By Chris Bourke

During his recent US tour, Neil Finn joked on stage that many of his songs seemed to be about the affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Finn’s last two singles were called ‘Sinner’ and ‘She Will Have Her Way’; his haunting song about infidelity, ‘Into Temptation’, even has the lines, “You opened up your door I couldn’t believe my luck /You in your new blue dress taking away my breath.”


Actually, the story behind ‘Into Temptation’ is rather more mundane. As Finn explains in the radio-verite BBC documentary about Crowded House, it was inspired by a dissolute scene in a Timaru motel. In the bar, he observed a team of rugby players mingle with a team of netballers at the other.


“Pretty soon they were all paired off, canoodling in the corners, going into each others rooms. It’s not exactly a romantic story, but I tried to give it the feeling of a dangerous encounter.”


Finn is usually reluctant to discuss his lyrics, which are getting increasingly obscure. But the stories-behind-songs are just some of the insights in the documentary, which was recorded by the band themselves for the BBC. Of all the thousands of interviews, documentaries and articles about Crowded House in their 10-year career, what is memorable about this one is its intimacy. It may be yet-another opportunity to promote an album (in this case, 1993’s Together Alone), but what made Crowded House favourites of the media was their willingness and ability to give good soundbites. Let’s face it: most rock musicians should only be asked to sing into microphones, not talk. If they were all as quotable as David Lee Roth (“I tried jogging, but the ice kept falling out of my drink”), there’d be no need for rock videos.


Without the razor-sharp wit of drummer Paul Hester, Crowded House may have suffocated from earnestness. But he brought out the latent anarchy in his band mates (Finn and bass-player Nick Seymour) until they could riff on their repartee like jazz musicians taking solos into uncharted territory.


Sometimes it could go too far – Hester’s naked masturbation monologue at an LA concert springs to mind – but never in New Zealand. “Neil would warn us when his parents were in the audience,” Seymour once muttered, “but I thought we mostly acted like boy scouts.”


The band was at its most reserved in New Zealand. I remember Hester jumping up at an early press conference to massage Finn’s shoulders, like he was preparing a boxer for a fight. (He was: it was during an early local-content radio quota campaign; Finn’s worldwide success with ‘Don’t Dream Its Over’ owed nothing to Auckland programmers and he wasn’t backward in saying so.) But mostly it was wholesome family fun, like the outdoor gig on Waitangi Day in Palmerston North, where the band got all the children – then all the adults – to run a race around the Showgrounds, while they played the theme from Bonanza. These were not rock stars aspiring to cool.


More than anything, Crowded House belonged to Melbourne, where they were constantly in demand by journalists for a quip, or worthy causes for an appearance. If Paul Kelly is the city’s poet laureate, Banjo Paterson with a beat, Crowded House were in danger of becoming Melbourne’s Monkees-on-call.


Their love of Melbourne is apparent in this documentary, as Hester drives the others around the sights in his immaculate Holden Special (“there’s nothing special about Holdens except that word in chrome on the side”), cutting off trams outside the MCG, gossiping about the Minogue sisters as they pass the fruit bats in the botanical gardens.


Five years later, Finn is in the States, challenging audiences to Try Whistling This. Seymour, who was against Tim Finn joining the band, is now in his brother’s band and flits between homes in Dublin and Melbourne.


And Hester is where he belongs, a comic icon in Melbourne in demand from sports programmes wanting a quote about his beloved Tigers basketball team. “I’m the Jack Nicholson of Melbourne. I’ve got my shades. My hair’s falling out. I’m there every week.” He fronts his own TV show called Hessie’s Shed (“Every man needs one”). Like an Ocker Jools Holland, he does a standup routine and then performs a few songs.


In the first programme, which screened in Australia last month, his guests were Neil Finn, Nick Seymour, Paul Kelly  and that other Kiwi icon in Melbourne, John Clarke.

NZ Listener, 1998