Brisbane-based, hard rock band Powderfinger first came to the nation's attention in late 1993 when its CD EP Transfusion went straight to #1 on the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) alternative music chart, dislodging Nirvana's `Heart-shaped Box' from the top spot in the process. The band went on to register a number of mainstream chart hits.
Deriving its name from the Neil Young song `Powderfinger', the band made its mark with an earthy, blues-based sound that combined soaring, 1970s-influenced riff-rock with 1990s studio technology. With the added textures of folk, country and a soulful groove, the band was able to head in any direction. And in Bernard Fanning, Powderfinger possessed a rock vocalist of considerable power and conviction. Powderfinger grew out of a fledgling three-piece comprising Ian Haug, John Collins and Steven Bishop (drums). Fanning, Darren Middleton and Jonathan Coghill joined in 1990 (replacing Bishop) to form Powderfinger. The band started off covering pub-rock classics by The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, Rodriguez and Neil Young. Powderfinger emerged out of the same scene that gave rise to the likes of Regurgitator, Custard, Screamfeeder, Pangaea, Emporium and Brasilia.
Powderfinger issued its debut, independent CD EP Powderfinger in early 1993 before signing a major deal with Polydor. Transfusion (September 1993) vindicated Polydor's interest in the band when it registered high on the independent chart. The band appeared on the national bill of the 1994 Big Day Out tour. Powderfinger's full-length debut album, Parables for Wooden Ears (August 1994), produced the CD singles `Tail' (June) and `Grave Concern' (September). The Tony Cohen-produced Parables for Wooden Ears featured complex, meticulously crafted rock but was somewhat ponderous and sombre, which did little to fulfil the promise displayed on Transfusion. It did, however, place the band in the same territory as American groups like Living Colour and Soundgarden. Powderfinger supported US visitors Pantera on their 1994 Australian tour.
The band issued two CD EPs during 1995, `Save Your Skin' (March) and `Mr Kneebone' (August), before recording a new album at the end of 1995. The more self-assured and textured Double Allergic consolidated the band's position at the forefront of the alternative rock scene, alongside the likes of You Am I, Spiderbait, silverchair, Regurgitator and Tumbleweed. Double Allergic (September 1996) was full of accessible, spirited rock like the dynamic CD singles `Pick You Up' (#22 in June) and `D.A.F. (Cascading Down)' (#39 in September). `Living Type' (November) was the third CD single lifted from Double Allergic. The album lept straight into the national Top 10, eventually peaking at #4 during February 1997.
The album stayed in the Top 40 for 34 weeks and sold over 150000 copies (double platinum; a figure almost twice that of contemporaries like You Am I and Spiderbait). `Pick You Up' was nominated as Song of the Year at the 1996 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards. `Pick You Up', `D.A.F. (Cascading Down)' and `Living Type' also registered #6, #18 and #32 respectively on the 1996 Triple J Hottest 100 list. Powderfinger appeared on the national bill of the Big Day Out tour (January 1997). In April, `Take Me In' appeared as the fourth CD single lifted from Double Allergic. The album also came out in Canada, and Powderfinger undertook a North American tour.
By 1998, Double Allergic had sold 200 000 units. For the early part of the year, Ian Haug joined Grant McLennan in his new band, Far Out Corporation. The new Powderfinger CD single, ‘The Day You Come’, came out in August 1998. It peaked at #24 on the national chart, and was the first single lifted from the eagerly awaited third album, Internationalist (also issued in August). The album leapt into the chart at #1 first week, immediately selling 35 000 units (to qualify for gold status). Produced by American Nick DiDia (Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam), the album featured mature, textured rock.
The double A-sided CD single, ‘Don’t Wanna Be Left Out’/‘Good-Day Ray’, appeared in November, to be followed by the introspective ‘Already Gone’ as the third single (February 1999). ‘The Day You Come’ registered #8 on the 1998 Triple J Hottest 100 list, with ‘Don’t Wanna Be Left Out’ coming in at #46.
Following extensive touring across the UK and the US, Powderfinger returned to Australia for the national P2K tour (July-August). After only a handful of dates, the tour had to be rescheduled to September due to Bernard Fanning’s severe bronchial infection. Powderfinger’s second CD single for 1999, the moody ‘These Days’ (June), was lifted from the original soundtrack of Gregor Jordan’s Australian feature film, Two Hands starring Heath Ledger, Bryan Brown and Rose Byrne. ‘These Days’ had been written specifically for the film. Darren Middleton also wrote the song ‘Two Hands’ (sung by Kate Ceberano) for the soundtrack.
Having lost its contract with Polydor, when that label merged with Universal Music (and being reassigned to the Grudge label), Powderfinger re-issued Internationalist in July with a bonus tour CD, the P2K 5-track Acoustic Bonus Disc. By that stage, the album had sold over 70 000 units, but had fallen out of the national Top 40. The fourth single from the album, ‘Passenger’ (August), peaked at #30 on the national chart. It was one of the album’s highlights, a slow burning anthem with a dazzling Bernard Fanning vocal. In October, Powderfinger walked away with trophies for Album of the Year (Internationalist), Record of the Year (‘The Day You Come’), Best Rock Album (Internationalist) and Best Cover Art (Kevin Wilkins for Internationalist) at the 1999 ARIA Music Awards.
All the events of the previous months combined to reactivate interest in the album. By November, Internationalist was back in the Top 5 (at #4) after having racked up 58 weeks in the Top 50 and double platinum sales (over 140 000 units). By early 2000 it was past the 250 000 sales mark.
To round out 1999, Powderfinger contributed a cover of ‘The Chauffeur’ to the all-Australian tribute album, Undone: The Songs of Duran Duran (October, EMI). ‘Private Man’ also appeared on the Various Artists album, Liberdade: Viva East Timor (November, Mushroom). ‘Already Gone’ and ‘Passenger’ registered at #94 and #95, respectively, on the Most Played Tracks on Australian Radio in 1999 list. Even more importantly, ‘These Days’ came in at #1 on the 1999 Triple J Hottest 100 list, with ‘Already Gone’, ‘Good-Day Ray’ and ‘Passenger’ logging #25, #68 and #100 respectively.