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Revisit: Divinyls: Desperate

Revisit: Divinyls: Desperate

Ask most Americans how they know Divinyls and they’ll likely answer, “I Touch Myself.”

Ask most Americans how they know Divinyls and they’ll likely answer, “I Touch Myself.” That’s a shame. The Australian rock band had a long and successful career filled with a handful of good-to-great albums. In fact, their 1983 debut, Desperate, is one of the most assured and energetic rock debuts you’re likely to hear. Divinyls, especially their late singer and force of nature Chrissy Amphlett, seemed to arrive fully formed, ready to rock and roll you right into submission.

By the time Divninyls had released their debut, they had already been regularly gigging for a few years. Many of its songs had been around the block, with some included on the soundtrack to Monkey Grip, a film that featured Amphlett as a young thespian. With Desperate, Divinyls became the first Aussie band to sign a debut record contract with an American label, Chrysalis Records. Shaking off the immense pressure that entailed, the band recorded a confident and electrifying debut that still stands as not only one of the finest Australian rock albums, but also one of the more criminally underrated records in rock.

Lead guitarist Mark McEntee is a master at the art of the riff, eschewing flashy solos for gloriously propulsive rhythm leads. Drummer Richard Harvey and bassist Rick Grossman provide effortless swing and propel each song along at a breakneck pace. Rhythm guitarist Bjarne Ohlin contributes the driving rocker, “Siren (Never Let You Go).” Make no mistake though, the band’s greatest strength is behind the mic in the form of one of rock’s most uniquely charismatic lead singers.

Amphlett conveys nearly the full breadth of her Divinyls persona on this debut, the strong, smart, and sensitive woman that listeners are both attracted to and frightened of in equal measure. She’s stuck in a town full of immature boys who misunderstand her potential and appeal in “Boys in Town”; she throws away her fantastical sci-fi novels after discovering they can’t compare to the power of love in “Science Fiction”; she’s stuck on your voodoo and will never, ever let you go in “Siren”; and she might put you down but it’s only because she’s lonely, desperate even, for some affection in “Only Lonely.” Throughout, her lyrics mix together caustic humor, keen insight, extreme confidence, and crippling self-doubt to create deeply personal songs.

Very few rock singers have ever combined so many disparate vocal tricks into one petite yet powerful package. On Desperate, Amphlett transitions effortlessly from high-pitched yelps to half-yodels to lower-register growls to delicate and tender pleading. She often does this over the course of a single song, sometimes in a single line. Her impeccable phrasing creates an intoxicatingly unpredictable listening experience. On the bouncy “Ring Me Up”– used by John Hughes in his 1984 film Sixteen Candles–she begins in a hiccupping staccato before shifting gears into a pouty speak-singing lament about sitting by the phone waiting for you to call. That kind of vocal dexterity truly brings an added dimension to the album.

“Elsie” is the real eye-opener, showcasing how powerful Amphlett and Divinyls could be when they slowed down and got darker. The song is a foreboding look inside the mind of a woman suffering from severe mental illness. It’s full of menace, paranoia, and hopelessness, both in its ominous bass line and in Amphlett’s tour-de-force vocals. After the final chorus, she unleashes a series of guttural moans that will shake you to your core. After so much tension has built up over the course of the song, her screams are the perfect catharsis, its sound like a purging of inner demons. Live clips of Amphlett performing “Elise” during those years show her prowling and stalking the stage like a caged animal, all pent-up aggression seething for release.

So the next time you’re in the mood for a slice of early ‘80s new wave goodness, give Desperate a spin for a surprising complement to your other favorite records of that era. Throw it on after Parallel Lines and before New Values for a seamless flow of sonic enjoyment. You’ll find that the band that recorded “I Touch Myself” has much more to offer than that mega-hit. Chrissy Amphlett and Divinyls exploded out of the gate, and their debut’s power and impact remain intact after more than three decades.

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