Straight Lines (D Johns/J Hamilton) – Silverchair 2007
From the age of fifteen the Newcastle trio, Daniel Johns, Chris Joannou, and Ben Gillies, had been under extraordinary public scrutiny as they rode a wave of global success with three grunge-drenched hit albums between 1995 – 99 –Frogstomp, Freakshow, and Neon Ballroom – and a clutch of equally impressive top ten singles – Tomorrow, Pure Massacre, Freak, Abuse Me, and Cemetery – but by the time they recorded their fourth studio album Diorama in 2002, Daniel Johns was grappling with depression, reactive arthritis, and addiction to mood-altering antidepressants, extensive touring was not possible, and their US fanbase was disappearing.
Their fourth studio album Diorama and the singles lifted from it, The Greatest View, and Without You, were far removed from the adolescent grunge of Frogstomp. Johns was in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks who encouraged the young wunderkind to experiment with orchestration and alternative song structures and genre styles, and as he did, he moved further away from his silver bandmates, towards a solo career. Below – Daniel Johns and Van Dyke Parks
The band had not recorded together for about five years following the release of Diorama in 2002; in the interim Daniel Johns had married pop princess Natalie Imbruglia in 2003 and they were heading for divorce in 2008.
Johns had also undertaken a side project with the Dissociatives which included Paul Mac (DJ, keyboardist, producer) along with Julian Hamilton (keyboards/vocals, above) and Kim Moyes (drums, vibraphone, programming) of the Sydney electropop/dance-punk group The Presets. The Dissociatives records were critically praised but enjoyed only modest chart success. However the collaboration did enable Johns to continue the musical journey of exploration of electronic sounds, new musical structures, and genres, he had commenced with Van Dyke Parks during the production of Diorama. Below L-R Mac, Hamilton, Moyes.
The new album Young Modern (Van Dyke Parks nickname for Daniel Johns), was much-anticipated, Silverchair’s former producer Nick Launay was back on board with Johns co-producing, and he was also sharing song-writing duties with Julian Hamilton on four of the eleven tracks. The band had grown up, they were now 28 years old, and it had been thirteen years since their first international hit, the grunge-drenched Tomorrow. In those days Ben Gillies could anticipate that he would collaborate on songs with his friend Johns, but Daniel was now working with Paul Mac, Julian Hamilton, and Luke Steele (below with Johns), it would be their songs that would appear on a Silverchair album to Gillies exclusion, he would be denied the chance to earn handsome royalties, he must have felt gutted, his mother certainly voiced her concern, but he never publicly complained. Below L-R Johns and Luke Steele, Cover artwork, Nick Launay.
The album was recorded over eight months in Los Angeles and Mississauga (Canada) in 2006, no longer did the boys dash off albums in a month as they had done with their first two. Now they travelled to Prague to record orchestral arrangements with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, self-funded the whole recording so as to avoid undue pressure from their record label, and indulged themselves in an elaborate creative process. Van Dyke Parks was back on board as orchestral consultant, and he contributed arrangements to three tracks, Johns and Launay fell out over “musical differences” at the mixing stage of the album, he was sacked and replaced by David Bottrill (below).
The first single released from the album was Straight Lines which had been pre-released in March 2007, it debuted at #1 in Australia to claim iconic rock status, stayed at #1 for four weeks, and occupied the charts for 76 weeks, it was also the recipient of the APRA Award for Song of the Year in 2008. It was the only Silverchair single to equal the domestic sales of Tomorrow at 140,000 copies, and it would be the longest-charting Australian single ever, until Daniel Johns mates from the Presets, came along later in that same year and equaled the record, with their pounding, protest anthem / dance track, My People.
The alterna-art rock of Young Modern finds its clearest expression in Straight Lines which blends catchy hooks, artful keyboard arrangements with gutsy guitar rock, and autobiographical lyrical themes which reflect the challenges faced by John’s on his road to recovery from reactive arthritis, clinical depression, anorexia, and addiction to anti-depressant medication – these were the straight lines that Daniel had to follow, to regain his physical and mental health, “Wake me up lower the fever/Walking in a straight line/Set me on fire in the evening/Everything will be fine/Wake me up strong in the morning/Walking in a straight line/Lately I’m a desperate believer/But walking in a straight line…”
Those lines also defined his path to self-awareness and creative flowering, a journey on which Daniel Johns made great strides with this song and the album, which not only became the band’s fifth consecutive #1 locally, a feat never achieved before by a local band, it also charted #11 in NZ but flopped Stateside at #70, they had lost their US fan base by now, even though this song could have easily come from Coldplay or Kings of Leon, who were successful in the US at this time. The distinctive album cover art was an homage to the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian, but the US promotion of the album was blunted when Johns came down with a severe case of laryngitis, most evident in his squeaky performance of Straight Lines on the Jay Leno Show, below left to right Johns, Adam Sandler, Jay Leno).
Silverchair would begin a period of prolonged hiatus in 2007, from which they never returned, and Daniel Johns would embark on a solo career and bachelor lifestyle that was at times equal parts surprising, eccentric, and bizarre.