"Don't Dream It's Over" / Crowded House
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Hot Tub Time Machine -- a riotous goof of a movie in which three old friends climb into a hot tub that mysteriously transports them back to the Eighties. ("Why the Eighties?" moans one character. "The Eighties were my worst decade ever!") Relax, pal -- they were everybody's worst decade. That's the running gag of this film, and it never fails -- the garish fashions, the shallow fads, and most of all the cheesy music.
I knew at least one of the songs from my Eighties Cheese Week would make it into the movie, and indeed there it was: Bryan Ferry's "More Than This," accompanying a scene in which a stoned and self-pitying John Cusack parses the state of his broken heart. As for the rest of the film -- well, even with that magic John Cusack connection, it wouldn't make it onto my list of the best compiled movie soundtracks, but only because the filmmakers went for the most irritating songs possible. That was the whole point.
So maybe it's a good thing that "Don't Dream It's Over" isn't in the movie. God knows it has been in enough other TV shows and commercials over the years, not to mention how many times it's been covered by other artists. It has achieved a weird sort of out-of-time quality all its own.
I suppose I must have heard this song -- Crowded House's breakthrough hit -- in 1986, when it hit #2 on the US charts. And now that I look at the video, I realize I must have seen it a hundred times on MTV (remember MTV?). It's a sweet video, too, with Neil Finn strolling through a series of rooms representing the eras of his life. At the time, I just thought that it was set in a house because the band was named Crowded House. I had no idea that these guys were from New Zealand and Australia (unlike Men At Work, who couldn't let you forget they were Aussies) or that this band was sorta the second chapter of the Finn brother's previous band, Split Enz. (Split who?) Given the prog rock tendencies of Split Enz, maybe it's better that I didn't know that.
To be honest, I always thought this song's title was "Hey Now," since that's what Neil Finn sings most clearly, over and over, in the refrain. When I heard it today in the dentist's office, it came on after Outkast's "Hey Ya" -- I'm betting that DJ made the same association. What a pity that the crammed lyrics of this song aren't always perfectly clear, because they're much more interesting than your usual Eighties love song.
For example, the opening line -- "There is freedom within, / There is freedom without" -- is the sort of Heavy Statement that John Lennon had taught up to expect in our rock songs, but the next line is much more intriguing: "Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup." (Okay, that just nails the Lennon "Imagine" reference.) Again, in the third verse this tune's Road Song credentials are proclaimed: "Now I'm towing my car, / There's a hole in the roof" -- an image which, I'm sorry, makes me laugh. But you don't know whether you're laughing with him or at him until you get the mumbled next line, "My possessions are causing me suspicion but there's no proof." And in the last verse, that self-effacing irony makes all the difference, as he announces, "Now I'm walking again / To the beat of a drum / And I'm counting the steps to the door of your heart." Despite the heroic ring of the verse-opening melodic phrase, he's not setting himself up as a sage and a poet. He's just a guy, a traveling man, who has to be away from his baby for a while and doesn't want her to despair.
Sure, the production values of this track are totally Eighties -- less a wall of sound than a wall-to-wall carpet of sound, with those baffled voices and an instrumental track so plush, it's more environment than backing. Apart from the metallic clang of the guitars (another Eighties trait) and the churchy organ in the instrumental break, you can barely decipher the separate instruments at all. And that falsetto jump on "Dree-ee-eam it's over" -- okay, there is a certain spangled Lycra quality there.
But the harsh disco rhythms of the Eighties have no place here, only a fluid current of rhythm that bears us smoothly along. I love the fluttery meter of the verses, and how the tune seems to curl in protectively, as if the singer is cradling his girlfriend in his arms before hitting the road. And though the melody swells so dramatically in the chorus, there's just enough syncopation to keep it dancing instead of bombastic.
It's the sort of song that makes your heart leap, before you've figured out what it is. That's probably why so many soundtracks use it -- it telegraphs love, and tenderness, and melancholy. But I also get a certain existential poise here -- something that the frenetic Eighties rarely aspired to, let alone achieved. Mega-hit status may have prevented me from giving this song, and this band, fair dues back in the Eighties. But it's never to late to go back.