DANIEL Johns once described Silverchair’s Freak Show as “some kind of dark, high school band skeleton.” But its an album that a generation after its release, still boasts significant meat on its bones.
Last week marked 20 years since Freak Show was released and debuted No.1 on the ARIA charts. In the grand scheme of Silverchair’s celebrated five-album career their sophomore record is often relegated to ugly-duckling status.
It didn’t have the era-defining hits of Frogstomp like Tomorrow and Pure Massacre, the emotional depth of Neon Ballroom, the musical reinvention of Diorama or the quirky originality of Young Modern. However, for many Chair fans the tortured anger of Freak Show remains a treasured edition in the catalogue of Newcastle’s finest musical export.
From the crunching riffs of Slave and Freak, to the gothic orchestration of Cemetery, to the eastern influences of Petrol & Chlorine - Freak Show marked a turning point in Silverchair’s career. A signpost to where they were headed.
The record was written during the maelstrom of their unprecedented initial success. Aged in their mid-teens, the three Merewether friends – Johns (vocals/guitar), Ben Gillies (drums) and Chris Joannou (bass) - were struggling with international stardom and scrutiny, following the success of Frogstomp in 1995, which sold more than 2 million copies in the US alone.
The pressure was immense to deliver another hit. An expectation foreign to other 17-year-olds. Midnight Oil producer Nick Launay was brought in to produce Freak Show, recorded between May and July 1996.
”We spent a lot more time and were much more involved on this album,” Gillies said at the time. “On the last record we were so young that we didn’t know what was going on.
“Now that we’re older, we knew what we wanted, and we knew some of the basics to getting to that.”
The most pressure sat squarely on the chief songwriter Johns. Lyrically, Freak Show articulated the anger and torment the blonde teen idol was experiencing from the cut-throat music industry.
Johns explained the title was derived from Silverchair’s touring experience, which felt like “old freak shows in the ‘40s, just travelling around, doing your show and going to the next town and doing it again.”
From the thrashing opening burst of Slave, Johns’ lyrics summed up his feelings of frustration, “Lived too long now you've come to take me/ to a place where I can die.”
While lead single Freak contained the cringe-worthy rhyme, “No more maybes/your baby's got rabies/sitting on a ball/in the middle of the Andes,” the chorus of “If only I could be as cool as you,” was delivered with venom to every hater who branded Silverchair as “Nirvana in pyjamas.”
“We wanted to make the songs more extreme and different,” Johns said at the time. “So that meant we made the fast songs harder and the slow songs softer. We also experimented with different styles and instruments.”
Those experiments showed the trio had rapidly developed from the distorted Seattle sound of Frogstomp. Abuse Me dabbled in psychedelia with its backward guitar solo, the raga rock-infused Petrol & Chlorine featured tabla and sitar, while the album’s centre piece, the violin-soaked Cemetery, was the first indication that Johns was on the path to becoming one of Australia’s greatest songwriters.
Lesser-known album tracks Pop Song For Us Rejects and the domestic violence-themed Nobody Came also showed Johns was beginning to explore lyrical themes beyond self-loathing and suicide.
Freak Show isn’t without it faults. Two decades on, some of the tracks have aged poorly. Lie To Me is a short burst of bland teenage angst and Learn To Hate only fairs marginally better with his trite chorus of “Take the time to learn to hate/Come and join the mass debate.”
Freak Show went on to deliver three top-10 ARIA singles in Freak (No.1), Abuse Me (No.9) and Cemetery (No.6) and went twice platinum in Australia and sold 620,000 copies in the US.
Creatively, Silverchair reached loftier heights with subsequent albums Neon Ballroom (1999), Diorama (2002) and Young Modern (2007) as they found their own sound, removed from grunge.
Nevertheless, 20 years on it maintains its own freakish charm in body and soul.
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