Once apon a time.....

Ben Gillies, Chris Joannou and Daniel Johns met while they were in primary school and it was while they were still in primary school that Daniel and Ben started writing songs (rap tunes) together.

They decided to form a band because, according to Daniel, "we were bored". It was 1992 and they were twelve years old. Chris, who was learning guitar at the time was recruited to be the bass player. "It happened one day when Ben and Daniel were mucking around and a guy said 'Why don't you just get a bass player' and, like, I'd lived in the same street as Ben since we were about two and he just said, 'Well, why don't you play bass'. He had a bass there like....I bought it off him for like a hundred bucks and we just went on from there." (Chris Joannou)

Originally a four piece outfit which included rhythm guitarist Tobin Finnane, and calling themselves Innocent Criminals, they would meet at Ben's place and play cover versions of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin songs. Although primarily a cover band, Innocent Criminals did have a few original songs of their own. They played their first gig at a street fair for which they were paid $10 each. But it was tough being a teenaged band. The venues they wanted to play considered them too young and advised them to come back when they were older. Meanwhile, the band was submitting tapes and demos to radio stations and record companies "just to get noticed". They were also entering competitions - but never winning.

Just prior to June 1994, Tobin's parents went to England, taking him with them and leaving Innocent Criminals a three piece band. Not long after, Daniel's neighbour told them about a competition being run by Nomad, a program on SBS Television. The competition was called 'Pick Me'.

"The idea was that we would shoot a clip on film and have a song recorded at the Triple J studio and that would be the prize for this national demo competition that I ran which was called 'Pick Me'. The entrants had to write in 25 words or less why I should pick them. They wrote on this yellow piece of cardboard in green texta ...ummm... we're.... it was something like: we're not hip hop, we're not rap, we're rock! And we love to play." (Tracee Hutchinson-Nomad producer)

"We thought it was a cool show, so we entered the competition." (Daniel Johns)

The 'Pick Me' competition attracted over eight hundred entries.

The cassette the band submitted contained four songs, including a long, rambling version of Tomorrow which went for over six minutes. Their entry caught the attention of Robert Hambling, one of the judges, but the other judges didn't agree with his choice and were leaning towards an entry by a techno band. Hambling, however, was convinced he was right. He took the cassette and played it for Rob Hirst (Midnight Oil) and Nick Launay (record producer). They liked the song but thought it was too long and that the arrangement was bad. Nick took the tape and re-arranged it in an afternoon. Hambling then took the tape back to the other judges, played it for them and it was selected as the winner.

"...we never expected to win - 'cause we were these little 14-year old guys just jamming in a garage." (Daniel Johns)

Triple J recorded Tomorrow (and three other tracks) and Nomad produced the video clip, both of which were originally scheduled to go to air just once each.

"I didn't know much about them. I knew they were a young band from Newcastle but that's about it. And the reaction we got was amazing because almost instantly, that same night, the phones rang and they [the public] wanted to hear it again, then they wanted to hear it again, and again and again." (Michael Tunn - Triple J announcer)

All this public interest resulted in a mini-bidding war breaking out for the band who eventually agreed to sign with Murmur (a sub-branch of Sony Music Australia). Murmur was conscious of the ages of the band members and they were concerned that due to their young years, the band would not be taken seriously by the media, so they took immediate steps to prevent pre-judgement. Firstly, they imposed a media ban on the group - all press and publicity was vetoed until the band's first release. They also purchased back any circulating photos of the band.

It was also around this time that John Watson was chosen to manage the band. Up until then, the band had been managed by the boys' parents, but with the signing to Murmur, it was decided a full time manager was needed. Watson had seen the band perform in late June in a place called Jewels Tavern and had been "blown away". He had been talked into going and seeing the band by a colleague from his days at Rolling Stone magazine, John O'Donnell. On their way back to Sydney after seeing the band, Watson had told O'Donnell, "If I were going to leave my job to manage a band, this would be it."

In September 1994, the Tomorrow EP was released in Australia. The tracks were Tomorrow, Acid Rain, Blind and Stoned. It went to No 1 on the national charts and stayed there for six weeks, making it the fifth most successful Australian single ever.

"We only really had like the four songs that were on the first Tomorrow EP and Tomorrow was already the song that had the radio support and a bit of a following, so we kind of assumed that that would be the best single, and we just put our other songs on there, just really....just didn't expect much. I think we printed two thousand copies and expected to sell around that and it ended up selling a lot more, so it was a bit of a surprise." (Daniel Johns)

In December that same year, the band went into the studio to begin recording frogstomp. They had wanted Nick Launay to produce the record, but he was unavailable, so they used Kevin "Caveman" Shirley. It took nine days to record frogstomp and about half way through, Daniel picked up some kind of bug and lost his voice for a couple of days. As a result, some of the songs, Israel's Son for one, were recorded when he 'only had half a voice'. Although it was never in doubt that Tomorrow had to be included on the album, the band chose to re-record the song the way they were now performing it. The raw sound of the album was a result of the band wanting people to know what they really sounded like and not what they sounded like thanks to the magic of the recording studio. They kept it simple so they couldn't be accused of not being able to reproduce the sound when playing live.

Released in March 1995, frogstomp became the first debut album by an Australian artist to enter the national charts at No 1. It went platinum in one week. That same month the band performed their very first European show at the Astoria in London.

They returned to Australia and in mid-April commenced touring to co-incide with the release of Israel's Son.

In late May, Tomorrow was sent to the US alternative and rock stations. It topped Billboard's Alternative Rock Airplay Chart and received heavy airplay on MTV. In mid-June, frogstomp was released in the US. It reached No 9 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart and stayed in the chart for forty nine consecutive weeks. Within two months of its US release, frogstomp went gold. It is now certified platinum in New Zealand, double platinum in the US, double platinum in Canada and triple platinum in Australia.

At the 1995 ARIA (Australian Record Industry Awards) the band won five awards. They were:

Best Australian Single - Tomorrow Best Australian Debut Single - Tomorrow Highest Selling Australian Single - Tomorrow Best Australian Debut Album - frogstomp Best New Talent

The band sent Josh Shirley, the young son of frogstomp producer Kevin Shirley, to accept the awards on their behalf.

1996 didn't start out such a good year. In January, Israel's Son went to the alternative stations in the US and a few days later there came reports of what was dubbed the "Israel's Son Murders". Two American teenagers - Nicholaus McDonald and Brian Bassett - had been charged with the murder of Bassett's parents and young brother. Defense lawyers attempted to lay the blame for these murders on the fact the pair had been listening to Israel's Son prior to the crimes.

Murmur Records released an official statement on behalf of the band, responding to these allegations, which pointed out that silverchair did not condone violence of any kind and that the song "seeks to criticize violence and war by portraying them in all their horror." Although no further connection was made between the song and the actions of the two young murderers, the US video was re-edited, much to the band's annoyance.

After recording Surfin' Bird (for the Surfriders Foundation fundraising album), the band returned to the US. They toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in early-mid February, then began a tour with Everclear late in February. At the end of May, they returned to the studio to begin recording Freak Show. This time they had ensured that Nick Launay was available to produce the album for them and they also got the mixer of their dreams - Andy Wallace, who had worked with bands like Helmet and Rage Against the Machine. Freak Show took three weeks to record.

".... we went in and really focused on what we wanted to do this time, spent more time getting the sounds right. Three weeks was the perfect time. We got all the best takes of the songs." (Ben Gillies)

Freak Show was released in Australia on 1st February 1997 and entered the charts at No 1. It was released a couple of days later in the US and Canada. It reached No 12 in the Billboard Top 200 and went gold in three months in the US. In Canada, it went platinum. The fact that Freak Show did not do as well in the US as frogstomp is attributed by John Watson to the selection of the first single.

"Sony in America were so sure 'Abuse Me' was going to be a big hit. It's a great song, but 'Freak' would have been a better call." (John Watson)

So while Abuse Me became the first single off the album in the US, elsewhere across the world, Freak was released first. While Abuse Me was not considered a hit, it still reached the Top 5 in the Rock and Alternative play charts in the US.

As was becoming custom, when the album was released in the US, the band toured there - performing live, doing in-store appearances and signings and appearing on the David Letterman Show. They then completed a short European tour before returning home to Australia to tour.

After the Freak Show tour it was decided to take an extended break to rest and recover and it was during this "time off" that Daniel Johns wrote the lyrics to what would become the band's third album, Neon Ballroom.

To be continued.....

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