The band were now working on their third album in four years, the boys had completed secondary school in 1997, Johns had a brief affair with Magic Dirt lead singer Adalita Srsen, after they had shared the bill at that summer’s Big Day Out, she was 26 and Johns was 18 and now unchaperoned by his parents, Adalita allegedly freed Daniel of his virginity, but the relationship was short-lived. Johns had already revealed to his bandmates that he wanted to take creative control of their music in the future, to compose all the songs on the next album, and to create “orchestral rock”, a further extension of the exploratory tracks that had appeared on the Freak Show album. Ben Gilles was the only other band mate who had any pretensions to songwriting to this time, but he agreed that Johns should write the songs, although his mother was disgruntled about the change, aware that Ben would no longer be able to participate in songwriting royalties.Neon Ballroom reflected the broadening of Johns musical palette, a shift that was evident on the Freak Show album where orchestration, strings and eastern influences were discernible for the first time. Their musical evolution continued here as the band again experimented with orchestral arrangements, strings, keyboards and the guest appearances of classical pianist David Helfgott, Midnight Oils guitarist/keyboard player Jim Moginie, and keyboardist/DJ/producer Paul Mac.At this time Johns revealed that he had been battling anorexia nervosa since before the release of the Freak Show album, he was also dealing with depression and agoraphobia, existing on anti-depressants; and the wise-cracking practical joker with the puppy fat, of several years before, had become emaciated, isolated, diffident, paranoid, withdrawn, and averse to touring and meeting people, his best friend now was Sweep, his dog, a cross-breed he had rescued from a rubbish tip.Johns has said of his feelings at the time, as the creative force within the band, that he “hated music, really everything about it” but felt that he “couldn’t stop doing it; I felt like a slave to it.” Johns sought therapy and medication, but he was very uncomfortable about therapy sessions and felt that “It’s easier for me to express it through music and lyrics.” He was sick for three years, only gradually returning to songwriting via poetry, and a one-off recording session with his bandmates and producer Nick Launay in early 1998 to record a track for the movie Godzilla, in mid –‘98 they entered the Festival Studios in Pyrmont (Syd) and commenced recording their third album, Neon Ballroom.
The first single lifted from the album was Anthem for the Year 2000, a song that retained much of the band’s youthful high energy rock but also reflected their growing interest in electronica, with both Paul Mac (below left) and Jim Moginie (below right) rendering keyboard support, lyrically there was also an increasing awareness of social and political issues.
The youthful protest inherent in this song was also depicted in the promo video, which was shot in Sydney’s Martin Place with 1200 fan club members acting out a scripted riot, tagging posters, running amok, and being sprayed with power hoses, it also included a cameo appearance by Australia TV actor Maggie Fitzpatrick, “The Freak” from the 70’s TV series Prisoner, and herself a native Novocastrian. The lyrics exhort the listener to call out politicians for their duplicity and reclaim the lost values and ideals of a more innocent era, “We are the youth/We’ll take your fascism away/We are the youth/Apologize for another day/ We are the youth/And politicians are so sure/We are the youth/And we are knocking on death’s door,” the pounding percussion and thrashing guitars hammered home the message, Anthem was a solid hit at #2 locally, #8 in NZ, #12 in the US and #6 in Canada.
Daniel Johns was being increasingly frank and self-analytical about the band’s first two albums, he was prepared to discount both Frogstomp and Freak Show as the work of a high school band who had not really evolved, his candor was refreshing and surprising- “To me, honestly I feel like our first record was Neon Ballroom …I don’t feel that our first two albums were Silverchair…I don’t like them at all. I listen to them and go, “That’s cute, especially the first one, because …we were 14…But the second one we’re like 16, I’m like…you’re getting older. You’re running out of chances”. These comments reflect as much on Daniel’s state of mind and the insecurity he was feeling about his health and personal direction, as they do about a young performer who had been savaged by some critics, particularly in the US, about the derivative nature of their music and being labelled Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Soundgarden clones.The second song taken off the album, Ana’s Song (Open Fire) is very personal for Johns as it was inspired by his battle with anorexia nervosa, the Ana in the title is Daniel’s personification of the disease which was tearing his life apart. The song intros as a dreamy ballad, Jim Moginie’s keyboards are restrained as the song builds in intensity, the volume and tempo shifts, reflecting the emotional rollercoaster a person afflicted with this disease endures. The video features Johns in a wheelchair at a treatment centre and cuts to images of a girl (Australian actress Sarah Aubrey) vomiting in a basin. It was a controversial song, John Watson and John O’Donnell wanted Daniel to drop it from the album, concerned at the unwanted public scrutiny that it would focus on Johns, but he steadfastly refused to censor himself, so it stayed in.
Ana’s Song (Open Fire) was not only a solid hit for the band here where it charted at #12 but in the US where it climbed to #28, importantly it also brought attention to the fact that this disease was not limited to young girls and women but affected young males as well, the album sold 1.5 million copies worldwide, it was the band’s third consecutive #1 album in Aust, #5 in Canada, #29 in the UK, and top forty in five European countries. In late 2000 the band would gradually return to touring with a fourth band member in keyboardist Sam Holloway, the Falls Festival in Lorne (Vic) was locked in, as was the giant 250,000 gathering known as Rock In Rio 3 for January 2001, Johns stage gear now included his” Mr Silverchair” coat, a knee-length, designer-made, sequined coat, even more glittery than his amazing technicolour rock suit -a purple, spangled, mirrored, custom-made confection – that he wore during the Neon Ballroom tour, sartorially this was a giant step from the t-shirts and long shorts worn by the teen grunge wonderboy in 1995.