DON’T DREAM IT’S OVER: THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF NEIL FINN
A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR JEFF APTER
Neil Finn was born in New Zealand and is the youngest of four siblings. When he turned 18, his older brother, Tim Finn, invited him to join his (Tim’s) band, Split Enz. The rest is history. Neil Finn has had an incredible career, as a solo artist, and as a member of Split Enz, Crowded House, Pajama Club, The Finn Brothers and the last incarnation of Fleetwood Mac.
Former Rolling Stone writer, Jeff Apter has written a new book about Neil Finn. Apter knows a great deal about biographies on rock stars and musicians. He is also the author of over 20 books, including a previous book on The Finn Brothers (Together Alone), and books about AC/DC, Silverchair, and Dave Grohl to name a few, has written a new book about Neil Finn. His new book is a brilliant read that reveals a great deal about Neil Finn. Of course, we start by talking about weather, and while he is sympathetic about the cold temperatures of the day here in Toronto, he was comfortable in his part of Australia, where the temperature has not gone under 30 degrees Celsius this week.
“Summer never ends here. Winter for us is maybe 60 degrees [F],” Apter says. I’m about an hour south of Syndey, down on the east coast, a nice part of the world.”
Then, we started to talk about Neil Finn and the book Don’t Dream It’s Over: The Remarkable Life of Neil Finn.
“I can say ‘simple commerce’ because it is what I do for a living. But the reality is the story starts way back in 1979 and I was a kid. I snuck in, because I was underage, it was midweek, middle of winter here in Sydney. I knew Split Enz from alternative radio and a little bit of TV exposure. They hadn’t recorded True Colours or “I Got You”. They were still kind of a uni or college/art house band. A friend of mine said that they are playing midweek in this little venue in Sydney, come and see them,” Apter recalled.
“There were maybe 100 people there, and I was only 17 at the time. A couple of things struck me. You know when you see a band and you think ‘something’s about to happen with this band’. Also, they really were a unified front. It was a point in their career when they were wearing the matching suits, the Noel Crombie suits, and they still had the punky hairstyles, and grease paint on their face. By that time, they had already been together for six years, and Neil had been with the band for three years at that point. They were a pretty tight unit. I just had the sense that something was going to explode for this band. Within six months, they were the biggest band in Australia.”
Apter, who was there really at the beginning, experienced Split Enz’s career exploding in Australia, when their album True Colours not only went to number one but became the biggest selling album in Australia in 1980. But perhaps this was not overly surprising, given the influence The Beatles had on Neil Finn as an artist.
“It’s in the hair,” laughed Apter. “Let’s face it, he’s got Beatles’ hair. I guess it is the holy grail for a songwriter like Neil. Lennon and McCartney are the benchmarks for what he ascribed to. And much later down the line, Paul McCartney is a peer. He’s someone who he can sit in a room with and swap war stories with. There is that rumour about McCartney saying, when he was asked about how he felt being the greatest songwriter in the world, he said ‘I don’t know, ask Neil Finn’. I don’t know if it is true, McCartney has played it down, but then again, I don’t believe everything McCartney has said in the last ten years. It must be great for Neil to get to that point.”
Although Finn experienced much more success with Crowded House, and it made him a household name around the world, it was still surprising to see him become a member of Fleetwood Mac.
“I couldn’t envision him being with Fleetwood Mac up to the point when he said he was,” Apter laughed. “But then again, as I explain in the book, it was more about his friendship with Mick Fleetwood than anything else. They become buddies. I have been working with a guy recently who was a tour manager for Fleetwood Mac for 20 years, and he is telling me all these stories about Mick Fleetwood, who is a very amiable, English chap. If you got along with him, you are a friend for life. I think him and Neil established that kind of relationship. I guess it was up to Mick when the whole drama of Lindsey Buckingham happened. Immediately it clicks, ‘Neil Finn can do this job’. Mind you, they also need Mike Campbell, but that’s another story.”
Perhaps Neil Finn was more surprised than anyone when the debut Crowded House album became a huge international success. However, although Crowded House continued for many years (and exists today), they commercially peaked with their debut album.
“It’s an interesting story,” Apter agreed. “Internationally, they never got back to where they were with their first album. Everything after that, to me, is much more interesting but commercially they struggled but they did find a new audience in England with Woodface. It has been an interesting journey, and musically, a fascinating one. Their first record (Crowded House, 1986) was a huge success, but everything subsequent to that didn’t sell in the same numbers, hence they bounced around on various record labels and management and never quite got back to that level. But I saw them play down here six months ago, a two-and-a-half-hour set, and every song was a jukebox number. It was as though they just played the soundtrack to 5000 people’s lives. Those Crowded House songs really did resonate, it’s just that they never got back to the commercial peak of that first record.”
Crowded House also became a bit of a reunion for the Finn Brothers, when Tim Finn joined the band for the Woodface album.
“It was an act of madness, it really was,” said Apter. “Neil, later on said it was a mistake. He said recently, “what we should have done is recorded the album and given various credits, featuring Tim Finn.” Instead he made the mistake of saying ‘this is so good’, and he was having problems with the other guys in the band at the time, ‘I’m going to bring Tim in and it’s going to fix everything.’ Of course, it only created more problems for Neil.”.
The lesson learned, according to Apter, “do not have two front men in a four-piece band. Well, in fact in Crowded House, you had four front men.” But this experience did not stop Tim and Neil Finn from forming The Finn Brothers in the future. But this all goes into the story of Neil Finn. Although he has had great success with his own solo albums, Neil Finn seems to enjoy being in a band.
“He always seems to go back to that group thing. When Split Enz broke up, he said ‘I am going to miss playing snooker and hanging out together on the bus’. Once he started making solo records, he missed that. He missed that sense of solidarity. It’s like sports people, whenever they retire, they don’t say ‘I miss the game’, they say ‘I miss my mates, I miss that feeling of being part of a team.’ I think Neil has that, because that is all he has ever done since he was 15 or 16 years old. That is a big chunk of your life to spend in the company of people whose company he really enjoys. He goes back to it because it is the solidarity he really enjoys.”