Welcome to the weird, weird world of Chainmale, the antipodean performance artist, poet, and musician better known to his family as Michael Freeland.
Michael was born in Melbourne in 1952 but grew up in Sydney, his family relocating there when he was four years old. He showed an early aptitude for music and performance, appearing in musicals at the Castle Cove Primary School. Pleasingly, an early musical influence was the murderously brilliant Elva Miller: “My father bought a recording of Mrs Miller, not for her singing quality but for her guts. It inspired him and made him laugh,” he explains. When he moved on to Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School Michael was introduced to eurythmy, a form of expressive movement originated by Steiner and Marie von Sivers in the second decade of the 20th century. Primarily a performance art, eurythmy is also used in education and for therapeutic purposes. “I later used eurythmy in combination with classical French mime and method acting to form my own school of performance,” he says.
“At the end of 1968, at 16, with ambitions to become an animal collector like Gerald Durrell, I left school to become a zookeeper. On returning from a collecting trip in the Outback and in the far north of Australia I took a second job working at night as an assistant stage manager at The Music Hall at Neutral Bay in Sydney.
“This all happened in 1969/70, when Australia was involved in the Vietnam war and Sydney’s streets were filled with personnel on R and R. There were demonstrations everywhere: I left home and spent several months as a hippy, travelling north and pretending I was Arlo Guthrie, with three chords to my repertoire. I remember going into a pub on the Queensland-Northern Territory border and asking if I could sing for my supper: I got halfway through the first song and a bloke came up and said he would buy me a meal if I promised not to sing another note!”
Michael produced a two-man poetry show specifically aimed at children. Recalled from Childhood featured the poems Michael had learned from his mother, father and grandmother, and it was here that he got his first crack at fame, of sorts, appearing on the Australian TV show GTK (Get To Know) in 1973. “GTK was the first of the rock video type shows in the world,” he explains. GTK “set the pace for all that was to follow. I then went to work in television, at ABC, in staging and floor managing.” He continued to perform, busking around Sydney before leaving ABC to study drama at the Mechthild Harkness Speech and Drama Studios. It was there that Michael’s passion for mime was born.
“I resurrected Recalled From Childhood as a school show, and put together a performance of original poetry at the Stanley Palmer Culture Palace in Darlinghurst. Then in early 1975 I joined the Queensland Theatre Company with their Arts Council Schools Presentation, touring throughout Queensland. I met my first wife while in Queensland, and in late 1975 we returned to Sydney.”
Michael returned to busking, this time incorporating mime into his act. “That worked well and we began to earn a decent living,” he says. “Although it must be remembered that in those days busking was illegal.” Being chased by the police became part of the act and Michael worked his occasional brushes with the law into his routine. “We were invited to perform at the Sydney Opera House, in the lunchtime outdoor venue, and also by the Sydney City Council in their Martin Place outdoor venue. This was very satisfying because the very person who was trying to arrest me a week earlier was now carrying my gear and setting it up!”
Under the name The Modern Mime Theatre he organised a series of performances in schools and won a contract with the Arts Council of New South Wales, which in turn lead to work in other states. “I found that I was booked out for two years in advance with three shows a day, five days a week, with one or two evening shows on top of that if I wanted them.” In January 1977 Michael performed at the first annual Sydney Festival: he would perform there each year until 1983. His act was going down well: that same year reviewer David Rowbotham, writing in Queensland’s Courier Mail newspaper wrote that Michael’s performance ‘speaks volumes for the possibilities of his art. He is a classic entertainer and storyteller.’
“In 1978, with an 18 month and a six week old baby, we headed over to the UK on our way to the Fools’ Festival in Amsterdam. I busked in Leicester Square in London, in Amsterdam, on the steps of the cathedral in Cologne and in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. After four weeks we returned to Australia and went back on tour.” As his act, and his confidence, grew he added fire breathing and balancing on a unicycle to his act and The Modern Mime Theatre became a duo in July 1978 when Canadian-born actor and mime artist Bob Eustace joined; the pair had been friends since they first performed together in 1972.
It was when Michael and his family got back to Australia that he created the piece of art for which certain people, me included, will always be grateful: the 7” single Freakout. Released under the name Chainmale (“It just seemed like a cool name,” he laughs) and backed with the electro-boogie track Mean Little Woman, Freakout is one of the most unsettling three minutes ever committed to vinyl: Numanesque keyboards, crying babies, manic screaming and with the words sung and music played in different time signatures to add to the disturbing effect. Odd and disquieting, Michael would incorporate the song into his act, building an uncomfortable and intense mime performance around his lyrics. That performance would later be adapted for use in a video filmed to accompany the single, now available for all to wonder at via YouTube.
“We were driving down a lane in the back streets of Hobart and I was jumping out of my skin. We passed a sound studio and my wife said, ‘why don’t you go in and record one of those songs you’re always making up?’ So, I went in an asked. Nick Armstrong (the studio proprietor) asked what I wanted to record. I went home, wrote out the lyrics, brought them back, and sang them to him with a single beat of my hand on the desk. He looked at me incredulously and said, ‘is that it?’ I said ‘Yeah. If (renowned Australian musician) Billy Thorpe can get away with ‘mashed potato yeah, oh yeah!’ then we’ll kill it’!”
Armstrong asked Michael if he would object to his having his friend Ian Clyne, best known for his keyboard work with the sixties band The Loved Ones, look over his song. “Ian and I met a couple of days later to record it having never met before. He played the sort of thing he thought I would like: it was big, but it was conservative. I said I wanted something with no holds barred; no constraints of convention, just freak out and do what you want. He smiled and said, ‘this is going to be fun’. As we were recording the vocals I got excited: my heart started racing and my tempo with it. He tried conducting me but I was gone.
“When we finished he said to me ‘you started in 8/8 and you ended up in 7/8’. I asked if we should do it again. We hit playback and Ian said ‘no, it works! You sound like you’re freaking out! Hell knows how you’ll ever sing it live’. That was the birth of Chainmale. I was around 30, I already had three kids, and in those days rock stars were around 18! I think Ian was around 14 when he was playing at the Wembley Stadium with the Loved Ones.”
Issued by the independent Candle Records in 1979, very few vinyl copies of Freakout exist: “I think about 1000 copies were pressed, of which only a fraction made it to the stores. However every now and then someone tells me they have a copy,” Michael says. “Did I consider myself a serious singer? I considered myself a serious performer with serious concepts to put forward and humour, confrontation, and sound were the best ways I had of achieving that. I don’t think anyone would come to hear my voice for the musical lilt in it, however they might come to experience the theatrical content of it.”
Chainmale recorded two further tracks, Schizophrenic Breakdown (a jolly little sing-along about crazy people) and the bizarre electro/skinhead anthem Kickback, in 1982. Videos were made for Freakout and for these two tracks: the video for Kickback – which is listed on YouTube as the ‘worst 80s music video’ ever made - features Michael and his young son Joel in skinhead gear, scaring the wits out of anyone who should happen to pass them by. “What we did others got to years later. The subjects of the songs were whatever I was experiencing at the time. The lightheartedness in Schizophrenic Breakdown is the lightheartedness you find in a riot. Everyone participating in a riot is jovial: it’s a release. The rage is only for the cameras, when they are given the opportunity to spout about their cause.
“Freakout was the only record issued. The problem with the other two videos was getting TV play. Kickback had drinking and smoking in, which was against airplay policies, and Schizophrenic Breakdown could have upset people who might link it more with the illness rather than with the splitting of the social fabric in the UK into an apartheid similar to that in South Africa. As we already had the videos we put together a pilot for TV by adding some sketches, but I got sidetracked with life and with touring.”
Michael continued to perform until the mid-1990s. More recently he has become an author, penning two well-received satirical novels – 1995’s Pius Humble and The Company (1996) - under the pseudonym Bogan Gate, a name he took from a small village in NSW.
How does the man once known as Chainmale, whose recorded work (thanks primarily to its resurrection on YouTube) is both feted by people who love it and ridiculed by others feel about his newfound fame? “I think it’s great. At least it’s not mediocre!”
Here are both sides of this exceptional disc: enjoy!
Download Freakout HERE
Download Mean HERE