Crowded House’s Neil Finn on the 1986 Smash “Don’t Dream it’s Over” (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

This feature first appeared in SPIN

Songs in the Vault
When I formed Crowded House, I’d already had a pretty good stack of songs in the vault, and I was exploring new angles through people like Mitchell Froom introducing me to different ways of arranging songs. He did introduce some new angles, which drew new things out of me as a writer.

The Hammond organ was not a texture that we had ever used before. We were coming from a more English sensibility prior to that with Split Enz. And there was an r&b mentality that Mitchell was exploring with bass lines. And in particular, for “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” he came up with the bass line on that song, which is directly from an r&b template. And hopefully I won’t be sued by the estate of Marvin Gaye because I’ve said that now!

I know writers who write 50 songs a year, and I know writers that take five years to write ten songs. I’m somewhere in the middle; I have a lot of ideas going at once, but I don’t finish more than I need for an album. But sometimes songs come out fully formed; it’s a good sign when you get one straightaway. And “Don’t Dream It’s Over” was pretty much written in a day; I did a demo of it the same day I wrote it.

Writing “Don’t Dream It’s Over”
I wrote “Don’t Dream It’s Over” on my brother’s piano. I was feeling a little bit antisocial that day; I wasn’t having a great day. For some reason, Tim wasn’t there. Paul Hester was living there at the time, and he invited a few people over, but I just wasn’t in the mood to socialize. I just remember going to the piano; I don’t know whether I was writing about them obliquely: “They come to build a wall between us.” That seems like a harsh commentary on a bunch of visitors! But songs are often like that; you get a line that pops out for a seemingly innocent reason. And it takes on greater significance in the context of the song because of what’s around it.

I was contemplating the end of things: relationships and the challenges that you face. It’s an exhortation to myself – and to anyone who’s going through that – to not think it’s the end, to keep on pushing, keep on believing. It’s a song of hope, I think.

An Outlier Track Becomes a Hit
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” wasn’t an entirely obvious choice for a single: “You can’t put a ballad out, you know!” It was a notable song on the record, but nobody knows when there’s a hit. You only know something’s a hit once it’s a hit.

We’d been told it was performing well at the “B” [market] stations around the country. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” sort of became a bit of an outlier track. Then it got picked up by a few bigger stations, and then all of a sudden we had a chart position.

I was shocked and also really delighted. We’d done a New Year’s Eve show at Selena’s in Sydney, and it had got filmed by the ABC. And we watched it back after that, and then we got the news that were in the charts, and so at the beginning of 1987 we were suddenly on a roll.

It’s Still Not Over
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” comes out at some really important occasions. Most recently, U2 were motivated to play it to honor [late Russian dissident] Alexei Navalny and his wife, which I thought was just incredible. I think they started playing it just as a general paean to the world’s ills. There have been a number of occasions where the song has been used at benefit concerts.

I couldn’t be more thrilled with the life it’s had. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is just unstoppable. I think a lot of our other songs are worthy, but everybody who knows us knows that we have a fairly fulsome repertoire. So I’m not too bothered; I accept it and I’m grateful for it.

The lyrics still resonate all these years later. I’m very blessed that I really still like (and enjoy singing) the song that has become the most significant one for us.