As one of the most highly feted Australian rock bands of the mid-1990s, Newcastle's silverchair has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career. Led by charismatic frontman Daniel Johns, silverchair came to epitomise 1990s alternarock with a sound and style that drew as much from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, AC/DC and Radio Birdman as it did from Seattle grunge godheads like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. The mainstream media made much of the fact that the band members were still at high school when silverchair was thrust into the limelight. Yet that hardly mattered, given the band's uncanny knack for delivering superbly crafted, dynamic, swaggering and accessible rock music. With worldwide album sales approaching six million copies, silverchair's place in Australian rock history was well assured.
Johns, Chris Joannou and Ben Gilles were all born in 1979. They formed their first band, Innocent Criminals, in 1992, along with second guitarist Tobin Finnane who left soon after due to the fact that his family was to spend a year in the UK. In early 1994, Innocent Criminals recorded demos of the songs `Pure Massacre', `Acid Rain', `Cicada' and `Tomorrow' at Terry Farrelly's Platinum Sound Studios. The band submitted `Tomorrow' to the `Pick Me' competition run by SBS-TV's music show nomad in conjunction with the ABC's national youth radio network Triple J.
Innocent Criminals emerged as the winners in April. The band re-recorded `Tomorrow' at Triple J Studios in Sydney and the nomad crew filmed a low-key video which was aired on 16 June 1994. Triple J began to play `Tomorrow' on a regular basis. Immediately courted by both Mushroom Records and the Murmur label (Sony's newly formed boutique, indie label headed by former music journalist John O'Donnell), the band was in big demand. Murmur eventually signed the re-named silverchair, and by October the `Tomorrow' CD EP (issued in September) had leapt into the national Top 10. `Tomorrow' peaked at #1 and stayed there for six weeks, selling 180000 copies after a Top 60 stay of 28 weeks. It was the ninth biggest selling single in Australia during 1994, as well as logging the #5 spot (the highest Australian entry) on Triple J's 1994 Hottest 100 list. With `Tomorrow' still in the Top 10, silverchair's follow-up CD EP, `Pure Massacre', made its debut at #2 during January 1995 (kept from the top spot by Irish band The Cranberries' `Zombie'). That same month, silverchair completed a showcase slot on the national Big Day Out tour. `Israel's Son' reached #11 on the national chart in April.
Amidst the inevitable media jibes of `Nirvana in pyjamas', `silverhighchair' and `not Soundgarden but Kindergarden', the band issued its debut, full-length album frogstomp (March 1995). Produced by South African Kevin `Caveman' Shirley, frogstomp captured the tempo of the times with its mix of Soundgarden/Pearl Jam/Bush post-grunge noise and teenage lyrical angst. It made its debut at #1 on the national charts and went on to sell over 210000 copies. The album's fourth single, `Shade', reached #28 in July. Sony/Epic issued frogstomp in the USA, and by August it had reached the American Top 10 (on its way to selling more than two million copies). `Tomorrow' also reached the US Top 30, and silverchair undertook two American tours (June and September, including support slots to Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Ramones). The band appeared on the bill of the MTV Music Awards at New York's Radio City Music Hall, playing `Tomorrow' and `Pure Massacre'.
During October 1995, silverchair took out the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards for Best Single, Best Debut Single, Highest Selling Single (`Tomorrow'), Best Debut Album (frogstomp) and Best New Talent. The band also performed, in company with You Am I's Tim Rogers, a rendition of Radio Birdman's teen anthem, `New Race', live on the television broadcast. In early 1996, silverchair appeared on the bill of the rain-sodden Homebake '96 festival (held in Byron Bay), alongside the likes of Spiderbait, Tumbleweed, Regurgitator and Magic Dirt.
silverchair returned to the USA and the UK for further bouts of touring (including an appearance on the bill of the 1996 Reading Festival). The band's next CD single, `Freak', made its debut at #1 on the national chart in January 1997. Produced by Nick Launay (Birthday Party, Models, Midnight Oil), the single included a version of Radio Birdman's `New Race' which featured the song's writer Deniz Tek on guitar and vocal `yeah hups!'. The Freak Show album (produced by Launay and mixed by Andy Wallace) also made its debut at #1 (February) before slipping back down to #2 a week later. By that stage, it had already sold over 70 000 copies.
If frogstomp betrayed a debt to Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, then Freak Show and tracks like `Freak' were firmly in Nirvana territory with a hint of Led Zeppelin's Eastern mysticism. Not a bad thing, considering the overall strengths of the album. With the platinum-selling `Freak' still sitting at #8 after 11 weeks, the album's second single, `Abuse Me', made its debut at #9 in April. `Abuse Me' featured a version of The Master's Apprentices' R&B infused `Undecided' (with Deniz Tek on guitar) as a bonus track. silverchair spent the early months of 1997 touring Australia and the USA (supported by Automatic).
The US tour took in an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman during which the band performed `Abuse Me'. The third CD single lifted from Freak Show, `Cemetery' (June), made its debut at #5 on the Australian chart. The fourth, `The Door', only tickled the lower reaches of the Top 40 for two weeks in November. Meanwhile, silverchair had undertaken its second UK tour. `Pure Massacre' and `Tomorrow' had been minor UK hits at #71 (July 1995) and #59 (September) respectively. The Freak Box (November 1997) comprised the four CD singles lifted from Freak Show (with ten non-album tracks), an interactive CD-ROM and an interview disc.
‘Freak’ registered #13 on the 1997 Triple J Hottest 100 list, with ‘The Door’ coming in at #27. On the Business Review Weekly annual Top 50 earnings list of Australian entertainers for 1997, silverchair came in at #9 with $4.5 million. Savage Garden was at #3 with $11 million and AC/DC at #7 with $5 million. With the completion of their HSC exams in late 1997, the members of silverchair set off on an Australia tour. They then took six months off in early 1998, before recording a new album.
The band contributed a track, ‘Untitled’ (a Freak Show outtake), to the original soundtrack of the feature film, Godzilla (June 1998, Sony/Epic). The soundtrack also featured The Wallflowers, Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page, Jamiroquai, Rage Against The Machine, Fuel, The Foo Fighters and Green Day. ‘Untitled’ registered #93 on the 1998 Triple J Hottest 100 list.
‘Freak’ appeared on the original soundtrack to Ana Kokkinos’ Australian feature film Head On (July 1998) starring Alex Demitriadis. The cover of The Clash song ‘London’s Burning’ appeared on the Clash tribute album, Burning London (May 1999), alongside contributions from Korn, Heather Nova and Moby, Cracker and No Doubt.
February 1999 saw the release of the band’s new CD single, ‘Anthem for the Year 2000’. It became a huge hit, peaking at #3 and selling 100 000 units. The single also contained ‘London’s Burning’ and ‘Untitled’. The critically acclaimed third album, Neon Ballroom, followed in March. As well as being the band’s best album to date, it was universally acknowledged as one of the best albums of the year.
Produced by veteran Nick Launay (Midnight Oil), it boasted layered production values with strings featured prominently throughout. It was certainly ambitious, sustained and varied, with David Helfgott (the inspiration for the highly regarded film Shine) making a guest appearance on the lead off track, ‘Emotion Sickness’. The album made its debut at #1 on the national chart, and by September it had sold 140 000 units (double platinum).
The second CD single, the big ballad ‘Ana’s Song (Open Fire)’ (April 1999) peaked at #14 on the chart. By that stage, silverchair had added auxiliary keyboard player Sam Holloway (ex-Cordrazine) for the worldwide Neon Ballroom tour. Upon release in the USA, ‘Anthem for Year 2000’ was the most added track to American radio. The US portion of the world tour saw the band playing concerts with The Offspring and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The UK and European legs boasted sold-out shows, with highly touted new boys, The Living End supporting silverchair at London’s Brixton Academy.
While frogstomp had sold 1.4 million units in the US, Freak Show had proven somewhat disappointing with sales figures of 600 000 copies, after peaking there at #12 during May 1997. The album did go on to sell 1.5 million worldwide, although frogstomp had approached the three million mark. One of the band’s aims for Neon Ballroom was to improve upon the Freak Show sales. By the end of 1999, US sales for Neon Ballroom were approaching one million units.
In the meantime, Murmur reissued Neon Ballroom with a bonus CD-ROM component, containing the film Inside the Neon Ballroom (August). The repackaging pushed the album back up to #11, after hovering around in the lower reaches of the Top 30 for the previous three months. The third single, ‘Miss You Love’ (September) peaked at #17. The band took out trophies for the Engineer of the Year (Nick Launay for Neon Ballroom) and Channel V Artist of the Year at the 1999 ARIA Music Awards. In December 1999, at the Sydney show of the Homebake festival, silverchair gave its last performance for an ‘indefinite’ break.
‘Anthem for the Year 2000’ registered #54 on the Most Played Tracks on Australian Radio in 1999 list, with ‘Ana’s Song (Open Fire)’ and ‘Miss You Love’ at #66 and #81 respectively. ‘Ana’s Song (Open Fire)’ also logged the #15 position on the 1999 Triple J Hottest 100 list, with ‘Anthem for the Year 2000’, ‘Miss You Love’ and ‘Emotion Sickness’ coming in at #29, #30 and #43 respectively. Incidentally, ‘Miss You Love’ was also voted the Most Hated Song of 1999 on Triple J.