Silverchair was the sound of a generation, photos, video

No one could have predicted it – not even the producers of the SBS program, Nomad, who selected a seven-minute demo by the then Innocent Criminals as the winning entry in its ‘‘Pick Me’’ talent search competition. Written by singer/guitarist Daniel Johns and drummer Ben Gillies, and performed with bass player Chris Joannou, Tomorrow was then trimmed and re-recorded in Triple J’s Sydney studios by Phil McKellar before being released in September 1994.

The first "Tomorrow" video clip

Tomorrow was apparently inspired by a TV show about a rich man being trapped in a low-rent hotel but alternative theories abound. There is even one about the impatient subject of the song, ‘‘Fat Boy’’,  being a reference to ‘‘Fat Matt’’ Webster, the killer of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh (who also went to Newcastle High School).

The track spent six weeks at No. 1 on the ARIA singles chart. At the time, the band members were in year nine at Newcastle High and their lives were forever changed.

   Ben Gillies  Silverchair drummer:

 "I remember very clearly when Tomorrow  started as a jam in my childhood bedroom. I called Dan the following day and we finished it soon after. The song changed our lives."

  Phil McKellar   Producer of Tomorrow:

 ‘‘It sounded amazing and it was a strong song and as it got whittled down [from its original seven minutes] it focused it more and more. I was excited to get involved. I’d been recording a lot of stuff for Triple J – Nirvana, Peal Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers – and I guess it was obvious to me there was definitely talent involved [with Tomorrow]. 

It was clear they were young guys learning their craft, but it was well constructed. They could really play: when you see Gillies belting those drums ... they’re all very skilled. It didn’t have to be the most lyrical composition ever, but gee you can just tell by how many people loved it that there’s something that connected with the audience.’’

 Chad Watson  Newcastle Herald music writer, now editor:

  ‘‘Here were three teenagers from good families and a good school who looked like angels – albeit with long hair – who sounded as though they feasted on angst for breakfast. Innocent Criminals indeed. Derivative or otherwise, it was that dichotomy that did it for mine: soaring yet supple vocals with suitably dark and ambiguous lyrics powered by anthemic dirty guitar and  hard-biting rhythm. Forget Seattle, this was a precocious grunge renaissance in another industrial port city on the other side of the planet. What did Courtney Love say about Daniel Johns? ‘So this young guy looks like my f---ing dead husband [Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain] and sings like Eddie Vedder!’’’

Ella Hooper   Killing Heidi singer/songwriter:

   ‘‘I was sitting on the back porch of my family’s house up in the hills in the Strathbogie Ranges and we were listening to dad’s work boom box, which was all splattered with paint. I was 11 or 12 and Triple J were giving the song a big rap and my ears pricked up. They were talking about how young the guys were and that they were from Newcastle. When they played it, I remember saying, ‘That’s going to be huge’. It was such a confident debut.’’

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It was the mid-1990s, an era before Facebook and formulaic TV talent shows such as American Idol. Most Australian acts slogged it out in sweaty, smoke-filled pubs and clubs – often for years – in the hope of achieving large-scale, mainstream success.

The three Newcastle teenagers did not have to wait long for their opportunity overseas thanks to their timely, grunge-inspired debut single. Tomorrow was released in 1995 in the US with a slicker video and became the most played song on US modern rock radio that year. It peaked at number one on both the Billboard modern rock tracks and the album rock tracks charts. It reached 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 airplay chart. 

The reworked clip for the US

 Chad Watson:  ‘‘It was the song of a generation. When Tomorrow came, it was as if the musical world turned on its axis. Suddenly, Newcastle became the unlikely centre of something mesmerising, something magnetic. Novocastrian bands such as The Screaming Jets and The Heroes had swaggered into the national psyche with their pub-laced rock’n’roll. Blessed with bountiful live venues, they worked hard and played harder in laying the foundations for  Silverchair to emerge from the quagmire. But that song still came as a shock, and its impact should not be underestimated. Like the cover art and first video clip, it was a lightbulb moment.’’

 Mark Tinson  Hunter TAFE music industry teacher and The Heroes guitarist:

  ‘‘It was almost like the rock‘n’roll dream was completely reborn and made valid again when Tomorrow was released and did so well. Every band in town went, ‘Maybe we could be the next Silverchair’. The impact on the local scene was extraordinary; everybody did more business – recording studios, rehearsal rooms, gigs – just because people believed the dream was still alive."

 Chris Joannou  Silverchair bass player:

‘‘There were a whole lot of things that aligned and it all came together. We were excited and enjoying the ride, and we weren’t over-thinking things. I don’t think anyone could have guessed what was going to happen, but once it started to snowball, you just roll with it. Tomorrow definitely had a life of its own.’’

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Tomorrow may have attracted a large and enthusiastic following, but it divided critics, many of whom condemned the hit as derivative and taking aim at its ‘‘adolescent’’ lyrics. None of the negativity slowed the momentum of the breakthrough hit.

  Jeff Apter  Former music editor Rolling Stone Australia and author of two Silverchair biographies – Tomorrow Never Knows (2003) and A New Tomorrow (2006)

  ‘‘Most of the criticism about Tomorrow was envy. It was very hard to accept that a group of 15-year-olds could do this. For them to come along and have all this success, well it didn’t fit in with the plans of music critics. It was supposed to be Nick Cave or You Am I – bands like that who were much cooler. Yes, Tomorrow was a bit of a knock off of what was happening in Seattle at the time, but they did a brilliant job of it. You watch the video and think, how does a kid that young sound so bloody old?’’

 Chad Watson:   ‘‘Critics struggled with the authenticity of Tomorrow. How could three kids from a Merewether garage make such jaw-dropping, anxiety-dripping music at their debut attempt? Some reviewers wrote it off as grunge-by-numbers. Others who regarded themselves as rock literati were less than flattered by the apparent imitation, and resorted to parody. Think ‘Nirvana in Pyjamas’. But what those adults didn’t understand, the young fans simply couldn’t get enough of.’’

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At the 1995 ARIA Music Awards, Tomorrow won three awards: Single of the Year, Highest Selling Single and Breakthrough Artist – Single. Silverchair won two other awards for their work on their debut album Frogstomp, which was recorded in 10 days and released earlier that year. It went straight to No. 1 in Australia. Propelled by the success of Tomorrow in the US, the album was released in the US in June by Epic Records. It was certified double platinum by the Record Industry Association of America with sales exceeding 2million.

Jeff Apter:  ‘‘I was writing about music from the mid-‘80s on, but I didn’t get the full effect of Tomorrow until I moved to America in 1996. That song was still on MTV and various music stations in the US. I know everyone here was talking them up to the heavens and back, but I had to actually be there to realise how much impact they’d made. The [Tomorrow] video was on high rotation with Stone Temple Pilots, Blind Melon, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and there was no obvious difference in quality between those bands. Silverchair were a world-class act.

I guess domestically, Tomorrow was a wake-up call for so many bands – there was potential outside of Australia. There had been INXS and Midnight Oil, then no one in particular had made inroads overseas. If you look at the bands that came after that who didn’t succeed in America necessarily, but who all went over there – You Am I, Something For Kate, Powderfinger – Silverchair broke that open for them.’’

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Those in the know attribute a significant part of Silverchair’s meteoric rise to the guidance of the ‘‘two Johns’’ – John Watson and John O’Donnell – who signed the trio to Sony subsidiary murmur after Tomorrow was getting airplay on Triple J. They saw the teenagers perform at Jewells Tavern and made them an offer – as did Mushroom Records and one other label. The band continued with high school and with the concerted effort of management and the band members’ families, every attempt was made to enable them to enjoy a life away from the spotlight.

 Chris Joannou:  ‘‘We were extremely lucky guys to come across John O’Donnell and John Watson. I don’t think we could have found better people to be around and help us get to where we wanted to go. I remember in the early days John Watson was still at Sony and he was organising interviews with other managers for us and we were like, ‘Can’t you just do it?’ Thankfully, he said yes.’’

 Mark Tinson:  ‘‘I taught Silverchair while they were doing the HSC; they completed music industry studies. They were really sharp kids, pleasant young men; they were good students. I started working with them when they were 14 when I did some demos with them. They were so young and so green but you could see there was potential. What was interesting about Silverchair is they weren’t much of a band when they were 14-year-olds, but once they were signed up [to a record deal] they had to go out and be a class act and they actually rose to it really well. I don’t think people give them credit for how amazing they became in such a short time.’’

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Ironically – and sadly for die-hard fans – Silverchair stopped performing the song that launched their enviable career in 1999. Understandably, the band outgrew it and chose to concentrate on creating new work with a firm focus on the future.

 Daniel Johns:   Silverchair singer/songwriter/guitarist

 ‘‘I’m genuinely grateful  lots of people liked Tomorrow. It made all sorts of things possible for me and I certainly don’t take any of that for granted. However, for me that particular song feels like a photo from my high school yearbook. It brings back lots of good memories, but it also makes me cringe a bit to be honest. I guess most people would feel that way about things from their teenage years, right?’’

 Chris Joannou:  ‘‘We love and appreciate the song and everything about it, but I guess one of the big things for us was to evolve – no disrespect to the song. I don’t think it was a clear, serious decision not to play it any more, it was more about evolving. I hear it every now and then – a good old blast from the past. The biggest thing for me is it shows how quickly 20 years can go past.’’

 John Watson  Silverchair’s  manager and owner/president of the label Eleven:

 ‘‘Tomorrow was aptly titled; the line ‘you wait till tomorrow’ really said it all. For starters that lyric foreshadowed an amazing creative arc over for the band in the 15 years that followed. More broadly Tomorrow ushered in a whole new era for Australian artists.

Silverchair changed the rules. The next generation of local artists now knew they didn’t have to ‘play ball’ in all the old ways. They could do things on their own terms. The fact that the song went on to be a huge global hit further opened up the sense of what was possible for the new crop of so called alternative artists that had hits over subsequent years.’’

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After five successful albums and a record 21 ARIA awards, Silverchair announced in May 2011 that it was time for an ‘‘indefinite hibernation’’. They said they were each moving in different directions and that it became apparent the ‘‘spark was simply not there’’ when they began working on their new album, which was due out that year. There is talk of a new solo album from Johns and Joannou is busy with his Newcastle West cafe/bar The Edwards, while Gillies is accompanying his wife Jackie as she prepares for the second series of The Real Housewives of Melbourne.

A comeback doesn’t seem likely, but never say never.

 Jeff Apter:  ‘‘They were so connected to where they came from and always will be – it’s who they genuinely are. I think they took the purist approach [announcing the ‘‘hibernation’’] and I really like that. They didn’t even do a lap of honour. I give it five years before Powderfinger are back doing a reunion tour. Silverchair would only get back together if there was some absolutely right, creative reason to do so.’’

 Chris Joannou:  ‘‘All of us are busy doing other things at the moment and we’re happy with where we’re at. I can’t say much more than that, really.’’

Chad Watson:  ‘‘Silverchair’s musical universe morphed and grew as the members did but, even in ‘‘indefinite hibernation’’,  they remain something of a stage-managed enigma.  Parents, friends and record labels – all with the best intentions – have long combined to shelter them from the unrelenting fame game. Call me selfish but I’d love for them to go around again with another album and tour.  Who knows what Tomorrow brings.’’

Ben Gillies:   ‘‘We’ve certainly had an interesting creative trajectory since, but, it’s anyone’s guess where we’d all be if that song never came to life. Regardless of the band’s evolution, Tomorrow would still have to be the most honest, raw and uninhibited piece of music Silverchair has ever produced. One hundred per cent from the heart, with no distractions outside the three members.

Twenty years on, it still excites me when people mention how it turned them onto music or their experience when they first heard it.

Tomorrow live @ Rock’n’Rio 2015?’’

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