Silverchair's Rite of Passage
By Andrew Tanner (Addicted to Noise)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- silverchair frontman Daniel Johns waited
backstage listening to the gravelly strains of AC/DC singer Bon Scott
blasting through the Festival Hall.
"Dirty Deeds!" Scott screamed in his desperate, angry tones. While all of Johns' prepubescent fans may not have been familiar with the classic heavy-metal tune that inspired a generation, Johns certainly was. This is his kind of music. It's where he is coming from, he said.
"I think music's only good if it's threatening," the singer said.
With their most recent album, 1997's Freak Show, the group certainly incorporated some of the raw sounds they've grown up on. Raw rock was also in evidence at the Dec. 13 gig. But so was another side of the group. Cemetery, for instance, was performed by Johns alone, his thin, backlit profile and bleached-out face adding to the lonesome poignancy of lines such as "I may be late, always seem to get the wrong date."
But mostly, the group rocked. Their current Australian single, The Door, was a highlight, its sitar-like riff almost overwhelmed by drummer Ben Gillies' bludgeoning backbeat. Next in line, Learn To Hate turned into a ferocious, metal rave-up courtesy of Johns' psychotic mantra, "Take the time to learn to hate/ Come and join the mass debate."
To see the silverchair singer onstage these days is to get a glimpse of the public rites of passage the 18-year-old is undergoing. One moment he's mumbling a monologue relating to his born-loser status ("I was only a seconder at scouts. I mean, imagine that, I was even coming second in scouts, for Christ's sake!"). Then, before you know it, he's flipping plectrums into the crowd, or stopping to strap on a bra thrown from the mosh pit ("How do you put these things on? Don't know much about them -- I know they're supposed to hold your boobs up!")
There was a time, back in 1994, just as the band emerged as highly touted winners of a music show's talent quest, when it seemed they were in danger of polarizing nearly everyone in their future demographic.
How would pre-teen girls attracted by singer Johns' blue-eyed, blond good- looks deal with the bone-crushing riffery of their songs? How seriously would Gen Xers take a band who was likely to fill a hall with at least as many of the aforementioned girls as alienated grunge-puppies? And what were hard-rock aficionados to make of three, scrawny school kids who professed a deep appreciation of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in their stumbling, monosyllabic interviews?
Those questions are now consigned to the cut-price bins of music history. The band's recent performance at Festival Hall -- two-thirds of the way through the Newcastle trio's first full-fledged national tour -- was a tour de force of hard and heavy rock songs, delivered with enough panache to keep everyone happy. It was a clear statement by a group of young men who have decided to take their music to the next level.
Recent high school graduates, Johns, Gillies (sporting an impressive three-inch mohawk) and bassist Chris Joannou display a friendly, somewhat guarded attitude. "We were the first to admit to being derivative," Johns said before the show. "I mean, we did sound like all that Seattle stuff at the time. It was what we were listening to, what we liked -- and we didn't give a fuck. I think we've found our own sound now -- people can hear it and know it's us!"
Even older material such as Israel's Son and Pure Massacre (from the band's 1994 debut album, frogstomp) seem fresher and more urgent when performed live these days, propelled along by Joannou's edgy, growling bass lines. Johns, who only a year ago was the most diffident of frontmen, now prowls the stage with growing confidence, his long blond hair fashioned into a mane of spiky dreadlocks, looking sort of like a younger, leaner Johnny Lydon. The resemblance was even more marked when the singer spat out a few Lydon-esque snarls during No Association.
Johns confided his frustration at those critics who refuse to accept that such dark emotions could ring true for one so young: "The people who say stuff like that are just dumb, old fucks who can't remember what it's like to be young," said Johns. "Just because you're a teenager doesn't mean you don't have those emotions. Those people are just jaded, silly old cocks!"
It would be wrong to glibly dismiss Freak Show -- both the album and the tour -- as a band of talented teens playing with academic notions of alienation or disenfranchisement. To whatever extent they're able, silverchair are writing from their own lives -- and the band, especially Johns, is well aware of the subversive power of rock 'n' roll. "Music's fucked if it's about things that are easy to listen to and easy to contemplate," he said. "I like writing about things that are socially incorrect, that people don't want to hear about, that you might get in trouble for."
And apparently so does his audience.
For a show-closer at silverchair's recent gig, a thumping version of Freak saw virtually the entire hall erupt into a singalong. If the song lyric expresses a personal angst, the sight and sound of 3,500 yelling "body and soul, I'm a freak" transformed it into something perversely communal.
Something not unlike AC/DC's Dirty Deeds.