Vocal warrior who owned the stage
CHRISSY AMPHLETT SINGER 25-11-1959 - 21-4-2013
25-11-1959 - 21-4-2013
Chrissy Amphlett, lead singer of Divinyls, was everything a diva should be - compelling in performance, a force of nature in life. She was steel-plated; she was soft-hearted. She was brutally honest, often abrasive, to close friends; she plotted Machiavellian revenge against those whom she bore grudges. She grew her own charisma. "Quite early on," she said, "I decided I would be a warrior, not a victim."
Christine Joy Amphlett was born October 25, 1959, and grew up in Belmont, a suburb of Geelong. She began earning her living when she was three, modelling children's clothes in Geelong stores.
A career as a performer
beckoned. Her mother, Mary,
thinking the theatre, sent her to drama and dance lessons, but Chrissy decided on rock after her father, Jim, began running teen dances. Her parents separated when she was in her early teens, Mary moving to Melbourne.
Chrissy has mused that the rage so obvious in early Divinyls' film clips such as Boys In Town was drawn from real life. "Probably my father's rage," she told ABC's 7.30 Report in 2005. "I used to find his face sometimes very powerful. I was always trying to re-create it because it was very frightening."
At 15, Chrissy moved to
Melbourne to be with her mother. She hung around the streets for a year then decamped to Europe. Three-and-a-half years later she returned to Melbourne and found work in theatre, including a role in the R-rated musical Let My People Come.
In 1979, she moved to Sydney, and met guitarist Mark McEntee. The two agreed they had the spunk and grit to deliver rock to the
burgeoning pub-rock circuit. But first they joined former Air Supply bass player Jeremy Paul in a soft-rock trio that played cabaret, while choosing players to enhance the combination of McEntee's soaring riffs and the sultry coil and growl of Amphlett's vocals. The problem was, once they had written such molten rockers as Boys In Town and
Girlfriends, Amphlett discovered she was too shy to perform them in public. Their manager, Vince Lovegrove, (formerly of '60s teen throbs The Valentines) told Chrissy she needed to invent a theatrical persona for her edgy songs.
The prop they chose, a
schoolgirl's uniform with suspender belt and stockings, was both street art and cash-smart. Amphlett's songs were stridently feminist, albeit not from the feminist's handbook. She most often wrote from the
viewpoint of girls driven to
wantonness by their hormones and/or need to fit into a gang of bitchy "friends". That drew more attention than the underlying moral that
finding self-respect was the way out of such mess. Certainly it escaped the attention of lads in the pubs who fantasised the songs were a come-on, an invitation to hoot and holler and celebrate testosterone.
Amphlett would face them down and tell them that was not what she was all about. "She'd howl at the crowd," said Rick Grossman,
Divinyls' bassist from 1982-1987
and close friend to Amphlett.
"She'd scream and yell at them until they stepped back to hide behind their girlfriends. Then, just for a second, she'd flash a sly smile to the band, then straight back into it."
Many in the crowd did get the joke, of course, the point being that Amphlett's duplicity added to the tang of her performance. Also, many young males were willing to be humiliated. It was a turn-on how she tongue-lashed them.
"She'd never refuse anyone who'd loved the show, on whatever level, no matter how exhausted," said road manager Chris Bastic. "She was a strong, powerful woman, but she relied on the strength of her close relationships. She needed that
support. I'd drive her home after a gig, lock her in the car while I
checked the house. It seems
incredible now, but it was routine back then.
"Chrissy attracted stalkers. Most of them were young blokes with age-old fantasies, but there were some very weird ones, too."
happened fast for Divinyls. By mid-1980, they were the signature band of Sydney's seedy Kings Cross. Film
director Ken Cameron, looking to cast Helen Garner's novel Monkey Grip, an account of brief euphoria and fatal comedowns in inner-city Melbourne, signed the band for the film soundtrack. Released in 1982, Monkey Grip drew attention to Divinyls' first single, Boys In Town.
Buoyed by the success of the soundtrack, manager Vince Lovegrove travelled overseas to shop Divinyls. When he signed the band to Chrysalis, the first Australian band to be signed directly to an international label, local record companies were in an uproar. Never before had they been denied a slice of an Australian band's action, and they took it hard.
The power games had just begun. In 1983, the first Narara
Festival with an all-star Australian cast, including Divinyls, was a great success. The Narara '84 line up was spiced with international acts. Amphlett took umbrage that The Pretenders were billed as a headline act, while Divinyls were placed lower. "Australian bands should not be treated as second rate," she
ranted to the media as she withdrew Divinyls from the festival.
There was only one smart thing for Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde to do, and she did it, announcing to the crowd that the missing Amphlett was her sister in rock and she wished she was there. By not
playing, Divinyls were the talk of the crowd.
From 1982 to 1990 there were hits and successful tours. There was also a disintegration of relationships due to rampant drug abuse within the band. Amphlett's drug was
alcohol. Success afforded her the opportunity to add cocaine to her fix.
Signature hits Pleasure and Pain (1985) and I Touch Myself (1990) kept the band's profile high, but
perpetual chaos drained millions of dollars from its bank account. I Touch Myself reached No.4 in the US charts, but the band was incapable of following up.
By 1990, Divinyls were Amphlett, Mark McEntee and session players, one of whom was drummer Charley Drayton. Drayton and Amphlett developed a healing relationship, marrying in 1999. In 2007, Amphlett announced she suffered from
multiple sclerosis. In 2010, she
further announced she had breast cancer.
During those years of illness and pain, Amphlett showed her true
colours. She enveloped her friends with love and strength, seeking no solace for herself. "When she was last in Australia," said Chris Bastic, "she insisted on visiting Tom O'Sullivan, a former road manager who was dying of cancer."
Christine Amphlett is survived by Charley, parents Mary and Jim, sister Leigh, nephew Matt, and her cousin, 1960s pop star Little Pattie (Patricia Thompson).