Music journalist Jeff Apter is set to deliver a new unauthorised biography on Daniel Johns, 'The Book Of Daniel', next month. The book details the revered frontman's life on and off stage over 15 years. In this exclusive extract given to theMusic, Apter recounts Johns touring with Silverchair in 1999 following the release of their third album, 'Neon Ballroom', and his increasingly unpredictable behaviour during the live shows.
The band were in Chicago on 15 March when Neon Ballroom debuted at number one on the Australian album chart, repeating the runaway success of Frogstomp and Freak Show. It went on to sell 204,000 copies at home. The album made its debut on the US charts a week later, at number fifty. It was certified gold (sales of 500,000) by the first week of April and would spend 30 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 chart. In Canada, the album entered the charts at number five, while the album’s European chart debuts were the best of the band’s career: number twenty-nine in the UK, number thirteen in Germany, and number twenty-three in France.
Over time in the USA, Neon Ballroom achieved roughly the same sales as Freak Show — 633,000 to Freak Show’s 620,000—but not a notch on Frogstomp’s two-million-plus. Yet sales of Silverchair’s third album increased elsewhere. It sold 101,000 copies in Germany, 116,000 in Brazil and 25,000 copies in Sweden. On 10 May, when Ana’s Song (Open Fire) debuted at number fourteen on the Australian singles chart, it became the band’s eleventh consecutive Australian Top 40 single. Silverchair had become the most successful Australian chart performer of the 1990s, even outshining Savage Garden.
The returns for the band’s North American live shows were consistent, even though they were playing smaller venues than in 1997. During a run of dates in March, they filled the 1500-capacity Roxy Theater in Atlanta, and the 1400-capacity Vic in Chicago. In Canada, with fellow Australians Grinspoon along for the ride, they packed the 2500-capacity club The Warehouse in Toronto and the 1200-capacity Le Spectrum de Montreal. In another case of choosing a support act who’d soon blow up — Matchbox Twenty had exploded since Silverchair’s last US tour — rock plodders Nickelback opened up at their next date, at Vancouver’s Croatian Cultural Centre on 26 March. Not all of their shows were so successful: only 800 punters fronted in Columbus, Ohio, while the 2460-seat Boathouse in Norfolk, Virginia, wasn’t even half full when Silverchair plugged in on 2 June.
And still Silverchair kept touring—and Johns continued behaving in occasionally comical, sometimes bizarre ways. It seemed as though he had moved beyond his audience, who still bayed for older songs such as Tomorrow and Pure Massacre. On other occasions, he was quite clearly playing up his role as frontman: why not give the crowd some razzle-dazzle to go with the rock? In Tampa, Florida, on 2 May, Johns dusted off his rock-and-roll evangelist persona. ‘Can I get a hallelujah?’ he asked the crowd. ‘Let’s hear it for Jesus!’ he yelled. ‘Let’s hear it for Satan! Let’s hear it for sex, drugs and fucking rock and roll!’
His bandmates were growing uncomfortable with Johns’s strange turns. Joannou felt that Johns was challenging himself by digging a metaphorical hole on stage and then seeing if he could pull himself out. But it wasn’t always something the bass man enjoyed watching, especially when Johns turned abusive: ‘Sometimes you thought, “This is good, he’s becoming his own person”. Other times you thought, “Oh boy, where is he heading tonight?” There was definitely a case of, “Just three more months, just three more months”.’
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Gillies, meanwhile, maintained his ‘man of the people’ role, signing autographs and chatting with fans at shows long after Johns had left the building. And he didn’t mind the attention, either. A writer I spoke with, who’d spent some time on the road with the band, recalled watching Gillies actively pursuing a ‘tattooed rock chick’, a roadie for LA punks Bad Religion: women were never far from the drummer’s mind.
Another sign of Johns’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour was his tendency to lecture his audience. If he wasn’t grumbling about their lack of response, he was drilling them about animal rights. In Boston on 30 May, he posed the question: ‘Do any of you believe in shooting ducks?’ When many replied in the affirmative, Johns shot back: ‘Anyone who answered “yes” is a fuckwit’. Despite the Animal Liberation tattoo on his ankle, not many in the crowd knew Johns was an advocate; at least not until this particular spray.
In St Louis, Johns again turned on the crowd: ‘You guys are too quiet!’ he yelled. ‘I’ve tried but you aren’t saying anything. We’re going to play now, so you shut the fuck up and we will play. Just sit there like you are and rock out like you fucking should!’ During Freak, he gave the crowd the finger, and changed the already tweaked lyrics to: ‘Body and soul/Suck my dick’. Happy he was not.
In Atlanta three nights later, a protest group by the name of Be Level-Headed picketed the Hard Rock Fest ’99, where Silverchair were playing. They cited Suicidal Dream and Israel’s Son as ‘particularly offensive’. Acting on a request from organisers, the band dropped both songs from their performance. Nonetheless, Johns, dripping sarcasm, stopped the show mid-set to give Be Level-Headed a fair serve: ‘That’s what we do with our music, we promote violence, according to the church. The church is always right. So, we promote violence, sorry. Can I get a halle-fucking-lujah?’ Johns then jammed Advance Australia Fair, which was completely lost on the American crowd.
Occasionally, Johns would slip up and hint at the source of his irritation. After playing a desultory Tomorrow in Denver, he said: ‘Thanks, that’s our only hit. That’s when we were an Australian teenage grunge sensation. Now we’re just a rock band, according to the press.’
Despite all this turmoil, the band still pulled the A-listers. In Vancouver on 14 July, Johns got into a shouting match with a surly punter while Hole’s Courtney Love and Samantha Moloney looked on. In San Francisco, Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst stood at the side of the stage, mouthing most of Johns’s lyrics like the star-struck fan he clearly was.
If Johns wasn’t getting into verbal spars with punters, he was inviting them up on stage. He tried this out in Dallas in early June during Anthem For The Year 2000; by tour’s end it became a regular feature of a night out with Wacky Daniel. Johns would assemble a choir onstage, and then encourage them to chant ‘We are the youth’ at the top of their lungs. The lucky ones stood on a specially prepared choir stand, wearing T-shirts printed by the band. It was anything-goes chaos.
But despite the many faces of Daniel Johns—Rock God, crowd-baiter, blasphemer, hit-and-miss stand-up comic, evangelist, choir master—he remained at a distance from both bandmates and crowd. While Gillies, and sometimes Joannou and Holloway, were signing autographs and posing for snaps with fans after their shows, Johns would either be holed up on the bus or hiding out in his hotel room. People bothered him.
This is an edited extract from The Book of Daniel by Jeff Apter (Allen & Unwin RRP $32.99), officially released on 1 December; click here for more details.