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Silverchair: Just how good are their first two albums, and is there any rationale for Daniel Johns’ disregard for their early music?

Silverchair's talent for songwriting was far beyond their years.
Silverchair’s talent for songwriting was far beyond their years.

It’s no secret to most people who follow the grunge scene that Silverchair’s debut album (Frogstomp), and its follow up (Freak Show) are some of the best grunge, and indeed rock albums, of the nineties. However, the fact that Daniel Johns totally disregards these albums downright offends me, with the band’s frontman preferring to consider Neon Ballroom the band’s unofficial first record. This post is going to look into why Johns’ views on Frogstomp and Freak Show are totally outrageous, and try to establish some rationale as to why he has them. Did fame simply come too early for the high-school sensations? Did Johns develop a pretentious outlook on music that lacked the architectural grandeur of Neon Ballroom? Does he simply associate the albums with a very dark time in his life in the late nineties? Let’s try to understand…

This may seem a little bit spontaneous. There hasn’t been a Silverchair album since 2007’s Young Modern, the band announced an ‘indefinite hiatus’ in 2011, and it’s very rare to find any sort of establishment nowadays that will play any pre-Neon Ballroom Silverchair tracks. The inspiration for this is simple. I was serenaded, albeit very aggressively, by first Frogstomp, then Freak Show during a drive across the Pennines to see my girlfriend the other day, and was simply reminded (not that I ever forgot) just how good these albums are. The progression from 1995 to 1997 is portrayed both in Johns’ songwriting and vocals, and in the intuitive chord progressions and rhythm sections consistently deployed by Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou. There is simply no limb of rock music, nor has there been for a while, that connects with a specific target audience as explicitly as the angst ridden, hard-hitting, candid songscapes that are the trademark of Silverchair’s first two records. From the angst of Tomorrow and sincerity of Faultline, the power of No Association and the darkness of Learn to Hate, there is nothing I can recall that is as relatable. All hallmarks of the records far outshine the incredibly young age of the band when they were recorded, and regardless of the age and development of Silverchair as a band at the time, Johns’ contemporary attitude towards them is nothing short of deplorable.

The term ‘grunge’ was initially introduced as a derogatory slang term alluding to a particularly dirty branch of punk rock. Its ability to relate to the trials and tribulations of so many young people however meant that the brand of rock music became a central landscape of the nineties rock scene, becoming integral to the evolution of the genre’s sound. As 14 and 15 year olds, Silverchair mastered this, arguably, more explicitly than any other band. The raw, honest songwriting only served to increase this relatabilty of the music, and was indeed thoroughly in sync with what grunge had evolved into by the mid-nineties. The fact that Daniel Johns, Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou were so young at the time is incredible, but has no bearings on just how good the albums were. Frogstomp and Freak Show are brilliant because they are angst ridden, relative compilations of music, not because it is unthinkable for a trio of children to produce something so above their stations. The fact that the band members were so young at the time just makes it all the more commendable…

But why are these albums virtually disregarded by the band? Did the fame and expectation just come half a decade too early for Silverchair? Daniel Johns and his band were required to absorb the pressures meant for much more experienced persons than themselves, and the weight of these pressures undoubtedly had an effect on Johns in particular. The success of Frogstomp meant that the anticipation for its follow up was immense. Australia and the USA in particular were frothing at the prospect of another intense Silverchair album whilst the band were still comfortably in their teens. Johns’ development of Anorexia Nervosa in the late nineties could maybe be attributed to the effects these demands and expectations had on the face of the band. During the recording of Freak Show he “hated everything about music” and felt like a slave to it; he felt like he couldn’t stop doing it, and that the best way to express his inner anguish was through music and lyrics. The attitude of Freak Show displays this, with the song concepts notably more defiant, synonymous with the backlash he felt towards the expectations of him and his band…

Nowadays (well, pre-indefinite hiatus), to hear a pre-Neon Ballroom track at a live show, with the exception of Israel’s Son, Freak and The Door, is rarer than Fenrir Greyback’s favourite steak. Johns has claimed that when he listens to the debut albums back, he thinks, “that’s cute”. I personally think this is a deplorable, pretentious attitude towards the nucleus of what Silverchair have ultimately achieved in their careers. But is this just a front from Johns? A carefree attitude to something that he considers synonymous with his troubles leading up to the development of anorexia? The Aussie media terms leading up to and around the turn of the millennium further enhance this view. Silverchair were coined ‘Kindergarden’, as a parody to Soundgarden. ‘Nirvana in Pyjamas’, or even ‘Silverhighchair’; examples of outright cynicism from the press who forgot the fact that the music was exceptional regardless of the age of the band’s members. These albums turbo-drove Silverchair to fame for a reason that was centred almost entirely on the music rather than anything else. The fact that Johns ultimately started making more architectural music can be attributed to the fact that the fame and according demands had a hugely adverse effect on his attitude towards music at a critical development stage of his life, and that he wanted a clean slate once things were in perspective. It is my view that he considers the different Neon Ballroom the clean slate he was indeed looking for, ultimately enabling him to rediscover a passion for writing music, rather than merely using it as an outlet, or even an agony aunt.  Although this is difficult to understand for someone who hasn’t experienced such emotional challenges, it is easy to say that a fan of Silverchair’s early music could feel betrayed by the attitude Johns has adopted towards it.

There is no doubting the fact that Daniel Johns is an abnormally gifted genius. His songwriting has evolved and adapted post-Freak Show, there’s no doubt about it. But has a sense of comfort within this notion turned him into a self-indulged, unappreciative frontman that feels like he is entitled to the adulation that comes his way? Obviously music tastes develop. A given persons taste saunters through the annuls and depths of everything absorbed. Influences fade in and out of greater prominence, and styles and tracks that used to spearhead your play counts don’t get played on your iPod for years at a time. Despite what you learn and what you adapt to, these tracks, albums and artists don’t get deleted from your library; instead they stay there, serving as a reminder of what was, and still is, good music. My point here is that even if Daniel Johns hates the concept of grunge and everything that goes with it, that is no reason to discount it. Grunge may not be as fashionable as it once was, but the fact of the matter is that whether he looks back on them with fond memories or not, Frogstomp and Freak Show acted almost as an indispensible part of an explicitly relatable soundtrack to the adolescence and discovery of millions of teenagers across the world.

Considering this, I think it’s fair to say that to a certain extent, Johns’ songwriting has declined in as many ways as it’s improved. Post 1997, his skill for manipulating and manufacturing a wealth of sounds and moods into epic cacophonies of emotion has shone through. Pre 1997, his ability to relate to a specific target audience and convey genuine sincerity through an angst-ridden branch of music was recklessly there for all to see. With Frogstomp, although its concepts were loosely based on fictional perceptions and inspirations from the band’s hometown, the music remained something that a listener could connect to; an ideological soundtrack, intrinsically stringent to the pains that many teenagers go through that seem like the most troublesome ordeals to the sufferer. In the case of Freak Show, the pressures and expectations acting as the weight of the world on Johns’ shoulders caused his passion for music to deteriorate alarmingly, and although at this juncture of his life he hated music, his natural gift allowed him to express this through a record and further reach out to a very specific target audience.  Universally, people will tout that Neon Ballroom is Silverchair’s best album. Technically, it probably is. There is much more grandeur to the architecture musically. Soundscapes are more complex and images are created in a cauldron of changing colours. I will argue however that music that hits you hard, and connects with you categorically, is more commendable than a spectacular arrangement of technical self-indulgence. An almost pretentious approach was taken by Johns when his band capitalized on the clean slate that Neon Ballroom was. Whether there was a need to do this in order to maintain the band’s direction or not, that is no reason to discount what is the root of their success and sound, and what was such a defining period in so many peoples musical education.

It is also worth noting however that following the release of 2007s Young Modern, Ben Gillies admitted in an interview that due to the bands direction, Silverchair have accepted that they have lost fans. He notes that the fact that they “haven’t been pigeonholed” as one of the more appealing aspects of the band, and that the band do appreciate what they’ve achieved in their careers despite the ups and downs of so much so soon at such a young age. Silverchair have maintained the same lineup throughout their career, which is very significant considering the peaks and troughs of the bands success, severe pressures at fragile ages and the massive change in musical direction they have undergone. What does this suggest? Does it suggest that Silverchair is Johns’ band, and Gillies and Joannou are happy to be a part of it? Does it tell you that all members were glad of a new start and a clean slate? Do Gillies and Joannou have they same outlook with regards to Frogstomp and Freak Show?

I think it’s fair to say that the fame and expectation that a trio of high-scholars had to deal with undoubtedly took its toll on the band, and after the dark, backlash-ridden Freak Show coupled with Daniel Johns’ development of anorexia, most likely as a by-product of a resentment towards everything music related at the time, a clean slate and a change in direction was what the band needed. I’m not disputing this as unnecessary, or as a bad move, I just find it infuriating to read Johns’ attitude towards his bands first two albums. Maybe early success preordained him to produce pretentious, music which further contributed to his views on Frogstomp and Freak Show as a consequence of the more technically demanding soundscapes produced by the band post-1997. This may have in turn contributed to a sense of entitlement to further success, and the “it’s cute” attitude. Despite this, the fact that grunge music connected with fans more proficiently than any other genre at the time cannot be overlooked, and is certainly nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of. Frogstomp and Freak Show are ultimately timeless, brilliantly relatable albums with riffs, tones and vocals that far outstripped the tender ages of the songwriters. Fame hit Silverchair too early, and the resulting downsides that the pressures and expectations instigated were seen as synonymous with the first two albums the band released. All in all, Johns’ attitude can be seen as understandable in some cases. I know I wouldn’t want to align myself to something that took me through the darkest time in my life, but to totally disregard it is arrogant, pretentious and deplorable.

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7 thoughts on “Silverchair: Just how good are their first two albums, and is there any rationale for Daniel Johns’ disregard for their early music?

  1. “During the recording of Freak Show he “hated everything about music” and felt like a slave to it; he felt like he couldn’t stop doing it,” The name of the album itself is surely indicative of how he was feeling at the time, obligated and puppeted like a circus freak to entertain the public, pressure that shouldn’t be felt at such a tender age.

  2. A superb point. Even the name of an album with a recurring motif of backlash is hugely indicative of how much the pressures had taken their toll. The fact that their talent so far eclipsed their years had downsides too. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Interesting read… I have always been a fan of Silverchair. I grew up with and enjoyed their older music, as well as celebrated how they had evolved with their newer music. They should be proud of what they accomplished at such a young age, they were so talented. Those earlier albums paved the way for their musical abilities as they got older. And having gone through so much in the public eye, criticisms and other negative things, they have ultimately gotten through it all. They are all incredible musicians, and I hope they never forget where they came from, and are proud of ALL their accomplishments in their careers.

  4. Very well written article I agree with you on all the points you make and it personally saddens me that Daniel disregards the first two albums – they might not be as “mature” as the latter albums but they were raw awesome grunge and incredibly impressive for kids that weren’t even old enough to shave yet. I don’t know about Chris but I can personally tell you that Ben is NOT ashamed whatsoever of frogstomp or freakshow and is in fact proud of it. He is a true champion

  5. I remember the first time I heard Silverchair and was blown away by how awesome they were and in awe of the obvious talent that I wish I had as a musician. But I had no idea that Johns’ was so tormented until much later in life, when he really started talking about it. But the freak show metaphor pointed out in a comment above seems spot on. Knowing what he was going through back then, when you listen to Freak Show it is littered with lyrics representing the difficulties he was experiencing. I guess this is the problem of signing a three-album deal when you are so young.

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