Tagged: the Divinyls

Stevie Wright: the prototype Australian rock frontman

The news that Stevie Wright – solo artist, singer for the Easybeats and, thanks to that band’s immortal single Friday On My Mind, arguably Australia’s first international pop star – has died at the age of 68 will not be a surprise to anyone familiar with his sad story. That does not make his loss any less devastating.

The tiny Wright, who was billed as Little Stevie in his early years, was Australia’s prototype rock & roll frontman. Some of his moves, not to mention his leering grin, were lovingly copped by AC/DC’s Bon Scott. They also found an echo in Chrissy Amphlett, whose band the Divinyls covered the Easybeats’ I’ll Make You Happy.

Wright, along with his bandmates, was part of the first wave of migrants to jump-start Australian rock and pop. Born in Leeds in 1947, his family emigrated to Australia when he was nine, settling in Villawood. There he met Dutch-born Harry Vanda and Scot George Young (older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus), both of whom were staying at the local migrant hostel.

Wright wrote lyrics for many of the Easybeats’ early hits, including She’s So Fine, Wedding Ring and fan favourite Sorry – a number one hit in Australia in 1966, and as tough a record as anything released to that point by the early Kinks, Rolling Stones or the Small Faces.

After that, his influence within the group waned, as Young began working with fellow guitarist Vanda. Friday On My Mind was the first fruit of a phenomenally successful partnership, for the Easybeats and as house writers and producers for Albert Productions in the 1970s.

Ultimately, this worked to Wright’s advantage after he was reunited with Vanda and Young as a solo artist. His full range as a singer – an inspired belter, capable of surprising tenderness – is best captured on his 11-minute single Evie (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which despite its prodigious length also went to number one in 1974.

But Wright, as the title of his first solo album Hard Road indicated, lost his way after his early fame. And although it contained some of his finest performances, the cover of that album was a giveaway, with a haunted-looking Wright photographed on a beach as though shipwrecked.

Addicted to heroin, he admitted himself to the notorious Chelmsford Private Hospital where he was administered deep sleep therapy, a combination of electroshock therapy and drug-induced coma which left him with severe after-effects. (The hospital’s practices, which were linked to 26 deaths, later became the subject of a Royal Commission.)

Wright performed only sporadically after that, headlining the Legends of Rock show at Byron Bay for his final show in 2009. With the Easybeats, he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005; in 2001, Friday On My Mind was voted the best Australian song of all time by the Australasian Performing Rights Association.

It’s the song for which Wright will be best remembered. From its opening stanzas charting the working week, through to its hedonistic chorus celebrating the coming of the weekend, it’s the definitive Australian working-class anthem. Wright’s vocal is by turns impatient, cheeky – “even my old man looks good!” – and exuberant.

It is sad that Wright’s struggles have obscured his enormous influence on generations of Australian rock & roll, from AC/DC to the Saints to You Am I. Each of their vocalists, in turn, owe a drink to the diminutive frontman with the who-me grin, the little shimmy and the loveable larrikin vocals.

First published in The Guardian, 28 December 2015

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.

The Great Australian Songbook II (40-31)

As promised from yesterday. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible in terms of decade and genre, avoiding multiple selections for the same artist.

Without further ado, here’s the list from 40 to 31.

40. COSMIC PSYCHOS – Lost Cause (1988)

It was Spinal Tap who pointed out the fine line between clever and stupid. In Australia, you won’t find three smarter beer-swilling yobs than The Cosmic Psychos. This isn’t a song about punching above your weight – it’s about being out of your weight division entirely. “Dr” Ross Knight, the band’s bass player, is a farmer from outside Bendigo who’s been known to cancel tours when his tractor breaks down. At the time he wrote this song, he was working part-time in the medical records department of a local hospital, where he fell under the spell of an attractive young lady who’s “only 19, not a has-been!” “I was about 25, 26 at that point, a bogan fucking pisshead,” Knight recalls. “I said to a mate of mine, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking her out,’ and he goes, ‘Nah – have a look at you! She’s a lost cause, mate!” The song was later covered by L7 and The Prodigy.

39. DO RE MI – Man Overboard (1985)

After the comic ribaldry of the Cosmic Psychos, it’s nice to follow Lost Cause with the best piece of feminist polemic set to pop music in Australia since Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. Do Re Mi’s lean, agitated funk provided all the space required for Deborah Conway’s sharp-eyed, razor-tongued portrait of a relationship in terminal decay. Critic Toby Creswell reckoned Conway had a voice like a braying donkey. If that’s the case, it’s even more impressive that a song with no chorus and lyrics that referenced sexual boredom, penis envy and anal humour actually became a top five hit.

38. SEVERED HEADS – Dead Eyes Opened (1984; remixed 1995)

Australia is not well known for its electronic music output, but long before the Avalanches scored with Since I Left You in 2000 there was Tom Ellard’s brilliant Severed Heads. Exploring the space between the industrial terror of Suicide, the pop smarts of New Order and the minimalism of Kraftwerk, the creepy Dead Eyes Opened was both of its time and ahead of it, and proved it by being a hit twice: once upon its release in 1984, and then again with a remixed version in 1995.

37. DAVE GRANEY & THE CORAL SNAKES – You’re Just Too Hip, Baby (1993)

On one hand, Dave Graney is an eccentric from Mt Gambier, South Australia who’s read too many Raymond Chandler novels. His genius is in filtering his influences through his own uniquely idiosyncratic worldview, and you won’t find a better example than this minor hit from 1993 that set the former Moodist on his way to unlikely Australian King of Pop status a couple of years later. “You take a feather from every bird you see / You’ll never fly” is the perfect rejoinder to a jaded hipster, accented by Rod Hayward’s stinging guitar breaks.

36. MENTAL AS ANYTHING – The Nips Are Getting Bigger (1979)

One of the all-time great Australian drinking songs. It starts out just drinking beer, then it progresses to Jamaican rum, and things are all downhill from there for poor Martin Plaza: “Wiping out brain cells by the million, but I don’t care / It doesn’t worry me even though I ain’t got a lot to spare.” Reg Mombassa’s splashes (splatters?) of guitar are as colourful as his designs for Mambo, but it’s Plaza’s sad, funny and true portrait of everyday alcoholic waste that, once heard, never leaves you.

35. REGURGITATOR – ! (The Song Formerly Known As) (1997)

First, there’s a chuckle. Add a clipped white-funk guitar (which actually sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers than Prince), then a belching bass keyboard fill, and voilà: instant party. Except it’s a party that Quan Yeomans doesn’t want to go to. He’d rather stay at home, dancing in ugly pants in the comfort of his suburban lounge room. Regurgitator are amazingly versatile – they can do hardcore, they can do pop, and their contribution to Australian hip-hop is massively undersold, but this wonderful paean to the socially awkward is their finest moment, and propelled its parent album, Unit, to triple-platinum status. Thank you, Mr DJ.

34. THE CRUEL SEA – This Is Not The Way Home (1991)

This is a driving song, best suited to very long, very straight, very red roads far beyond Woop Woop, with a bunch of mates and a case of beer for company: just leave the actual driving to whichever one of you is least inebriated. Snatches of conversations, casual observations, hints of violence and a chugging rhythm – Dan Rumour’s introductory snippet of guitar before the rhythm section kicks in is akin to a smooth change from third to fourth – and you’re away, with the throttling slide guitar in the chorus putting the whole thing into overdrive. Somehow, I’ve never been busted speeding to it.

33. DIVINYLS – Back To The Wall (1988)

Boys In Town, Pleasure And Pain, Science Fiction and the masturbatory epic I Touch Myself were all bigger hits, and it would be easier to choose any of them for popularity’s sake. But on this killer tune, Chrissy Amphlett nailed her tough but vulnerable rock-chick persona for all time. Swathed in co-conspirator/lover Mark McEntee’s echoing Rickenbacker and unobtrusive keyboards, this is dangerous, borderline stuff, all the more compelling for its restraint: the predicted eruption never arrives, but Amphlett’s threats hang in the air, leaving you cowering in a corner.

32. SCIENTISTS – Swampland (1982)

Years ago I was trying to write a book about Australian garage rock under this title, and I bumped into the song’s author, Kim Salmon, at a Mudhoney show earlier this week. He joked that at the rate I’m going, he’d have his memoirs out before my own effort. He’s calling his work-in-progress Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand: How I Invented Grunge, and while he’s at least partly joking, there are plenty (Mudhoney included) who don’t dispute his claim. The Scientists were doing the soft-loud thing long before the Pixies, and with equal style: imagine the Count Five, the Cramps and Creedence jamming in a garage, and you’re back on the Bayou.

31. LAUGHING CLOWNS – Eternally Yours (1984)

After the Saints, Ed Kuepper formed the all but unclassifiable (and, occasionally, all but unlistenable) Laughing Clowns. With three virtuoso players in their ranks, the Clowns were musician’s musicians, with Kuepper – one of this country’s greatest guitarists – backed by drummer Jeff Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott. Here, Elliott’s the star, building from an austere melody to a stupendous climax: prepare to have your breath taken away at 4.21, when she holds a long note for eight full seconds, before taking flight for an extraordinary finale. Rock music doesn’t get much more stirring than this.