Fascinating, terrifying, completely unique: how Chrissy Amphlett changed the game | australian music
I was 13 when I fell in love with Chrissy Amphlett.
It was 1983 and I had just started working for our old family friend Vince Lovegrove during school holidays. In the late ’60s, Vince had been a frilly bubble-gum pop singer with the Valentines, alongside AC/DC’s Bon Scott; in the 1970s, he had become a journalist of the trendy music scene, television producer, accompanist; and now he led the avant-garde rock group the Divinyls, whose song Boys in Town already obsessed me.
My first job as a secretary (a job title that I found very glamorous) was to sit on the floor with a pair of scissors, push my way through a pile of Go-Sets and other magazines from 60s and 70s, all the way, deleting all articles featuring him or written by him, of which there were many. My next task was to sift through a stack of similarly sized street papers and music press for any mention of the Divinyls and file them for him. I had to breathe in the whole history of Australian rock ‘n’ roll and, lost in the minute detail of every Divinyls detail that was mentioned, I fell completely in love with Amphlett.
It’s hard to be in a band: it’s as much an exercise in finding the right chemistry, the little sparks, the mute chord, as the musical relationship. When a manager, an underdog, is added to the mix, it takes even more luck to make it work. My own garage rock band White Trash Mamas, for example, had a short-lived situation with an industry guy who tried to get us to take singing lessons and practice synchronized dance moves. We dumped it after a week and burned shortly after. But when the Divinyls and Vince reunited, they became like a gang, tight-knit, on the same page. Vince used to stand at the side of the stage and remind Chrissy, just before she continued, “Be loose as a goose! But aggressive!”
Vince has always had a great admiration for women doing their own thing. He gave me a copy of Women Who Run with the Wolves for my 17th birthday, which I found both embarrassing and hilarious, but often skimmed through. Encouraging women to push boundaries was part of who he was. He revealed to me that he urged Chrissy to practice these defiant, fierce moves and belligerent expressions in front of a mirror, playing around to see what worked. I was completely shocked and disappointed by the cold theatrics of this one. I felt cheated – I had been convinced she had just gotten lost in the moment. I had a lot of rock’n’roll secrets to learn. He explained that knowing what worked relieved his self-awareness and gave him the freedom to surrender to the music and let the songs lead the way. According to Vince, when the band first performed live, she was standing in the back of the stage with her eyes downcast, too shy to look at the audience — he told me to keep that revelation to myself.
Many years, concerts and records later, in her memoir, Pleasure and Pain, Chrissy detailed this difficult process of finding her power on stage, and how the only performers she could turn to for finding a wild and memorable were men. . If she was going to be outrageous on stage, she would be among the first women to do so. Chrissy focused entirely on the task, in cahoots with Vince, looking for a unique identifier, something to mark her with. She wrote: “I needed something I could hide behind and let me go.”
After attending an inspiring AC/DC concert together, they found a look: the gorgeous mental fuck of a schoolboy tunic over a white Peter Pan collar blouse, ripped stockings, suspenders and flats. Chrissy had worn variations of school uniforms on stage before, but inspired by Angus Young’s infamous schoolboy character, she combined that look with the attitude of a character she called The Monster or The Schoolgirl. It was like putting on armor. Nothing could penetrate her stage persona – she was invincible and free. She said, “The uniform was [me giving] the finger to everyone. This allowed him to trigger a sneering confrontation with the public, to put himself in front of people.
Chrissy had found her niche, her look, her brand, and she ran hard and fast with it. The first gig she played as The Schoolgirl, at the long-defunct Astra Hotel in Bondi, blew the crowd away. Vince said: “It was one of the pivotal nights in Australian rock history…never had there been such an uninhibited performance from an Aussie singer.”
One of the many benefits of knowing Vince was the guarantee of free entry to any Divinyls concert, and I went to as many of them as I could.
Shortly after my 13th birthday, I witnessed an enthralling but rather terrifying spectacle at Selina’s beachfront beer barn, where the band seemed to be at each other’s throats, spitting each other out. on top of each other. Chrissy was doing her thing by grabbing an audience member’s bag that had been hidden in the front of the stage and running through it, throwing their tampons, smearing their lipstick on her face. As photographer Tony Mott noted, “She was incredibly wild and unpredictable. I often had fears for my safety, his safety, the safety of the public.
I’ve also seen the band play Sydney Cove Tavern, Governors Pleasure and even Balmain Leagues Club, and attended their three-night run at the briefly reopened Tivoli, where the ghosts of the Tivoli showgirls would surely have danced with delight in Chrissy’s stage prowess. I always went there alone, taking a taxi there and back, arriving just before the band came on stage, usually without speaking to anyone. I stood a few rows from the stage and let the spectacle carry me away. Growing up as a rock ‘n’ roller girl, it was normal for me to go to concerts all the time, even at a young age. I would often meet my dad, Peter, at the Manzil Room at 2 a.m. after a night out seeing bands so he could walk me home.
In her memoir, Chrissy said she “loved talent and creativity and was a great performer”. It was also my only church. She has spoken of regularly going to see her idol Wendy Saddington sing at Melbourne club Thumpin’ Tum when she was just 16. Watching Blondie’s Debbie Harry made her want to sing in a band so hard she could taste it. I felt the same way watching Chrissy, always letting myself drift into the ridiculous fantasy that if for some reason she couldn’t get on stage, Vince would invite me to jump in and cover for her because he knew that I knew everything. words and gestures. I even blush now at the thought of what could have happened if I had had this opportunity.
Chrissy has cultivated a reputation for being equally terrifying offstage. Phil Stafford, a reporter for Rock Australia Magazine, said: “If a reporter goes after his editor, the most terrible punishment he can inflict is to send that poor bastard to interview Chrissy Amphlett. We thought it was worse than feeding the lions. But in private, away from the stage, she was sweet and warm, funny and full of stories. She and Divinyls guitarist Mark McEntee came to our house to visit Vince; my mother, Mouse, a seamstress, made Chrissy’s sailor uniform in What a Life! album era. Their arrival would be heralded by their large black funeral car driving ahead.
They would sit and chat for hours, like people did back then, our house being an ever-changing green room where musicians came and went. Chrissy would compliment the vintage dresses I almost always wore, and I’d be happy to make her a cup of coffee. She regaled me with vivid and absurd stories that left me blown away – of being thrown in jail for singing on street corners in Spain, of being locked in a cage for her own protection on a bus carrying male prisoners , stealing food to survive in London and standing on the docks at Old Bailey. His stories were so incredible that I decided I had to make them up; I was happy to confirm, when I researched Chrissy later, that they had all happened exactly as I remembered. She sowed in me the desire to travel, to be a woman of the world. Keep all this experience in me to be able to sing with the same authority and the same depth as her.
Vince always left me an all-area access pass at the gate, which I treasured and stuck to my mirror at home. But after the concerts, I rarely went backstage. I felt like the Chrissy who was on stage and present at the concert was not the same Chrissy I had been lucky enough to spend time with in private, and I felt a strange protective sense of brotherhood. by not wanting to blow his cover. I was a teenage schoolgirl, and I idolized her, and she knew it; she knew my parents, and she had to be nice to me behind the scenes, and I didn’t want that for her. I didn’t want her to be normal and nice at concerts – I just liked her the way she was.