To American audiences, Chrissy Amphlett was the one who sang “I Touch Myself,” with her band Divinyls. But Amphlett, who died in New York of breast cancer and multiple sclerosis this week at only 53, was much more than that.
“I Touch Myself,” was a remarkable song, of course — looking back, it’s still amazing that it was such a big hit here, given its subject matter and its utter lack of ingenuousness. Where, say, Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” was oblique, “I Touch Myself” was as frank as frank gets. It’s just a shame that it remained Divinyls’ only US hit, because while it was certainly representative of their work and general aesthetic, it seems a pity for Amphlett to be remembered as a one-hit wonder when she and her band were influential in so many other ways, both in her native Australia and beyond.
As has been reasonably well documented, Amphlett was a genuine trailblazer as a female performer — a fact to which even those who’ve only heard “I Touch Myself” can attest. People writing obituaries this week have climbed over one another to gush about her “sex appeal” and “school uniforms and fishnet stockings.” She was often called “controversial,” a description that’s only accurate in so far as depictions of female sexuality are inherently controversial. That was a notion that Amphlett’s very existence served to challenge, and in this respect, she was both a pioneer and a provocateur.
But beyond that, Divinyls were notable for kicking in the door in all sorts of ways. They were from Geelong, the perpetually unfashionable industrial city that plays New Jersey to Melbourne’s NYC, a city that is in its own way a sort of microcosm of the whole experience of growing up in Australia, full of the sense of being on the outside, looking in. Their first single, “Boys In Town,” ended each verse on the refrain, “Get me out of here,” a visceral snarl that was instantly relatable for anyone stuck on what felt like the other side of the world, separated by an endless ocean from everything that was happening in the US and Europe.
By the time she formed Divinyls, though, Amphlett had already gotten out — she ran away from Geelong as a teenager, making her way to Europe and eventually ending up in jail in Spain (for singing on the streets, amusingly). In an age when you could probably check into a hostel on the moon and find an Australian backpacker at the bar, this doesn’t seem especially remarkable — but in the 1970s, the idea of an unaccompanied teenage girl hitchhiking her way around Europe was no doubt pretty unusual. (In fact, it probably still is.)
When she returned to Australia, she met guitarist Mark McEntee and formed the band that would become Divinyls. They were never really labelled as a punk band, but really, that’s exactly what they were — a band formed in obscurity and adversity around the idea of doing things for themselves, a band that delighted in challenging authority and convention. In her own way, Amphlett was as significant to Australian music as, say, Ari Up or Poly Styrene were to the UK — arguably moreso, in fact, because she achieved significant, if fleeting, commercial success. And she did so without in any way compromising who she was or what she was about.
Veteran rock photographer Tony Mott, who took the photo above (it’s also on the cover of Amphlett’s autobiography), described her yesterday on Facebook as “without a doubt the greatest female performer of her time,” and anyone who saw her play would be hard pressed to disagree. In her autobiography, she wrote, “My idols had always been the unsafe, the dangerous, the edgy, like the punks, Iggy Pop, Keith Richards, Debbie Harry and Jerry Lee Lewis.” Of all those, it was the former she most resembled — the same volatile, unpredictable stage presence, the same air of latent savagery. She came across like she really, really didn’t give the remotest semblance of a fuck. “I showed my ugly side,” she reflected, tellingly, three years ago. “I was never afraid of that.” (It wasn’t a pose, either — she was genuinely volatile, and as Melbourne newspaper The Age‘s review of her book noted, “Small wonder Amphlett [spat] out friends, lovers and showbiz associates like stale [chewing gum].”)
When she first came to prominence in the early ’80s, Australia had never really seen anything like her. In fact, neither had the rest of the world — of all the female performers who predated her, perhaps only Janis Joplin, Betty Davis, and Patti Smith had the same unconstrained energy and complete lack of care. And none of them had played evening chart show Countdown. As Amphlett’s cousin (and successful singer in her own right) Patricia “Little Patti” Amphlett notes here, “Before Chrissy Amphlett and the Divinyls, rarely did a female performer front a band… But when Chrissy came along it was like ‘Move over you fellas, it’s all about me now’. She broke the mould of the very male-dominated world of rock music. She broke that forever.”
This is an achievement in itself, of course — but in a way, even that’s selling her short. It’s notable that obituarists generally called Amphlett things like a “female rock icon” instead of just a “rock icon.” While the first is true, her legacy requires no gender-based qualification; most importantly, she was a remarkable performer and songwriter taken from us long before her time. She broke ground for female artists, certainly — but she also broke ground for everyone. Seeing this otherworldly creature on the TV, a snarling, uncompromising figure who’d gone from the backblocks of the Bellarine Peninsula to the top of the US charts, was a formative experience for all sorts of Australian musicians, male and female. She proved that you could make the world listen to you without having to resort to lightweight pop music or asinine love songs, that you could do things your own way. That’s a lesson worth remembering, and a legacy truly worth celebrating.
Photo credit: Tony Mott