Hot on the heels of the spectacular success of the band’s debut album Frogstomp, recorded in just nine days, came the much-anticipated Freak Show album, recorded in a more leisurely three weeks in Sydney! Brit Nick Launay (below), who had previously worked with Midnight Oil on their seminal 1982 album 10,9,8…1 and other Aussie bands including INXS, The Birthday Party and the Models had taken over production duties from Kevin “Caveman” Shirley. He bonded with Daniel Johns who described Launay as “looking like a praying mantis with glasses … he’s like a mad scientist.” While Launay said of Johns “I related to Daniel very well. We’re both arty, skinny types; we’re not blokey types.” (The Book of Daniel – Jeff Apter 2018). Johns would write seven of the songs on Freak Show, co-compose three with Ben Gillies, and Gillies would contribute three, they were both seventeen and still at high school, but now seriously doubting the need for further formal education.At this time silverchair were disoriented by the massive changes wrought to their teenage lives by the international success of their records, front-man Daniel Johns was particularly affected, isolated by his fame, he became reclusive, negative, and depressed about the way people interpreted his songs, particularly following the attempt to link his song Israel’s Son to a triple murder in the States.The album title reflected the way the band felt about touring and being exposed to public scrutiny, like a travelling freak show, they even used an image of a famous freak show personality from the 1950’s and 60’s, Grady Stiles Jnr., (above),who was afflicted with ectrodactyly and billed by his stage name as “The Lobster Boy”. What the band didn’t expect was the controversy the album’s artwork would stir up, nine images appeared on the record sleeve – a wolfman, a bearded lady, and assorted sideshow exhibits, who were all from the Circus World Museum, located in sleepy Baraboo, Wisconsin (USA). Critics condemned the exploitation of the deformities of others as questionable and tasteless, Grady Stiles Jnr, had a particularly macabre backstory, having been convicted of murder, and then subsequently killed by a hitman hired by his second wife. Their record company Sony/Murmur, had to quickly issue a disclaimer insisting that the band were not meaning to show disrespect.Lyrically the album was dark, brooding, and morose, referencing such topics as suicide, abusive parents, disease, depression, social isolation and body-shaming, the opening lyrics to Freak were “ No more maybes/ Your baby’s got rabies,” and the promo video was at once luridly intriguing and repulsive.
Directed by Devo bassist Gerald Casale, it parodied narcissistic people obsessed with physical makeovers, the band members perspiration is collected by lab-coated scientists, while they perform in a sauna/oven, and gradually injected into and then glugged down by a grotesque old crone who is transformed into a beautiful young girl until after over-dosing on silverchair sweat, she tums into an alien. The title track Freak was a big hit, #1 in Australia, #23 NZ, #34 UK and # 25 in the US, producer Nick Launay bonded with the teenagers in an unusual way when he visited their hometown Newcastle, as described in Christie Eliezer’s book High Voltage Rock “n” Roll” “ When Nick Launay …was hanging out with them, they demanded he accompany them on an “egg round” driving around Newcastle, and gleefully throwing eggs at buildings.”The band members were still attending Newcastle High School in 1996 and many of the songs on the Freak Show album had been written and performed live several years before – Slave, Freak, No Association and Nobody Came – all existed two years before the album was produced, as such they reflected the limited life experiences of three teenage boys – what happened to them at school, what they saw on TV, who their idols were. Daniel Johns has described The Freak Show album as “some kind of dark, high school band skeleton, in the band’s closet”.Abuse Me was the second single off the album in Australia, the lyrics are superficially masochistic, Johns inviting someone to hurt him, but it was more an anti-bullying protest and reflected their treatment at school as the initial ridicule of the boys turned to jealousy when they became millionaire rockers. The song is more subtle than earlier releases, the typical silverchair song stucture of pounding percussion and wailing guitars was dialed back here, as the song gradually built on a restrained opening, it was the first single taken off the album for release in the USA. The promo video was full color and reflected the circus theme of the cover art, Abuse Me charted #6 locally, #7 in Canada and #4 US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The promo video was directed by American Nick Egan and was a performance video with a twist, the band played while various circus oddities underscored the album’s freak-show theme, Johns was now a gaunt, brooding presence, he stared down the camera and sang with a surprising venom and seething anger, his internal demons were now obvious.
The last single off the album was the gloomy, introspective ballad Cemetery and it represented a musical benchmark for the band, as they introduced lush strings to the mix with violins, viola, and cello, arranged by Jane Scarpantoni (R.E.M, Sarah McLachlan),below.Johns had written the song years before as an acoustic guitar piece and did not intend to record it as a silverchair song, but after performing it for the other band members they were unanimous that it should be included on the album. No less than four violins, two violas, and a cello feature in the song, it was an exploratory musical leap of faith by the former grunge exponents, who also experimented with Indian cadences and sounds on Petrol and Chlorine, accompanied by sitar, tabla and tampura, eschewing the use of standard percussion from Ben Gillies. They had also moved on from their grunge heroes Nirvana (the group had disbanded in 1994, following the death of Kurt Cobain), Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, to more hardcore alt-metal bands Helmet, Tool and Quicksand, while also beginning to embrace more exotic Eastern influences and pop melodies.
The lyrics of Cemetery again reflect the experiences of band members at school, how irritated Johns felt when others ridiculed him for being different and not conforming to stereotype, “ Need a change Not to imitate/ But to irritate/ All the ones who hate/ I may be late/Always seem to get the wrong date well I/ Guess it’s just fate.” Ultimately it would be his critics who had to change their opinion, the song charted #4 locally and this was the first time that Daniel Johns had appeared in a silverchair video playing acoustic guitar alongside a string quartet.Freak Show the album was another hit record, charting #1 locally, #2 in Canada, #12 in the US, #8 in NZ, and top forty in six European countries, it ultimately sold in excess of 1.5 million copies and maintained the band’s momentum into their post-secondary school years. The band would undertake their first full tour of the North America in mid-1996 – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, Boston, Seattle, Santa Monica, San Francisco – and to the boys from Newie it seemed like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, it was, in the current teen parlance, sick.The boys were still only eighteen and many of the songs on the album had been written when they were fifteen years old, their music would continue to evolve as they moved away from their grunge origins to embrace a more commercial pop sound, but they would not take a single to #1 in Australia again for another ten years, when Straight Lines would take them back to the top in 2007.