Chrissy Amphlett, seen most recently on stage in Australia with Cold Chisel and presenting an ARIA Award for Best Group with Noah Taylor (“I adore Noah”), is back. She’s back from battles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, and may yet add page-turning new chapters to her brilliant 2005 autobiography, Pleasure and Pain.
Chrissy’s life in Melbourne has involved a little of both, due to amazing talent but also lifelong shyness. This is where she made it, partly thanks to the power of the city’s greatest-ever TV invention, Countdown, and the good grace of Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. However, it’s also where Chrissy often had to fake it, to make it.
“Oh, I felt extremely shy and ill equipped when I began with the band,” she tells Time Out on the phone from her New York home. “I didn’t really know what to do. I couldn’t get past the embarrassment of singing my own lyrics. So I needed the detachment of dressing up. Having the right thing to dress up in gave me something to bounce off and it also gave me irony. I used to wear this very innocent tartan dress with a lace bib – but I would also wear suspenders and stockings. It was innocent, and yet not.”
On the day Chrissy was talking about her life in Melbourne, Meldrum, that consummate Melburnian, was still in hospital in a coma.
It would be hard to talk to any musician from this city without also mentioning Australia’s greatest champion of homegrown albums (often slapping them into submission for the cameras). And so, the talk turns to Molly…
At the height of her fame, Chrissy would walk into the Countdown TV studios at the ABC in Ripponlea, only to find him joking, “The bitch is back!”
“Yes,” she acknowledges the story from her autobiography, “but Molly Meldrum was also very responsible for getting ‘Boys In Town’ on the radio. There was a photograph of him, holding the sleeve, telling radio to play it in an advertisement they put out. Because radio just wasn’t playing that.” Her voice softens. “You don’t ever forget something like that.”
Oh, for a time machine. If Time Out readers had one, not only could they be in the front row of the old Countdown at Ripponlea, seeing Chrissy in her infamous uniform, they could wind back the dial of time even further and see her ringing the cash registers at legendary Melbourne boutique, The House of Merivale and Mr John.
So, Chrissy, was there actually a real Mr John? Or even a Merivale?
“Oh yes. They really were real people. And it was the grooviest shop, at the top of Collins Street. Mr John used to come around in the mornings to check us out, to see if we shaped up.”
So what was her best circa 1970s shopgirl look?
“False eyelashes, bottom and top,” Chrissy remembers. “There were girls at the Collins Street store that looked like Deborah Harry, before Deborah Harry even looked like Deborah Harry. There were also bands on in the city at lunchtime. They would be playing down some little alleyway in some club and I would go down and see them. The 70s in Melbourne was very happening. There were lots of great, groovy clubs, which I was way too young for, but I still went to anyway. You’d stick some false eyelashes on and the right dress and hairpiece, and look much older than you were.”
After a mandatory stint in a shared mansion in Kew – while performing nude in a Melbourne musical and keeping several black cats – Chrissy saw AC/DC and the rest is history.
“My school uniform was inspired by Angus Young. I went to an AC/DC concert at the Showgrounds and that inspired me. It gave me a persona on stage – and then I stylised it I suppose. Sometimes I would go and get a summer uniform, which was nice and easy to wash out at night, and hang in the shower at the motel…”
Then, as now, Chrissy was a fan of The Waiters Club, at 20 Meyers Place in the city. “Melbourne has always had a great night life – the best night life – it’s a place that has influenced me enormously, from clothes to rock’n’roll,” she concludes.
Then – “I’m going to dye my roots now. I’ve never done it before,” the most famous flame-haired temptress in Australian rock history, signs off.
1959: Christened at Collins Street Baptist Church, where Tim Costello would later become Pastor
1969: Plays an early gig, aged ten, for prisoners at Geelong Gaol
1975: Moves into Greville Street, Prahran and sees AC/DC at The Station Hotel
1980: Meets future partner Mark McEntee at the Elephant and Castle pub, Sydney
1991: ‘I Touch Myself’ goes to number one in Australia
1993: Breaks up with Mark McEntee
1999: Marries drummer Charley Drayton
2007: Goes public about her multiple sclerosis
2010: Successfully battles breast cancer
2011: Triumphant return to Australia guesting with Cold Chisel