Bad Girl Do

The Divinyls may have been laying low for a while, but BERNARD ZUEL finds that original sinner Chrissie Amphlett can still pout, prod and bite with the best of them.

There's still the lips. You remember them pouting - though that word seems too passive for what she did with them. You remember the way boys, and men, would stand slightly further back from the stage than normal, but leaning towards her, staring.

Not at the legs, mostly exposed under the schoolgirl tunic. Not at the way she made the microphone stand an agent of sexual energy. Not even at the body grinding or bouncing or swaying.

Those things were noticed, certainly, reacted to, definitely. But they stared at that mouth, those lips which curled or spread or pushed out in defiance or dare.

More than a decade later those lips still hold the attention when Chrissie Amphlett is in front of you. It's partly an unruly fringe which makes a hide and seek game of her eyes, and partly the prominent teeth. But deep down you know it's more than that.

Before pointy bras, before some moppet talked about going down on you in a cinema, before a minor talent younger sister stripped for a calendar, Chrissie Amphlett was there. She said f...k you to the Australian music industry which preferred its girls mild (Sharon O'Neill) or sexually tamed (Edith Bliss) or damaged (Debbie Byrne). While Pat Benatar was asking you to hit her with your best shot, Chrissie had normally cocksure men certain she would hit first or simply cut you down to size with a sneer.

"I don't know why I scare men," Amphlett says. "Maybe it's my tone of voice. I'm getting better at relating to men, to people. Maybe what's scary about me is I'm uncontrollable, I have a natural rebellion. It's in me from when I was a little girl.

"That's the thing: I can't be controlled."

When The Divinyls began playing in 1980-81, Amphlett was terrified and barely moved. But as she loosened up, a stage persona began to emerge that seemed always to be on the brink of excess or outrage or freedom.

"A lot of people [in Australia] are derivative of something and when I came there wasn't really anything like how I was and people gasped and misread me," she says.

"When I first performed in New York, smearing lipstick on my face, yelling and running around, I remember being on the front page of The New York Times because I was so different."

The songs were never ground-breaking or astounding but co-songwriter Mark McEntee had a knack for grafting hooks onto pop/blues rock and roll. Pubs were filled, records sold and suddenly Amphlett was sin personified.

"I never thought about it, I just did it. It wasn't contrived, it was very raw, very spontaneous," she recalls. "But that [strong sexuality] was what I was putting across and it was great I was able to do that."

It's not as one dimensional as simply sex though. Amphlett showed you could be something, anything, else. If people now can be as restrained or as wild as they want, at least part of the reason is because Amphlett made it OK.

In subsequent years, while band members dropped off and sales and attention waxed and waned (most recently waxing with the worldwide success of the blatantly erotic I Touch Myself), she and McEntee kept on. The schoolgirl uniform was replaced by figure hugging dresses but the lyrical obsessions remained the same and the attitude undimmed.

Four years ago when they split from Virgin Records, but were still prevented from recording, the easiest thing would have been to call it quits. They were in their mid-30s, young pretenders were pushing their way forward and maybe life should be simple, like everybody else.

"I don't know how I've kept going," Amphlett says after a long pause and a sip of her coffee. "I obviously have an urge to be on stage, to have that release.

"Usually with our songs I find I can sing it a different way each night, relate my experiences that day into the performance. I can sing a song like [their 1981 hit] Boys In Town today and still get something totally different out of it."

It was that familiar defiance that kept The Divinyls alive, kept McEntee and Amphlett writing and playing and saying "up yours'.

"In this industry it's quite corrupt and that can be quite disappointing when you come up against it all the time," she says. "No matter how long you've been doing it, it is debilitating.

"You get knocked down but you don't go down completely."

The new album Underworld, a rejuvenated live show, and a more professional approach to necessities such as media, schedules, etc. can be traced to both anger and serenity.

Both McEntee and Amphlett live on properties in rural Queensland. It's not jaded rock star beachside condo living, either, but as simple and unpretentious as outback Queensland.

"For the first time - I've never lived in the country before - it gave me space, calm and air that I needed," says Amphlett. "Things were real there, when everything else was unreal.

"A lot of people weren't saying yes to me. I know people think everyone says yes to me, but [in Queensland] a lot of people will say no to me. It's a survival thing, I needed to be there to get through."

Underworld is more or less what you expect from The Divinyls. McEntee is still working the Keith Richards-inspired chords and Amphlett pouts, prods and sometimes bites. But now, even more than at any time in the band's 16 years, their relevance is being questioned by those who see a Nikka Costa or Alanis Morissette as having more to say or to shock.

Does Amphlett feel the need to up the ante to keep pace with the new faces?

"No, I just feel the need to sing," she says quietly, not wasting any energy on bravado. "I've grown in other ways and I don't think about the others. I just think about getting better.

"I haven't performed for a year, so I don't know, but I just try to have an energy and sing a song so it's powerful and I touch them [the audience]. I can lean on the band more these days so I don't have to be out there pushing, pushing, pushing."

She leans back in her chair, the fringe sweeping down again and it's not easy to see if the eyes match the tone of her voice. The question of whether she's mellowed at all hangs in the air for what seems an eternity.

"I don't know if I've mellowed," she says pursing those lips. "I think I'll always be explosive on stage. That's my nature."