Riveting, terrifying, completely singular: how Chrissy Amphlett changed the game | Australian music

Stella McDaniel

I was 13 when I became enamoured with Chrissy Amphlett.

It was 1983 and I had just started working for our old family friend Vince Lovegrove in the school holidays. In the late 60s Vince had been a frilly-shirted bubble-gum pop singer with the Valentines, alongside AC/DC’s Bon Scott; in the 70s, he’d transitioned to hip music scene journalist, to TV producer, to compère; and now he was managing cutting-edge rock group the Divinyls, whose song Boys in Town I was already obsessed with.

My first task as his secretary (a job title I thought was very glamorous) was to sit on the floor with a pair of scissors, working my way through a ceiling-high stack of Go-Set and other magazines from the 60s and 70s, cutting out any articles featuring or written by him, of which there were a lot. My next task was to scour a similar-sized stack of current street papers and music press for any mentions of the Divinyls and file them for him. I must have inhaled Australia’s entire rock’n’roll history and, lost in the minutiae of every Divinyls detail that garnered a mention, I fell completely under the Amphlett’s spell.

‘I fell completely under her spell.’ Photograph: Tony Mott

Being in a band is hard: it’s as much an exercise in finding the right chemistry, the tiny sparks, the wordless accord, as it is about musical rapport. When a manager, an outsider, is added to the mix, it takes even more luck for it to work. My own garage rock band White Trash Mamas had, for instance, a shortlived situation with an industry dude who tried to get us to take singing lessons and practise synchronised dance moves. We dumped him after a week and combusted not long after. But when the Divinyls and Vince found each other, they became like a gang, tight-knit, on the same page. Vince used to stand side of stage and remind Chrissy, right before she went on, “Be loose as a goose! But aggro!”

Vince always had a great admiration for women who did their own thing. He gave me a copy of Women Who Run with the Wolves for my 17th birthday, which I found equal parts embarrassing and hilarious but often surreptitiously browsed. Encouraging women to push boundaries was part of who he was. He revealed to me that he’d urged Chrissy to practise those provocative, fierce moves and belligerent expressions in front of a mirror, playing around to see what worked. I was utterly shocked, and disappointed by the cold theatrics of it. I felt tricked – I’d been convinced that she just got lost in the moment. I had a lot of rock’n’roll secrets to learn. He explained that knowing what worked relieved her self-consciousness and gave her the freedom to abandon herself to the music and let the songs lead the way. According to Vince, when the band first played live she would stand up the back of the stage, staring down, too shy to look at the audience – he told me to keep that revelation to myself.

Many years, gigs and records later, in her memoir, Pleasure and Pain, Chrissy detailed that early difficult process of finding her power on stage, and how the only performers she could look towards for guidance on finding a wild and memorable stage style were male. If she was going to be outrageous onstage she’d be among the first women to do so. Chrissy gave the task her full focus, in cahoots with Vince, looking for a unique identifier, something to brand her. She wrote, “I needed something I could hide behind that would free me to let loose.”

Amphlett in a sailor outfit
Amphlett in the sailor outfit Lo Carmen’s mother sewed for her. Photograph: Tony Mott

After attending an inspirational AC/DC concert together, they came up with a look: the splendid mental fuckery of a school tunic over a Peter Pan collar white blouse, ripped stockings, suspenders and flat shoes. Chrissy had already worn variations of school uniforms onstage, but inspired by Angus Young’s infamous schoolboy persona, she combined that look with the attitude of a character she called either The Monster or The Schoolgirl. It was like putting on armour. Nothing could penetrate her stage persona – she was invincible and free. She said, “The uniform was [me giving] the finger to everyone.” It gave her licence to unleash a sneering confrontation with the audience, to get right up in people’s faces.

Chrissy had found her niche, her look, her brand, and she ran hard and fast with it. The first gig she performed as The Schoolgirl, at Bondi’s long-gone Astra Hotel, blew the crowd away. Vince declared, “It was one of the pivotal nights in Australian rock history … never had there been such an uninhibited performance from an Australian female singer.”

One of the many perks of knowing Vince was guaranteed free entry to any Divinyls gig, and I went to as many of them as I could.

Soon after my 13th birthday I witnessed a riveting but fairly terrifying show at the rough-as-guts beachside beer barn Selina’s, where the band appeared to be at each other’s throats, launching themselves at one another. Chrissy was doing her thing of grabbing an audience member’s bag that had been stashed on the front of the stage and going through it, throwing their tampons around, smearing their lipstick across her face. As the photographer Tony Mott noted, “She was unbelievably wild and unpredictable. I often had fears for my safety, her safety, the audience’s safety.”

I also saw the band play at the Sydney Cove Tavern, the Governors Pleasure and even the Balmain Leagues Club, and I attended their three-night run at the briefly reopened Tivoli, where the ghosts of the Tivoli showgirls would surely have been dancing with delight at Chrissy’s stage prowess. I always went alone, getting a taxi there and back, arriving right before the band hit the stage, usually not speaking to anyone. I’d stand a few rows back from the stage and just let the show transport me. Growing up as the daughter of a rock’n’roller meant it was normal for me to go to gigs all the time, even so young. I’d often meet my dad, Peter, at the Manzil Room at 2am after a night out seeing bands so he could walk me home.

Lo Carmen at 13
‘Growing up as the daughter of a rock’n’roller, it was normal for me to go to gigs all the time’: Lo Carmen at 13. Photograph: Tony Mott

In her memoir, Chrissy declared she “worshipped talent and creativity and being a great performer”. That was my only church too. She talked about regularly going to watch her idol Wendy Saddington sing, at the wildly progressive, incense-drenched Melbourne club the Thumpin’ Tum, when she was only 16. Watching Blondie’s Debbie Harry perform made her want to sing in a band so badly she could taste it. I felt the same watching Chrissy, always letting myself drift away in the ludicrous fantasy that, if for some reason she’d be unable to go on stage, Vince would invite me to jump up and cover for her because he knew that I knew all the words and moves. I blush even now to think what might have happened had I ever got that opportunity.

Chrissy cultivated a reputation for being equally terrifying offstage. The Rock Australia Magazine journalist Phil Stafford said, ‘If a reporter had fallen foul of his editor, the most terrible punishment the editor could exact was to send the poor bastard out to interview Chrissy Amphlett. It was thought to be worse than being fed to the lions.’ But in private, away from the scene, she was sweet and warm, funny and full of stories. She and the Divinyls guitarist Mark McEntee would come to our house to visit with Vince; my mother, Mouse, a seamstress, made Chrissy’s sailor uniform in the What a Life! album era. Their arrival would be announced by their trademark big black funeral car rolling up out front.

They’d hang around chatting for ages, as people did in those days, our house an ever-changing greenroom of music people coming and going. Chrissy would compliment the vintage dresses I nearly always wore, and I’d be thrilled to make her a cup of coffee. She would regale me with vivid, preposterous stories that blew my little mind – of being thrown into prison for singing on street corners in Spain, being locked in a cage for her own protection on a bus transporting male prisoners, stealing food to survive in London and standing in the docks at Old Bailey. Her stories were so unbelievable that I decided I must have made them up; I was elated to confirm, when I later researched Chrissy, that they’d all occurred just as I recalled. She sowed a desire in me to travel, to be a woman of the world. To hold all that experience inside me so I could sing with the same authority and depth she did.

Vince would always leave an Access All Areas pass for me at the door, which I treasured and stuck to my mirror at home. But after the gigs I rarely went backstage. I felt like the Chrissy who was onstage and present at the gig was not the same Chrissy I’d been lucky enough to hang out with privately, and I felt a weird protective sense of sisterhood in not wanting to blow her cover. I was a teenage schoolgirl, and I idolised her, and she knew it; she knew my parents, and she’d have to be nice to me backstage, and I didn’t want that for her. I didn’t want her to be normal and sweet at gigs – I liked her just the way she was.

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