For Crowded House’s 1991 masterpiece Woodface, it was death by chocolate

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Never underestimate the power of sequencing the tracks on an album. A good opening song sets the mood and gets the listener primed for what’s to follow. Imagine Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town kicking off with “Factory” instead of the evocative “Badlands.” Or the relatively twee “Fixing a Hole” in the lead-off position on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It wouldn’t be the same experience, would it?

Artists usually choose the opening track carefully, if only to pique the curiosity of radio programmers, who will toss out the entire album if that first song doesn’t grab and shake them pretty quick.

New Zealand’s Crowded House made one of the best, and most enduring, pop/rock albums of the 1990s. Released in the latter part of 1991, Woodface is a masterpiece of emotive songwriting, evocative singing and exceptional playing. Singer/songwriter Neil Finn had moved way out in front of 1986’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” the biggest hit Crowded House ever landed in America.

It had an awkward gestation. The album, the trio’s third, was close to being mastered when Capitol Records president Hale Milgrim told Finn and his bandmates, and Crowded House’s producer Mitchell Froom, that it simply wasn’t good enough to put out. He suggested they go back into the studio.

At the same time, Finn and his older brother Tim (both of them had been cornerstones of the Kiwi new wave group Split Enz) were writing together for a side project. Neil asked Tim if Crowded House could have these new songs for the revised Woodface; Tim agreed but insisted he become a full-fledged member of the band.

“The lines between what was going to be a Finn Brothers record and a Crowded House record became very blurred,” Neil Finn told me in 1993. “And in the end we decided it was better to try and make one good album than try and split yourself between two, and not do justice to either.”

That’s how “Weather With You,” “It’s Only Natural,” “Four Seasons in One Day,” “There Goes God,” “How Will You Go” and three others came to be on what should have been Crowded House’s breakthrough album – featuring stellar, Everly-esque brotherly harmonies from Neil and Tim, Woodface is absolutely brimming with first-class, catchy songs, with gorgeous melodies and that unmistakable Finn melancholy.

That’s not what happened. By all accounts, Crowded House (over the objections of management and label) insisted that the first single, and the album’s lead-off track, be the surreal dance song “Chocolate Cake.” The Finn/Finn collaboration was a tongue-in-cheek attack on Americans and their obsession with excess and celebrity. “Chocolate Cake” took potshots at everyone from Tammy Faye Baker to Andrew Lloyd Webber (“May his trousers fall down as he bows to the queen and the crown”). The joke wore thin quickly.

“‘Chocolate Cake,’ in hindsight, may well have undone us,” Neil Finn said. “It started off as a live song, which was tremendous fun to play. But as a first single a lot of people were put off by it. It was confrontational, which was good in a sense — people either loved it or they hated it. But maybe it gave an impression of the album which was quite remote from what the album actually was.”

While Woodface became the band’s best-selling album in Great Britain, topped the chart in New Zealand and was a huge seller in Australia and Japan, it hit the U.S.A. with a resounding thud. It peaked at No. 83 in Billboard. “Chocolate Cake” had been issued early, as a CD single and accompanied by a garish, expensive video.

It wasn’t that “Chocolate Cake,” however humorously, derided American bad taste. It simply wasn’t a very good song. Radio didn’t play it, it did not chart, and none of the followup singles — including “Fall at Your Feet,” “Weather With You” and “Four Seasons” — got any love at all. It’s likely that program directors never got past “Chocolate Cake.”

Had they skipped ahead to Track 2, “It’s Only Natural,” they would have opened a door to something magical. Woodface, despite being a little too long (I could do without “All I Ask,” and “Italian Plastic,” but maybe that’s just me) is the strongest recording this little Kiwi band ever made. After 20-plus years, I’m still hearing new things in its marvelous tracks.

A frustrated Tim Finn left Crowded House in the middle of the Woodface tour, and the original trio (augmented by pianist Mark Hart) made Together Alone, without producer Froom, a year later.

Drummer Paul Hester, angry, homesick and weary of America’s continuing indifference to Crowded House, quit after a concert in Atlanta in 1994. Hester’s departure effectively broke up the band, although Neil Finn, Mark Hart and bassist Nick Seymour re-convened as Crowded House in 2010, five years after Hester’s suicide.

The final verdict on Woodface, and its death by chocolate, arrived when Neil Finn was programming Recurring Dream, the posthumous Crowded House collection. He included all the band’s singles — except one.

You guessed it.

“For a variety of reasons,” Neil Finn explained at the time, “just as a piece of music ‘Chocolate Cake’ didn’t wear very well for me.”

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung spent 35 years as a music journalist before giving it up for a (relatively) cushy job in public relations. His essays appear in more than 100 CDs (including the Cat Stevens Box Set, Stephen Stills’ 'Manassas Pieces' and Chicago’s 'Stone of Sisyphus'). He is also the author of 'Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down.' See www.billdeyoung.com; contact Something Else! at reviews@ somethingelsereviews.com.
Bill DeYoung
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  • Mitchell Koerner

    You know as a kid my parents owned the recurring dream cd and played it a fair bit while i was growing up. pretty much every single of crowded house was imprinted on me, eventually i came across crowded houses full length albums a fair bit of love being thrown around for ‘Chocolate cake’, to me it was this track that eluded me for so many years since it was never put on recurring dream, so naturally i was really excited to hear this ‘classic’ crowded house song i had missed out on, i didnt like it and i still dont, ive tried pretty hard to get into the song but it just doesnt do anything for me so thankyou for this article because after all these years this explains so much to me about the writing process of ‘Woodface’ and how this all came to be.

  • Joel Pattie

    “Something So Strong” was also a top ten hit in the U.S. reaching number seven on the Billboard chart. “Better Be Home Soon” was another, albeit minor, hit. Problem was, the U.S. quickly lost interest, which is a shame as there was still much to look forward to. Pity.

  • Doobies Bar

    Crowded House was and always will be my favorite band. Woodface is so incredibly brilliant, that I can’t believe how amazing it is every time i listen to it. Together Alone is a close second. Never was a huge fan of Chocolate Cake, but i do like it. Catherine Wheels is another gorgeous song.

    Neil Finn, you have given me so many years of listening pleasure, i can’t imagine my life without your music. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing what you do. I do so love you.

  • Rorta

    I actually really like ‘Chocolate Cake’. Maybe not a great opening track but a good track nonetheless.

    • JoeCoffee

      With a fabulous harmonica solo from the phenomenal Chris Wilson.

      • Rorta

        One of the defining sounds of my childhood!

  • Joseph Haas

    It is a great, great album, and while I wouldn’t call “Chocolate Cake” a bad song, it certainly was a bad way to kick off an album.

  • Jay Cuasay

    I never thought about that Death by Chocolate angle. I heard Woodface at a friend’s house and knew about the previous hit song. Woodface is as you say, very well done with some songs that I probably wouldn’t have missed if they weren’t there. Italian Plastic would be one. But for someone who listened to and liked Housemartins/Beautiful South, I can deal with that kind of whimsy. By the time Together Alone came out, I was off backpacking in Japan and had left an entire country behind. Never thought the Finns from NZ had “failed” to break it big in the US.
    For me, I married a musician’s daughter who has a savant ear for inner harmony and knows the entire Beatles and solo catalogs backwards and forwards. When we married and merged our CD/Vinyl/Music collections we had only one overlap…an Indigo Girls album.
    Crowded House’s claim to fame is that I got to introduce her to Woodface. Loved the harmonies and the songwriting. To this day, so many mainstays from that album are go toos when I’m just fooling around on the piano or guitar. Love it even more when there’s someone who knows the harmonies and can keep ot tight.

  • Steven Groom

    I agree with leaving “All I Ask” off of Woodface, but not “Italian Plastic”. That song is brilliant, as is the rest of the album. I like “Chocolate Cake” but I’m not sure I’d have released it as a single. In retrospect the song is still very relevant today, and this is coming from an American.

  • Stockton Thomas

    When I received Woodface for Christmas as a 13 year old, the only song that struck me then and has stayed with me since is Chocolate Cake. I didn’t know who Andy Warhol was but I loved the line. I’ve not listened to it in a while but it’s now playing through my head. The idea that US commercial success equals artistic merit is an anathema to me. They took a while to get onto Jimi, Sheer Heart Attack come out in ’74 and the Americans ignored Queen ’til Live Aid. Similarly it’s disturbing that we live in a country that derides Chocolate cake but is generally accepting and positive of John Key. I prey for the day the opposite is true.The song may represent a loss of incredible amounts of money to the Finns but that personal association by the song writer doesn’t reflect badly on the song. John Lennon didn’t like Run For Your Life but it’s a cool song all the same. To summarise in the most articulate way I can, Chocolate Cake good.

    • SWalkerTTU

      As to Queen’s success in the US, going by chart performance they did better BEFORE Live Aid in 1985. After “Radio Ga Ga” in ’84 they didn’t have another top 40 hit until “Bohemian Rhapsody” was re-released in 1991. The album sales were always decent, with every album except “Queen II” going gold at the least, even after they largely disappeared from the American scene following Live Aid.

  • Cloud Strife

    Woodface was a delicious mess. I have an ear for how songs fit on an album and this one was hard to swallow, especially for someone who does not like cake.

  • John Johnny

    Chocolate Cake had a great edge to it and an irrreverent swagger. It’s actually what made me get the album because it suggested there was more to the band than the lovely ballads that I guess they were known for. I think it’s their best album. It has the remarkable Everly Bros-like vocal power to it, a plethora of lush, well written songs, and more than a little mystery to it. I listened to it initially while touring Malaysia and its guitar licks always seemed enchantingly eaastern to me. I actually like the order of the songs, though I take your point about the choice of first single. What a great album closer with How Will You Go… darkness never sounded so sweet.

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