Crowded House didn’t say goodbye, the audience sung them into history

By Jon Casimir

Neil Finn plays at a soundcheck the day before the final farewellconcert.Credit:Tony Mott

No Crowded House song ever made it to No. 1 on the Australian charts. Wait, what? How could tunes of the weight and brilliance of Don’t Dream It’s Over (peaked at No. 8), Weather With You (No. 27) and Fall At Your Feet (No. 31), not get there? How could works of peerless craft such as Four Seasons In One Day (No. 47) and Into Temptation (No. 59) not even make the Top 40?

Better Be Home Soon did threaten to pull off the feat, but it spent four weeks stalled at No. 2 in June/July 1988, kept at bay by Kylie Minogue’s Got To Be Certain.

Which makes you wonder, how then did the band convince upwards of 150,000 people to sardine themselves into the Sydney Opera House forecourt on the evening of Sunday, November 24, 1996?

Well, they were a supreme example of that thing favoured by music industry accountants and the kind of chin-strokers who still buy vinyl: an albums band. Crowded House fans skipped the singles and went straight to the long players, knowing the extra investment would be worth it.

The band’s songs appealed not to the jacaranda blossom whims of pop kids – two weeks of bloom then instantly forgotten – but to more adult yearnings for tunes that last, that you don’t grow out of. For perennials.

And ask yourself, have you met a former Crowded House fan? No one ever stopped liking the band. And if everyone who discovered them along the way felt a kind of ownership, is it any surprise so many turned up to wave them off?

I first saw them play in a slightly grubby room above a sex shop in Goulburn Street, Sydney, at the launch of their debut album. As a young music writer, I had covered the Split Enz farewell tour for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine) and by the arrival of Crowded House was starting to scribble for The Sydney Morning Herald. Thanks to my job, I must have seen them 20 times in the following years.

Final tour: Neil Finn, Paul Hester, Nick Seymour and Mark Hart on Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, days before the Sydney concert.Credit:Simon O’Dwyer

Farewell To The World was a glorious afterthought on that live career, a surprise postscript months after the band had broken up and two years after Paul Hester’s departure had exposed the weakening bonds in the molecule.

They arrived in Sydney on the Friday, warmed up by two mid-week gigs at the tiny Corner Hotel in Richmond. Was it fair that Sydney got the final concert of what was really a Melbourne act? Probably not, but moving quickly past that thought, the band’s first commitment was an afternoon set for patients and parents at Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick – it’s often forgotten the farewell concert was also a fundraiser.

Crowded House at their last Melbourne show at the Corner Hotel in Richmond on November 21, 1996.Credit:William West

Saturday was meant to be the big day, but a rainstorm saw the show postponed to the following day. Neil announced to local media that any fans who couldn’t stay for it were welcome to attend Saturday’s soundcheck, for which the clouds thankfully parted. Thousands accepted the offer and the band played for nearly an hour.

And the Sunday? By late afternoon, there was a human sea. St Johns Ambulances carved snail trails through the crowd to rescue people collapsing from the heat generated by all the bodies. It was tight. I wrote that “I’ve had sex that was less intimate. I’ve been in fistfights that were less physical.” Somehow I finished the night more than 40 metres away from where I started, without once being aware I was moving. A crowd that big has currents that drag and deposit you.

The 15-song set rolled out one classic after another, also finding room for deeper cuts such as Whispers And Moans and Hole In The River. Add two long encores, four and five songs each – a band which had been hurtling along suddenly seemed reluctant to get to the bottom of the setlist.

Neil Finn on stage during the band’s Saturday soundcheck.Credit:Tony Mott

“It’s a bit emotional for us tonight,” said Neil, “but it feels more like a celebration than a funeral, doesn’t it?”

And then the choppy opening chords of Don’t Dream It’s Over rising up over the harbour, floating in the air, elegant but also elegiac. The collective intake of breath as we held ourselves together, band and crowd, knowing the moment had come. The song finishing, then rising from its ashes as the audience brought it to life again.

“Thanks,” said Neil. “It’s been a blast.”

“Crowded House didn’t say goodbye,” I wrote the next day. “Fittingly, though it seemed more out of necessity than intention, they let the audience sing them into history, Neil Finn restarting the chorus and standing back from the microphone, his face creased with emotion, watching as the biggest choir the Opera House has ever seen sent his band up to the angels.”

Mark Hart, Paul Hester, Neil Finn and Nick Seymour the day before theirSydney concert in 1996.Credit:Tony Mott

We go to live shows hoping for magic. If it was just about the songs, we could stay home and listen to the records. We go because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, hoping that for a couple of hours we will have the feeling that there is no better place on the planet to be than right here, right now. We chase this feeling of transcendence, though it is incredibly rare.

Crowded House shows seemed routinely magical. Neil Finn, Nick Seymour and Paul Hester melded art and accessibility, always understanding that an audience wants more than music, it wants connection, communion. And the biggest singalong imaginable.

Farewell To The World is legendary for a reason. In 20 years of writing about music, I saw a lot of shows. It was certainly worthy of No.2. It might even have made it to No.1.

Jon Casimir wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald from 1986-2003.
Crowded House will tour Australia in 2022.

Crowded House R.I.P.: Jon Casimir’s 1996 Farewell to the World review

Like many fabulously romantic ideas, the whole concept of a farewell show on the steps of the Opera House also had a little bit of fabulous stupidity.

Imagine, for a moment, that the biggest crowd ever to assemble for a rock event in Sydney turned up in your backyard – 150,000 people crushing in against your back porch, queueing for your downstairs loo.

Lord knows what it was like for the tens of thousands of people deprived of a view, but in some ways they might have been the lucky ones. It was certainly hard going in front of the stage, an area that was never going to comfortably fit more than 20,000 to 30,000.

There, 50,000 of my new best friends and I got to know each other very well. I’ve had sex that was less intimate. I’ve been in fistfights that were less physical. If Crowded House taught me nothing else, I now know what sardines feel like in the can, what toothpaste feels like when some heartless person squeezes the bottom of the tube. I finished the night 40 metres from where I started. And the funny thing is, I don’t remember trying to move.

The biggest choir the Opera House has ever seen sent Crowded House up to the angels.Credit:Rick Stevens

Had it been anything but the most perfect of Sydney evenings, with a cool breeze lifting the circling seagulls and keeping heat exhaustion at bay, yesterday’s headlines could have been very different. In the end, the whole thing went off without a hitch, which is wonderful for Sydney, but it has to be said that we were very, very lucky.

And in the middle of the tumult, Crowded House, the sweetest, most polished pop act this country (OK, New Zealanders, this end of the world) has ever produced, closed their book with a warm, joyous, life-affirming chapter, a concert to remember.

Though the Crowdies have long been recognised for their craft on record, it should not be forgotten that they have also been a live act capable of almost routine magic, capable of making the biggest arena feel like a lounge room.

The last time I saw Crowded House play to an audience of anything like this size was at the Concert For Life in Centennial Park in 1992, when they stole the day with their easy going charm and natural charisma.

On Sunday night, it was no different. The band joked, laughed and chatted their way through a jukebox set of their greatest hits, seducing fans from the first notes of Mean To Me. Their wide-screen casualness had always been a part of their appeal.

As always, Paul Hester played the cheeky bugger, delightedly informing the audience that, while there were no Sydneysiders in the band, he had “deposited a little sperm” here occasionally.

As always, the sartorially loud Nick Seymour romped around the stage with his cheshire cat grin, lapping up every minute. As always (well, recently), Mark Hart contributed clear, beautiful solos on guitar and keyboards.

Neil Finn on stage during Crowded House’s farewell concert on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House.Credit:Emma Brasier

As always, the haunting Hole In The River managed to be the centrepiece of the set, even though it nestled among larger, brasher, more insistent singles like Four Seasons In One Day, Better Be Home Soon and Distant Sun.

And, as always, Neil Finn got away with being one of the darkest pop writers ever by the strength of his singing and his gorgeous way with a melody.

“It’s a bit emotional for us tonight,” Finn conceded late in the proceedings, “but it feels more like a celebration than a funeral, doesn’t it?”

Yes Neil, it did. And even if it was occasionally undercut with the gentlest melancholy, even if the band was a little subdued, perhaps awed by the size and purpose of the occasion, it didn’t seem to matter. It felt like an honour and a privilege for us all, band and audience, to gather and share the songs.

But if the set clipped by at a pace, then Finn dragged the encores, looking like a man postponing the inevitable.

The first one featured Hester up-front, with the band joined by the other two Crowdies, stand-in drummer Peter Jones and big brother Tim Finn, who strummed a guitar and offered his vocals on Weather With You and It’s Only Natural – not that you could hear him above the open-throated enthusiasm of the audience.

The second traipsed through a rocking Now We’re Getting Somewhere, a brooding Fingers Of Love and a swirling, powerful In My Command. Then, just as it seemed the night was making its way to the finish line, things veered off to the left, with Neil leading the audience on an extended singalong of the Hunters and Collectors’ classic Throw Your Arms Around Me.

‘It’s a bit emotional for us tonight, but it feels more like a celebration than a funeral,’ Neil Finn told the crowd.Credit:Emma Brasier

It was during this song, as he jammed with the tens of thousands of instruments in front of him, that the gravity of the situation seemed finally to hit home. The whole band looked choked – some fought tears back more successfully than others.

The end had come. And as the choppy opening chords for Don’t Dream It’s Over drifted over the harbour and up towards the full moon, we all knew it.

Crowded House didn’t say goodbye. Fittingly, though it seemed more out of necessity than intention, the band just let the audience sing them into history, Neil Finn restarting the chorus of their biggest hit and standing back from the microphone, his face creased with emotion, watching as the biggest choir the Opera House has ever seen sent his band up to the angels.

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