Sunday, 26 May 2013

Lobotomy Room Playlist 17 May 2013

/ A black leather jacket and a good pair of engineer boots: the essential wardrobe staples of a 1950s bad boy greaser. What more do you need? In the case of this rockabilly angel -- nothing. (Via Vintage Gay Men) /

From the Facebook events page:  

Like the celebrants of some macabre feast, people are waiting ... waiting for the return of LOBOTOMY ROOM!

Yes, Lobotomy Room: a Mondo Trasho night of rockabilly, frantic Rhythm and Blues, tittyshaking sleazy instrumentals, punk, kitsch and exotica (weird shit, basically! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs The Cramps Taught Us), hosted by Graham Russell (Dr Sketchy London’s resident DJ). Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock!

Admission is free, the booze is cheap and the venue is a basement in Stoke Newington. Things kick off early – stick a safety pin through your nose and come straight from the office.
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Lauren and I at the end of the night ... (note Sarah in the corner)

For the third-ever Lobotomy Room, I went for a low-key, intimate and small-scale vibe in the basement of Ryan’s Bar in Stoke Newington. OK, that’s a positive spin on confessing not many people showed up! The March 2013 Lobotomy Room at Paper Dress Vintage was a triumph, but Saturday nights there are booked solid until later in the summer (I’m doing the next Lobotomy Room there on Saturday 13 July 2013), so I thought I’d do a Lobotomy Room at Ryan’s Bar as an experiment in the meantime. Because of its prime location in Shoreditch, Paper Dress Vintage gets swarms of passing trade. Luring people to Stoke Newington proved trickier!  I promoted the hell out of it (the ultra chi chi 1940s and 50s reproduction clothing emporium Vivien of Holloway kindly printed-up a mountain of beautiful glossy flyers -- with Lobotomy Room details on one side and Vivien of Holloway info on the reverse -- for me to distribute; Lobotomy Room was listed in Time Out online for the first time), and so did Ryan’s Bar. Ah, well – Lobotomy Room is still an unknown commodity for now. But the elite and loyal hardcore minority was there (who years from now will be able to brag they were at Lobotomy Room in its early undiscovered days!), plus there were some glamorous new faces (including some all the way from Manchester).

Lobotomy Room Flyer Updated

Anyway, as usual I eased into things with some otherworldly pagan / taboo mondo exotica (not playing a track by Yma Sumac just feels wrong) and then cranked-up my trashiest and most abrasive music LOUD. As the photos below show, things eventually descended into a drunken bacchanal. It was particularly gratifying to look up and see people moshing to “Punks Get Off the Grass” by John Waters’ character actress, Edith “Mama Edie” Massey. For me, "outsider actress" and senior citizen matriarch of punk Massey is virtually the patron saint of Lobotomy Room and everything I want it to represent.

/ Edith Massey (1918 - 1984) in one of her greatest roles -- the vicious Aunt Ida in the 1974 John Waters classick Female Trouble /

17 May 2013 Lobotomy Room at Ryan's Bar

Grainy / gritty black and white art shot courtesy of the talented Phil Clark. (No, I have no idea what the black speck on my adam's apple is)


Like I know what I'm doing ... It's like handing an iPhone to an ape (photo by Magda)

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Mia (aka Mayan Ruin -- The Republic of Guatemala's finest export!) and Dan (aka The Dan-ster)

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Sarah and Lauren

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International sex kitten and "woman of mystery" Magda and Charlie

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Sally and Paddy

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Eric and Phil representing the bear community

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Fun and stylish couple

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Manchester's Finest: The Mancunian Girls

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Rock Chicks Unite! Lauren, Sally and Magda

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There's no stoppin' the cretins from hoppin'!

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Chrlie, Magda and Christopher

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Sweatin' to the oldies

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Charlie (wearing my biker cap) and La Magda

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Magda and I: I've known this crazy fräulein since the 1990s, when we both used to work for the same fetish company!

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Lauren and Christopher, who're in a blues-punk duo together called Spanking Machine (they recently recorded their demo). They are grasping, tenacious young starlets on the ascent. Watch out!

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"The Boys on Bikes Played Shame Games with ... The Mother Truckers!" Homoerotic! Christopher and I

There's plenty more photos from the night on flickr. (For the record, I loathe the ugly, jumbled and chaotic flickr re-design. What a mess!)

Follow me on tumblr! (Warning: Not Safe for Work!)

Quiet Village - Martin Denny
Tuma (Earthquake) - Yma Sumac
Mama's Place - Bing Day
Egg Man - Edith Massey
Moon Mist - The Out Islanders
Cafe Bohemian - The Enchanters
Monkey Bird - The Revels
Rigor Mortis - The Gravestone Four
La Bamba - Eartha Kitt
Slow Walk - Sil Austin
One Monkey Don't Stop No Show - Big Maybelle
Vesuvius - The Revels
Stranger in My Own Home Town - Elvis Presley (x-rated "blue" version)
Wiped-Out - The Escorts
I Can't Sleep - Tini Williams and The Skyliners
Strollin' After Dark - The Shades
Don' Wanna - Wanda Jackson
Beauty is Only Skin Deep - Robert Mitchum
Little Queenie - Bill Black Combo
Beat Generation - Mamie Van Doren
Are You Nervous? The Instrumentals
Bombora - The Original Surfaris
Save It - Mel Robbins
8-Ball - The Hustlers
Bacon Fat - Andre Williams
The Whip - The Frantics
Cooler Weather (Is A-Comin') - Eddie Weldon
Madness - The Rhythm Rockers
Sick and Tired - Lula Reed
I Love the Life I Live - Esquerita
Crawlin' - The Untouchables
No Good Lover - Mickey and Sylvia
Last Call for Whiskey - Choker Campbell
Beaver Shot - The Periscopes
Black Tarantula - Jody Reynolds
Safari - The El Capris
Drummin' Up A Storm - Sandy Nelson
Love Potion # 9 - Nancy Sit
Viens danser le twist - Johnny Hallyday
Little Miss Understood - Connie Stevens
Beat Girl - Adam Faith
Tonight You Belong to Me - Patience and Prudence
People Ain't No Good - The Cramps
Margaya - The Fender Four
Intoxica - The Centurions
Roll with Me Henry - Etta James
Uptown to Harlem - Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin
Don't Be Cruel - Bill Black Combo
Whistle Bait - The Collins Kids
Fool I Am - Pat Ferguson
The Big Bounce - Shirley Caddell
Little Lil - Mel Dorsey
Rawhide - Link Wray
She Said - Hasil Adkins
Shortnin' Bread - The Ready Men
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Breathless - Aarlie Neaville
Heartbreak Hotel - Buddy Love
Jim Dandy - Sara Lee and The Spades
Ain't That Lovin' You, Baby - The Earls of Suave
Rip It Up - Elvis Presley
Heartbreakin' Special - Duke Larson
Willie Joe - The Mystery Trio
Bottle to the Baby - Charlie Feathers
She Wants to Mambo - Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin
Chicken Grabber - The Nite Hawks
Esquerita and The Voola - Esquerita
The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard
Woo-Hoo - The Rock-A-Teens
I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s
That Makes It - Jayne Mansfield
Tall Cool One - The Wailers
Hanky Panky - Rita Chao and The Quests
Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires
Rock Around the Clock - The Sex Pistols
Mean Mutha Fuckin' Man - Wayne County and The Electric Chairs
Teenage Lobotomy - The Ramones
C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious
Breathless - X
You Give Me Worms - Turbonegro
Go Motherfucker Go - Nashville Pussy
Shopping Spree - The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black
Nothing Means Nothing Anymore - The Alley Cats
Khrushchev Twist - Melvin Gayle
Killer - Sparkle Moore
Rock'n'Roll Waltz - Ann-Margret
I Want Your Love - The Cruisers
Cry-Baby - The Honey Sisters
Human Fly - The Cramps
The Swag - Link Wray
What Do You Think I Am? Ike and Tina Turner
I Was Born to Cry - Dion
Gonna Type A Letter - Billy Fury
Somebody Put Something in My Drink - The Ramones
Contact - Brigitte Bardot
Elle est terrible - Johnny Hallyday
Somethin' Else - Sid Vicious
Dancing with Tears in My Eyes - X
Goin' Down that Road - Ersel Hickey
Cat Man - Gene Vincent
Handclapping Time - The Fabulous Raiders
Boots - Nero and The Gladiators
Bombie - Johnny Sharp and The Yellow Jackets
Punks Get Off the Grass - Edith Massey
Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor - Johnny Horton
Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen
Comin' Home - The Delmonas
The Pussycat song - Connie Vannett
Sweet Little Pussycat - Andre Williams
Can Your Pussy Do the Dog? The Cramps
Devil in Disguise - Elvis Presley
Fools Rush In - Ricky Nelson
Let's Go Sexin' - James Intveld
Suey - Jayne Mansfield

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Christina's World: My Obituary for Chrissy Amphlett (1959-2013)

/ RIP Christine Joy Amphlett (25 October 1959 – 21 April 2013) /

I was gutted to learn about the recent death of Christina “Chrissy” Amphlett at the age of 53 after a lengthy and harrowing struggle with Multiple Sclerosis and breast cancer. Growing up in rural Quebec in the 1980s, the volatile, husky-voiced Divinyls frontwoman was one of my essential teenage crushes (the key bands of my adolescence were X, Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Cramps and Divinyls – all of whom I continue to blast on my iPod to this day!). What an underrated, misunderstood and original artist Amphlett was. It’s a crying shame Divinyls are mainly remembered today as one hit wonders for their sole international hit “I Touch Myself”, when in fact they had a strikingly distinctive body of work long before that. In her native Australia Amphlett is justifiably revered as their equivalent of Deborah Harry, Chrissie Hynde or Siouxsie Sioux. Outside of the Australian press, I’ve been pretty disappointed in the quality of online obituaries I’ve read for Amphlett, so I decided to cobble together my own epic tribute to her memory. I hope I’ve done her justice.

A brief bio: Australian post-punk New Wave band Divinyls was formed by singer Christina Amphlett and guitarist Mark McEntee in 1980. The quintet was spawned and found their initial following playing residencies in the dive bars of King’s Cross, Sydney’s notorious “Sin Capital” red light district. The gritty and lurid environs of King’s Cross would appear to leave a lasting impact on their musical DNA: if ever a band exuded sleazy low-life allure, it was Divinyls.

/ Divinyls in the early 1980s: the original line-up /

Amphlett’s perverse and troubling persona (defined as “sexually threatening … abused / abusive waif” by CREEM magazine) was instantly delineated with Divinyl’s first single “Boys in Town” (also the very first song Amphlett and McEntee ever wrote together). It set a stylistic and thematic template: Divinyls songs were urgent, dramatic confessionals dispatched by Amphlett in a lacerating raspy voice reminiscent of a less tortured, more tuneful and buoyant Broken English-era Marianne Faithfull. (The New York Times would call Amphlett’s vocals “a raw-throated rasp, somewhere between a sob and a snarl, bruised but defiant.” Interestingly while other Australian rock and pop stars like Michael Hutchence of INXS or Kylie Minogue would sing in trans-Atlantic tones, Amphlett defiantly and unmistakably retained her Australian accent). Onstage Amphlett (clad in her trademark school girl uniform, usually accessorised with shredded fishnet stockings) thrashed, rampaged and flailed, sometimes scrawling all over her face with red lipstick, while behind her the band cranked-up a wall of gnashing guitars. (The sound of early Divinyls has been described as a female-fronted AC/DC). Aspects of Amphlett's style would appear to influence later performers like Courtney Love, Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux and Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

After three hard-edged albums and years of critical acclaim and cult status but tepid album sales outside of Australia, Divinyls’ fortunes seemed to dramatically change when they scored an unexpected international hit with their 1991 single “I Touch Myself” – a rollicking invitation to masturbate. Ultimately the song was embraced as a fluke novelty tune and didn’t lead to lasting success for the band. Dropped by their label, it would be another five years before Divinyl’s next (and last) album, which was never released outside of Australia. Divinyls imploded acrimoniously in 1997.

Sadly, Divinyls were destined to never achieve major rock’n’roll stardom outside of their homeland. Their music was brash, sexy and accessible but possibly too polished for the punk / alternative crowd and too weird, abrasive and idiosyncratic for the mainstream. As the Village Voice pithily concluded, the best Divinyls albums "had everything that’s exciting about hard rock without any of the attending idiocies that annoy intelligent people, but failed because intelligent people foolishly ignore hard rock and hard rock fans like the attending idiocies.”
In 2005 Amphlett issued her warts-and-all autobiography Pleasure and Pain: My Life in which she revealed just how tumultuous and painful Divinyl’s existence was. It’s one of those books that make you question why anyone would form a band: Divinyls were consistently plagued by exploitative management, record label disputes, internal feuds and drug and alcohol abuse; when they finally split, Amphlett was lumbered with massive debt that took years to pay off. Mainly, though, her years in Divinyls were dominated by a seriously dysfunctional and stormy on-off romantic relationship with McEntee that frequently erupted into violence. "Mark gives me as much shit as I give him," Amphlett admitted to Rolling Stone in the 1980s. "If I punched him, he'd punch me back." Jon Spencer used to joke that Boss Hog (the band he fronted with his wife Cristina Martinez) was the sound of them fighting – this was probably far truer of Divinyls. Amphlett and McEntee’s agonised relationship probably informed the high drama and tension of Divinyls’ music: exciting for the listener, but probably not very edifying for them as individuals.

/ The tempestuous Amphlett and McEntee in 1985, around the time of Divinyls' What A Life! album /

Pleasure and Pain ends on an upbeat note, with Amphlett finally debt-free, sober and serene and happily married to musician Charley Drayton. Sadly, in fact by then she had already been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis but wasn’t ready to go public with her condition until 2007. Further proof that life is cruel: in 2010 Amphlett announced she had the breast cancer that would ultimately lead to her death three years later.

Divinyls discography:

1983: Desperate

"The voracious readymade chords of this Australian quintet aspire more to rock than to rock and roll, but when you think about it, so do Joan Jett's. Christina Amphlett plays a town slut who's moving up in the world of sexual -- and emotional -- obsession, like Iggy Pop with a heart as big -- and needful -- as his dick. And on the Easybeats' "Make You Happy" she gets to the infantile root. A- "
Robert Christgau

“... even better, the Divinyls’ album, the all-to-appropriately titled Desperate, featured some authentically eye-opening treatises on loneliness, frustration and hope as the riveting “Boys in Town”, the tough and tragic “Elsie” and the shoulda-been-a-hit pop-eyed “Only Lonely.”
Billy Altman, CREEM Magazine

/ In this shot you can clearly see the macabre “dead mouse” brooches Amphlett used to wear pinned to her little girl dresses in Divinyls’ early days. I ask her about these in the interview transcript further down /

In early Divinyls videos, Amphlett is presented as deliberately unglamorous and – at her most demented – can seem like someone straight out of an institution! The early videos also have a striking tendency to keep Amphlett’s face mostly obscured by shadows or by her long shaggy bangs. Only getting tantalising glimpses of her face adds to her mystique.

/“I was just a red brassiere / To all the boys in town …” The bristling, nervous “Boys in Town” – the song that started it all. The fluorescent tube microphone stand was one of Amphlett’s early trademarks – a strange touch. At 1.45 she suddenly erupts into a witch-y cackling noise somewhere between a laugh and a scream – spine-tingling /

Early Australian hit “Science Fiction”. Divinyls emerged from the then fashionable New Wave genre: in this song, you hear the influence of New Wave divas like Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen and Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio in Amphlett’s high-pitched trills and hiccups.

The song “Only Lonely” represents Divinyls at their catchiest and most bubblegum. As if to compensate for its user-friendly Ramones-y poppiness, a spasmodic Amphlett spends the entire video twitching and shuddering as if she’s having a seizure or being electrocuted. 

A TV performance opening with Amphlett scribbling all over her face with red lipstick (I also suspect she’s dumped a bucket of water over her head – another typical stage move from this period. Her hair looks wet). The song itself (a male / female duet) sounds very Rezillos.

As CREEM Magazine recalled, Amphlett used to “smear lipstick across her body in a defiant symbol of anti-conformity.” In this scary and exhilarating 1983 live clip whirling dervish / Tasmanian she-devil Amphlett looks bloodied, as if she’s just crawled wounded from the wreckage of a car crash. In her memoirs Amphlett remembers that when touring the US, audiences would find her performances so jarring and unpleasant they would recoil in horror.

CREEM also described how Amphlett “would, at some points, spin across the floor in a pogo-ing danse macabre of the disenfranchised.” At about 3.57 you can see her pogo-ing up and down in this powerful performance of “Elsie.” It seems to evoke something eerie and demonic – no surprise Amphlett’s persona was frequently compared to Linda Blair in The Exorcist!

1985: What a Life!

“The Divinyls are not a “safe” band. This Australian quintet’s sound is loud and hard edged, as purely physical as any metal band … singer Christina Amphlett’s … deranged onstage demeanor seems perfectly reflected in a voice that swings from a schoolgirl’s trill to a harridan’s growl. The album strikes the perfect balance between pop craft and musical muscle, revealing a passion all too rare in recent rock.”
J D Considine, Rolling Stone
“The songs and melodies show a real pop craftsmanship, recalling the bubblegum punk of another band of reformed anarcho-delinquents, the Damned.”
Roy Trakin, CREEM Magazine

/ Lit by hot pink neon, Amphlett transforms a rock video into tormented performance art. This clip (for the hypnotic “Pleasure and Pain”) was my introduction to Divinyls: I would have caught it on late night Canadian TV in my teens. Watching Amphlett writhing around on the floor in a tantrum, exposing her stockings and suspenders I thought, “Who is this?” I sought out the What A Life! album right away. In her autobiography Amphlett confesses “My performance in “Pleasure and Pain” was so over the top I’ve never been able to watch it.” /

/ Atmospheric video for "Sleeping Beauty", with Amphlett in full mood-swing prowling through a desolate waterfront. I think this was from a magazine called Rock Scene: “Spookier than Elvira, Christina Amphlett is easily the most intense chick singer out there … vampiress Amphlett is great in her sailor outfit, same with the smoky shipyard setting – both appropriate to the song’s “still waiting for my ship to come in” lyric."  In the beginning of Divinyls’ career when they were negotiating with American record labels, a major sticking point was Amphlett’s imperfect (slightly frilly and gappy) teeth; they refused to sign the band until she fixed them, and Amphlett refused as a matter of principle. In her autobiography Amphlett recalls the make-up artist for this video was so horrified by her teeth she fashioned a little false tooth for her to wear in this clip /

The 1980s “alt rock” production on What A Life! is noticeably slicker and more gimmicky than on Desperate (heavy on the synths and that "guitar-as-bag pipes" sound then fashionable). Somehow the integrity of the songs and performances shine through. A good example is the ferocious punk rave-up “In My Life”, which CREEM Magazine described as suggesting “AC/DC backing Kate Bush … and features a withering, sarcastic aside (when Chrissy Amphlett, discussing her fabulously rewarding education, sneers “Such advantages”) worthy of Johnny Rotten himself.”

A TV performance of “Casual Encounter”: They might even be miming; it still feels scathing, and captures the savagely-pouting Amphlett at her most sullen.

1988: Temperamental

“The voice of Christina Amphlett … shuttles between a hiccup, a yodel and a snarl. She sings with inflections that seem entirely her own, as if she were making up a perverse language as she went along. At her most bizarre, she can sound almost demonically possessed … she’s the good-bad girl – sort of like all four Shangri-Las rolled into one – with a snatch of pre-exorcised Linda Blair tossed in.”
Jim Farber, Rolling Stone

"Like a time bomb ticking away / I might blow up someday …” Seething with tough, wounded feelings, “Back to the Wall” just may be Divinyls’ definitive masterpiece.

By now Amphlett had swapped the school girl uniform for black leather

Syndicate of Sound’s 1966 garage punk song “Hey Little Girl” given a genderfucked make-over as “Hey Little Boy.”

"Back to the Wall” performed live and shorn of its lush, oceanic production. Amphlett’s performance is one long, pissed-off glamour fit. It's fascinating to watch her working herself up into a frenzy of rage until she erupts and lashes out.

1991: Divinyls
“Amphlett doesn’t sing about anything except sex on Divinyls … Consequently, Amphlett is to sex as Morrissey is to misery; unnaturally preoccupied, hence an expert.”
Rob Tannenbaum, The Village Voice
“Few singers can locate the rage that lies behind lust like Christina Amphlett of Divinyls. She sings with an eroticism that is almost vengeful, hurling out phrases brimming with violent need. Then she can turn and offer succor, proving there’s vulnerability beneath that banshee wail after all ... The result is the most sexually charged voice from a rock female since the emergence of Chrissie Hynde. There’s no denying the singer reaches her climax on “I Touch Myself,” one of the catchiest songs ever written about masturbation. It is perhaps the truest tribute to Amphlett’s urgent talent that she can make even self-stimulation seem inclusive.”
Jim Farber, Rolling Stone

/ By the early nineies, Amphlett’s image had evolved into something sultrier and more conventionally glamorous /

/ The cover for Divinyls’ single “Make Out Alright” wittily references that notorious image of thumb-sucking teenage nymphet Carroll Baker in her crib in the 1956 film Babydoll /

/ It’s funny to re-watch the “I Touch Myself” video in light of Amphlett’s comments about her “creative disputes” with its director in my interview with her below. My highlight: the odd shot of her pouting while ironing sexily (!) /

/ The post-“I Touch Myself” singles “Make Out Alright” and “Love School” failed to chart impressively and ultimately their period of international success was a blip in Divinyls’ career. There is a video for “Love School” on Youtube but the quality isn’t good enough to post here. The unsung “Make Out Alright” (which marries Amphlett’s orgasmic pleas with McEntee’s neo-rockabilly guitar) deserved a kinder fate. The video is almost Fellini-esque, incorporating Amphlett at her sultriest, Las Vegas showgirls having a catfight and homoerotic wrestlers /
1996: Underworld
After the success of "I Touch Myself," Divinyls became the victims of a severe backlash. Because of this, they waited six years before releasing their follow-up album, but the wait proved to be worth it. Darker and with more of an emphasis on ballads than any of their previous albums, Underworld is Divinyls' most accomplished release to date.”
Jason Damos,

“There’s blood in these veins / And I cry when in pain / I’m only human on the inside ...” 

Underworld is the sole Divinyls CD I've never owned. It was never released outside of Australia and would probably have been an expensive import to obtain (and is inevitably long out of print by  now, anyway). On the pretty ballad "Human on the Inside" (later covered by The Pretenders), Amphlett bares her sensitive, tender side (while dressed like a dominatrix).

Postcript: Incredibly, Amphlett and McEntee managed to bury their differences and reconcile long enough for Divinyls to tour and record some new material in 2007. A proposed full-length comeback album never materialised and Divinyls dissolved their reunion in 2009. The most striking of the new songs was “Asphyxiated”: Amphlett sings lyrics full of death, suffering and pain imagery in a dissolute Marianne Faithfull croak over McEntee’s towering, almost Led Zeppelin-esque riff. Listening to it, you can't help but think Amphlett is singing about her own declining health. “Asphyxiated” isn't a very consoling conclusion to the Divinyls story, but it is a powerful one.

2007's "Don't Wanna Do This" is the last-ever Divinyls video. Presumably because of her health problems, Amphlett is represented in animated form

I was fortunate to see Divinyls and interview Amphlett for my university newspaper in 1991 in Montréal (shortly before I graduated and split for London). It was when Divinyls finally broke into the mainstream with their surprise hit, the brazen “I Touch Myself”: the raunchy video was on heavy rotation on MTV and the Canadian equivalent, Much Music.

Like the time I interviewed The Cramps, I arrived at venue (Le Spectrum) in time to watch Divinyls sound check. Watching Amphlett singing in close proximity, pretty much for an audience of one (me!), was spine-tingling. I seem to recall the band tore through “Pleasure and Pain”, but my memory is hazy on that. I was mesmerized by Amphlett: her hair was upswept in a beehive (think Joanna Lumley as Absolutely Fabulous’ Patsy); she was wearing a plunging top, a tiny tartan mini-skirt the size of a lampshade, black tights and these outrageous little fetishistic spike-heeled mules trimmed with marabou feathers.

After the sound check I killed some time talking to the scathingly hilarious, completely indiscreet and sassy record company PR woman who filled me in on insider gossip about Divinyls and her other clients. The highlights I can recall: Mark McEntee and Amphlett feuded constantly; she found them both very strange and difficult; she strongly suspected Amphlett was significantly older than she claimed (“She’s got to be my age!”); it was in Amphlett’s contract that she had a 90-minute hair and make-up session at every venue upon arrival. I asked her, “Does it really take 90-minutes to put on make-up?” And she explained, “You should have seen what she looked like when she arrived in Montréal! She was like a car that needed a complete overhaul!” It occurred to me to ask, Do Christina and Mark stay in the same hotel room? That made her gulp and go silent – interesting. I told her I’d met Marianne Faithfull in Montréal a year or two earlier and she said, “Oh, God – remind me to tell you my Marianne Faithfull story!” But just then I was ushered into Amphlett’s dressing room to do the interview and I never did get to hear her Faithfull anecdote, which sounded like was going to be really juicy! It haunts me still!

To be frank, up-close in her dressing room Amphlett looked different to her album covers and videos: a bit puffier and blowsier  than I expected (I wasn’t aware then of her personal troubles and battles with alcoholism) – but sexy as hell. She had a genuinely sensual, very feminine physical presence. Her hair was a shade of auburn not found in nature (think Ann-Margret); her sensationally full bee-stung mouth could justifiably be described as “Bardot-lipped”. And she was a smart, funny and warm interview subject. Amphlett was also much more softly-spoken (and posh-voiced) than you might think. Occasionally she lapsed into PR speak: Amphlett was clearly used to dealing with uninformed journalists assuming Divinyls was a “new band”. My allotted time came and went and I cheekily continued with the interview (I suspect the PR woman was supposed to be keeping track of the time and materialize at the end of my session). Amphlett had an elegant way of indicating the interview was over: she clicked on a pair of tortoise shell cat’s eye sunglasses, the kind a 1960s Italian movie starlet would wear. I took the hint! Afterwards I pulled out of my bag some of my treasured Divinyls LPs for Amphlett to autograph. When she glanced down at What a Life! she gasped, “But you would have only been about twelve when this came out?” Her whole demeanor changed when she realized I was a genuine fan, familiar with their older work but that I was seeing Divinyls for the first time. “I hope you like it  ... our new stuff is quite different  ...” Towards the end Mark McEntee came in and we were introduced. I remember him as a tiny, very pretty blond Brian Jones lookalike in a ruffled shirt with a not very strong handshake.

The concert opened with the band lashing into the urgent, crunching garage punk of “I’ll Make You Happy.” Making a delayed "star entrance", Amphlett stormed onto the stage doing 1960s go-go dancer moves – but think go-go dancer straight out of her cage, hopped-up on speed and angry (or one of Ike and Tina’s Ikettes gone rogue). Her hair was still vertical in its impeccable beehive, but was quickly shaken loose and disheveled. What a mesmerising and unsettling performer Amphlett was! Her remarkable throaty voice cut through the onslaught of guitars like a knife. At the Montréal gig Amphlett nailed a tempestuous combination of seduction and aggression, cupping her breasts, flashing her panties, thrusting her crotch and doing deep stripper squats, but all in a really confrontational and almost hostile way that baffled a lot of the audience (but thrilled me to my core!). She had this wonderful camp, pout-y mock-aggrieved quality that I associate more with male performers, like Little Richard, young Jagger and David Johansen of The New York Dolls.

Amphett was also very punk-y and combative: like Lydia Lunch or Johnny Rotten, she could create this sense of tension, conflict and drama just with her snarling presence. I’ve seen the unpredictable, lunatic likes of Iggy Pop and Lux Interior of The Cramps perform several times over the years, and she was as feral as them in her own way. At the Montréal gig, it was mainly casual fans who only knew Divinyls for "I Touch Myself.” Of course that song was quite un-representative of their earlier rowdier / tougher sound, plus Amphlett's whole persona was so barbed, abrasive and strange. Divinyls played The Ritz in New York on that same 1991 tour and the New York Times reviewer nicely captures the clash between Amphlett and audience:

"Ms Amphlett often touched herself as she sang, but she wasn’t flirting with the audience or the band… Many of her gestures were those of a hostess at a party she didn’t want to give, with contemptuous curtsies and over-elaborate arm waves … The audience, few of whom were probably familiar with previous Divinyls efforts like Desperate or Temperamental, didn’t seem to approve of Ms Amphlett’s mixed messages. This wasn’t the uncomplicated hootchy-koo that the Divinyls album promises. Pop audiences like their come-ons without irony; otherwise, there’s a possibility that the joke might be on them. After Ms Amphlett finished the set with “I Touch Myself”, lying on her back or crouching with the microphone held between her knees, the applause was subdued and almost grudging."

That’s precisely the sense of unease I recall. The Divinyls gig coincided with some kind of anniversary for the Le Spectrum and all these drunken middle aged business men in suits (shareholders or something?) were there and drunk (probably on expense account!). They had no idea who Christina Amphlett was, but they did know she was teetering around in stilettos like a deranged sex kitten while wearing a push-up bra, fishnet stockings and suspenders under a painted-on sheer dress that looked like a French maid uniform. I remember one of them pushing his way next to me right by the front of the stage heckling her with shouts of, "Come here, you fucking whore!" To her credit, Amphlett coolly proceeded like he wasn't there. Tough cookie! (Later I asked the PR woman, “Do you think Christina heard him?” She replied, “If we could hear him, then she could too!”). Amphlett had toiled her way up playing in these tough-as-nails outback biker bar beer blasts in Australia in Divinyls’ early days -- that guy was nothing!

Above: two photos taken by photographer Shawn Scallen to accompany my article of Christina Amphlett onstage at Le Spectrum in Montréal

This video of Divinyls performing in New York in 1991 is pretty much exactly how I remember the Le Spectrum gig (this is even the same outfit Amphlett wore).

Below is my 1991 original article from the Carleton University newspaper (The Charlatan), in its entirety. Wow, it reads so gauche all these years later – how embarrassing! But hey, I would have been about 20 or 21 at the time and am posting it here (unedited) as an artifact.

Sexual Subversion in Song

The most vital of rock music is always intimately linked with sex. However it seems that the masses have always been inclined to embrace highly sexual male performers like Mick Jagger, James Morrison and Prince, alongside misogynistic rap and metal acts. Aggressive, unapologetically sexual female singers who present themselves on their own terms seem to be more difficult to swallow.

This contradiction is not lost on Christina Amphlett, the sultry perma-pouting frontwoman of the raunchy Australian rockers Divinyls. At Montréal’s Le Spectrum last month, rock’s most authentic bad girl compulsively caressed her breasts, flashed glimpses of her panties and mimed fellatio on her microphone. Songs like “Lay Your Body Down” were delivered in a sex-wracked rasp, striking ambiguous poses – hardened dominatrix one moment, debauched wild child innocence the next.

Ask how she thinks men in the audience relate to her and Amphlett laughs, “I always try to relate to the females as well. It’s a family thing. I believe in reproduction – I think it’s the essence of human nature.”

Her confrontational antics baffled Le Spectrum’s decidedly non-Divinyls regulars of big-haired, mini-skirted disco dollies and Miami Vice clones. One pastel tuxedo-shirt clad rowdy elbowed his buddies and heckled Amphlett with, “C’mere, you fucking whore!”

The crowd was undoubtedly lured by the band’s unlikely Top 10 hit “I Touch Myself” – a brazen, rollicking invitation to masturbate. The song has suddenly catapulted Amphlett and Divinyls guitarist / co-founder Mark McEntee into the mainstream after three albums and a decade of critical raves and cult notoriety.

Ironically, the calming of the furore to label and censor rock music has actually opened things up for Divinyls.

“Probably in the last year because people have been pushing it in other ways, it makes it easier for a song like “I Touch Myself” to come through,” Amphlett asserts.

“Probably in the past year, because people have been pushing it in other ways it makes it easier for a song like “I Touch Myself” to come through. People have accepted that song with a lot of fun and humor, so I think it’s kind of good. I don’t think censorship is a good thing. I think people should make decisions themselves. When you’ve got censorship things become taboo and people want them and it becomes dirty and closet-y and I don’t think it’s a good thing. I’m an artist so I don’t believe in censorship at all.”

Amphlett agrees Madonna’s banned “Justify My Love” video paved the way for their provocative video for “I Touch Myself.” When people push in that direction it makes it good for other people.”

Seeing the video in heavy rotation on MuchMusic, Amphlett emerges as a genuinely unvarnished sensual presence in contrast to the likes of perky, asexual cheerleaders Paula Abdul and Wilson Phillips. Amphlett regrets, though, that the video – featuring shots of hands reaching crotchward only to cut away at the last moment, and veiled sadomasochistic references – didn’t go further.

“The director of the video was very square and he was a bit of a pain in the ass because you’d walk out in different clothes and stuff and it was all a bit much for him,” says Amphlett. “He had this (shot of a) girl throwing a champagne bottle and crying. What that had to do with “I Touch Myself” I don’t know. It was a bit of a battle, but maybe it was a good thing he was square because between us and him it balanced out.

“We’ve done better videos since then. You’ll be seeing one soon for “Make Out Alright”, and that’ll be pushing the envelope a little more, or a lot more -- with the clothes and things, making it more risqué,” she promises.

Pushing the envelope is a long-standing convention for Divinyls. “Boys in Town”, the first song Amphlett and McEntee wrote together, and the first song on their 1983 debut Desperate – is a case in point. Its lyrics cast Amphlett as the abused local slut: “I was just a red brassiere / To all the boys in town.”

Similarly, “Pleasure and Pain”, their 1985 single which flirted with the Top 40, was a hypnotic testament to sadomasochism. This is in character for a band spawned in King’s Cross or “Sin Capital” – Sydney’s red light district. Ironically, though, McEntee first met Amphlett while she was singing in a gospel choir.

“I was singing in a choir, of all things, to develop the top range of my voice. I just wanted to sing with other singers – I’ve always been a rock’n’roll singer, I just wanted to do something else as an exercise,” said Amphlett. “Mark heard about me through someone we both knew and he came along and I’d got kicked out of the choir that night because my microphone had gotten wrapped around this stool and everywhere I’d go, I’d drag this stool and it was making noises.”

Offstage Amphlett is an outspoken advocate of prostitutes’ rights.

“I think prostitutes give us girls a rest. I think it’s a good thing and they should be looked after more. Obviously men have got these very primitive primal urges and basic needs and prostitutes seem to satisfy that. It’s a shame when they seem to be sadly neglected by society and shoved under the carpet … they’re all junkies now and they’re treated badly.”

Amphlett’s views are undoubtedly shaped by her own stints in jail on two separate occasions:  once in Spain as a teenager for singing on the street and again just a few years ago for unpaid parking tickets. (“They put me in a cell with an armed robber and a baby killer, a woman who put her baby in the oven. It was scary,” says Amphlett).

“I’ve always been interested in all facets of life, not with my blinkers on,” she concludes. “I suppose that’s why I’ve always gravitated towards red light districts. I’ve wanted to know not just the surface, but what goes on underneath. I think that maybe shows in my voice, that I have lived.”
The unedited transcript of the interview: (Below is the transcript of my interview with Christina Amphlett, which is actually a better read and probably more informative than the article! There is some good stuff I cut out of the finished piece: I love it when we discuss the dead mice she used to wear pinned to her school uniform!)

Graham Russell: Did you think “I Touch Myself” would be the big single for you?

Christina Amphlett: No. It was just in a batch of sings we had written. That was just the song that seemed to be released as the first single, so it was a surprise. You don’t expect, when you’ve never had a Top 10 hit, you don’t all of a sudden think you’re going to get one after all this time, so it was a real nice surprise.
GAR: Was there any pressure to “clean up” the single or accompanying video?
CA: The director of the video was very square and he was a bit of a pain in the ass because you’d sort of walk out in different clothes and stuff and we’d have the girls in different clothes and it was all a bit much for him. He had a high opinion of himself and some of his ideas were quite … (loses train of thought). He had this (shot of a) girl throwing a champagne bottle and crying. What that had to do with “I Touch Myself” I don’t know. It was a bit of a battle, but in the end in the editing luckily we could chop things out. But maybe it was a good thing he was square because between us and him it balanced out. But I would never work with him again. We’ve done better videos since then. You’ll be seeing one soon for “Make Out Alright”, and that’ll be pushing the envelope a little more, or a lot more -- with the clothes and things, making it more risqué.
GAR: (Conversation drifted to the then-hot issue of labeling / censorship/ the PMRC)
CA: Probably in the past year, because people have been pushing it in other ways it makes it easier for a song like “I Touch Myself” to come through. People have accepted that song with a lot of fun and humor, so I think it’s kind of good. I don’t think censorship is a good thing. I think people should make decisions themselves. When you’ve got censorship things become taboo and people want them and it becomes dirty and closet-y and I don’t think it’s a good thing. I’m an artist so I don’t believe in censorship at all.
GAR: Madonna’s “Justify My Love” pushing the limits, paved way for “I Touch Myself” …
CA: Exactly. So it’s all good. All that stuff is good. So when people push in that direction it makes it good for other people.
GAR: It’s weird seeing you in heavy rotation on MTV and MuchMusic, between people like Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul.
CA: It’s kind of good, because I’ve always been a bit much for people in America, my performance style and stuff. And now it’s like I’m accepted, which is a really nice thing.
GAR: Your reputation in Australia – have you always been accepted there?
CA: Yeah. They just sort of wince and accept me! (Laughs). That I’m there and they just have to accept that I’m there.
GAR: Here Divinyls are considered an “alternative” act. What about at home?
CA: No, we’re mainstream I suppose.
GAR: Are you superstars in Australia?
CA: I don’t know if we’re superstars. I don’t think anybody is superstars in Australia. We’re not like America where stars are something holier than thou, like royalty. I suppose we’ve been around a long time. It’s hard to say what my status is there because I’d sound like I’m bragging or something. Everybody there knows who Divinyls are, and some people like us, some people don’t. We’re accepted more overseas than we are in Australia, though “I Touch Myself” went to number one there.
GAR: Has sexism in Australia affected your career?
CA: I suppose that’s why I came out in the first place quite aggressively. In Australia girls were always to be “nice” and stuff like that, so I came out like a screaming mad-woman-from-hell. I suppose people have had to grin and bear it, but I’ve always been around. I think it’s sexist, but I suppose women in the music industry are a lot less accepted than in America. But I don’t know, there are some good aspects about living there and there are some aspects that are like anywhere.
GAR: Do you live there full-time when not on tour?
CA: In the last few years I’ve only been back there for two four-week periods, so I’ve been away a lot.
GAR: What do you miss about Australia when you’re away?
CA: The food. The nature. And the blue skies – it rains a lot down there lately. My family.
GAR: Tell me about switching labels from Chrysalis to Virgin.
CA: We got dropped from Chrysalis in the beginning of ’89. Instead of being depressed we decided to have fun and go to Paris to kick up our heels. We started writing some songs there and sent them back to America and got signed to Virgin in America. Everything really fell into place. It’s been happy all around. We’ve been fortunate this time around.
GAR: Tell me about your childhood in Geelong.
CA: Geelong is a town about an hour south of Melbourne, and it’s a little town of about 100,000 people. It’s right at the bottom of Australia, as far as you can go before you hit Tasmania. I left when I was about 15. I suppose I always wanted to travel the world and move out of that kind of small town environment. I went overseas when I was 17 and did all that. I got out of Geelong as soon as I could.
GAR: You were a rebellious delinquent-type?
CA: Sort of. I just wanted to travel and get out of that small town thing. I wanted to leave school as soon as I cold and sing in a rock’n’roll band. I always had stars in my eyes.
GAR: Divinyls were spawned in Kings Cross …
CA: In the red light district of Sydney. Mark was from Perth, on the opposite side of Australia. We started performing every Friday night in the red light district in an area similar to this, I suppose (indicating Montréal. I don't recall Le Spectrum being in a particulary seedy neighbourhood). Our audiences grew and grew, and we got a record deal and managers and then we started touring and then we got singed directly to Chrysalis overseas in America and we started touring the world. But it’s taken us a long time to have success overseas. I mean, we’ve toured nearly every city in America four times.
(Conversation switches to how things have changed with their recent commercial success). It’s great now because you’re busier, everybody wants to talk to you. I’m not complaining because for so long you get a dead response and they’re not really interested in you. It’s great after all this time, but you’ve got to work a lot harder and you can’t stay up and party like we used to because you’ve got to get up early and have your wits about you because you have to work so much harder. With the success is the fun and people and the response, but also you have to work a lot harder. Sometimes you don’t know whether you’re coming or going.
GAR: Tell me about your relationship with Mark.
CA: I was singing in a choir, of all things, to develop the top range of my voice. I just wanted to sing with other singers – I’ve always been a rock’n’roll singer, I just wanted to do something else as an exercise. Mark heard about me through someone we both knew and he came along and I’d got kicked out of the choir that night because my microphone had gotten wrapped around this stool and everywhere I’d go, I’d drag this stool and it was making noises. Mark said, Never mind, tomorrow I’ll come around and we’ll start writing, and we did. “Boys in Town” was the first song we wrote. We really enjoyed writing together so much we started writing every day and got a band together. We had similar ideas and wanted to develop our own individual styles.
GAR: I take it one of your early influences was punk …
CA: Even though we were a rock’n’roll band, we came out of that early 80s kind of thing, which was an explosion and there was music happening and new things. It was a really great period, because it was an explosion, and it came out of the 70s which, except for the glam bands, were quite boring. Even though my performance was quite punk, our music has always been quite melodious and we’ve always been a rock’n’roll band. I listened to all sorts of different music and I’m influenced by all sorts of different things, but I always really liked Blondie. (Deborah Harry) was great: she was always very cool and very “girlie”, which I liked.

(It’s interesting that Amphlett cites Deborah Harry as her primary influence (when Divinyls formed in 1980, Blondie would have been at their zenith and Harry the most famous female rock star in the world) and yet would she would do would be so different. Divinyls and Blondie would share many parallels: they both signed to the label Chrysalis; their best work was produced by Mike Chapman; and at one point Divinyls toured with Blondie member Frank Infante on guitar).
GAR: Tell me about your tough early audiences.
CA: In Australia bands grow up playing in these big drunken beer barns. Everybody does—the Midnight Oils, the INXS’s. You all grow up in these rowdy, boisterous kinds of places and it makes you boisterous and loud. You have to be tough to overcome a lot of drunks.
GAR: Did you have to deal with abuse like people throwing bottles?
CA: Sometimes, yeah. But I suppose that made me tough and nobody would dare to (then), because I would go out into the audience and hit them!
GAR: Your old onstage antics of dumping buckets of water overhead, smearing lipstick all over your face and body, wearing schoolgirl uniforms, wearing dead mice pins. Do you still do these things?
CA: I used to, when I was my schoolgirl. It’s different – I’m not singing songs like that anymore. Some of them I (still) do. The groove is a little different. You change. You can’t stay the same all the time. You mature and you do different things.
GAR: The dead mice pins were outrageous!
CA: When I first started the band I lived in this place that had lots of rats and mice and I became obsessed with them and used to stick them on my dress, because they were everywhere …
GAR: But they were dead and stuffed? (I think I meant to say "taxidermied")
CA: Oh, yes. I used to get big rubbish bags and get them to run into the rubbish bags and tie up the bags and throw them outside and they’d have to gnaw their way out. I suppose first time I came to Canada I was still having mice on my dress.
GAR: I heard you had a difficult time opening for Aerosmith recently.
CA: Their audiences were very boisterous and we used to have to dodge the bottles and it was scary. I always used to come offstage thinking I’d been in a car accident. It was a test, I suppose. I suppose that’s why I used to run around the stage a lot – I was always trying to dodge things!
GAR: (Conversation turns to her sexy / aggressive image and the men in the audience)
CA: I always try to relate to females as well. It’s a family thing! (Laughs). I believe in reproduction – I think it’s the essence of human nature.
GAR: (Somehow we start talking about prostitution)
CA: I think prostitutes give us girls a rest. I think it’s a good thing and they should be looked after more. Obviously men have got these very primitive primal urges and basic needs and prostitutes seem to satisfy that. It’s a shame when they seem to be sadly neglected by society and shoved under the carpet when they do society a big service. These days it’s not Irma La Douce anymore: they’re all junkies now and they’re treated badly and I think they should be treated better.
GAR: (I suggest Amphlett’s attitude was probably shaped by her own experiences in jail. Sharing cells with prostitutes had probably given them a human face for her. In her teens, a backpacking Amphlett had been jailed for an astonishing six weeks for being a "suspected drug addict" in Spain)
CA: In Spain, a lot of the prostitutes in prison were either French or Moroccan and they were very young girls. It’s a shame when they become junkies and they’re not looked after better. I just feel sorry for them. It’s a necessity.
GAR: You’ve actually been in prison twice. The second time was more recently, for unpaid parking tickets.
CA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Wearily). I didn’t pay my parking tickets. They put me in a cell with an armed robber and a baby killer, a woman who put her baby in the oven. It was scary. I was only in for a couple of days. It’s not a very nice play to be.
I’ve always been interested in all facets of life, not with my blinkers on. I suppose that’s why I’ve always gravitated towards red light districts. I’ve wanted to know not just the surface, but what goes on underneath. I think that maybe shows in my voice, that I have lived.

/ Christina Amphlett in the 2000s /