All Tomorrow’s Parties… The Amazing True Story Of Silverchair’s First Single

14 June 2024 | 2:54 pm | Jeff Jenkins

“We’re not hip-hop or rap. We’re rock! And we love to play.”


Silverchair (Source: Supplied)

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Tomorrow seems like only yesterday.

But it was actually 30 years ago this week that a band called the Innocent Criminals won a TV show competition, and Australian music would never be the same.

“The story of Tomorrow is the story of Silverchair,” Ben Gillies reflected in the book Love & Pain. “We wanted to create a song with tension – a rock odyssey with heaving highs and soft lows – and that’s what we did. We didn’t know that our song would lead to such extremes of love and pain. If we had known, maybe we would have stopped then and there. Maybe Tomorrow would never have come.”

Daniel Johns, Gillies, and bass player Chris Joannou wrote the music together. Johns came up with the melody and lyrics while playing an Ibanez JEM “with a busted neck.”

The song was born out of a jam in Gillies’s bedroom. “It felt like an electric spark,” the drummer recalls. “We were all doing our own thing, but we were in sync.” And then Johns started singing:

You wait till tomorrow!

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About 160km away, a TV producer was also thinking about tomorrow. 

Tracee Hutchison had already had a storied career at Triple J and was responsible for the seminal text Your Name’s On The Door, which documented the Australian music scene in the ’80s. She’d even been immortalised in a song by Perth power pop band The Chevelles.

In 1994, Hutchison was the producer of nomad, a left-of-centre music show on SBS TV that reflected the network’s multicultural charter. The program had an innovative and experimental ethos. When Björk played at the Big Day Out in 1994, nomad interviewed her in Icelandic. When Pavement played in Sydney, Hutchison interviewed them on the pavement outside the Petersham Inn, showing just a clip of their sneakers, with their feet moving as they spoke.

“It was a cool little show,” Hutchison smiles. “We did things that weren’t conventional, and SBS management weren’t sure what it was doing in prime time.”

In mid-1994, SBS was televising the World Cup from the US. Hutchison was told that nomad would be “rested” while the network showed the soccer. Fearing her show would not return, Hutchison hatched a plan, creating a competition called “Pick Me”.

“The premise was to find an SBS charter-friendly band, so I could then go to management and say, ‘Hey, don’t axe this show, we’ve discovered this incredible act that the network can champion.’”

A long-time champion of Australian independent music, Hutchison also had a second motivation. “I’d seen a lot of friends through the ’80s and early ’90s who’d been very badly done over by bad record deals, so I wanted to create an opportunity for an unsigned band to own all their assets at a point when they were negotiating a record deal.

“It really was about flipping the bird at record companies and the music industry, which I had a healthy disregard for.”

Hutchison believed an artist could circumvent the then-dominant record company world. “Women didn’t run record companies back then and they didn’t work in A&R, and it pissed me off,” she adds. “The A&R men all behaved like they ruled the world. But I knew I could discover a great band and make it work.”

Hutchison called Richard Kingsmill at Triple J and organised for the winning act to receive a day’s recording at the station. “That was also very strategic and tactical, as I knew that if they were involved in that part of the prize, they would also have buy-in and champion the artist, which would give me great leverage with SBS management.”

Hutchison also convinced Kodak to donate film stock, which meant that the winning clip would be shot on film. 

It was a simple deal: the winner would own the recording and the film clip. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the artist was holding all the cards and not having to start their career in debt or beholden to any record company.”

With just nomad and the street press spruiking the competition, the show received 800 entries.

The young band from Merewether in Newcastle heard about the competition from their singer’s neighbour Sarah. Entrants had to explain, in 25 words or less, why they should be picked. In green texta on a piece of yellow cardboard, they scribbled:

We’re not hip-hop or rap. We’re rock! And we love to play.

The band, then known as the Innocent Criminals, submitted a six-and-a-half-minute version of Tomorrow, which they’d recorded for the grand total of $75 at Platinum Sound Studios on Joy Street in Cardiff, a small town just outside of Newcastle.

Tomorrow presented Hutchison with a dilemma: she immediately knew the song was a smash hit. But three white kids who sounded like Nirvana? It didn’t really fit the SBS charter.

The producer considered a couple of other strong entries – a klezmer band from Melbourne called the Von Trapp Family Crisis, and a trio of young female Indigenous rappers from Alice Springs. But in the end, she decided that the best song should win.

When the show called the Johns family home to reveal that the Innocent Criminals were victorious, the singer was at Gillies’ house. When his mum relayed the news, “we went wild”.

“I remember both of us running around the house like madmen yelling at the top of our lungs,” Gillies recalls. “I had so much energy and excitement inside me, I needed to get it out before I burst. It was the best phone call I ever got.”

Hutchison and the nomad team, including associate producer Amanda Duthie, went to Newcastle to interview the band and produce the film clip, which was directed by Robert Hambling at the old Newcastle Police Station and Gaol.

“They were super-young and super-excited,” Hutchison recalls. “We [the nomad crew] were collectively holding our breath: we all knew this was going to be massive.”

The winner was officially announced on nomad on Thursday, June 16, 1994. A colourful graphic proclaimed: “It took just 25 words and a song that knocked our socks off.”

The next day, when Hutchison went to her office at SBS, her phone was filled with messages from most of the major labels, including a personal message from Michael Gudinski who wanted to sign the band.

Then there was another call. From her boss. The show was axed.

In less than 24 hours, Hutchison had launched the hottest band in the land … and lost her job.

Nomad would never return, but Daniel, Chris and Ben’s wild ride was just beginning. Triple J put Tomorrow – produced by Phil McKellar – on high rotation.

Realising that the band needed a good lawyer, Hutchison hooked them up with Brett Oaten, while she advised Daniel’s mum, Julie, on the pitfalls of the various recording contracts pitched to the band. 

After a bidding war between Mushroom and Sony, the Innocent Criminals signed to Sony’s new indie offshoot Murmur and changed their name to Silverchair. The label hoped to sell 6000 copies of the Tomorrow EP. It ended up spending six weeks at number one, selling 200,000 copies in just three months. And it won Single of the Year at the ARIA Awards, as well as Highest Selling Single and Breakthrough Artist – Single.

Hutchison proudly has a platinum plaque on the wall of her study.

Not long after Tomorrow was officially released in September 1994, Hutchison went to see the band at the Vulcan in Sydney, where “it felt like thousands of people were trying to get into the venue”. 

The following year, Hutchison was in the UK, standing side of stage at the London Astoria, with 2000 screaming fans singing every word of Tomorrow. She found herself in tears. “The whole juggernaut went beyond what anyone could have anticipated.”

In 1995, Silverchair’s debut album, Frogstomp, hit #9 in the US, becoming the first Australian album to crack the US Top 10 since INXS’s X in 1990.

But Hutchison knew what was coming: the inevitable implosion. “It’s a white-knuckled ride, a rollercoaster,” she notes. “And eventually everyone is thrown out of the car.”

The backlash was swift, with critics calling the band “Nirvana in Pyjamas”, “Silver Highchair” and “not Soundgarden but Kindergarten”.

Comedian Robert Grayson, aka Hanuman, released a parody, (I Turn Four) Tomorrow, under the name of Silverpram. It was nominated for an ARIA for Best Comedy Release and reached #72 on the ARIA charts.

In a piece headed ‘No Legs To Silverchair’, the Herald Sun’s Nui Te Koha slammed the band’s lack of originality. “It is highly debatable whether the three teens have gone to the world with a new sound or something identifiably Australian,” he wrote. “Silverchair’s image and sound is blatantly – despite constant protests from the band – Nirvana meets Pearl Jam.”

But veteran rock critic Ed Nimmervoll shot back the following day. “It’s not original. It’s not Australian. Bah, humbug. It’s just as well Britain didn’t say the same thing when The Beatles reinvented American R&B and The Rolling Stones emulated their blues heroes 30 years ago. Where would popular music be today?”

Thirty years after Tomorrow, The Music’s publisher, Stephen Green, calls Daniel Johns the greatest Australian rock star of the ’90s. “He typified the new generation after the ’80s rock wave: quiet, insecure, angry and everything ’90s kids could relate to.”

And the band’s impact was immense. When The Living End’s Scott Owen was asked what he thought was the most influential Australian music release, he replied: “Silverchair’s Tomorrow, because it taught kids that if you give it a go, you have the chance to take on the world.”

Tracee Hutchison lost her TV show but gained a million memories. And the success of the Pick Me competition inspired Triple J’s Unearthed, which propelled many more artists to stardom.

Post-nomad, Hutchison has had a diverse career in the music business, including singing on a James Reyne record, being the program director at Triple R, and now chair of the board at Green Music Australia. But nothing quite compares to discovering Silverchair.

“It was pretty intoxicating to be around, to watch the bedroom dreams of young kids come true.”

But the responsibility of thrusting three teenagers onto the public stage still weighs heavily on the TV producer. “I’ve reflected on that many times,” she admits. “Yes, it was exciting and a wonderful thing to be around, but I was also aware they were just kids, and how on earth would they navigate what was coming?

“I knew that the opportunity would change their lives forever, for good and then the inevitable implosion. That’s rock ’n’ roll, that’s what happens; it doesn’t matter how carefully you try to manage everything in life, there’s always the moment when it implodes.”

Silverchair went into “indefinite hibernation” in 2011, and relations between Johns and Gillies and Joannou remain strained.

“In a lot of ways, this is really a story about the random, fickle nature of success,” Hutchison believes. “If I had stuck to the original premise of finding a charter-friendly band, well, they didn’t meet the brief.”

“On a good day, it’s a beautiful thing to have been associated with,” she continues. “That we gave this band a great gift.” 

“There are plenty of people who claim credit for ‘making’ the band,” Gillies reflects. “Everyone has a Silverchair story. But the real story is, the band ‘made it’ because of the three of us, because of Chris, Dan and me, and because of the magic spark between us in my bedroom when we all wrote Tomorrow.”

Tracee Hutchison often wonders about that sliding doors moment: What would have happened to Daniel, Ben and Chris if they hadn’t entered the nomad competition? “Would they have been discovered anyway, or would they have been like the thousands of other kids who just dream about something and then go off and get a real job?”

But as Ben Gillies concludes in Love & Pain, “There’s no point dwelling on maybes. What’s done is done. Even if we wanted to, we can’t go back and change the past. All we can do is ‘wait till tomorrow’.”