There’s No Aphrodisiac Like Success: the song that changed The Whitlams forever
The Whitlams were hardworking, heavy-touring musicians long before their big break, and didn’t have a whole lot to show for it – at least financially speaking.
“We put the album out in September ’97 and didn’t even have the money for a film clip,” Freedman told Double J last year, reflecting on the band’s breakthrough album Eternal Nightcap.
“I got 50 cassettes and dubbed ‘No Aphrodisiac’ on them and, on the front, in texta, I wrote ‘A Letter To You’.
“I put it in every pigeonhole in triple j and 2BL and 2FC. That was a very effective $40 marketing campaign. No one knew who it was from. I don’t know if anyone played it.
“A few weeks later the album went to everyone and [triple j] started to play ‘No Aphrodisiac’ and it just went mad.”
When ‘No Aphrodisiac’ hit, I was 33 and broke. I’d been at it for ten years. I really didn’t take anything for granted.Tim Freedman — Double J, 2017
Freedman is well aware of what made the song so appealing to a broad audience, but remains forever grateful that it connected.
“It was a song that worked just because it was pretty, it was about loneliness, but then it got funny. It had a real development. It just got a life of its own.
“Then, suddenly, the album started flying out of the stores. We had no marketing budget. It was our own label, we were broke. It was one of those moments where the song did all the work.”
But triple j’s Richard Kingsmill remembers that Freedman didn’t always have such confidence in the song.
“When I interviewed Tim Freedman I got him to pick the three best tracks from Eternal Nightcap, he didn’t even pick ‘No Aphrodisiac’,” Kingsmill said.
“He thought it was a track that triple j wouldn’t be all that interested in. But the people loved it.”
The success of the song was even more unlikely given the musical landscape of the time. The alternative rock and dance scenes were booming, with big beats and noisy guitars the omnipresent sound of the time.
“I’m forever thankful that triple j were flexible enough to put a ballad in the middle of playlist that was pretty dominated by guitars and grunge by that stage,” Freedman said. “It stood out like a sore thumb. It was always this slow four minutes in the middle of everything else, which was a bit more brash and abrasive.
“The album went gold and platinum in a couple of months. I suppose people voted for [‘No Aphrodisiac’] in December and it went to number one on Australia Day.”
It was a special moment in Hottest 100 history. Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – after whom the band was named – introduced the song prior to its airing.
Freedman was in an ABC studio in Adelaide (the band were touring with Hunters and Collectors at the time) to react to the news. But, 20 years on, he reveals that he already knew they’d won.
“I got a little whisper a little bit before, because record companies in those days used to get whispers about it,” he says.
“Of course we were very excited. I went down to the co-writers’ house in Camperdown – Chit Chat and Pinky Beecroft from Machine Gun Fellatio – and we had a drink and celebrated.”
Yes, those two anarchic songwriters from the Australian underground (at that stage, anyway) were partly responsible for one of the most heartbreaking and poignant songs of the ‘90s.
Of course, their contribution was the wonderfully twisted end to the song.
‘Forty, shaved, sexy, wants to do it all day
With a gun-toting trigger-happy tranny named Kinky Renée
Tired teacher, twenty-eight, seeks regular meetings
For masculine, muscular, nappy-clad, brutal breeding
While his wife rough wrestles with a puppy all aquiver
On a wine-soaked, strobe-lit Asiatic hall of mirrors’
“They’d written that at a house I rented and I always thought it was hilarious. I thought ‘Well, if I’m gonna make this guy start losing his mind completely, I’ll use Machine Gun’s lyrics at the end.’”
‘No Aphrodisiac’ was just the beginning of The Whitlams’ great ascent. The Australian public soon realised that this single was just the tip of the iceberg and that this Freedman guy knew how to write songs.
I knew how lucky I’d been. If ‘No Aphrodisiac’ hadn’t clicked, it would have sold 8,000 [copies] and I would’ve been struggling again.Tim Freedman — Double J, 2017
“People heard this song called ‘No Aphrodisiac’ out of the blue by a band called The Whitlams. They got the album and it had emotional depth.
“Stevie [Plunder – the band’s founding guitarist] had died 18 months before. So, to fill an album, I just went back to the songs I’d been working on for ten years.
"Every couplet had been laboured over for a long time. It wasn’t something that was written in four or five months. It was jigsaw puzzles from the last ten years. Lyrically it was quite full and tight.”
Eternal Nightcap’s success quickly changed Freedman’s life. Thankfully, he was ready. You don’t play 150 shows a year for half a decade and not have your next move all set out for when success beckons.
“We were in a position where we were so well organised, because we had a good manager and were ambitious and hardworking.
"As soon as ‘No Aphrodisiac’ took off, we were out on a 140-date tour.
“We didn’t take three minutes to go ‘what do we do now?’. We knew exactly what to do. We knew how the live scene worked. We went out and really laid into it.”
After years of toil, Freedman didn’t want to take his big opportunity for granted.
“We’d see older bands in the airport and they’d say ‘there’s the hardest working band in Australia’,” he recalls. “I never said no to a show. I loved it. I’d been struggling for long enough to really appreciate it.
“When ‘No Aphrodisiac’ hit, I was 33 and broke. I’d been at it for ten years. I really didn’t take anything for granted.
“I knew we had to put on good shows, I knew we had to be professional, I knew we had to keep writing, I knew the next album had to be good. I wasn’t gonna let this opportunity go.
“And I knew how lucky I’d been. Because if ‘No Aphrodisiac’ hadn’t clicked, it would have sold 8,000 [copies] and I would’ve been struggling again. I just respected the chance I’d been given. I worked me and the band’s butt off.”