he lacks on stage is humility, vulnerability.
I’ve often been nasty about Neil Finn. I’ve called him “poodle”, “nugget-head”, “the self-styled pied-piper of contemporary popular music”, “the thinking north-shore girl’s sex-symbol”, “Amadeus”, “the impresario”. I’ve probably been a little jealous of him too. Not so much for his talent, but for his upbringing and indulged manner. He had supportive parents who never seemed to have kicked him up the backside when he was three years old, which to me accounts for the way he approaches his music with that kind of evangelical relentlessness.
I remain wary of his manner of speaking as well. He’s sharp and relentless and I imagine he’s exactly the type of person I’d wish to bolt away from whenever he’s in the room. He is no angel, though he’s no devil either, to be fair to him. But when you consider the negative aspects of his personality you can’t help but think of Neil Finn as nothing other than an overzealous arse. According to the bio on Crowded House, that at the time of the band’s demise, Neil told Nick Seymour in front of the band’s management that he thought of him as an “ok bass player”, that that was all he had going for him, and that he had a “heightened sense of his own talents”. Nick told the biographer that Neil “…could be very eloquent and extremely hurtful, it was completely unnecessary.” A kookier story involves a gig in Byron Bay when Neil punched his big brother in the face because the big brother decided not to play the keyboard solo in ‘World where you live’. Hmmm. ‘World where you live’ is not exactly the most imperative statement of modern times; it’s not ‘A town called Malice’ which is a song that needs the keyboard part more. You just can’t help but feel that Neil can be a precious, unforgiving twat. At least some of the time.
Some of those early Crowded House interviews bring forth the negative aspects of Neil Finn’s personality more readily. He was obviously an impatient man, hungry for success, who didn’t seem to respect his cohorts as much as he should have done, particularly Nick. He was the songwriter and he always had to have the say. He had the sharpest, quickest, and definitely the most tactless tongue in the band. I remember one time when Nick Seymour was clowning about in front of the camera, acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, when Neil turned over to him to dart, “Have you finished?” Ouch.
Neil had every right to respond to Mr. Finn at that final meeting in 1996. To be playing in a successful band with someone for a decade, and to share the centre stage with them too, to finally be told by the singer that you “have a heightened sense of your own talents” is grossly unfair. He could have easily lambasted to Neil that he himself has a heightened sense of his own talents. After all, Nick Seymour is a wonderful artist and illustrator, having designed the band’s costumes and their album covers. He is a lovely bass player with a touch that’s all his own, adding in no small way to the warmth of the sound of Crowded House. And he’s a nice, funny, intelligent & charismatic guy with a bubbly personality. Neil is simply a great singer/songwriter, a brilliant musician and singer, but a bit of an intense bastard. In the context of being in a band that works well it all evens out really. Neil has a lot to thank for Nick and for Paul Hester. Of course it works three ways, the rhythm section owe a hell of a lot to Neil Finn too.
I warmed to Neil Finn during the one time I saw him on the street. It was actually at a rehearsal studio in the industrial belt of Alexandria that I came across him. Neil, Tim, and Liam were all there. I walked past Tim Finn who held a facial expression of having a rockmelon stuck up his backside so that has turned me off him big time. He has always been neither here nor there for me, even though I do like Split Enz a lot and I respect and admire Tim’s work in that band. It was a different story with Neil. I walked past him talking to his son Liam. I only caught a snippet of the conversation with Neil giving technical advice to Liam about guitars. But it was the warmth conveyed by Neil to his son that really struck with me. I realised what a really nice guy Neil was, or could be. And what a cool dad he is too. It reminded me of Paul McCartney. Paul McCartney was a cool dad with Wings. Neil Finn’s a cool dad with Crowded House.
Neil released a couple of fine solo albums after Crowded House’s demise in 1996. I like them. They’re laid back, a little experimental, yet they shine with superlative craftsmanship and that wand of magic that is uniquely Neil’s. Try Whistling This and One Nil have come a long way from the overdriven pop tones of the first Crowded House album. And sadly, it had to take the tragic death of Paul Hester in 2005 for Neil to realise what a truly unique combination he had in the original trio of Crowded House. Since the passing of Hester, Neil and Nick, along with Mark Hart who joined the band in the early-90’s, reformed Crowded House and issued an album, which I’ve yet to listen to.
I’ve visited New Zealand once, in 1999. I remember traversing between the north and south islands on that big boat on the misty sea and having the soundtrack to Crowded House’s music pulsate with immediacy in my head. Songs such as ‘Fall at your feet’, ‘Whispers and moans’. I realised how much like New Zealand do the songs of Neil Finn truly sound like, and this was before I got into the Together Alone album which possesses a palpably New Zealand feel to it.
I respect Neil’s guitar playing, and his overall musicianship, which is absolutely first-class. They are reflections of a mightily clever and sharp mind and brain. Neil Finn is a magical weaver of music, of this there cannot be any doubt. But at the end of the day, I simply don’t like him as much as many other favourite songwriters of mine. I still prefer Steve Kilbey and Paul Weller to name but two. (Incidentally Neil Finn was born just a few days after Paul Weller in May 1958, albeit at opposite ends of the planet).
So there you have it. I have said at the beginning at this article that I’m beginning to like Neil Finn, very much, and after having written a few pages about him, I decide I don’t really like the guy that much after all. It goes in circles, this love/hate thing I have going with the man. Though to be fair to my little garden gnome, I shall leave him with the fine word, a line from ‘Nails in my feet’, from the Together Alone album:
“a savage review, it left me gasping, but it warms my heart to see that you can do it too”