The Divinyls

 Divinyls

 Chrissie Amphlett – circa 1988

 “I am just a red brassiere / To all the boys in town / Put this bus in top gear / Get me out of here” – ‘Boys In Town’ (Christina Amphlett, Mark McEntee)

It is 1981 and an Australian band are pounding out a pub rock song on stage.  The unusual thing about the performance is the singer.  Under a dark fringe is what seems to be a schoolgirl.  Certainly, it is a school uniform in which she is incongruously attired.  She brandishes a microphone stand wrapped in a neon tube.  Under the saucy schoolgirl outfit, the singer wears very adult fishnet stockings.  She screams, she tears at her own hair, she pouts.  The band is The Divinyls and the singer is Christina Amphlett, or Chrissie Amphlett as she is also known.

Although it is the indelible image associated with The Divinyls, Chrissie didn’t wear the school uniform on stage for more than the first year or so of the band’s career.  There are other similar outfits, for instance a sailor suit in 1985, but the school uniform is retired fairly early.  Chrissie buys the uniform from a David Jones store that supplies the girls’ clothing acceptable to the New South Wales school system.  It’s a drip-dry outfit so she can wash it and dry it in her motel room while the band are on tour.  In January 1994, Christina Amphlett donates one of her school uniforms to the Sydney Powerhouse Museum, where it remains on display.

One of the earlier female Australian pop stars is Little Pattie, an artist best known for the 1963 hit ‘He’s My Blonde Headed Stompie Wompie Real Gone Surfer Boy’ (AUS no. 19).  Little Pattie’s full name is Patricia Amphlett.

Little Pattie’s younger cousin, Christina Amphlett (born Christine Joy Amphlett, 25 October 1959 – 21 April 2013) follows a different path.  At 14 years of age, she runs away from her home in Melbourne, Victoria, to follow her favourite group.  She winds up joining her first ‘derivative’ band in Melbourne.  Then Chrissie shows up in Sydney as one of the featured singers in One Ton Gypsy, ‘an ambitious country rock band’ formed by Ray Brown, a singer formerly known as the leader of Ray Brown And The Whispers.  At 17, Christina Amphlett leaves Australia and spends a year in Europe.  She travels alone, living on the streets of Paris and getting arrested for busking in Spain, a misadventure that lands her in jail.

Returning to Sydney, Christina Amphlett joins a church choir.  “I had been singing in this eight piece choir to develop my voice,” she recalls.  “One night [in 1980], we had a religious concert at the [Sydney] Opera House.  The audience was full of priests and nuns…During the concert my stool fell over and my microphone cord got wrapped in it, and I ended up dragging the stool from one end of the stage to the other.”

One of those in the audience that night is Mark McEntee (born 16 July 1952).  In 1976, Mark McEntee was involved with the Australian production of the stage musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.  Some of the musicians he meets there form Air Supply.  Unlikely as it may seem, in 1980 McEntee is playing guitar with the backing band for the Aussie soft rock sensations.  Air Supply, as a duo, is not a functional band, so they require additional musicians like McEntee and bassist Jeremy Paul, for recordings and performances.  Mark is fascinated by Christina, the girl dragging the stool around the stage.  “From that moment,” he says, “I knew something had to be done: that we should form a group.”

“I just rolled up at Chrissie’s place with guitars and some amplifiers and we just started writing.  We said, ‘This is pretty good’, so we kept on.”  Chrissie Amphlett and Mark McEntee are the main songwriting team for The Divinyls recorded output.  In the earlier part of their career, they are also lovers.  Their musical partnership greatly outlasts their romantic relationship.

Chrissie Amphlett’s voice is influenced by two of the better known female rock stars of the time: Debbie Harry (of Blondie) and Chrissie Hynde (of The Pretenders).  Less recognised is the influence of Lene Lovich, a new wave diva known for her eccentrically swooping vocals.  Her odd hiccupping ululations are echoed in Christina Amphlett’s singing.  Among male vocalists, Stevie Wright, of 1960s Australian band The Easybeats, is an obvious precursor.  The Easybeats influence extends to the whole band’s sound.  Chrissie Amphlett also brings a new element to her vocal stylings, the Australian accent.  She adopts a very flat, nasal tone, sounding disturbingly like the embodiment of unemployed single mothers with a cigarette dangling from their lips.

“When the band started I used to just stand there and sing,” says Amphlett.  “Going on stage used to be a really horrible experience for me.  After the show I’d be very unhappy with what I’d done and very unapproachable.  Gradually though, I started doing little things, moving around more and more until it became this volcano that was coming out of me.  Eventually, it became a matter of directing that and channelling it.”  Angus Young (whose elder brother, George, was in The Easybeats) is, by this time, already famous for wearing a schoolboy uniform during his onstage antics with Australian band AC/DC.  Thus, when Chrissie Amphlett chooses her stage garb it is considered ‘an AC/DC Angus Young-inspired school uniform’.  Only the most imaginative though could consider Angus Young’s image to be sexy.  It is a different story for Christina Amphlett.

Ever since Elvis Presley gyrated his hips on stage, sex and rock ‘n’ roll have had a close relationship.  While male rock stars have experienced few problems being taken seriously as artists as well as sex objects, it is not the same for women.  Too often, women are pushed into revealing garb and urged to flaunt their figures if they want to succeed.  It is more like exploitation and it is demeaning.  There is a contrasting view that, for instance, you only get the photos for which you pose.  If you don’t want to be a sex object, then don’t dress that way or act that way.  Is it possible for a female rock star to be both sexy and creatively strong?  Christina Amphlett is an interesting case.  She is undoubtedly sexy and the school uniform suggests a form of fetishism, role-playing for sex games.  Since the school uniform is associated with very young girls, possibly underage, there is a troubling aspect to its sexualisation.  Perhaps that is taking it too seriously.  So far as can be seen, Amphlett is nobody’s puppet; she makes her own choices and decisions.  There is a suggestion that Amphlett plays the part of a blow-up sex doll given Pinocchio-like real life in a kind of ironic, post-modernist tone.  There are no easy answers to this conundrum.

The band Christina Amphlett and Mark McEntee put together is named The Divinyls.  The sobriquet is chosen after Chrissie goes on a shopping trip where everything she likes is described as ‘divine’.  So, because records are manufactured from vinyl, the band is dubbed The Divinyls.  Jeremy Paul, McEntee’s associate in Air Supply’s backing group, has left that band so he joins the new venture.  The founding members of the The Divinyls are: Chrissie Amphlett (vocals), Mark McEntee (guitar), Bjarne Ohlin (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Jeremy Paul (bass) and Richard Harvey (drums).

The sound of The Divinyls is constructed around the core typical to most Aussie pub rock bands: loud, hard and fast rock.  The Divinyls add a bit more of a technological edge, a sharper sound, than some of their peers.  ‘The group can’t quite be labelled new wave…They are too accessible to be called heavy metal, too raw to be power pop.’

In December 1980, The Divinyls begin playing ‘in the sleazy bars of Sydney’.  The group has only played a few gigs when they are spotted by film director Ken Cameron.  He is looking for a band to appear in his movie ‘Monkey Grip’ (1982) about a single mother and her drug-addicted boyfriend.  Not only do The Divinyls appear in the film, they write the soundtrack, a six song EP, ‘Monkey Grip’, released on WEA Records in 1981.  Additionally, Cameron gives Chrissie Amphlett a small speaking part in the film.  For this role, she is nominated as Best Supporting Actress as the Australian Film Institute Awards.

The Divinyls first single is ‘Boys In Town’ (AUS no. 8).  “I was doing fine around / All the boys in town / Now I want a man around / Get me out of here,” insists Chrissie Amphlett.  The intensity of the song increases as she howls “I must have been desperate / I must have been pretty low.”  The song comes with ‘an eye catching video of Christina Amphlett at her provocative best, dressed in a school uniform and fishnet stockings, filmed from below as she performs on top of a metal grill’.  The sheer raw vitality of the song renders it the best work of The Divinyls.  Jeremy Paul leaves The Divinyls on the eve of the single’s release and is replaced on bass by Rick Grossman.  Elsewhere on the ‘Monkey Grip’ EP, ‘Elsie’ mines bleak territory.  By contrast, despite its similarly mournful words, the chiming guitars of ‘Only Lonely’ show the influence of The Pretenders.  Amphlett sings: “If it doesn’t feel right / When I hold you tight / Oh baby, it’s all right / I am only lonely.”

With ‘Monkey Grip’ a ‘one-off deal’, The Divinyls have ‘a falling out with WEA’.  “Basically, the attitude of the people who run WEA got our back up,” says Christina Amphlett.  “They offended us with a condescending attitude.  It was a communication breakdown and we felt it was important enough to get out of our contract.”  The Divinyls are ‘rapidly earning themselves a reputation for perverse behaviour’, that is ‘frustrating for all concerned’.

The Divinyls are courted by ‘four international record companies’.  The band chooses to sign with Chrysalis Records.  An offer is made ‘to fix Christina Amphlett’s protruding teeth’, but she declines.  Australian producer Mark Opitz accompanies the group to New York to oversee the recording of their debut album, ‘Desperate’ (1982) (AUS no. 5).  The album is named for the line from ‘Boys In Town’ (“I must have been desperate”), a song which is rerecorded for the album.  ‘Only Lonely’ is also recut, but it only appears on overseas editions of the album.  There are some tracks shuffled about between the domestic and international versions of The Divinyls first two albums.  ‘Science-Fiction’ (AUS no. 13) boasts some appropriately weird keyboard sounds from Bjarne Ohlin as Chrissie (perhaps voicing Mark McEntee’s words in this instance?) sings: “I thought that love was science-fiction / Until I saw you today / Now that love is my addiction / I’ve thrown all my books away.”  Bjarne Ohlin shares lead vocals on ‘Siren’ (AUS no. 45).  ‘Casual Encounter’ (AUS no. 91) is one of the album’s highlights.  Mark McEntee’s classic stuttering guitar intro makes way for Chrissie’s wary warning, “Don’t ask me what my name is / I know what your game is / It’s just a casual encounter”.  Becoming more harsh and indignant, she spits, “Don’t come on to me with all those fancy lines / I can read between them / They’re like neon signs / You just want to get me, get me into bed / So stop pretending that you like my head.”  The album starts with a cover version of The Easybeats ‘I’ll Make You Happy’ and closes with the McEntee solo composition ‘Don’t You Go Walking’.  At the close of the latter, Chrissie’s accent and vocal eccentricity mangles the repeated line into “You better stop that, boy-bee [for ‘baby’].”  The disc is described as ‘1983’s antidote to technopop burnout’ and is the best album by the band.

Putting together a follow-up album proves an arduous process.  Four different producers – Mark Opitz, Gary Langan, Mike Chapman and Charles Fisher – are used for different sessions.  Along the way, drummer Richard Harvey is dumped in favour of J. J. Harris.  “We’ve tried to do things our way,” admits Amphlett, “and in our time.  That really upsets some people, but the group always comes first.”  The eventual result is ‘What A Life’ (1985) (AUS no. 4, US no. 91), an album with ‘a bigger, more modern sound’.  The first tastes are the 1984 singles ‘Good Die Young’ (AUS no. 32) and ‘In My Life’ (AUS no. 47), emphatic works that showcase Amphlett’s vocal idiosyncrasies.  Yet it is an outside composition, ‘Pleasure And Pain’ (AUS no. 11, US no. 76), written by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman, that becomes the album’s standard bearer with its vaguely sadomasochistic sentiments.  Amphlett and McEntee sand away some of their usual abrasiveness for their next single, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (AUS no. 50).  The lyrics still sound a bit odd though: “Sleeping Beauty / So helpless / Unlock my fantasy / And while I slept you came in / And gave to me your key.”  Is that a double entendre?

Following this, The Divinyls dispense with the pretence of being a group.  Christina Amphlett and Mark McEntee dismiss the rest of the crew.  The duo subsequently uses (and discards) other musicians according to their whims.  The product of this approach is ‘Temperamental’ (1988) (AUS no. 11), produced by Mike Chapman.  The title track, ‘Temperamental’, is an acknowledgement of their own reputation for wilfulness.  The shuddering lash of McEntee’s guitar on the verses opens out to this soaring chorus: “Like the sun / Like the wind / You are / Temperamental”.  The single from the album is ‘Back To The Wall’ (AUS no. 33).  In standard gritty mode, Amphlett notes “We’re living in desperate times / These are desperate times, my dear / There’s no way out of here / There’s no way out, I fear.”  Stepping up to the chorus, she cautions, “Don’t push / Don’t shove / You better watch what you do / When my back’s to the wall / I might do anything at all / When my back’s to the wall / I might tyke [take] any chance at all.”  Less dramatic, but more fun, is a cover version of The Syndicate Of Sound’s 1965 hit ‘Hey Little Boy’ (AUS no. 23).  McEntee’s guitar races along the changes and Amphlett chuckles through the lyrics, pausing only to bawl, “I’m talking to you-hoo” with that familiar hiccup in her voice.  As the song fades, McEntee snarls “Get out of here.”  The video is a blast too with Amphlett in a little black dress in full mock (?) sexpot mode, thrusting her chest out like a chicken.  ‘Temperamental’ is considered ‘more focused and back-to-basics’.

‘As well as musicians, The Divinyls have a habit of losing managers and record companies’.  They switch to Virgin Records for ‘Divinyls’ (1991) (AUS no. 5, UK no. 59, US no. 15), produced by David Tickle.  The somewhat ribald single, ‘I Touch Myself’ (AUS no. 1, UK no. 10, US no. 4), assures the object of Amphlett’s desire that “When I think about you / I touch myself.”  Amphlett and McEntee collaborate with hit-maker’s Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg on the song and reap the commercial rewards.  Also helping is the ‘controversy’ associated with the video showing ‘a tied-up Amphlett back in fishnets’.  Amphlett and McEntee’s ‘Love School’ (AUS no. 43) also hails from this album.

The Divinyls change labels again for ‘Underworld’ (1996) (AUS no. 47), released on RCA.  Production duties are divided between Peter Collins, Keith Forsey and Charley Drayton.  The latter, a U.S. drummer who has been working with The Divinyls, marries Christina Amphlett in 1999.  After ‘Underworld’, Amphlett and McEntee have a falling out and The Divinyls cease to exist in 1997.

Whatever the problems may have been, Christina Amphlett and Mark McEntee resolve them sufficiently for The Divinyls to be reactivated from 2006 to 2009.  This time their activities are curtailed due to Amphlett’s poor health.  On 7 December 2007 she reveals that she is battling multiple sclerosis (MS).  On 20 October 2010 Amphlett is found to have breast cancer, though after treatment, she is subsequently declared cancer free on 24 January 2011.  However a combination of breast cancer and MS leads to her untimely demise on 21 April 2013.

The Divinyls carved out a distinctive niche for themselves with their tough, uncompromising rock.  If a few noses were put out of joint by their conduct, well, at least it always seemed to be in service to a greater artistic goal, however invisible it may have been to people whose names were not Christina Amphlett or Mark McEntee.  There was never a sense that they were just being cruel because they could.  As for Chrissie Amphlett’s full on sexuality, that is probably a matter for individual judgment.  Was she a victim or was she in control?  It’s difficult to say with any certainty.  Amphlett really didn’t seem to be the kind to meekly comply, though.  Remember how she refused something as comparatively innocuous as cosmetic dentistry?  This makes it seem like, school uniform and all, the Christina Amphlett seen in The Divinyls’ public image was exactly who she wanted us to see.  ‘It was their original raw edge..the product of a thriving lunatic partnership’ that brought The Divinyls success.  ‘It was Amphlett’s ability to focus the band and then project it as she did that distinguished The Divinyls from the pack’.

Sources:

  1. powerhousemuseum.com as at 8 January 2013
  2. wikipedia.org as at 7 January 2013
  3. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 133, 149
  4. ‘Essential Divinyls’ – Sleeve notes by Bruce Pilato (Chrysalis Records, 1991) p. 2, 4, 5, 6
  5. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Divinyls’ by Toby Creswell (Megabooks, 1985) p. 72, 73
  6. musicsonglyrics.com as at 11 January 2013
  7. allmusic.com, ‘The Divinyls’ by Ed Nimmervoll as at 29 August 2001
  8. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine quoted in 4 (above) p. 4
  9. ‘A Current Affair’ television interview on Australian Channel 9 network, quoted in 2 (above)

Song lyrics copyright EMI Music with the exceptions of ‘Don’t You Go Walking’ and ‘Temperamental’ (both EMI Songs); and ‘Back To The Wall’ (EMI Songs / Virgin Music)

Last revised 19 August 2014

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