Australian pub rock was booming in the early '80s. AC/DC had become an international success story, Cold Chisel were practically Australian heroes and bands like Midnight Oil and Sunnyboys were making memorable, captivating rock'n'roll records.
But Divinyls emerged through all of this with a striking point of difference. Chrissy Amphlett was a refreshing face and voice out the front of a great Aussie rock band. With this, rock'n'roll was no longer a boys club and women were no longer regarded as auxiliary to the scene. She was female, but she was strong. She performed with aggression and more than held her own in front of occasionally hostile crowds.
Through great songs, fierce dedication to their artistic vision, tireless work and Amphlett's incomparable stage persona, Divinyls planted themselves firmly in the history books as one of Australia’s greatest rock acts.
Tune in 8pm Thursdays, encore 9pm Sundays, and streaming online to hear all about the band and share your stories on The J Files.
Mark McEntee doesn't remember exactly when he first met Chrissy Amphlett, it was either after seeing her sing in the 2CH choir or as part of a cover band at the Collaroy Hotel in Sydney's northern suburbs. But the Divinyls founder, guitarist and songwriter knows that his musical intentions were clear from the very outset.
"I wanted to do a rock band," he tells Double J. "I had all these musical ideas and stuff and I didn't want to do a normal band at that time, I wanted it to be a proper rock band. A lot of people were playing that disco music at that stage. They were doing mild stuff and I didn't want to do mild stuff, I didn't want to do polite music."
From the moment Amphlett and McEntee began working together, they clicked creatively.
"I would have this music and we just found our ideas gelled," McEntee says. "Songwriting is a really weird thing. If you're working with people you don't often get an instant thing, but it just kind of went together, I guess. I would get an idea for a song and she would, more or less, have a similar idea. So it used to work out without too much trying to graft anything or work on anything.
Importantly, Amphlett shared McEntee's goal of creating a sound that was rough around the edges and unique.
"I used to have to do the music. When we would do songs I would always arrange all the parts and do all the guitar things and figure out the beat and feel of the song, put these musical parts together. I didn't want to make it as though it was too well musically arranged at any time, it had to be simple.
Music at that time sounded so professional, we never wanted to sound professional. We wanted to have a naiveté.
"Chrissy cottoned on to that and knew that together we could create that. We didn't want to make musical mistakes, but we wanted to do it without sounding like anyone else, we wanted to sound different."
Through hard work, plenty of live shows and a small amount of luck, Divinyls made a steady rise through the ranks of Australian pub rock.
"We managed to procure this great residency at this place called the Piccadilly Hotel in Kings Cross," McEntee recalls. "At that stage you had bands like Aussie Crawl, Chisel, Angels. Australia had a real name for pub rock, because everyone would go out to the pubs to see bands play. Bands would get really good at live performances, because they'd be playing to people all the time. They'd learn how to work a crowd. In the world scene Australia was kinda unique in those days.
"We were the only band with a female lead singer who would rock, it was a real point of difference, I think."
Film director Ken Cameron was one of the earliest fans of the group and wanted their songs in his forthcoming film Monkey Grip. The movie was not much of a success, but it gave the band an enormous shot in the arm.
"It was really great, because through doing that we recorded all that stuff at Albert studios. Ken wanted to use 'Girlfriends', 'Boys In Town', 'Only Lonely', 'Elsie'... so funnily enough, he chose these songs we already had."
The use of a full film crew was also an enormous benefit to the band, who used the Monkey Grip crew to make the now-iconic clip for 'Boys In Town'.
"We did some thing whereby we would get our film clip filmed as well, because it was part of the movie. That was a great clip, that first 'Boys In Town' clip with that microphone. The neon tube, I'd never seen that done before! And I think it was the camera guy's idea, I can't remember. We were lucky, we had a lot of facilities that were there for that film that we got to use."
American company Chrysalis Records were circling the band at the time, eventually signing them directly to an international record deal. Such a deal was unheard of in Australian music at that time.
"When we did that soundtrack, it was around the time Chrysalis Records were down and listening to the band at gigs. They got enthusiastic and wanted to sign the band to the first worldwide type record contract that any Aussie band had done, so that was a lot of fun and a great position to be in.
"I always knew what I wanted to do as a kid. I didn't have time for school or anything much. So I felt really comfortable, I felt great. It was exciting, what I'd worked towards had come off and it was fabulous."
While Divinyls enjoyed a string of well-performing singles and albums through the 1980s, most notably a small amount of international chart success with 1985's 'Pleasure and Pain', their peak popularity didn't come until late in 1990, with the release of 'I Touch Myself' from their fourth album diVINYLS. The band teamed up with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, an American songwriting duo whose credits included 'Like a Virgin' by Madonna, 'True Colors' by Cyndi Lauper and 'Eternal Flame' by the Bangles.
"It was such a funny song to write," McEntee remembers. "I remember Chrissy went out and was talking about the lyrics with Billy Steinberg, they went to a cafe or something. In those days, what they used to do was go 'Oh we'd better team them up with an American guy, just in case they're too Australian'. Pretty funny stuff, but in that song it worked out."
McEntee is thankful to have written a song that remains in the public consciousness, though admits he doesn't want the rest of the band's output to be overshadowed.
"I'm really happy to be remembered by any songs, but we do have more than just that one song," he says. "I'm really happy and I'm sure Chrissy is. But we did write a lot of songs that I was proud of, 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Only Lonely', 'Boys In Town', 'Science Fiction', 'Temperamental'..."
Everyone has their favourites. For a young John Grant in the Southwestern United States in the early 1980s, it was 'Elsie' – initially from their Monkey Grip soundtrack EP, though also on the international release of the band's debut album Desperate – that connected strongest.
"One of the greatest tracks ever made on planet earth, in my opinion," the singer-songwriter tells Double J.
"I remember listening to Desperate for the first time back in the '80s. I was on a marching band trip and I was hanging out in the back seat of this car going home from this marching band trip with some of the cool guys. They were playing Desperate in the car out in the middle of nowhere in Parker, Colorado back in 1982 or '83 or something like that. I just remember falling in love with her voice and with her attitude and the rawness of the music. Every single track on that record is amazing."
Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke worked with Amphlett on the annual Women in Voice show in 2004 and was able to get the story behind one of her favourite songs of all time, 'Science Fiction'.
"['Science Fiction' is] one of my very favourite songs. Like all of their best stuff it's innovative and inspiring and has lots of spiky edges to it, which I love.
"One day I was asking her about this song and she gave me the back story. She had this crappy job working at a hotel, vacuuming the floors every day and she used to write a lot of early Divinyls songs there. She distinctly remembered vacuuming back and forth and writing the chorus to 'Science Fiction' over that rhythm and sound of the vacuum.
"So every time I've heard that song since I imagine a young Chrissy Amphlett wearing a hotel maid's outfit vacuuming back-and-forth, singing the chorus to 'Science Fiction'."
The Divinyls' songs were memorable for Isabella Manfredi, frontwoman of The Preatures, but the power with which they were performed took them to another level.
"I remember Chrissy's voice, but I also remember the heaviness of the music. It didn't feel like anything else," she tells Double J.
"I remember being attracted to the songs. How simple, but how searing they were. Chrissy just kinda seared right through to you and grabbed you by the neck and you had to listen to her."
Renowned rock'n'roll photographer Tony Mott became a Divinyls devotee at Piccadilly Hotel in the early-'80s, and later became firm friends with Amphlett.
They went through them like they were going through underwear. That's because, as much as they were probably difficult, they cared.Tony Mott
"Chrissy was driven," he says. "She was driven to be a rock'n'roll star. In the '80s and early '90s, the band was driven. Her and Mark were both driven, they wanted success. They wanted it all. They became quite pedantic in the recording studio. If you look at the early album, Mark Opitz did the early stuff and then, all of a sudden, on the second album there's a list of producers. They went through them like they were going through underwear. That's because, as much as they were probably difficult, they cared." Chrissy Amphlett is one of Australian most cherished rock'n'roll icons. She was one of the most formidable band leaders around, which is no mean feat when your contemporaries are the likes of Jimmy Barnes, Peter Garrett and Doc Neeson.
Tony Mott was there at the Piccadilly Hotel for the Divinyls early shows and admits that it took Amphlett some time to develop into the incredible force of nature she became.
"The first time I saw Chrissy Amphlett on stage - not a big mover," he recalls. "But they played every single Monday night and slowly but surely she became the screaming banshee, wild child act she became famous for.
"I only gathered later from Chrissy that the band said 'well, you've got to do something'. That fringe turned up, she couldn't see the crowd and she became this screaming banshee-like madwoman on stage. Possibly through alcohol and substance abuse, but that's irrelevant in so much as it was just great performance. How she developed that act is for me quite peculiar."
The Sydney pub rock scene was booming by the time Divinyls hit full stride.
"Night after night bands like Midnight Oil and Rose Tattoo and Mi-Sex and The Angels and Chisel and everyone else used to play five or six nights a week at these beer barns like Selina's," Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst says. "They would be packed. They wouldn't be like the Hopetoun or the Annandale where you might have 200 or 300 people, you'd have 2,000 people.
"Men with their shirts off, fighting, throwing beer around, vomiting on each other's shoes, it was just visceral. The kind of music that you had to make was like that.
"That's why The Angels made the kind of music they made, that's why we had to toughen up from our prog surfie roots. Long story short, the Divinyls could also do that, a fantastic live band."
Hirst recalls seeing Divinyls at one such affair and says that no female rock singer could come close to delivering a show like Amphlett.
Men with their shirts off, fighting, throwing beer around, vomiting on each other's shoes, it was just visceral. The kind of music that you had to make was like that.Rob Hirst, Midnight Oil
"I remember seeing the Divinyls once at a packed Selina's, they used to put about 2,000 people into that joint. When Mark McEntee started that opening phrase, that great guitar line in Science Fiction and then Chrissy just went and did her bezerko thing. I'm going out on a limb here, but was the late great Chrissy Amphlett was the greatest ever Australian female rock singer? No one else came near.
"She went into a zone that no one else could come close to. There was no vanity there. She just let rip. What a remarkable talent and what a great songwriting team and what a great band."
"Their act became slightly more refined, the band got tighter, but Chrissy got looser," Tony Mott remembers of the band as they began their ascent into the mainstream. "She was a bit more unpredictable. I've seen her pinch handbags on stage of the girls at the front who put their handbag on stage. She'd go rifling through everything that was in there. I've seen her attack people in the audience. But the act was fundamentally the same, it was just her getting lost in her music and her lyrics."
Chrissy got looser... She was a bit more unpredictable. I've seen her pinch handbags on stage of the girls at the front who put their handbag on stage. She'd go rifling through everything that was in there. I've seen her attack people in the audience.Tony Mott
Mott has photographed just about everyone in music, but maintains that few can come close to the woman he saw slogging it out in that Kings Cross pub on a Monday night in the early-'80s.
"I've now photographed over 500 female artists around the world, including Madonna, Rihanna, Beyonce, Blondie... Chrissy Amphlett is way above them," he says. "Apart from Freddy Mercury and possibly Mick Jagger, Chrissy Amphlett's the greatest performer I've ever seen on stage. You don't have to like her music, it was just that performance. It was unpredictable, it was wild.
"I often feared for her safety, my safety and the audience's safety, but god she could rock'n'roll . She was fantastic. There was no one in Australia quite like her. I put her on a pedestal. I got incredibly lucky, because what I didn't realise at the time was, I was practicing the art of rock'n'roll photography on the best."
While the two became firm friends into the Divinyls career, Mott admits that he was still so intimidated by Amphlett's persona over a decade on from their first meeting that he hadn't considered them to be friends.
"Somewhere in the mid-90s I was having a cup of tea with her somewhere and she said how we'd become good friends," he tells. "I wasn't really aware that we'd become good friends because the intimidation that I always felt in the early days had not dispersed on diluted at all, I was still very much intimidated by Chrissy. She had an amazing powerful presence and she was very aware of it and she used it. As much as I did feel we'd become friends, I was still intimidated."
Mott's self-described "amateur psychology" suggests that Amphlett's gruff persona was a result of her own insecurity.
"I think Chrissy was intimidated by other people and her tactic was 'I'm gonna get you before you get me'," he says. "It was just that charisma that she had that was intimidating."
She didn't want to suffer fools gladly or for long. And we both had that kind of ideology.Mark McEntee
"I was in a bar called Benny's in Kings Cross late night drinking. Chrissy was there and Renee Geyer was there. Renee Geyer, quite pleasantly, said something about 'we should get together'. Chrissy turned 'what the hell could we talk about? I've got nothing in common with you!'. Renee took a couple of steps back, she was frightened. And Renee towered over her, so it wasn't a physical intimidation, it was that personality and charisma."
But apparently not everyone was intimidated by the menacing front woman.
"I didn't really get intimidated by her," McEntee says. "I think that was probably something that people got a bit confused with and maybe they overlooked some of the music because of that image. However, she liked to look that way and a lot of people did get intimidated by her. Maybe I'm really brave, maybe I'm used to strong women or something," he laughs.
"She didn't want to suffer fools gladly or for long. And we both had that kind of ideology."
She had grit and was dirty but she had this class... She had no blueprint for that.Isabella Manfredi
The power of her performance is not lost on the new generation of Australian musicians, either. Isabella Manfredi's onstage presence is often compared to Amphlett's, though she doesn't believe anyone can live up to the bar the Divinyls frontwoman set.
"The fact is, no one comes close to Chrissy. No one ever did," she says. "People say she's the best female front person, she was more punk than any of them. She was more sophisticated, she was a better songwriter. She had grit and was dirty but she had this class. I don't think anyone was really doing that at that time. Everyone was kind of obsessed with being either rock'n'roll or pop, but she was both. She had no blueprint for that."
Divinyls will never play another show again, but the music continues to live on. Much of the band's back catalogue still sounds rather fresh and the quality of the songs is indomitable. One group of Australian musicians believe these songs are so strong, they're stripping them back to the core and reinventing them as electro-infused soul tracks.
Divinyls Reworked is the brainchild of musician Ginger Van Handley, who approached a range of burgeoning Australian musicians with the concept for the record.
"There's a range of different genres that will be represented on the album, from soul to electronic to jazz," she says. "Some of the songs that are being reworked are maybe lesser-known tracks."
Van Handley believes the strength of Divinyls songs makes them perfect fodder for reinterpretation.
"The strength of the ideas and the concepts in each of the songs, and the lyrics and the words she uses, they're really strong. You can strip them down and there's still strength there. When you're stripping it down to the bare bones and you transpose into another genre and add different kinds of layers, different sounds and things, there's still a really strong base to start from.
"Chrissy was just a really bold songwriter. Her lyrics are so strong and that strength, people really connect with that. I definitely connect with her and her songs, even though I'm not a huge rock fan, that's not the music that I naturally gravitate towards.
"The fact that I and a lot of other people who are in the soul or electronic scene, the fact that we all connect with her music says a lot about the strength of her songwriting and also her presence, her as a person. She was such a strong woman and I think a lot of people really look up to her. So it's an honour to put this together in tribute to her."
While Van Handley was concerned lifelong Divinyls fans would scoff at the nature of this project, she has been heartened by the support it has received.
"A lot of the diehard Divinyls fans, who are maybe a bit older, I was a little bit worried that they wouldn't be open to reinterpreting Divinyls songs in a genre that's not rock'n'roll," she says. "I've actually found that everyone's really excited and happy that we're trying to honour Chrissy in this way, they're really supportive, which is great."
An unexpected legacy of the Divinyls comes via Tony Mott, who credits Amphlett with giving him his start in the business he has made his own over the past few decades.
"One drunken Monday night I thought, 'god that must be bloody difficult to photograph, to capture that'. So the next Monday night I took my camera. For four months, maybe five months, I practiced, on Chrissy Amphlett, the art of rock'n'roll photography. Luckily no one was judging me, apart from myself, because they were pretty rubbish photos. But after four or five months I reached a level of competence.
"The manager approached me one night. He'd seen me every Monday night at the front and asked if he could look at the photos. He bought one for a tour poster and I couldn't have been happier or more chuffed, I thought this was brilliant. I think he paid me 20 bucks and put my name on the door. I was so green that I didn't know what the term putting your name on the door meant and I continued to pay.
"The first photo I ever sold was Chrissy Amphlett. She looks like a lion in it, all her hair is up in mid air and she's screaming blue murder at the audience. It was Chrissy doing Chrissy Amphlett."
The Melbourne City Council have also shown their support for preserving the legacy of one of Australia's greatest rock stars, committing to naming a laneway after Amphlett earlier this year. The idea began with an online petition which attracted over 7,300 signatures and was presented to council by Chrissy's husband Charley Drayton, her cousin Patricia "Little Pattie" Amphlett and music journalist Jenny Valentish.
"We presented the petition and Little Pattie, who's quite formidable, had a bit of a word in Rohan's ear and said 'you'd better make this happen or else'," Valentish tells Double J. "He looked a bit pale but I thought it was a good move. Shortly after that it was tentatively approved by council in a meeting and then it was down to us to find a location for that to be approved.
We presented the petition and Little Pattie, who's quite formidable, had a bit of a word in Rohan's ear and said 'you'd better make this happen or else'...He looked a bit pale but I thought it was a good move.Jenny Valentish
The laneway lies in a position in the Melbourne CBD that had quite a great significance to Amphlett's life.
"It's off Little Bourke Street and it's right behind The Palace, in its day as The Metro the Divinyls played there," Valentish says. "It also backs on to one of the walls of the Princess, and Chrissy was in the production of The Boy From Oz as Judy Garland there for quite a run. She got married to Charley during that time so they actually signed their marriage certificate in the Princess as well and had their first public appearance there.
"But also it's just an area that's pertinent to Chrissy's life. For instance, in nearby Collins St she was baptised in the Baptist Church and also had her wake there. So we felt like, of all the corporation lanes that were available, this was the one we wanted."
The Palace Theatre has been bought by developers and is mooted to become a residential building in the future, but Valentish said that was all the more reason to have a rock'n'roll tribute instated in the area.
"Charley felt that, even though we don't know what the future of that lane is, he felt that Chrissy would want to make a point and commemorate where the Palace stood," she says. "He felt that in general she'd want to make a stand for rock'n'roll."
Chrissy Amphlett signed on to play the role of Judy Garland in the initial touring production of The Boy From Oz, which began in 1998. The show was hugely successful, but McEntee was not overly supportive of her decision to transition to musical theatre and lays blame on it for there being no Divinyls activity at the time.
"It's her decision but it was a shame," he says. "Why do music theatre when you're a fricking rock icon? The band would have kept going, definitely. When she had done that, those musicals take up so much space and time, when you're playing rock music you don't go into doing musicals. It doesn't matter, it's Chrissy's decision.
It's her decision but it was a shame. Why do music theatre when you're a fricking rock icon?Mark McEntee
In 2006 the band were inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame, which prompted one final reformation.
"A great honour, really," McEntee says of the award. "It's nice to have people who are your peers go 'We think you should be here'. It was a real surprise, I wasn't expecting that whatsoever."
Amphlett and McEntee were joined by Charlie Owen, Amphlett's husband Charley Drayton, Jerome Smith and Clayton Doley for a series of shows. But soon after the band became an ongoing concern again, Amphlett received some shocking health news that changed everything.
"Of course, when we started to do it, she was first diagnosed with the MS," McEntee says.
Divinyls came to an end not long after the diagnosis, as Amphlett confirmed to Melbourne's Herald Sun.
"I think Divinyls is done," she said. "Mark isn't into playing and Divinyls is Mark and I. It's about time I did something on my own."
Amphlett was then diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, but was unable to receive radiation treatment or chemotherapy due to her multiple sclerosis. She passed away at her New York City home on 21 April, 2013.
The I Touch Myself Project was launched a year after her passing, in an attempt to raise awareness of the importance of early detection of breast cancer. Fellow Australian vocalists Connie Mitchell, Deborah Conway, Kate Cerebrano, Katie Noonan, Little Pattie, Megan Washington, Olivia Newton-John, Sarah Blasko, Sarah McLeod and Suze DeMarchi took part in the video that accompanied the initiative.
Chrissy Amphlett leaves behind a raft of amazing music, thousands of stories about her extraordinary approach to both music and life and a formidable reputation as one of the best front people this country, and the world, has ever seen.
Divinyls were forged in the world of pub rock, and transcended it with a fierce musical independence and incendiary live energy driven by the unparalleled Chrissy Amphlett. They changed the landscape of Australian rock forever, and set the bar so much higher for all bands after them.