Front row or death row

Chrissy Amphlett was a beautiful woman who was unafraid to be ugly. That was what I loved most about her: it was what made her such a riveting performer, as well as a genuinely intriguing personality. Fully aware of her sexual power, she nevertheless confronted her audience with songs that spoke frankly of love as a co-dependent act of submission, and occasionally of subjugation – even, sometimes, of humiliation.

But most of all, desperation. The Divinyls’ first album was named Desperate. Pleasure And Pain – written not by Amphlett or her co-pilot, Mark McEntee, but by proven hit-makers Holly Knight and Mike Chapman – was the perfect vehicle for her: it was the tension between the vulnerability of the song and the aggression of those uniquely phrased vocals that made Amphlett great.

Most of the best Divinyls songs utilise this dramatic tension: Boys In Town; Casual Encounter; Only Lonely; Elsie and the band’s truest masterpiece, Back To The Wall: for all the tough rock-chick talk, Amphlett bled on record, and on stage, as freely as anyone. The difference between her and the vast majority of other female singers was that if you hurt her, she was gonna hurt you back, hard.

You’ve got the upper hand
But I’ve got nothing to lose
When I’m trapped in a corner like this
I might blow up a fuse

On stage, especially earlier in her career, she would throw shapes calculated not to titillate or to tease but to shock, offend, outrage and frighten. It was potent, sure, but it was also uncomfortable and confusing, because Amphlett didn’t allow herself to be easily assimilated. Her act, exemplified by her wearing a school uniform with torn fishnets – a metaphor for defiled innocence – was a contradiction. Hunching her back, screaming with the primal force of a cornered animal, she presented herself as damaged goods, and was convincing enough to make you wonder if you might in some way be responsible.

From all accounts, she was as insecure as any performer. And maybe, as she grew older and presumably more at ease with herself, she also became more comfortable with expressing her sexuality in a more conventional way; both in her lyrics and in the band’s videos. Or perhaps that was a price she was prepared to pay for the band’s success in the age of MTV – I don’t know.

Sure, I Touch Myself may the best song about pushing the hot button ever written, but still, I preferred the earlier, more challenging version, back when Amphlett didn’t wear makeup, and her haircut was more severe. Back when she bared her teeth – knowing that they were jagged, and that there were gaps in her smile. Were the Divinyls getting started now, a manager or record company lackey might have told Amphlett to get that smile fixed.

I’d like to think she would have told them to go fuck themselves.

If you never saw Amphlett and the Divinyls in full flight, this performance of Elsie – wherein Amphlett inhabits the body of the song’s subject with unhinged authenticity – captures her at a peak of provocation. Here, a lipstick is used not to accentuate the beauty of that famous pout, but as a tool of self-loathing; something to be smeared like dirt, instead of applied as polish.

Amphlett once spoke of performing as “front row or death row”: whether you were male or female, there was no point being up there if you weren’t going to let it all hang out. In America and England, Patti Smith and the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde had already blasted open the doors for women who didn’t want to be demure. In Australia, Amphlett was the first, the best and, for a long time, the only one of her kind. And perhaps she always will be.

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