Described as “the wild woman of Australian rock” by ABC, who made her death last Sunday the lead item on its TV and radio news bulletins, Divinyls' singer Chrissy Amphlett blazed a trail for female performers and musicians down under. She emerged in the early 1980s, wearing a school uniform as well as stockings and suspenders, but subverted the implied submissiveness of the outfit with a take-no-prisoners attitude that endeared her to millions of young Australians.
Amphlett certainly was a shock to the system for the country whose biggest female export had long been Olivia Newton-John. With Divinyls, Amphlett made sexual fulfilment a recurring theme, singing “I am through with hanging around with all the boys in town” on “Boys In Town”, the group's 1981 debut single, reflecting on the “fine line between pleasure and pain” on “Pleasure And Pain”, their introductory US hit in 1985, and pushing radio programmers to the limit with “I Touch Myself”, their 1991 worldwide smash hit.
Born in 1959 in Geelong, a port 50 miles south-west of Melbourne, she was the younger cousin of Little Pattie, a teenage star who scored a series of surf-pop hits in the 1960s. Like her, she began performing in her teens, first joining One Ton Gypsy, a local country rock band, and then travelling to Europe to get away from a father whose explosive temper she recalled in her 2005 autobiography Pleasure And Pain: My Life. “There was a lot of rage,” she said.
She busked in Britain, France and Spain, before returning to Australia. In 1980, while gigging around Sydney she met the guitarist Mark McEntee, a former member of the soft-rock group Air Supply, with whom she formed Divinyls. They quickly became an item, their volatile relationship informing much of their songwriting over the next 15 years. “There were loads of highs and lows,” reflected Amphlett, who also battled alcoholism. “No middle ground. There was a lot of drama. All that made for a more interesting performance, and that was the cost.”
Shy by nature, she created her controversial stage persona after her manager Vince Lovegrove took her to see his friends AC/DC, the hard rock group whose lead guitarist Angus Young wore a schoolboy uniform. “When I got the school uniform, that freed me and everything changed,” she explained. “I was watching all the men's reactions around me because there were all these contradictions going on. It made me angrier. The basic anger was 'don't think that I'm a pushover or that I'm a slut because I've got these stockings and suspenders on'.”
Looking like Chrissie Hynde's Antipodean cousin, sporting a lip-curling pout, Amphlett caused a sensation in the post-punk era. The Australian director Ken Cameron hired Divinyls to appear in and provide the soundtrack for his film adaptation of Monkey Grip, the Helen Garner novel whose frank depiction of sexual desire seemed a perfect match for Amphlett's lyrical preoccupations and the character she portrayed in the film.
Having launched Split Enz and Icehouse internationally, Chrysalis Records co-founder Chris Wright had a long association with Antipodean acts, and signed Divinyls when their deal with WEA turned sour in 1982. With Chrysalis riding high on the success of Debbie Harry and Blondie as well as Pat Benatar, Amphlett's group seemed a natural fit. Desperate, their debut album, was mixed by Bob Clearmountain and resequenced for worldwide release after making the Top 5 in Australia. In May 1983 Divinyls opened the New Wave Day of the US Festival in California, on a bill featuring fellow Aussies INXS and Men At Work, as well as the Beat, A Flock Of Seagulls and headlined by the Clash, and spent the rest of the year touring the US.
However, their 1985 follow-up, What A Life!, used three producers, including Gary Langan of Art Of Noise – and Mike Chapman, the mastermind behind the Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Blondie's biggest-selling albums, who co-wrote “Pleasure And Pain” and produced “Sleeping Beauty”, its two stand-out tracks, and helped Divinyls achieve a modicum of US success. Chapman produced all of Temperamental, their 1988 album, but Divinyls failed to make the expected breakthrough and were by now a million dollars in debt to Chrysalis.
“They let us off the hook,” Amphlett recalled. “They knew we'd never be able to repay such a sum. They figured that because Temperamental hadn't broken us in the States. We were never going to make it there. It was time to split.” Amphlett spent part of 1988 playing Mrs Johnstone to Russell Crowe's Mickey in the first Australian production of Willy Russell's stage musical Blood Brothers.
Convinced Amphlett had the potential to be the next Madonna, Virgin came to the rescue and teamed Divinyls with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, co-writers of “Like A Virgin”, for “I Touch Myself”. Their new label pulled out all the stops and hired up-and-coming director Michael Bay, who found a nunnery in Pasadena where he filmed a video for the single, which was banned in Australia but topped the charts. Unfortunately, while Divinyls' eponymous fourth album went gold, it failed to yield any more hits. They soldiered on, recording a succession of cover versions for movie soundtracks, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but broke up after 1996's Underworld.
In 1998 Amphlett played Judy Garland in the original production of The Boy From Oz, the juke-box musical telling the life story of the Australian songwriter Peter Allen. In 2006 Divinyls were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall Of Fame and returned to the live arena, but the following year Amphlett announced she had multiple sclerosis. This made her unable to receive chemotherapy for the breast cancer with which she was diagnosed in 2010.
Christina Joy Amphlett, singer and songwriter: born Geelong, Victoria; married 1999 Charley Drayton; died New York City 21 April 2013.