The complete 5 part story of Girlfriend
"My responsibility is to this generation and succeeding ones, and these echoes of Menzies cannot be allowed to get in the way. We cannot pretend to ourselves that we are insulated from change in the world" - Paul Keating, 1992
"Surprisingly, Japanese does come quite easily. It's easier to learn a language through singing." - Jacqui Cowell, 1993
In December 1991, after a year of bitter struggle and Labor party infighting, Paul Keating, Federal treasurer, succeeded his one time mentor and friend Bob Hawke as Prime Minister of Australia. Keating was the first “baby boomer” Prime Minister, a man inclined to grand dreams and bold ambitions, one of the last “vision” politicians Australia may ever have, and a man for whom a mundane tread through domestic duties could never do. Keating was a great supporter of the fine arts, short on patience and acutely aware of trying to write his own place in history. From the very start of his Prime Ministership however, Keating would annunciate time and again a phrase that set his stall out, a phrase that made it crystal clear how he would define his time in office, and differentiate him from the legacy of Hawke.
He was going to make Australia “the gateway to Asia”.
The gateway to Asia was a political doctrine created by Keating and his foreign Minister Gareth Evans that would redefine Australia’s foreign policy and it’s place in the world. Historically, all Australian interests, political, economic and cultural, had run through the United Kingdom, Australia’s colonial owner – Robert Menzies publically telling the Queen at a speech he “did but he see her passing by, but I will love her til I die,” being the epitome of Australias perceived cultural identity – that had given Australian an identity as white, Liberal, British and dependent. Keating felt this was an anachronism, an embarrassment, and was desperate to change Australian identity. The Queens presence as head of state to the modern thinking Australia was a particular bugbear to Keating, who wanted Australia to become far more independent country. In addition to his cherished dream of turning Australia into a republic, Keating wanted to turn around years of suspicion and make Australia's nearest continental neighbour, Asia, Australia’s main trading region, not the UK or even the EEC. Keating felt that the way out of recession was to engage the Koreas and Japans and the so called "tiger economies" in trade and industry talks rather than waiting for Queen and country to pay attention. Keating also felt the lack of history, his “blank canvas”, Australia had within the region was an essential benefit, one that ensured Australia could enter Asia as a positive ally to all nations, without historical baggage or bias. The turn away from the UK may have been started during the Hawke years, but that was a shift towards stronger ties with the United States. The 90s, reasoned Keating, would be engaged with neighbours much closer to home.
As much as Keatings visions were industrial and economical, they were also cultural, and shared by a struggling local music industry. Traditionally, Australian artists would make historical but mostly unsuccessful trips to the US and UK and come back with nothing to show for it. The tyranny of distance and expense flying acts to the UK or the US with a limited chance of success, it was theorised, could be avoided if the flights were shorter and just as many albums were sold in the “USA on our doorstep” than in the real USA. Increasingly anxious record companies were endlessly frustrated by the limitations of the Australian market and seeking to broaden their horizons, and a new market was an exciting opportunity. Through cultural and trade negotiations Australia was able to help negotiate tighter legislation and control of copyright laws in Asia, which led to a significant decrease in the trade of pirated recordings in the region, previously a major barrier for Australian artists. Another barrier fell when MTV Asia launched in April 1992, with 38 Asian countries receiving western pop videos around the clock in addition to their own domestic hits, making marketing much easier. Throw in the fact that the Australian government was offering tax incentives and grants to record labels to at least explore the market on their own doorstep, and if the right act was marketed perfectly, the sky was the limit.
As if that wasn’t enough to turn eyes to new untapped Asian markets, by 1992, the boom period for Australian artists in the UK had also faded. Kylie Minogue, the UK megastar story of the late 80s, would prove far more resilient than her critics would believe, but in 1992, she was little more than a hapless tabloid figure – cut adrift from her hit making factory, ridiculed for her sexual awakening with Michael Hutchence and drug use and tipped to fade into oblivion. Her partner in crime, Jason Donovan, was about to start his descent into infamy, but for the moment contented himself with a role in Joseph. Neighbours domestic and international ratings had slumped, cooling interest in Australian pop in the UK and almost causing the show to be axed. And no other pop act could replicate her UK success anyway. Indecent Obsession, the hapless boy band formed and managed by Molly Meldrum, had barely lasted a week in the UK before vanishing. Collette, marketed as “Kylie with attitude”, didn’t even get that far before she had become a figure of fun to sharpened critics and comedy shows domestically, never mind going overseas. And they were the ones with a chance. Not that most of the UK was even listening to music anyway – by 1992, UK critics were predicting everything from computer games to comedy was “the new rock and roll” and largely telling anyone that would listen that music was dead. And even Minogue couldn’t get a foot hold in the US, publically giving up on breaking the country as early as 1991. Frustration had set in across Australian record executives, unsure what made Minogue, still the “singing budgie” at home, so successful and their acts so unsuccessful in the UK, until they all but gave up.
However, in Asia, almost without trying, several acts had quietly and secretly made it big, and while this wasn’t uncharted territory (Kylie Minogue’s Turn It Into Love, for instance, had been a massive #1 single in Japan and later the song became a cover version standard), it was, in light of Keatings Gateway to Asia dream, culturally significant. Domestically derided, Collette broke big in Indonesia, Rick Price had #1 singles in five South East Asian countries, only Melissa’s horrendous management problems stymied her push into the region, and Indecent Obsession caused mania in Thailand, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Pop remained the easiest way for record companies to turn a profit, cutting out such pesky problems as paying the artists royalties when someone else wrote the songs, and these acts were shifting big units and making the record companies good money without really trying, without any of the success being deliberately thought out and planned or massive expenses. Theoretically, if someone did try, really tried hard, and pushed hard into Asia with a massive marketing budget and government tax breaks, the profits and success would be enormous. After all, no contemporary Australian act had really cracked the biggest market, Japan, where the right act could sell over a million albums, maybe more. No one, after all, had really tried.
Tied into all of this were five girls from a Sydney dance school, starting out together on their journey by performing nervously and chaotically on debut for BMG delegates at the Asia Beat conference on the Gold Coast.
They were about to be given the keys to Asia’s gateway.
Their name was Girlfriend, and they were going to be stars.
People in their handlings of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed. If one remains as careful at the end as he was at the beginning, there will be no failure - Lao Tzu, Philosophy
I think the tragedy of Kylie Minogue has disappointed many people, but these girls have safety in numbers. They'll stick together. I think they've probably learnt from both her success and her failure. - Mary Heidenreich, Siobhann Heidenreichs Mother, 1992
There are two versions of how the Girlfriend story begun – roughly splitting the atom, they can be called the “official” version and the “Robyn” version. The official version is the one clipped and cut from official merchandising, biographies and chanted on variety shows like a mantra, a version where success was instant, the formation seamless, and no hurdles were encountered on the path to Asian domination and domestic success. The Robyn version came to light in the years after the lead singer of Girlfriend, Robyn Loau, left the band. The Robyn version tends to run along the lines that she was the only one wise enough to see what Darius Danesh called “the levers behind the curtain”, while the other girls were reading Jackie Collins novels and dreaming of mega stardom. The truth doubtless lies somewhere in the middle, but it’s important to express all points of view, so the truest story can be told.
The starting point for the Girlfriend story was the Coogee dance studio Stage One, where Melanie Alexander, Siobhann Heidenreich and Jacqui Cowell had met as toddlers. Many years later, the three decided to form their own band (officially listed in bios as Cowells idea initially, since she felt that the trio's future as shopping mall performers was starting to wear thin), at which point their dance teacher (never named in Girlfriend bios, but for the record the studio was owned by Janice Breen) put them in touch with Noel MacDonald, a former jingle writer and Starsearch contestant looking to make a proper living from songwriting. MacDonald then put Siobhann, Melanie, and Jacqui in touch with Robyn Loau, a vocalist of Samoan descent who had been working at Australia's Wonderland and teaching dance in Sydney’s Western suburbs. A fifth member, Lorinda Noble, was auditioned from the same dance school as the first three members, and replaced an unnamed girl who, quote, “wasn’t able to cope with fame”. MacDonald also put the girls in touch with Ross Wood. For two years, Wood, a former television cameraman and director, had struggled to see his own concept of an all-female pop group become a reality. During those two years he had continually presented his idea of an all-girl pop group aimed directly at the neglected younger teen market to virtually all the local record labels, but only Mushroom and BMG expressed any interest in signing them. Of course the “them” at the point Wood was pitching his idea was still a vague idea with unnamed girls. Girlfriend was his idea made flesh, something more tangible to pitch. It was no wonder things moved quickly once a line up was decided – this had been seemingly everyones dream for a long time.
The story splits a little at this point – the official version of the Girlfriend story suggests success and chemistry was instant once the five girls joined up, that with MacDonalds songs and Woods direction, magic happened. On public debut, according to the official story, the girls gave a seamless and impressive performance to BMG delegates at the 1991 Asia Beat conference on the Gold Coast and blew away veteran Australian performer and labelmate John Farnham in the eyes of those watching. The Japanese representatives, in particular, looking for Western girls to promote and instantly make famous, were in raptures at the girls vocal and dancing ability, and wanted to sign them on the spot. Loau’s subsequent version of events was a little different – according to Robyn, the girls initial performances were awful – vocally awful in particular – and that the Asia Beat conference and at least one other performance for BMG executives had been appalling, citing dropped microphones, flubbed choreography and forgotten lines among other alleged blunders. Whatever the truth of the initial raw performances, one thing was clear, Girlfriend clearly had something going for them, and whatever that something was, look, appeal, freshness or talent, it was appealing to BMG. In fact, regardless of which story is true, it’s obvious to see why 5 fresh faced dancing girls would be more appealing to market and sign than the established and older Farnham. However, it may say something for what Girlfriend initially “had” that aside from perhaps two auditions in person, most of their auditions were done via tightly edited video tape.
In fact, it was an unlikely source that would deliver the video and cassette demo tapes to BMG - Bert Newtons morning television show Good Morning Australia. After scoring a copy of the tapes that was doing the rounds, the Channel 10 program decided to send the tapes on to major record label heads as an experiment to see what the reaction would be. Stuart Rubin was the most vocal in his approval of what he heard, and set the wheels in motion to sign the girls not long after receiving the tape.
In February 1992, Girlfriend (named by the label) were ostensibly signed to BMG-Arista-Ariola , the German based record company, by Stuart Rubin as a high priority act. By the time they signed, they had more or less spent 16 months in rough rehearsal and planning one way or another. Cowell, Heidenreich and Alexander may have formed the band and had the initial idea, but it was Loau who drove the ambitions. A keen student of the music business with a ruthless aim, Loau convinced not just music executives but her own new band and management that they would be stars. There was nothing left to chance - the girls spent long hours in the gym, learning languages, performing, taking dance and singing classes, and working themselves into the ground for their shot at the big time. Loau in particular was determined the girls wouldn't replicate their earlier nervous performances. Their first performances were kept simple, but they were effective and showed an improvement on the chaotic early public shows - the girls were involved in a long running national sunscreen promotion, recording the "Slip Slop Slap Rap" as an ad jingle, performing at long and exclusive meet and greet media sessions (that always ended with a performance of "Take It From Me" or James Taylors "You've Got A Friend" sung a cappella to prove the girls musical authenticity to cynics). It was one Richard Wilkins who predicted after one performance that girls would become filthy rich "as a result of massive endorsement deals". They also performed several free shows at Darling Harbor that were already attracting walk up crowds of up to 1000 people.
They were high priority not just in Australia, but in Asia (Loau spent up to 12 months learning Japanese, the other girls were put through an extensive 10 week language course, and for every one Australian album, two were planned for Japan), where success was critical, Keatings “Gateway To Asia” writ culturally large. The budget allotted for Girlfriend's launch approached $500,000 (total expenditure on Girlfriend would approach $2 million by the time all was said and done), a staggering sum just to launch an Australian act, and that was before any international launches were planned, further increasing the outlay. Although it was buried in the details, the girls then became “creative consulting shareholders” in Girlfriend Pty Ltd, a company that had been established to handle the business affairs of the group. Until the record company expenditure was re-couped the company would not receive a cent. Estimates of the time suggested to make any money, the girls would have to sell in excess of 150000 domestic albums to make any money, an incredibly high amount for a debuting Australian act, but the ambitions of BMG outstripped mere domestic concerns. Signed to a division of Arista in the UK, BMG and the girls dreamed of not just successful records, but successful merchandise, lunchboxes, even movies and a clothing line. It was a financial goldmine that if successful would make that initial launch look like spare change. Interestingly though it was never “Girlfriend” who signed to BMG, but each girl individually just in case one of them (thought to be Robyn) showed real star quality and could be packaged as a solo act. Had this fact been more widely known, it might have undercut some of the group ethos, but it slipped through the net.
Domestically, Girlfriends appeal would lie in their “ordinary” nature – Kylie had become an alien in her own land, always seemingly overseas while the blonde amazon, Melissa, wallowing in her own mis-management, was the opposite of how Girlfriend would be marketed. Melissa and Kylie were unobtainable, Girlfriend were the opposite, available, home based, friendly, likely to appear in your local shopping mall and just the same as any other girl you might know from school or work. They were young, fresh faced, clean cut and positive at all times. More importantly, the timing, at least initially, worked. Nirvana, the world’s biggest act, were rooted in grunge, despair and alienation. To anyone who didn’t feel like that, particularly pre teen girls, Girlfriend would be an instant inspiration. Nor would they seemingly sing anything akin to “hands off my detonator” like Melissa, nor feature in skimpy clothes. Glad in bright colourful outfits designed by “third manager” Nikki Goldstein, Girlfriend were marketed as your friends, your big sisters, a cool gang of positive girls, anything you wanted them to be. One of their initial ad campaigns had the tagline "Sure they're young...but isn't everyone!" - Girlfriend were the most visible and available act of 1992, ready to appear at any shopping mall, on any TV show, to sit down with any radio show, to be at any school, always ready with an a cappella song. Loau initially felt nothing was happening with the band, that it was an expensive folly, until suddenly, five months after they were created, with the accompanying “overnight sensation” tag, things went crazy.
As often happens with blitzes like this, the cynicism of music critics and doubters pondering the folly of such big spending didn’t resonate with children, pre-teens, pop fans and girls in general. The music created was excellently written and filled with positive hooks and beats, the lyrics were uber upbeat and the girls did, on camera and in person, have a visible chemistry which separated them from their rivals. As a result of their accessibility, the clever marketing and the perfectly crafted pop, Girlfriend achieved something rare in pop. They weren’t just famous or successful, though they were very much both, they were also genuinely loved. If it was a hype job, it initially went beyond that. Girlfriends debut single, “Take It From Me”, went straight to #1 in the charts in July 1992, and stayed there for two weeks. Their debut album, “Make It Come True”, may not have sold 150000 albums, but it came very close, selling somewhere just over 140000 copies, a record number of sales for an Australian artists debut album. The musical highlight was the rock flavoured single "Bad Attitude", the last track on the album that seemed to mature their sound and point to an outstanding future career. As Girlfriend began to become more and more popular and hit on the elusive "X" Factor, the offers for more and more merchandising kept coming in – a clothing range, the talked about road trip movie, drink flasks, stationery, wrapping paper, anything you could make with the Girlfriend logo basically. And no one said no to any offer, and the hype rapidly continued, until Girlfriend, one excellent pop album later, felt like the most important breakthrough act on the planet.
For many, the short term comparison with Girlfriend had been with the American boy band "New Kids On The Block" - a similarly constructed teen band sensation who were just about fading from memory. During one of Girlfriends early interviews, a cynical musical journalist asked the girls outright what made them any different from New Kids On The Block. Loau answered "we've got tits", at which point the girls management went into damage control. Loau was gently at first, then much more firmly, reminded of Girlfriends rules. According to Loau, she was reminded not to say tits, bum or any words that indicated Loau knew what sex was, and she was to live in a world of perpetual joy and innocence. It was a reminder to all the girls that Girlfriends image was not to deviate from the squeaky clean, that they were to act as if they didn't even know what a boyfriend was. Loau in particular would later resent this treatment. The girls weren't allowed to drink, smoke, swear or do anything that didn't commit to the band. Everything in their lives, even the exams Heidenreich and Noble were scheduled to take at school, had to take a back seat to the world of Girlfriend.
On the final day of 1992, Girlfriend appeared to have it all – fame, fortune, a smash hit record that would lead to bigger and better things in the future, the tantalising prospect of breaking Japan with their Japanese album “Girls Life” and a trip to the UK in the pipeline. It taken just five months for a band without a name to make it to the top of charts, and only fractionally longer to sell a record amount of albums. At least, that was the story - it was far from that - the groundwork that was carefully laid by their management team and years of classes of dance and in foreign languages among other things had paid off beyond even their wildest dreams. It had been spectacularly easy, nothing but upside. Sure, they were worn out, ground down and exhausted, but international success was just a step away – after all, that’s what they were made for, and now, they were loved, they had crossed from “that record label experiment” into a fully functioning, very real, very successful pop band.
And then, their bank statements came in...
" It is by attempting to reach the top in a single leap that so much misery is caused in the world" - William Cobbett, 1804
I'd just like to be a legendary star. Everyone has their own opinion of success. My ideal is to receive a standing ovation from the people I respect." - Robyn Loau - 1992
On March 13, 1993, Paul Keating won the “unwinnable” general election against the Liberal Party and his fierce rival, John Hewson. While Hewson threw the election away to an extent, with a series of high profile gaffes as he struggled to clearly explain his plan for a goods and service tax (enshrined in the infamous “birthday cake” interview), Keating and Labor claimed an increased majority had proved that Keating's “big picture” policies were resonating with the electorate. In particular, his push for Australia to become an independent republic, his push to make Australia the gateway to Asia, and his push to make Australia “the clever country” with expenditure spent on the arts, literature and technological infrastructure. If Keating had wanted to visibly display all of his key visions in one, he didn’t need a flip chart or a wordy speech. He only needed to drag his nations most visible and high profile band on stage with him on the night of the election, and celebrate in their success.
No one felt more like the embodiment of the clever country, the embodiment of the vaulting sense of cultural ambition or symbolised the dreamed gateway to Asia than Girlfriend.
At the end of 1992, no band in Australia was as hot as Girlfriend. Girlfriends success was easy to explain in some ways. They had great pop songs, they had a massive marketing budget, they had a visible chemistry, and they worked like Trojans, spending each and every day of 1992 doing an a capella performance on this show or an interview with that regional DJ or an autograph signing somewhere in Australia, with no request refused. However, they also had struck on an X factor that worked for them – as Ross Wood had correctly predicted, there was a market for pre and early teen pop in Australia that was not seen by the major record labels, but there was more to Girlfriends success than just hype and clever marketing. Perhaps more than any other pop band in Australia, up to that point and even since then, they had gained a very genuine love and loyalty from their fans, particularly in regional centres where other bands wouldn’t tour or visit. They resonated comfortably not just as a family friendly alternative to the sexier Melissa or the alienation of Grunge, but resonated as ordinary, likeable humble girls who everyone could relate to and pick a favourite from. The girls had also begun to carry themselves as stars, impressively vocally harmonising and becoming more comfortable in interviews and on stage as time wore on. In fact, their distinct personalities came through naturally, without any marketing hype, making them individually as well as collectively popular. Selling 140000 copies of their debut album was testament to the fact that Girlfriend had become an incredibly popular and visible act for their music as well as their hype and they seemed to have plenty left to offer. If such pop frenzy had been seen before, the fervour for Girlfriend, although downplayed by the more serious music press, was getting to be unprecedented for an act that based itself entirely in Australia. In fact, the period between Kylie Minogue’s ascension until the end of 1992 - despite revisionist history that grunge had eaten the world - had been a golden era for Australian pop.
Anyone with the nagging feeling of too much, too soon was quickly brushed off.
In late 1992 however, the group struck their first difficulty. Late in the year, Girlfriend were meant to undertake an extensive UK promotional tour, one that had already been planned and paid for. However, as the trip neared, it was cancelled by the groups UK label Arista in order to avoid a clash with their labelmates, the black American girl group TLC. Although an act on the up being pulled from a promotional visit wasn’t new, and it was sold as a good chance for the girls to have a break, it was a two fold blow. Firstly, it added to girls financial problems as money was already spent on some basic UK promotion and the recording of a UK version of “Make It Come True”, and secondly because it showed that for all the hype and discussion of Girlfriend being an international act, at the last minute, someone somewhere at BMG-Arista-Ariola didn’t quite give the girls the priority that the fans were told they had. Still, it appeared a minor setback – after all, the UK was a bonus, it was Asia that was the real prize.
Throughout 1992, Girlfriend had a girlband rival, the 1960s “sexpot” themed Teen Queens, who were selected for their retro look and sang only lightly remixed cover versions. The Teen Queens were created in 1990 for a proposed TV sitcom, but backed more heavily by E Street television producer Forrest Redlich, who through promotion on E Street had garnered #1 singles for Euphoria and Melissa, and who had set up his own record label, Westside Records, as a result. The Teen Queens (first appearing on E Street as a wedding band in a dream sequence) were like Girlfriend on a smaller scale budget, with Redlich openly discussing the lower overheads involved, and the girls in the Teen Queens were discussing their futures as more independent artists and telling everyone they weren’t puppets (even though the girls had been re-named and given “characters” in their clips), just as Girlfriend were doing more convincingly. Redlich and the man who signed Girlfriend, Stuart Rubin, had had a verbal sparring war in the papers through most of 1992 over which band was hotter– Girlfriend were more visible, and more popular, but The Teen Queens initially sold more singles on a lower budget, and deserve credit for foreseeing the popularity of modern versions of classic hits, but their bubble burst even faster than Girlfriends would – by May 1993, the show which helped promote the acts, E Street, was taken off the air in controversial circumstances, with rumours circulating that Redlich had taken the show off when a proposed Teen Queens TV show wasn’t greenlit (although Redlich denied this later, saying the real reason was Channel 10 demanding put the show on 5 nights a week in Neighbours time slot, and providing no extra money for production costs). Girlfriend would emerge the real winners in the briefly hyped battle – their album had sold 140000 copies, the Teen Queens album peaked at #36. However, that Redlich had never replicated his success with singles with albums (Melissa’s album Fresh, admittedly after a split from E Street, and Euphoria’s Total Euphoria had bombed for instance) should have been noted that perhaps this “pop” thing was more precarious than a brief glance at the singles charts would indicate.
The departure of Melissa, Euphoria and The Teen Queens from view coupled with Kylie Minogues seeming demise left the Australian Pop field clear for Girlfriend to operate in without competition. However, a problem was beginning to rear it’s head in regards to the girls financial position. Despite the impressive numbers, they were projected to sell around 150000 copies of their debut album, and they had “only” sold 140000 albums, which meant they narrowly failed to recoup costs. Throw in the aborted UK tour, the UK recorded album and the costs of promoting the girls in Japan, and Girlfriend Pty Ltd was suddenly in big trouble, owing the record company money with no means other than suddenly getting very very famous and selling more records to make money. In fact, deprived of song writing royalties, it was an impossible situation. The bigger the promotion, the more debt the girls had to pay off. It seemed to those reading the fine print that while BMG was getting the money, it was Girlfriend Pty Ltd left with the debt. Like Bros, infamously failing to understand the difference between gross and net, and Melissa failing to understand that she was responsible for paying the limo driver who drove her to the office every day, another pop act was beginning to find out what they had signed up for wasn’t matching up with reality.
Underscoring this problem was that for all the Girlfriend spin offs and merchandise, it was other people who were getting rich. In 1993, Girlfriend launched a range of clothing with a high profile parade at Myer stores. However, the clothing range was the idea of a Myer childrens fashion buyer named Peter Cheah who thought Girlfriends “non deep, boppy music” marketed to kids could presumably translate to non deep, boppy clothes. He was 100% right. Nikki Goldstein was the creator of Girlfriends look, and the range included mini-skirts, vests, flares, jackets, hats, gift packs, jewellery, bags, stationery, lock up diaries…and more and more items that flew out of the shops in high numbers. Girlfriend in real life never wore the clothes they sold, but they did plenty of modelling of them in every appearance they made. For all the merchandise and seeming success however, Girlfriend Pty Ltd wasn’t getting a cent, meaning the girls were watching clothes with their logo fly out the shops and worse, promoting them every day, and not getting paid for it. More and more people were getting involved, and thus getting paid, through a more and more organised and manufactured set up, and by the time the money was made, the girls were getting peanuts. They weren’t getting paid for interviews, they weren’t getting paid for promotion…they weren’t getting paid at all, they weren't paid for filming the initial wave of television commercials promoting Girlfriend to the 8-15 year old fans, or the second series especially aimed at parents. However, they were beloved, they were becoming a fantastic pop act full of confidence, and they still had Asia and as Mary Heidenreich said they had each other, so any cash flow problems were still only short term – they felt like Australia’s most popular act, one that would stick together, evolve, and make more and more fabulous music as the years rolled on.
And that’s when things went really bad…
"In order for the owner of a business to make money, he must pay his workers less money than they bring in. If a worker needs six hours to cover their wages, but works 12, they have made the business money. This difference is called “surplus value”". – Karl Marx, 1863
“I knew the only way I was going to make money or gain credibility was to write songs… it was not a unified front.” – Robyn Loau, 2005
On the first day of 1993, Girlfriend were the highest profile band in Australia – the first girlband Australia had ever produced to have a #1 single, holders of the record for the highest selling Australian debut album of all time, business women with real fame, and the prospect of genuine international fame in the UK and Japan. A fantastic and beloved pop act with so much to look forward to.
On the first day of 1994, Girlfriend were about to begin a year that saw their company fold and go into administration, their lead singer leave, their record company lose faith in their original direction, and fashion and taste over take them. What happened in between might just be the single most frustrating failure in the history of Australian Pop.
It was, she’s always claimed, Robyn Loau, the musical one, the lead singer, who was the most alert to what was actually happening with Girlfriend – that to make money, the girls had to start questioning their management, to start writing songs, to demand answers as to why the roadies on their national tour were making more money then they were, to question why their company wasn’t making any money despite more than 50 items bearing the Girlfriend logo being on sale and why they weren’t spending enough time working on their sound. According to Loau, she was the only one who was even thinking about these matters, and she was doing it as a lone voice.
Early in 1993, Girlfriend embarked on brief European promotional tour. It was a frustrating missed opportunity that the girls hadn’t gone as originally planned to the UK in November 1992, but instead in the dead air time of January, after missed potentially lucrative Christmas sales. They performed reasonably in the UK with limited promotion, with Take It From Me scraping into the top 50 for two weeks, peaking at #47, but it was a frustrating failure, given what might have happened had their tour not been delayed by TLC. The delay saw several planned avenues of promotion fall through due to time, but there was at least some solace in the girls becoming briefly popular in Germany. The biggest ripple they caused in the UK was during a support slot for a then up and coming boyband called Take That - a minor tabloid rumour suggested the five girls from Girlfriend had "got" with the five boys from Take That, and during some of their performances, the girl Take That fans openly taunted Girlfriend on stage - their management was quick to point out though not only was the rumour not true, but Girlfriends positive lyrics and upbeat performance won the crowd over - which doesn't sound like a typical boyband crowd it must be said.
Throughout 1993, Girlfriend worked incredibly hard, touring domestically, visiting no fewer than 12 countries in the first five months, releasing and launching a clothing range, recording their Japanese language album and single, their second Australian album “It’s Up To You”, and then repeating the cycle of touring, launching, filming, interviewing and singing that had defined their first glorious year of domestic success. However, it was Japan that by the end of 1993 that had to be conquered.
A brief study of the way the Japanese charts seemed to work in terms of sales vs visibility throws up some interesting points however – according to a music industry expert in 1993 writing for a trade paper, a high profile and popularity for a Western Act really meant that their concerts and live performances were well attended, citing Michael Jackson, oft referred to as “massive in Japan”, as a prime example. Jackson would often sell 20-30000 albums in Japan, the report claimed, but his concerts and live shows would cause mania, where as it would be the lower-middle profile local acts that would sell more albums, managing sales up to one million copies with little promotion. If this was accurate, it would mean Girlfriends popularity in Japan, again oft referred to in Australian music circles, would have more to do with visibility and publicity from performances than album sales. It was also clever marketing to make Girlfriend appear a Japanese local band than an Australian one, sing in Japanese and base themselves in Japan for long periods of time. However, as stated before, the girls ran up large room service and catering bills in Japan (and no doubt in any other country they toured, be it in Europe or South East Asia) that the record company didn’t pay for, and every cent they lost was becoming crucial. That’s not to say the girls didn’t have a profile or a foothold in Japan – in November 1993, they were selected to headline a Keating government initative, the “Celebrate Australia” festival in Japan, due to their high profile, but it’s worth noting that the girls were still racking up debt by the day while they gained that foothold. There was also the small matter that spending half the year overseas would mean that the girls weren’t really in a position, time wise or location wise, to notice that their company was slowly sinking into financial trouble.
The push into Japan came back with results that closely resembled that music industry prediction. There wasn't just regular performance and the Girl's Life album re-recorded in Japanese, but a performance or two for the Crown Prince, they signed another one of Wilkins predicted lucrative endorsement deals to promote a snack bar, they performed regularly in high profile and well planned promotional spots, they performed countless times on Japanese television, and performed at a celebration for Mickie Mouse's 65th Birthday party, even scoring a mini album release with Disney. However, as much as they popular and visible, 80% of all records (albums and singles) sold in Japan in 1993 were sold by domestic artists. Progress was frustratingly slow - the girls hard work and profile simply wasn't paying off in album sales. It was proving harder to sell records in Japan than anyone had thought. A similar problem arose in China where a well received concert tour lead to a record distribution deal, and Girlfriend were voted the 9th most popular artist in China in a 1993 poll, but again, profile didn't equal album sales. There were top 10 hits in Malaysia and Indonesia, but it was becoming a hard, difficult slog, a test of patience, and all the promotion was costing more and more money. Still, to the Australian press, the very fact they were in Asia at all, in light of Keatings dream, continued to be a massive story.
During 1993, Lorinda Noble's father passed away in a plane crash, and her mother was critically injured - it barely seems to have caused a dent in the publicity schedule however. That's how deeply the girls were involved in "the project".
There was also the small matter of the worlds most popular music style being in absolute contrast to Girlfriends ethos.
The extent to which grunge music “ate the world” is a fraction overstated in Australian musical history, written some times as if the only songs released in 1992 and 1993 were songs of alienation and agony when in fact the highest selling single artists of 92 and 93 were Billy Ray Cyrus and Meatloaf. In terms of raw sales, Nirvana failed to have a #1 single or album in Australia on the ARIA charts, but it was in record company boardrooms that the impact of Nirvana, and perhaps more particularly the less “difficult” but no less angst ridden Pearl Jam who were the topic of discussion. One of the most talked about reasons why Westside records collapsed, in future years, would not only be that E Street went off the air, but that Forrest Redlich felt he couldn’t compete with demands for harder edge music with meaning. In 1992, Ross Wood had told the press ``We seriously believe that Girlfriend is a role model for teenage girls” – while that was an admirable stance, Australian music critics were mostly white, male, older and in thrall to the guitar, and Australian music history suggested credibility was meted to those who had slogged it out in pub gigs. It meant a rough critical ride for Girlfriend in the face of the grunge press avalanche – they had coped well in 1992, but the tide was even harder in 1993 as more and more grunge and guitar bands were auditioned and feted, however briefly, by record company executives now looking for their own “sound of now”. For a band who’s new album contained tracks called “I Love This World” and “I Wanna Be Your Friend”, they couldn’t have been less cool if they had played the skiffle.
However Girlfriend were not concerned by their critical status, and retained their massive Australian fanbase through their traditional standby, hard work for no financial reward. If any doubt, Girlfriend believed that sheer hard work would eventually win over the favour of the general public and the critics. The “Heartbeat” Tour of regional centres served as a warm up for the release of their second Australian album, and third overall within just fifteen months, “It’s Up To You!” – in the face of the Girlfriend merchandising and touring onslaught, an album, no matter how good and in fact, no matter how their sound had matured, it can be argued that splashing out on another album was a bridge to far for their young fanbase to spend more money on. The album sold 35000 copies, a respectable amount for a second album in Australia, but obviously a drop from their record setting debut. None of Girlfriends first four singles had failed to make the top 30, but the subsequent three all did, pitching at 55, 36 and 44 on the charts respectively. It's Up To You! saw the girls update their image away from the hats and beads of the first album, and work towards a more retro 1970s look that was set up by Goldstein. At this juncture, Jacqui Cowell spoke optimistically of Girlfriends young fans following them as they matured in sound, so it could be argued that it was a creative mis-step to release "Heartbeat" as the first single, a song that very much sounded like Girlfriend mark 1, rather than one of the more mature tracks that marked Girlfriend mark 2.
It’s Up To You peaked at #29 on the album charts, but there was no real backlash or talk of failure, or even schadenfraude from those male music critics – by the end of 1993, everyone seemed to understand the role and the future – more albums, continued hard work, continued pushing internationally, more and more merchandise, dolls for instance were discussed, as was a Girlfriend movie script about a fictional road trip. And as their sound evolved, they figured, critical acclaim would follow. A low selling domestic album was no cause for concern, it was simply a market, and they would just sell more copies of the album somewhere else. As late as November 1993, Girlfriend were still talked in the Australian music press as a massive success and an aspirational role model for ambitious Australian record producers, looking to market, say, The Southern Sons, Frente! or Peter Andre in South East Asia. The names would change, but the dream remained the same. It remained one of 1993s crueller musical ironies that in Japan, where Girlfriend had a profile, 80% of all music sold was by local acts, while in Australia, where they also had a profile, 100% of all #1 singles in the year were by overseas acts. Wherever they went, they couldn't sell enough records. There was a new song realeased at the back end of 1993, the self penned Xmas song "Celebrate Like a Child", which appeared on a Myer compilation tape, to tide the fans over, but the financial problems would continue to beset Girlfriend long past the Yuletide season.
And all the while in 1993, Loau had been pleading with anyone who would listen, Heidenreich, Cowell, Noble, Alexander, management, the record label, the roadies, that the girls had worked non stop every single day since that first performance in October 1991 without a break for absolutely no financial reward – that her songs she had submitted for the second album should have been the way forward, that Girlfriend should already have made more progress overseas. And after another fruitless tour in early 1994, more debt, more merchandise flying off the shelf making other people rich, more frustration and more time away from Australia, and more exhaustion from constant hard work, she did the only thing she could to keep herself sane – prior to the release of Girlfriends 8th single, “I Love This World”, she quit, to go solo, and join a world music project with EMI in France.
Loau would later say she was the only one to realise Australia’s biggest band were sinking quickly. The only one who realised that all the talk of glittering success and expertly planned management simply wasn’t relating to what the girls, and in particular her, were actually seeing in terms of results, and financially.
If she was the only one who realised that, she was the only one who was right….
"The fool who persists in his folly will become wise." - William Blake, 1799
"People assumed we made a lot of money from the band when we actually lost more than we made. Deals were made with handshakes rather than in writing. We just assumed the money would come in time." - Siobhann Heidenreich, 1996
Robyn Loau left Girlfriend in May 1994 - tired of the grind, tired of making no money, and tired of being clean cut. Although Loau's interviews after she left Girlfriend obviously promoted her own agenda of being "above" mere manufactured Pop, it's her biographies and interviews that make for a fascinating contrast. Loau speaks in interviews of her experiences with racism, with single mothers and street kids, or of her experience of being the only black child in a leotard at posh dance schools, and of a clear headed and determined focus from day one in Girlfriend. Then, there's the interviews with GF4, the post Robyn band, where the girls talk coyly of love letters, and their sheltered lifestyle in safe environments and love of parents - maybe that's what they were told to say, but it's clear that at no level, no matter what the biographies say, were Loau and the other girls on the same page, for better or for worse, they just weren't on the same page as far as goals, or even as people. Loau was in Girlfriend for her own ambitions, while the other four were in it for Girlfriends ambitions - that's how the story reads anyway. Loau later recalled her farewell meeting from "the project" - she kissed each girl on the cheek and said goodbye, at which point she was told "oh well, we'll do it without you" - and they did, for a time. Loau celebrated her freedom by getting righteously drunk, the other girls moved on and tried desperately to keep things alive.
Loau's departure stymied no fewer than two singles Girlfriend had planned. The third single from "It's Up To You!" was never released, the Lorinda Noble sung "I Love This World", and neither was Girlfriends unreleased fundraising anthem for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, "Straight To The Top". The song was briefly performed in the days before Loau's departure and a video was planned featuring marathon runner Tani Ruckle, but the track and a planned role as team ambassadors fell through once Loau departed, yet another missed opportunity in Girlfriends increasingly frustrating history. It did draw a line under the Girlfriend project however - the initial aims and dreams forged as long ago as 1990-1991 of a clean cut girl band dominating the UK and Asia. The push into Asia had been successful to a point, but only in profile, not in sales. In total, Girlfriend sold 250000 albums worldwide - 175000 in Australia, and 75000 worldwide. They made a total of 9 trips to Japan alone, countless trips to South East Asia, China, even far flung countries in small markets like Myanmar, anything to get a foothold. All they did was establish a profile, move on to the next country, and leave more debt for the girls to deal with. Deals done on a handshake were reneged on, nothing was put down in writing, and Girlfriend Pty Ltd barely saw a cent, never mind the girls. According to Siobhann Heidenreich, the numbers were shocking - the girls were paid a $20 dollar a day allowance, and $100 per concert. With no songwriting royalties to create income and not enough international album sales to break through, Girlfriend Pty Ltd collapsed in 1994, with each girl in debt to roughly $30000 dollars. Girlfriend had profile, they had talent, they had adulation, they had their face on the cover of every magazine - and not a penny to show for it.
Noel MacDonald and Ross Wood, at least from reading the notes, appeared proud of Girlfriend and desperate for them to succeed, and they appear to have had a tremendous care for the girls, but for whatever reason, the deals and negotiations that Girlfriend committed too were horrendous for the girls involved. There was also what Jason Donovan famously referred to as "the people who stop me surfing", people who's livelihood was based on Girlfriend working 25 hours a day. Roadies, press agents, stylists, designers...a never ending list of people Girlfriend seemed to end up carrying the debt for. Loau later spoke of them as people who "constantly looked at their watch hoping for overtime". There was clearly money being made by the project, but it was no surprise that Girlfriend took the opportunity to break free of the old multi layered management system, and sign with new representation. They closed their Sydney office, appointed an administrator, and began a new life under the management of Chris Gilbey, formerly the manager of the band who knocked Take It From Me off the top of the charts two years earlier, Euphoria.
Gilbey had no real long term plan for Girlfriend outside of getting them to producers he was comfortable with, but he did free them of the multi layered management scheme and didn't dream of breaking Asia. He helped restyle the girls image into a more sexy and slick look, enabled by the desire of the girls to experiment with a more credible dance flavored image and enjoy a greater sense of freedom. Melanie Alexander becames the girls visible leader, with her revamped image an amazing transformation from the shy hatted figure of the early days. Jacqui Cowell assumed the lead interview role, striking positively with her direct answers and quick wit. Heidenreich and Noble were also strikingly restyled, and for their comeback, they released a cover of The Grass Roots song "Sooner Or Later", reworked with a dance flavour and a much sexier video. They sounded enthusiastic, and positive that despite the setbacks, they would still prevail.
However, the single would go down as one of the most famous singles in Australian history for another reason. It was the first ever single in the world to feature an interactive CD Rom component, making history. The CD Rom not only featured the film clip, but a revolutionary interactive "press conference", plus a band bio and behind the scenes feature. The move to update their image in addition to their new technology earned the girls a brief amount of fresh positive press, and seemed to solidify a new image. The single deservedly sold well, peaking at #6 on the ARIA charts and the luck seemed to have turned.
However, yet again, there was another inept management decision that would prove to be the final nail in the coffin - the recording of the never released GF4 album. The girls spent at least a full month in the United States with a chorus line of producers including Tommy Farragher - it sounded exciting, but when they came back to Australia, they had no usable material and nothing to showcase to the record label. It was a wasted and pointless trip, something to tell the papers about, but a waste of time. All it did was pile more debt up, the last thing the cash strapped foursome could do with. Someone else, again, made money off them, someone else won awards for the CD Rom, and having sold a cover version, someone else got rich off their sales. Their new image was exciting and credible, but nothing had really changed. They tried Asia again, pressed into another soulless conference, this time performing at a stall at the Midem Asia conference in Hong Kong, but again, it all went nowhere.
Worse for Girlfriend, someone else had the record companies eye - Silverchair. Silverchair, a band in thrall to the grunge sound, played many shows around the Hunter Valley region in their early teens. They got their big break in mid-1994 when they won a national demo competition called "Pick Me" (conducted by the SBS TV show "Nomad" and alternative radio station Triple J - Pick Me being a sort of Idol with cred) with a song called "Tomorrow". Triple J recorded the song, while SBS filmed the video clip. Picked up by radio, it spent no fewer than six weeks on top of the ARIA charts. As a result, Australian record companies began re-investing in the guitar, in the alternative, in the grungy, rather than the poppy or the dancy. If Kylie (redoubtable to the end - in September 1994, she had the first #1 single by an Australian act on the ARIA charts in two years with Confide In Me) started the pop frenzy, Silverchair put it right back to the guitar era - suddenly, cred was back, and GF4 seemed like yesterdays news. It changed as quickly as that, the new era ended quickly.
There was a final, desultory single, "Need Luv (To Make The Sex Right)", not desultory in quality - it numbers as one of their best songs - but desultory in publicity, promotion and marketing. The half a million dollars a launch days were well over. A cover of an Olivia Newton John song, the song came with no interviews, and a frog on the cover. Perhaps it was an injoke as Silverchairs "Frogstomp" over took their record for highest selling debut album by an Australian artist. By the time of the final single, Jacqui Cowell didn't appear in the film clip, replaced allegedly by Belinda Chapple of future Bardot fame - the fact that Cowell left, and no one seems to have noted in any national newspaper why or listed her replacement showed how forgotten they were. The girls performed in a seedy club in the film clip, cavorted with drag queens - and it didn't chart at all. In October 1995, three years after the release of Make It Come True!, the dream was over, the girls didn't just split up - they had so much debt, they were effectively liquidated.
By February 1996, Siobhann Heidenreich was doing interviews from a Sydney shoeshop, where she worked as a salesgirl. According to Heidenreich, the girls payment of 20 dollars a day and 100 dollars a concert meant that for their entire time in Girlfriend, the girls made no more than five thousand dollars each and ended up with a collective debt of over 230000 dollars. In the days of Idol and Popstars, the financial situation facing "pop stars" is crystal clear and understood, particularly in regards to songwriting royalties and record company advances. However, Heidenreich, one of the nations biggest popstars, working in a shoe shop seemed incredibly cruel at the time, and simply staggering. Later that year, the band who took the Girlfriend template, The Spice Girls, waltzed into the limelight, taking the ideas for world domination, the pop marketing, the merchandise plans, the marketing the girls as individuals, the movie road trip script...and the phrase Girlfriend coined in their song "Girls Life" in 1992, "Girl Power"...they took all that, made it bigger and bolder, and shot straight to #1 all over the world. Several Spice Girls texts make mention of Girlfriend as the "what not to do" example the Spice Girls managers followed. Pop was back in vogue, and there was no Australian act together or viable to cash in on the success of The Spice Girls, and later Britney Spears, making Pop once again the music of choice for record producers. The only one who might have had a shot couldn't afford to go on, a final cruel irony.
The girls of Girlfriend were fabulous, successful and talented. No matter what labels, criticisms and boxes are applied to them, they deserve recognition for a succession of fantastic songs and for being a talented group of musicians. However, they were also staggeringly ripped off - they committed to the dream, even Loau as much as she would later deny it, and people took advantage of them. Some people said they were naive, but they wanted to be stars, and they succeeded - it was other people who deserved the criticism, other people who deserved the scorn for ripping them off. It can be shrugged off as business, or just showbiz, but five girls ended up paying the price - and the memories they left behind will always be appreciated.
Oh, and the time of writing, the nations most high profile girl band, The Young Divas, are about to lose a member due to infighting and the chance for that member to release her own material and make songwriting money...
The more things change...
Robyn Loau got her cherished musical freedom - but with a cruel twist. After a well received solo single "Sick With Love" and the project album "Siva Pacifica", she recorded a solo album called "Malaria" that was never released when her label, Polygram, was bought by Universal, and all Australian Polygram releases were stalled. Loau also turned to acting, starring in the movie "Idiot Box" - she is the most viciously critical of the ex Girlfrienders, displaying her displeasure at the other girls and the management in several interviews. She has just released her new single "She Devil" at the time of writing, and awaits her big break.
Only Melanie Alexander stayed in showbusiness at first - working for the Channel 10 show "Bright Ideas" and presenting the childrens show Klubhouse, and singing until recently with The Louisville Sluggers. Siobhann Heidenreich later invested in a dance studio, worked briefly on a film script with her brother Diarmid, and currently works in a bank and teaches pole dancing. Lorinda Noble recently give birth to a new baby, and Jacqui Cowell sings with the band "Sarah Aubrey & The Audio Visual Club". The girls recently re-united for the Channel 7 television show, "Where Are They Now?" - the hosts of the show claimed the girls knocked Silverchair off the top of the charts in their intro, despite Take It From Me! being a #1 two years before Silverchair had signed to a major label.
No one got rich pushing into Asia - no matter what the country, the majority of record sales remain sold by local artists - 80% in Japan, 60% in Singapore and so on - and the push to market a band in Asia faded. Silverchair and Savage Garden would break through in the more traditional market, the USA and record companies went back to normal promotional strategies. In 1996, Paul Keating lost the general election to John Howard, a monarchist and a man who closed Australia's borders to asylum seeking Asian immigrants - the rise of Hansonism, insular domestic policies, the Bali Bombings...the Gateway To Asia was well and truly shut and may never open again.
In 2000, the Popstars band Bardot became the 2nd Australian Girlband to have a #1 single with "Poison", but in a similar situation to Girlfriend, collapsed due to terrible management, heavy debt and a botched UK push. However, they were big in Indonesia.
Source Articles: In addition to our own notes and magazines, the following newspaper articles and websites were sourced
"Girlfriends Image all about good fun!" - Kathy McCabe, Hobart Mercury, 9/4/1992
"Sells Like Teen Spirit" - Peter Holmes, Sydney Morning Herald, 21/05/1992
"Hits And Misses" - Anthony Dennis, Sunday Age, 03/10/1992
"Girlfriend has Moved In To Stay" - Darrin Farrant, The Age, 01/04/1993
"Fashion going out of fashion" - The Age, 01/05/1993
"The Asian Invasion" - Brett Thomas, The Sun Herald, 08/05/1993
"Girls Who Mean Business" - Michael Visontay, Sydney Morning Herald, 07/07/1993
"Girlfriend Pumps The Heartbeat Hurricane" - Shane Sutton, "Metro Magazine", 23/9/1993
"Japan Still a Tough Act to Crack" - Feature Article, Sunday Herald Sun, 1/11/1993
"Plain Ol Girlfriends With a Head For Business" - Brett Thomas, 14/11/1993
"Going For The Top" - Feature Article, Herald Sun, 22/03/1994
"Girlfriend Glitz" - Judy Johnson, The Sun Herald, 11/06/1994
"Waiting for Brave Knights" - Liz Van Den Nieuwenhof, Sunday Tasmanian, 17/07/1994
"Girls Grow Up Sooner" - K Weir, Sunday Herald Sun, 3/11/1994
"Asia Prepares For an Aussie Assault" - AAP Article, 04/05/1995
"Former Pop Star Now Down At Heel" - Herald Sun, 02/02/1996
"The Girlfriend Next Door Grows Up" - Brett Thomas, 26/01/1997
"Girlfriend Who Shuns Greed" - Cameron Adams, Herald Sun, 23/08/1997
"Out On a Limb" - Adam Zwar, Sunday Herald Sun, 12/04/1998
"Please Release Me" - Sacha Molitorisz, Sydney Morning Herald, 27/02/1999
With thanks to The Official Girlfriend Myspace , Joey McLaines Youtube Clips and The "Mess and Noise" article "Retrospective:Girlfriend", the best article on Girlfriend ever written
Thanks guys, I hope you like it, and god bless you girls...
Alyson and Claire