We’ve revived our Whatever Happened To series after a decade-long break. Today, we’re going on a search to find Silverchair, the 21-time ARIA-winning Australian rock band.
America has always had a complicated but affectionate relationship with Australia, that English-speaking nation all the way on the other side of the world that’s at once familiar and foreign. Musically, though, Australia has its own ecosystem that supports homegrown pop and rock acts — and we’re always grateful when an exciting act crosses over Stateside.
If someone were to ask you to name an Australian band, a name like AC/DC or INXS is probably the first to come to mind. Or maybe you think of Midnight Oil or Men At Work, groups which America has had a more fleeting infatuation with. Also in the latter category is Silverchair, who took the world by storm in 1995, but remained major stars only in their home country beyond the ‘90s.
Singer/guitarist Daniel Johns, bassist Chris Joannou, and drummer Ben Gillies were all 12 when they started their band, originally named Innocent Criminals, and were 15 when they wrote “Tomorrow,” the anthemic song that kickstarted their career. While many legendary bands formed as adolescent school chums, from U2 to Radiohead, Silverchair got a record deal and stormed the charts while they were still kids, a rarity for a rock band that wrote and played their own songs.
Their winning submission of “Tomorrow” to a national talent competition called Pick Me, sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation television network and the radio station Triple J, instantly catapulted the band to ubiquity in Australia and the top of the singles charts in 1994. But how to conquer America? Sign with Columbia Records, of course.
At that time, in the early ‘90s, Seattle grunge was taking the world by storm. By 1993, bands all over the country that sounded like they were from Seattle were getting record deals and radio hits. In 1995, grunge went international, when the genre’s biggest breakthroughs were Bush from the U.K., and Silverchair from Australia.
Daniel Johns had the pained howl and blond locks of a pint-sized Kurt Cobain, and “Tomorrow” got heavy MTV airplay with a video directed by Mark Pellington, who was responsible for Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.” Their debut studio album Frogstomp sold over 2 million copies in the U.S. alone, while the band criss-crossed the country touring with Red Hot Chili Peppers through 1996. The charm of Frogstomp is largely in its youthful sincerity, but there are undeniable signs that Johns was a real prodigy; there was the killer guitar solo on “Cicada,” and the haunting lyrics of “Suicidal Dream.”
Silverchair’s musical growth was slow but steady, and 1997’s Freak Show found the band still in grunge mode, with a heavy but melodic sound increasingly reminiscent of Alice in Chains. But it was 1999’s Neon Ballroom that featured some more sophisticated and revealing songs: Johns wrote the single “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)” about his struggles with anorexia nervosa, becoming one of the first teenage celebrities to speak openly about the eating disorder that’s disproportionately prevalent in adolescents.
The album also contained a beautiful midtempo track called “Miss You Love,” a minor hit even in Australia that has, surprisingly, in recent years become the band’s second most-streamed song on Spotify behind “Tomorrow.” One of the b-sides for the “Miss You Love” single was a cover of Minor Threat’s “Minor Threat,” a rallying cry for teenage punks and a nod to Silverchair’s youth, although the band were by then all legal adults.
Freak Show and Neon Ballroom both went Gold, but in the case of Silverchair, nothing gold can stay. After the turn of the millennium, Silverchair’s profile in America continued to decline. A case of reactive arthritis left Johns unable to play guitar or tour extensively in support of 2002’s Diorama, although the band eventually played a handful of New York and L.A. dates in 2003. “Tomorrow” was pointedly absent from setlists, and the band never performed their biggest hit after 1999 (although other Frogstomp tracks like the single “Israel’s Son” remained live staples).
In Australia, however, Silverchair maintained pop music royalty, with each of the band’s five albums going triple platinum or better (given the country’s smaller population, the Australian Recording Industry Association issues platinum plaques for sales of 70,000, meaning those albums have sold over 210,000 units in Oz). They’ve also won and been nominated for more ARIA Music Awards than any band in history.