Crowded House

FINN’S CORNER

The summer of 1994 is still primarily recalled by many of us for that year’s World Cup football finals in America, and especially for The Republic of Ireland’s unlikely victory over Italy in The Giant’s Stadium in New York. A game in which Paul McGrath put in an imperious defensive shift that, apart from helping to repel his opponents, also distilled much of the nation’s complicated history into ninety scarcely believable minutes of physical endeavour. For the first couple of weeks of that tournament, much of the country was suspended in time and space and we absolutely lost the run of ourselves. It was brilliant.

I watched that match, which was played on Saturday night, June 18th, with some of my friends from a Cork band called Serengeti Long Walk, on a large screen in an unlikely setting. A small, back-street venue called The Cork Arts And Theatre Club had been festooned and customized for the night :- even the luvvies had hopped the wagon. Two worlds briefly collided and, for a couple of hours, the world was upside down and back to front.

The theatre was packed well before the 9PM kick-off but a couple of us had already been on the go since much earlier. Myself and a local sports hack, Pat McAuliffe, had fetched up with a television news crew outside The City Hall for a pre-breakfast interview with a well-known Premiership footballer, Vinnie Jones, who we’d located in a hotel on Morrison’s Island the previous evening. He was in Cork with a party of acquaintances and friends on his stag weekend but, true to his word, arrived fresh and on time, helpfully kitted out in a white Ireland away top and trendy golf-shorts.

During the course of an exchange that went to air just before kick-off to an enormous television audience, he outlined to Pat his Irish connections, which sounded tenuous enough to me, and his hopes for an international call-up from Jack Charlton, the Irish manager, which turned out to be even more so.

A week previously, at the Vince Power-promoted Fleadh event in Finsbury Park in North London, the head-lining New Zealand/Australian band, Crowded House, emerged for an encore also wearing Republic of Ireland tops. They’d just played a cracking set to a partisan audience featuring many Irish emigrants and second and third-generationists and the reaction, as they returned to ice the cake, was exactly as you’d expect.

Those tops had been gifted to them by Thomas Black, then EMI Records’ local spotter in Ireland and Aiden Lambert, the manager of Dublin four-piece, Blink, who were led by one of his brothers, Dermot. Aiden’s street-trader instinct for an opportunity and a quick win were matched only by his generousity, and I’ve gone into this in more detail in a previous piece.

Whether they realized it or not, Crowded House were making a couple of weighty statements by pulling on those shirts. Outwardly the band was of course being carried on the usual wave of end-of-tour giddiness and knew well the audience they were playing to. But during yet another phase of uncertainty around Anglo-Irish relations, they were also touching on the contentious issue of identity. A theme that also ran through the album they’d released the previous year, ‘Together Alone’, and which they’d been promoting on a far-reaching world tour that had finally come to a halt in in London N4.

Blink had supported Crowded House on the U.K. leg of that haul and while, musically at least, the bands had little in common, it was a decent match and an easy meeting of like minds. Affable, funny and with a common sense of purpose, the groups also shared the same record label at a time when Crowded House were a popular live draw in Ireland. In this respect they can be filed in the same drawer as Chris Rea, Aimee Mann and David Gray, all of whom found regular respite and decent audiences here while they were still looking for commercial footholds in other territories.

We’d recently completed work on the first season of the music television series, No Disco and, unsure whether or not it was returning to the RTE 2 schedules, and with no ties to speak of, I was intent on making the most of the summer. So with the World Cup looming, I threw in my with Blink and joined them for some of the dates on that Crowded House tour in May, 1994. Old habits die hard and what better way to re-charge, I thought, than in the company of two excellent bands ?

I’d blagged my way around Britain and Europe for years in a series of tour vans and in a variety of different guises, sometimes legitimately working and often just hanging on. For many years there was nothing more intoxicating – and of course ultimately demoralising – than the promise of the road ahead and the prospect of where the endless motorways might take you. Those were the days before the engine finally gave up the ghost somewhere beyond the dark valley and when, after too many tours on the same loop, it became obvious to me that the road loves the few and eats the many. In my more introspective moments, I wonder how we ever made it to some of the most remote locations in Europe – and why ? – or indeed how we all made it back home at all ?

Blink were one of those outfits with whom I regularly took off. For a couple of years during the mid-1990s they were one of Ireland’s most interesting and exciting new bands, having formed from the remains of another Dublin combo, Rex And Dino, who themselves had released one terrific single for Solid Records, ‘Someone There To Love’, in 1988. With Aiden’s fingers on the pulse and his eyes constantly peeled, they made the right kind of noise to land a local deal with EMI, and they had plenty to recommend them too. With a strong grasp of the raw mechanics of the pop song – and boasting a top, top rhythm section – they were never either overly precious or indulgent.

Knowing the importance and power of the moment, Blink saw more merit in the hi-energy pop of Mel And Kim as they did in the left-field ache of Kim Gordon. And that Steve Hillage, the one-time Gong guitarist, produced much of their first album, ‘A Map Of The Universe’, tells its own story. By any standards the singles lifted from that elpee – particularly ‘Going To Nepal’, ‘Happy Day’ and ‘Its Not My Fault’ – are memorable cuts that still stand up to scrutiny.

And then there was Crowded House. I was first turned onto them by Mark Cagney – who else ? – on what was then Radio 2FM and who, with added heft from Dave Fanning, relentlessly pushed the band’s first two albums, ‘Crowded House’ [1986] and ‘Temple Of Low Men’ [1988]. Indeed if ever a band was designed for Cagney it was Crowded House ;- Neil Finn’s songs could be simple, efficient and orthodox but he was just as comfortable as a southpaw, effortlessly switching styles mid-combo. Tracts of the band’s first four albums are testament to his command of structure and what, in technical terms, we might call ‘the middle eight’ and the surprise fill. The imperious ‘Better Be Home Soon’, with its closing organ run and the switch during ‘Fall At Your Feet’ being two absolute cases – of many – in point.

Neil’s blueprint was as clear and simple as the messages he conveyed in his songs and as constant as the mop-top he’s modelled for the guts of forty years. And it all came together for them, I think, on ‘Together Alone’, to my mind Crowded House’s best ever album, released in 1993, and which they toured long and hard.

I was fortunate enough to see them unpack the guts of that album, in high definition and in unusual circumstances, during a handful of dates on that tour where, as part of Blink’s travelling retinue and with a considerable lanyard to legitimize me, I had access to them at their most exposed. For all Neil’s writing prowess, the band’s popular appeal had much to do with its congeniality, much of which was generated by Crowded House’s rhythm section, and particularly by the band’s original drummer and one of the group’s founders, Paul Hester. Paul was a fine musician who, from behind the kit, would regularly interrupt live proceedings with bad puns, one-liners and self-deprecating patter. But far from distracting from the band’s core business, this carry-on only contributed to it’s allure. On the face if it at least, Crowded House, although they took their work very seriously, had few real notions and weren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves.

During the long American leg of the ‘Together Alone’ tour, Hester took off abruptly and returned to Melbourne, where his girlfriend was expecting a baby. Into the live line-up and onto the drum stool came an old friend of the band, Pete Jones, a Liverpool-born session player based in Sydney, who was scrambled half-way across the world to join Crowded House as they were touching down in Britain. And although the band and its management could clearly have done without the inconvenience and the organizational headaches, its not as if you’d have noticed.

Business went on as usual and so, over the course of consecutive sound-checks, I had the scarcely-believable pleasure of watching the band work through their set with a brand new member of their live ensemble. And it was remarkable stuff, really ;- the band walking Pete through the finer points of its songbook – replete with those changes and lost chords – as they rehearsed with him during afternoon soundchecks.

I was standing sentry as usual, half-way down the vast, concrete arenas the band had long sold out, taking it all in. And I’m not sure if, even to this day, I’ve seen anything as mind-blowing in a live setting as Crowded House stepping into the mics on hitting the break on ‘In My Command’, one of the stand-out cuts from ‘Together Alone’. During which the band was actually pulling a stand-in drummer along in its slipstream and, using a series of nods, tics and foot gestures, carrying him through the material.

The band’s line-up on that tour was complimented – and greatly enhanced, I think – by the addition of a wonderful American musician, Mark Hart, on keyboards and guitar. He’d been centrally involved in the recording of ‘Together Alone’ and has been part of the group’s core line-up ever since. From where I stood, though, he was making up more than the numbers ;- he looked like he was the group’s informal musical director.

The band has long lined up with him in the centre-stage, flanked by Neil to his right and Nick to his left while, behind them on that leg of the tour, Pete was busy learning his lines and flaking everything that moved. Neil may well have been the primary creative but, from where I was watching, Mark was playing as an enforcer and, during the uncertainty around that tour, much of the on-stage activity seemed to channel through him.

‘Together Alone’ is arguably best remembered for the first singles lifted from it, ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Nails In Your Feet’, although over half of the elpee was eventually released in the shorter form. The gut of the album was recorded in a small studio on Kare Kare beach in New Zealand with the London-born producer, Youth, whose colourful past included stints in both Killing Joke and The Orb before he became one of the more unlikely but innovative producers of his generation. Far more layered and subtle than it’s predecessor, ‘Woodface’, the album closes with its magnificent title-track, whose coda features a specially written piece performed by the Te Waka Huia Cultural Group, a Maori choir. Many of whom, in elaborate dress, also joined Crowded House on tour :- the live show would close every night with the singers and log drummers on-stage with the band and making an almighty racket.

And deep in the back-stage, long after the house lights had come up, a full-on hooley would break out, led by the choir and the drummers, and into which the band and their families would fall head first. Traditional songs and stories were swapped well into the night and, whenever Blink were called on for an old song or two from Ireland, they’d contribute with gusto.

My memory of those nights is very sharp, and maybe sharper than it might otherwise be. And over the last twenty-five years, I’ve regularly re-told many of these stories, during good times and bad. Prompted, way too often, by circumstances beyond our control.

And so this one goes out to Paul Hester [1958 – 2005], Pete Jones [1963 –2012], Aiden Lambert [1959 – 2015] and Pat McAuliffe [1958 – 2019].