SONGS OF THE DECADE – 2000’s- POWDERFINGER

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My Happiness (Powderfinger) – Powderfinger 2001

Brisbane band Powderfinger had formed in 1989 as a trio of Ian Haug (guitar/vocals), Steven Bishop (drums) and John Collins (bass), Haug and Collins were students at Brisbane Grammar School and Bishop a student at neighbouring St. Joseph’s College Gordon Terrace. The trio gigged around Brisbane but were not full-time musos, they landed several appearances at the Orient Hotel which would become their local haunt over the years. Haug met Bernard Fanning at the University of Queensland and invited him to join the band as lead singer; Bishop was diagnosed with depression in 1991 and replaced by Jonathon Coghill on drums, lead guitar Darren Middleton was recruited from Sonic Tapestry, so that by 1991 the classic Powderfinger lineup which would release five studio albums in the next fifteen years, was complete. Above L-R John Collins, Bernard Fanning, Ian Haug, Darren Middleton, and Jonathon Coghill.

The band’s musical influences included local bands AC/DC, Lime Spiders, the Stems, the Sunnyboys as well as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Steppenwolf, and Neil Young, from whom they had taken the title of one of his esoteric country rock classics for their band name.

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The band rented practice space in the T C Beirne building in Fortitude Valley (above) along with many other local bands who were transforming the Brisbane scene from a covers-band wasteland to a merging of alternative and mainstream music that would flourish in the future as the compact disc market hit critical mass and original Australian music once again flourished. Other local bands to emerge from the melting pot of a nascent Brisbane market at the time were Toxic Garden Gnomes, Puzzlehouse, Screamfeeder, Custard, Brasilia and Pangaea, the latter two subsequently combined to become Regurgitator.

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The Finger signed a five- album record deal with Polydor in 1993, company execs Tim Prescott and Paul Dickson who had discovered Men at Work when they were working together at Sony, believed that Powderfinger would be the new Midnight Oil – earnest, unique, talented and with a social conscience. Their debut abum Parable For Wooden Ears was a poor imitation of Soundgarden and limped to #58, but with a change of producer to Tim Whitten their second album Double Allergic saw the band emerge as genuine contenders with original songs, when it climbed to #4 and the single Pick You Up became their first top 30 hit. They followed up with the album Internationalist in 1998 which was the first of three consecutivec #1 albums for the band, the single The Day You Come became the band’s first ARIA Song of the Year winner in 1999, as did the album Internationalist in the Best Rock album category.

The band was touring nationally and cementing their reputation as a premier live band throughout the 90’s, but tensions were beginning to surface, drummer Jonathon Coghill and front man Fanning were both alpha males who sought to dominate, and the band often remained mired in a tedious process of democratic vote-taking about what and how to record, and what and when to release their records.

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While competing claims for leadership of the band persisted, it didn’t seem to hamper the creative dynamic within the group, tension can sometimes be an artistic stimulus, and their albums were showing increasing signs of maturity and artful levels of experimentation, the band’s next album Odyssey Number 5, recorded at Sing Sing Studios (Melb), would take Powderfinger into the major leagues.

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My Happiness was the first single lifted from the album, and was based on a riff that lead guitarist Darren Middleton had devised, but as usual the evolution of the song was a creative team effort, Fanning added melody, tambourines and lyrics, Coghill and John Collins laid down the rhythmic base and Ian Haug added his signature guitar lines. Nick DiDia was back behind the production console and the vibe was good, until Nick suggested that Coghill might try to replicate a Ringo Starr drum infill on one track, and he was quickly rebuffed by the indignant drummer. The unusual “wobbly guitar” sound was distinctive, and achieved by the use of a wah- wah pedal and/or tremelo arm, either way it certainly imparted a SpongeBob Squarepants kind of underwater sound to the melody, and was a perfect accompaniment for the “slinky” that featured in the music vid.  

This was the Fingers biggest hit to date and the first of their four top ten charters.

This song set the template for the rest of the album, it would chart at #4 nationally and become their first top ten single, rise to #23 on the US Billboard charts, sell over 350,000 copies, and prompt the band to play as support act for Coldplay on their upcoming US tour.  

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My Happiness was the first single lifted off the Odyssey Number 5 album, like several great Australian songs – Golden Miles, Burn for You, Wide Open Road, Home on a Monday – it captured the feelings of loneliness from endless touring, and the separation from family and loved ones, the alienation and sense of dispossession of life on the road, yet many interpreted it as being a romantic love song as the lyrics suggest – “I see your shadow on the street now/I hear you push through the rusty gate/Click of your heels on the concrete/Waiting for a knock coming way too late/It seems an age since I’ve seen you/Countdown as the weeks trickle into days…”

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Rolling Stone’s review of My Happiness was fulsome in its praise “… packs a huge chorus and a message that could very nearly pass as uplifting… This is orgasm rock: songs that begin with a little acoustic foreplay and then build and swell to huge, soaring climaxes…”. The promo clip underscores the lyrics and encourages those who are feeling estranged and dispossessed to persevere and work through their issues, to find true happiness and fulfilment and not succumb to the dark side of depression.

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The music vid starts at a railway station (Rome St. Station, Brisbane) with a boy and girl stepping off a train, as the pair leaves the boy turns and tries to reach for something, but the girl pulls him back. It is revealed that he was reaching for a sentient slinky, which leaves the train, and passes Middleton busking in the train station. The slinky ventures to find the boy, facing a range of challenges along the way; these include avoiding fruit falling on it and riding a skateboard. In the middle of the music clip, the slinky is shown making its way through a music room in which Powderfinger are performing My Happiness,  It rests on the bar and the band finishes playing, while the background music continues. As Powderfinger leaves, the slinky is picked up by Haug, he gets into a car and places the slinky on the car’s dashboard, but it falls out the window as the car turns a tight corner, and  lands outside the gate of a house. It is picked up and brought inside to the boy from the train station, for many fans My Happiness is known as the “slinky song”.

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The band heard that Tom Cruise was a fan, and while filming Mission Impossible 2 in Sydney requested a song for the movie’s soundtrack, he ultimately chose My Kind of Scene for the album along with songs from Metallica, Foo Fighters, and Limp Bizkit. The album debuted at #2 on the US album charts and gave the band unimagined exposure to the North American market, in liner notes about their next tour of the US Fanning recalled that the band performed on the David Letterman show and played a nervous and freezing version of My Happiness where the on-set temperature was 14 degrees Celsius, My Happiness enjoyed the unique status of winning both the ARIA and APRA Award for Song of the Year in 2000.

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