“She Needed A Glass Of Water”: Madison Avenue Discuss That Notorious ARIAs Performance
"I've never had the ability to talk to that director and say, 'mate, why didn't you change the camera?'."
We get the glass of water out of the way early, and it’s lucky Madison Avenue’s Andy Van can laugh it off.
At the 2000 ARIA Awards, the duo performed a medley of their hits, with singer Cheyne Coates in cowgirl attire, backed by a line of dancers. Halfway through, she signals for a glass of water, and when finished, she leaves it on-stage, directly in front of a camera. The rest is history.
“It was just a weird camera angle that we didn’t control, you know what I mean?,” laughs Van, chatting on the phone while he drives around Sydney on errands.
“Had we been in control of it, fair enough… But we didn’t control what the television would show and, Cheyne is a singer and she needed a glass of water… I’ve never had the ability to talk to that director and say, ‘mate, why didn’t you change the camera?'”
Where in 2019 it’d probably have been a short-lived meme dead by the night’s end, back in 2000 the moment fuelled rumours of mental instability and drug use.
Where Van is more than ready for a chat, Coates retreated from public life in the latter half of last decade — Van tells me he chats to Coates occasionally, but not often. She’s happy with a family, and continues working behind-the-scenes in music, being front and centre was never the original plan.
Constant touring and attention catapulted the duo into the top tiers of pop, something they never intended Madison Avenue to be. When Coates and Van first met in ’98, it was in a Melbourne club; they planned to be producers working with various singers, as on their first single ‘Fly’.
But when Coates sung the demo for ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’, a disco-house tune inflected with the quirks of millennium-electronica, they decided to stick with her. She caries off the song’s sass so well that they never re-recorded, choosing to stick with the first take, recorded on an $80 microphone. The stems even include people chatting in the background; the crowd noises you hear in the song are used to mask the noise, which has proved an issue to work around with remixes across the years.
After a bidding war took place between labels, she was locked in as Madison Avenue’s front-woman, a position she both took to and struggled with as they rolled out debut album Polyester Embassy in 2000. The ARIAs were emblematic of that — it was a full-hearted performance, but decidedly ‘off’ for the era’s bubblegum pop machine. The ridicule left its mark.
“Sometimes pop can be very much be a balloon,” Van says, “and if the balloon gets really large, then it can pop as well.”
Last year, Van described to News.com.au the duo’s quick “burnout” after they rose from nothing to global success. In addition to hitting the #2 mark on the ARIA charts, they at one point knocked Britney Spears’ ‘Oops! …I Did It Again’ off the top of the UK charts. They were huge — and hugely busy, too.
“A lot of pressures [came] on board,” Van told News. “We were doing 20 flights a month around the world. It’s a lot of pressure, and you’re exhausted. We once went to Poland for six hours, did 27 interviews, then left. It was too much, too quickly.”
Still, Madison Avenue continued to 2003, though they didn’t release more music.
“We couldn’t find the magic on the second album,” he said. “I think we disagreed on where Madison Avenue was going and that’s fine. There’s no right or wrong in that answer — it’s just about desires and what makes you feel right. [For me, that was] remaining in the nightclub world, remaining on the dance floor, remaining a DJ and sitting in that world.”
Coates, as time went on, was more interested in a more pop production. “What does Austin Powers say? ‘That’s not my bag, baby’,” says Van. “It’s just not my world, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with what Cheyne wanted to do, but that’s the reason why we ended up separating as well.”
“Sometimes pop can be very much be a balloon, and if the balloon gets really large, then it can pop as well.”
Still, that’s not to say Madison Avenue wasn’t lavish in its vision. Asking Van about their high-production music videos, he says the duo were just as keen as the label that they have a clear aesthetic, in order to help put Madison Avenue in front of a global audience. He estimates $70,000 was spent on their two videos — more than double the cost of recording Polyester Embassy.
“You know, a lot of Australian videos don’t really aim for that global awesomeness,” he says. “So we signed the track to Virgin in Australia and Sony in Europe, they both contributed to the videos.”
The result for ‘Who The Hell Are You’ was a Russo-ice bar blue light disco. In 2019, it reads as a pure crystallisation of millennium-era fashion, mixing crop tops with faux fur, peroxide hair with plucked eyebrows and even a then salacious wink to bisexuality.
While the song didn’t reach the heights of ‘…Baby’, it reached #10 in the UK, took out an ARIA for Best Music Video, and briefly had the #1 spot on the US dance/club charts. Don’t call them a one-hit wonder.
With Coates’ permission, Van has revisited ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’ for its 20th anniversary, with a re-release by his label Vicious Recordings featuring remixes from German house legend Mousse T. and Van himself, under a new Super Disco Club moniker.
Both are ready a late-night spin, likely in a sweaty gay club with a sticky floor. Then again, the original is still in high-rotation not just on Oxford Street, but in gay clubs across the world. Van credits the song’s longevity to its feel.
“There are two elements that are super important,” he says. “I think one is the feeling of the song from the disco sample and the summery feel to it, that people just love to dance to. It just feels good when they hear it: the moment they hear it, they love it. You know what I mean? It’s not like it’s a song that grows on you or something like that. You know what the song’s about within a minutes.”
The second part is simple: it’s hard to not sing along. Sure, they might mimic Coates’ signalling for a water in-between lines, but Van doesn’t mind. He’s happy to chat about the good, the bad and the ARIAs, so long as we’re still chatting about Madison Avenue.
“I don’t really wanna talk about, you know, what’s my favourite restaurant or what underwear do I wear, things like that,” he says. “Not that people ask that now, but they did, in the past. As long as people are talking about the song, how it was made, how it makes an impact and the remixes, then I’m happy.”
Madison Avenue’s Don’t Call Me Baby (20th Anniversary Edition) is available now via Vicious Recordings.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. He is on Twitter.