Neil Finn joined the band Split Enz as a guitarist when he was still a teenager. His brother Tim was the band’s leader, writing most of their material, but Neil Finn wrote many of the band’s successful singles in the 1980s including ‘I Got You’, ‘One Step Ahead’, and ‘Message to my Girl’. By 1984, his older brother Tim had left the band, leaving Neil as the leader; Neil decided that Split Enz was too unwieldy and broke up the band.
Finn instead retained Split Enz drummer Paul Hester and recruited bassist Nick Seymour to form Crowded House. Their breakthrough hit was ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, written by Finn. Its distinctive rhythm guitar uses the “Maori strum”, in which the guitarist uses their hand to strum, dampening the strings and creating a percussive effect. The song was written at Tim’s house in Melbourne, while Neil and Paul were visiting; when friends of Paul’s showed up, Neil retreated to his bedroom and wrote ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ in less than an hour.
The song was recorded in sessions for the band’s first album, before they had a name. It was recorded in a couple of takes with the band hungover, and after a fight between Finn and Hester, during which Finn threatened to hit Hester with his guitar. Hester later said: “We immediately got this beautiful tempo, with this sad tragedy to it”. Additionally, the Crowded House album was accidentally slowed down during mixing, giving ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ a slightly melancholic feel.
Producer Mitchell Froom resisted the temptation to convert ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ into a 1980s power ballad, and also added the organ solo. He’d been playing Hammond organ while touring Elvis Costello’s King of America, and added a solo inspired by Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’, which dramatically launches following a bar of 2/4. Another feature of the song is Seymour’s R&B influenced bass-line, unexpected territory for Crowded House.
I’ve never regarded Finn as a great lyricist, but ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ contains one of his best lines:
In the paper today tales of war and of wasteDon’t Dream It’s Over
But you turn right over to the T.V. page…
‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ climbed to number two on the US singles chart, unprecedented ground for a New Zealand act. Capitol Records later regretted not adding a “(hey now)” to the song’s title, feeling it may have helped to push the song to number one.
Crowded House never matched the success of ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and the 1986 Crowded House album in America, but enjoyed success in the UK and Europe in the 1990s. Blue-eyed soul singer Paul Young covered ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ in 1991, and Crowded House capitalised on its success by reissuing their own version on the b-side for their 1991 single ‘Fall at Your Feet’. When Crowded House announced their initial breakup in 1996, Don’t Dream, It’s Over was a witty headline.
References: Crowded House: Something So Strong by Chris Bourke