Tomorrow (D Johns/B Gillies) 1994 and Pure Massacre (D Johns/B Gillies) and Israel’s Son (D Johns)- silverchair 1995
Newcastle’s silverchair, originally spelt in lower case and later with a more conventional capital S, were one of the most highly feted Australian rock bands of the mid-90’s, their stunning debut single Tomorrow and the album Frogstomp captured the zeitgeist of the global rise of grunge music, an alternative rock genre that had emerged during the mid-1980’s in and around Seattle, in the US state of Washington. Grunge was a hybrid of punk rock and hard metal rock, and featured distorted electric guitar, dynamic shifts in volume and tempo, and angst-drenched, introspective vocals, which often addressed such themes as social alienation, abuse, neglect, betrayal, and psychological trauma. The Seattle scene would also inspire a sub-genre of emotional harcore rock, sometimes known as emocore, which specialized in angsty, misanthropic, confessional lyrics and a merging of alterna-rock, punk rock, and indie musical styles, in the mid-1990’s.Early demo records by silverchair, particularly the song Tomorrow, which featured the impressive vocals of Daniel Johns, sounded like it came straight from the Seattle grunge playbook of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana, it surprised local record companies who scrambled to sign them up, they were fifteen, still at high school, and their combined ages were less than Mick Jagger’s. Despite their early detractors who said they were slavish imitators, and dubbed them “Nirvana-in-pyjamas” “Not Soundgarden, Kindergarden”, and “silverhighchair,” the three teenage schoolboys from Newcastle High School, led by the prodigiously talented Daniel Johns (lead guitar/lead vocals) with Ben Gillies (drums) and Chris Joannou (bass) would enjoy great global success in the future, and in the process become teenage millionaires.
Record labels competed to sign the band, then known as the Innocent Criminals, Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Records pitched hard with solid up- front financial inducements and a track record of handling successful acts such as Kylie Minogue and Jimmy Barnes, they saw the Innocent Criminals becoming a successful heavy rock band. Sony’s boutique label Murmur did their homework, John Watson (above left) and John O’Donnell (above right), sensed that the band were ready to change not only their name but to embrace the grunge music of their idols, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, O’Donnell sealed the deal when he gave the fifteen-year-olds copies of a yet unreleased Pearl Jam CD. Ultimately Murmur secured the band for a one album contract because Mushroom didn’t realize that the boys wanted to be Helmet not Guns N’ Roses.
Tomorrow and the promo video were re-recorded for the US market in 1995 at the ABC Studios (Syd) with producer Phil McKellar, after Brit Nick Launay, fell ill and had to cancel. The song/video were quickly picked up by MTV and US modern radio, peaking at #28 on the Billboard charts and hitting the top of the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts. The video was directed by Mark Pellington of Richard Hambling’s video production company, who had worked with Pearl Jam, his music video for their song Jeremy is reflected in the Tomorrow video. Harsh lighting, disturbing images, fast cut-aways and random ill-focused scenes were typical of the genre, Joannou is stripped to the waist, Johns vocals are anguished, the video was shot in the boy’s home suburb of Merewether, and in a goal cell at the old Newcastle police station – it was raw, confronting, menacing, and edgy, the budget was $2,000, this was very much a blue-collar production effort.The success of the song divided critics, the lyrics are naïve “It’s twelve o’clock and it’s a wonderful day – (so far so good) / I know you hate me, but I’ll ask anyway (what happened?) / Won’t you come with me, to a place in a little town/ The only way to get there is to go straight down (you lost me there) … There’s no bathroom, and there is no sink (no bathroom so no sink, that figures)/ The water out of the tap is very, hard to drink/ Very hard to drink (what is this fascination with plumbing and water quality?). Johns has subsequently revealed that he was trying to express his angst about the widening abyss between the rich and the poor, and their respective quality of life.OK, Johns and Gillies were only fifteen when they wrote the song, so artful lyrics and clever wordplay weren’t to be expected, but musically silverchair were very adept at re-creating the alternarock of the Seattle grunge bands, and they were very proficient musicians. Their adolescent angst and energy shone through, Johns mumbles convincingly in the palpably discontented fashion of Eddie Vedder, and they get the stop-start, dynamic crescendo/decrescendo volume shifts as well as Nirvana did, who had already copied this technique from Boston’s More Than A Feeling.(above)
No doubt silverchair sounded derivative, and with a blond, blue-eyed front man who resembled Kurt Cobain, heading up a grunge trio, they even looked derivative (see Silverchair left and Nirvana right, above). But there was a refreshing brashness to their music that was engaging, they were a curious mix of talent, adolescent energy and bombast on the one hand, and teenage naivety and a young boys’ preoccupation with fart jokes, food fights, surfing, video games and girls on the other, they would need very careful management to protect and promote them at the same time, into the future.The debut album was recorded at the Festival Studios (Pyrmont, Syd), and the choice of Kevin “Caveman” Shirley (below) as producer was astute. He imparted a dynamism to the songs because he worked quickly, so ensuring that he kept three teenage boys interested long enough to focus on the music, despite the fact that their raging hormones may be leading them somewhere else, he also provided several videos featuring porn star Ron Jeremy to keep the boys entertained, without telling the silver-parents. With Tomorrow, he produced a song born of grunge, bound to send the mosh pits into convulsions, the band would appear at their first Big Day Out concert in 1995, on the same bill as Offspring, The Cult, and Hole, and blow them all away, Courtney Love was not amused.The success of Tomorrow, which garnered three Aria awards in 1995, propelled the band’s debut album Frogstomp to the top of the charts, which also won two ARIAs and occupied the charts for 57 weeks. Frogstomp was a debut album sensation in the States, climbing to #7 there and selling two million copies, by 2006 the album had notched up global sales of 2.9 million copies, the three teenagers were millionaires, and their lives were changing.Pure Massacre was the second single taken off the album, written by Johns in thirty minutes it was inspired by the Bosnian War in reaction to the atrocities inflicted on men, women, and children in the name of ethnic cleansing. John’s vocals were angry, anguished, demented, the video used a “dogs of war” image to convey the message and the band appears to be performing in an empty mass grave, which was partly footage of a chaotic show the band did at Sydney’s Phoenician Club, it was an impactful song which charted #2 here and in NZ and #12 in the US.
At this time the boys were touring overseas with their parents as chaperones as well as their manager John Watson, interviews were strictly controlled, with most requests rejected, including from such high- profile publications as Time and Rolling Stone magazines. From the outset their managers, the “two Johns”, Watson and O’Donnnell, had deliberately avoided mainstream media coverage and the teen press, preferring to pursue a “cool at all costs” approach via alternative/street press, fanzines, and guitar magazines. The band embarked on a short tour of the US to plug the album, appearing in front of enthusiastic fans in Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and gigging in France, Denmark, Switzerland and England before returning home in August ’95. It was already becoming more difficult for the boys to maintain a balance between schoolwork and meeting the commitments of a world- famous band.The third and final single lifted off Frogstomp was Israel’s Son, a song which again reflected the pacifist sentiments of Daniel Johns, who had been inspired to write an anti-war, anti-violence song after viewing a documentary of war-time atrocities. John’s vocals were double-tracked by producer Shirley, and are noticeably Vedderesque here, the now familiar pounding drums and thrashing guitars underscore the angst and frustration inherent in the lyrics, Johns has said that he was trying to sound like Black sabbath on this track, and he succeeded. The promo video reinforced the message with dystopian images and John’s crazed scream which brought the song to a thudding conclusion; it climbed to #14 locally, #12 in NZ and #39 in the US.
The song became embroiled in a murder case in the US when the defence lawyer for two Washington boys, Brian Bassett and Nick McDonald, charged with murdering Bassett’s parents and his younger brother, claimed that the song’s lyrics inspired their violence and referred specifically to the line “Hate is what I feel for you/ I want you to know that I want you dead”, but this defence was comprehensively rejected. Never the less the adverse publicity affected Daniel who was now feeling vulnerable and exposed to public scrutiny, he was accused by Paula Gai Knightly a Sydney prostitute (below), of stalking and threatening behaviour towards her, and had an Aggravated Violence Order (AVO) slapped on him. Johns denied the charges, claimed no knowledge of the woman, and could prove that he was touring in the USA at the time of the alleged stalking, the AVO was withdrawn, and Ms. Knightly returned to New Zealand. But Daniel began to increasingly withdraw from contact with fans and the media, and allowed the more gregarious Ben Gillies to handle such matters.The Newcastle trio had rewritten the playbook for international success, and inspired others, in small country towns and makeshift practice spaces around the country, to believe that they could do it too – and like Killing Heidi from Violet Town, Spiderbait from Finley, Thirsty Merc from Dubbo, Augie March from Shepparton, and Grinspoon from Lismore, that’s exactly what they did.