Six or eight months ago, the first album from Crowded House appeared to have already been buried in a tomb where many of the outstanding debuts of rock history are destined to rest, unheralded.

Critics had been quick with plaudits for the record's hooks and smarts--with some reviewers going so far as to suggest the lively New Zealand band might be "the new Beatles"--but radio had proved indifferent to its charms.

Then this pop-rock Lazarus was somehow called forth from the dead. An album that had been released in the summer of 1986 finally began to catch on in the early months of 1987.

"The time it took for this record to really get to the Top 40 is probably the same amount of time that the Bay City Rollers actually enjoyed their entire success," said cheeky drummer Paul Hester, waxing philosophical on the band's tour bus between Southern California shows. "We had none and they had everything in that same amount of time. But we have a saying in this band: Don't dream it's over."

Everyone on the bus groaned in unison, the ashamed Hester included. "Don't Dream It's Over" is, of course, the single that rode up the charts and peaked at No. 2 in April, finding across-the-dial radio success. With that bittersweet ballad and its sing-along chorus, Crowded House became a multiformat band, as members like to joke.

The song was a definite left-field surprise--not only was it Capitol Records' second attempt to get the group on the radio (a previous single having bombed), but it broke one of the cardinal rules of record-company promotion: Never try to make or break a new act, and especially not a white rock 'n' roll band, with a slow song.

Said Ron McCarroll, Capitol's vice president of marketing: "There was more than one occasion when we were ready to give this project last rites. But there was always some little thing--good press, retail support, word of mouth--that provided a glimmer of hope just before we were about to call in the priest. This record became a lot of people's favorite underdog, and that kept the project alive and ultimately set the stage for us to break that single."

When Capitol finally decided that "Dream" was a single, that is.

"It was a risky choice in one sense, and that's why they took so long to decide to release it," said Neil Finn, the group's leader and a former member of cult favorite Split Enz. "But in many ways it was an obvious choice, because it was the one song that everybody responded to the first time off the record, the one that had the most immediate reaction from everyone. That's probably the only criterion that should be used.

"It seems to be a song that cuts across a lot of audience barriers for some reason. We get 50-year-old people in our audiences occasionally that came in off the street because they heard that song and really liked it. Then there's guys with spiky haircuts that are into it as well. It's weird."

Added Hester, "Sometimes they go home with the 50-year-olds, thinking that we brought them together."

Hopeful as that catchy chorus is, "Don't Dream It's Over" may not be as inspirational an anthem as some of its buyers might believe. Singer/songwriter Finn is obviously a hopeless romantic, but he is also an unrepentant realist--and thus even the LP's strongest love songs are uniformly tainted with the brush of expectant anxieties.

Said Finn, "It was a really hard year, that year, in all ways of my personal life. Leaving the band I'd been with for eight years and starting a new band and all the doubts and fears from that came though in some of the songs. There's positiveness on the record as well, and I think the album sounds up overall. . . .

"It represents the confusion that is in my mind most of the time. I think I've got a fairly clear, instinctive set of values, but I'm constantly confused in a direct sense about what is right and what is wrong these days, so a lot of my songs have that kind of doubt impressed in them. . . . I'm pretty much at cross purposes with myself most of the time."

If Finn is a confused fellow, think of how the audience must feel at a typical Crowded House show. (As if there was such a thing as a typical Crowded House show.)

The material runs very much on the sober side, but in concert, the group might also launch into a hilariously lovely country rendition of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," or take other impromptu requests, whether the calls are for old Split Enz songs or "Whole Lotta Love." Finn and friends might engage in a mock slow-motion fist fight, or throw fruit at a waitress's tray, or--who knows?

If the Fab Four comparisons weren't already bad enough, the banter suggests the humor of an early Beatles press conference gone out of control, with spontaneous, self-deprecating humor up the wazoo.

Finn has a serious reason for all that horseplay.

"We're not flippant about the music ," he said. "The music is not joke music. But at the moment, everybody that I meet is telling us how great everything is and how great we are. It's flattering when people get really intense about it from a musical point of view, but it becomes scary when it starts to pervade your life out of hours.

"There's so much emphasis put on you by other people that you start to think about yourself more than you should. When you're becoming self-obsessed, it's hard to make good music. So we have to try and put each other down as much as possible within the band to kind of keep the balance."

Added Hester: "It's nice to go out on stage with the slight idea of not knowing what's going to happen. It's got to be like that on tour, or else you go stupid."

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