… the songs that made Cold Chisel famous fat cats; their writers, their subjects and their dreams made forgotten and disappeared into the vale of tears
You can hear the silence of the desert, the alcoholic contusion of the Cross, the bubbling frustration of endless red-brick suburbia. It’s thirteen years on for some of these songs and they still sound with the ring of truth.
Standing on the Outside
Perhaps the closest Don Walker ever came to autobiography was “Standing On The Outside” which opened East. This song, like so many more from that time on, was the story of an outsider. If Don wasn’t “outside the law” he certainly had an empathy for those who had to break out of their chains with whatever came to hand. East contained several tracks – “Four Walls” and “Tomorrow” – specifically about the prison experience, and the band performed a number of prison shows around that period. “Standing On The Outside” is in that vein.
Apparently Chisel had only three songs written when the sessions for East began. It had been standard practice for Australian bands to compile songs while touring and basically just bash them out in the studio. However, Chisel and producer Mark Opitz decided to create this album from the ground up. The result was some of the most personal songs the band made and certainly the most “pop”. East sold a phenomenal quarter of a million copies and crossed the band over into a new pop audience which saw it sweep the Countdown/ TV Week Awards. The band then turned its back on pop music, opting for a harder edge on Cirrus Animals, and went back “outside” the industry.
The simple, unadorned flipside to “Cheap Wine” that became the first of many double-A side hits. “Rising Sun” is Jim Barnesís vow of love for Jane, who was to become his wife. Her father, who was in the diplomatic corps, had been posted to Tokyo, and she was travelling over to visit. The 12-bar rockabilly blues is classic Barnes and his first solo writing credit. The song captures Barnesí self-deprecating wit and his notorious bluntness, while fitting neatly with the Asian theme that runs through East.
East marked the first time each member of the band had written material, and in finding their individual voices they were strengthening the band as well as beginning the frictions that were to tear them apart.
You Got Nothing I Want
The opening salvo from Circus Animals was pure anger as only Jim Barnes could express it. The song was written after a frustrating visit to America where the band’s label, Elektra, refused to take an interest in the band or in the release of EAST. The song is specifically directed at one Marty Schwatz who was in charge of promotion at the time. His indifference was symptomatic of the label’s attitude, evident when lan, Don and Jim listened to the American cut of the album which was drenched in tape hiss and the engineer suggested, ìHas it occurred to -you that you’re not playing very wellî. One can imagine those three glowering at the tape op speechless with rage.
While some bands may have come home with their tails between their legs, Chisel returned to make the most powerfully Australian album of their career and celebrate the ìdust where no man reigns”.
This comes from Twentieth Century, which was recorded during the break-up of the band. One of three non-Walker compositions on the album, it reflects the band members trying to expand their directions. Jim Barnes came up with a song about the price of fame; ìYou try to tell me that you love me/ But we ain’t never met” that featured his customarily direct rock song approach, underneath which a very odd keyboard part was placed and on top, a reggaefied guitar. Like so many songs on that album, this track takes chances with the formula. Issued also as a single, with “Hold Me Tight” on the flip, it became a doubt A-side hit.
an anthem for teenage Australians from the suburbs who have no place in the upwardly mobile late-Seventies. Wearing the stigma of the working-class, these are kids who are determined it they’re going to be locked outside mainstream society then they’re going to wake the neighbours. The lyric owes a debt to Chuck Berry in its detail of daily life and status objects
Previously only available as the flip side to “My Baby”, Misfits was recorded for a Health Commission documentary produced by Pam Scott who approached the band to write a song about homeless kids in the Western Suburbs. The film, Kids, was apparently too tough for the Health Commission and has never been screened.
Breakfast at Sweetheats
The title track of the second album. Sweethearts has recently closed down. For many years the coffee shop stood in the middle of Darlinghurst Road – the main drag through Kings Cross, cramped between strip clubs and sex shops, patronised by the hookers, pimps and drug dealers and the lost and lonely debris of the night. This was the first of Don’s Kings Cross songs, the setting of much of his best work since.
The Breakfast At Sweethearts album was produced by Richard Batchens and the band was never happy with the recording, feeling it was too limp to represent their sound. Ironically the cover shot for Breakfast At Sweethearts was taken across town in the Marble Bar.
Phil Small’s track from East, sung by lan Moss. Legend has it that as a result of the runaway success of this single the bassplayer became so self-conscious of his writing that he never submitted another complete song. “My Baby”b/w “Khe Sanh” was the group’s first release in the United States where some marketing whizz decided to send out promotional copies wrapped in nappies. The song is simple and understated, like most of Phil Small’s bassplaying, and remains a classic.
A small outpost between Kununurra and Hall’s Creek, the term river being an exaggeration – it’s actually a very small creek. Chisel finished their ten-year career with a national tour that culminated in five nights at the Sydney Entertainment Centre; a record for an Australian band that has been broken only once, by INXS on their Kick tour. The show was captured on The Last Stand film and The Barking Spiders Live 1983 album, from which this version of “Bow River” is taken.
Written by lan Moss, who grew up in Alice Springs, “Bow River” is a song about the desert and the tropical rain and its hold on the men who live there. It’s Moss’s most accomplished song in its lyric and its powerful arrangement that benefits here from the live context rather than the studio version on Circus Animals. Ironically, although a son of the territory, Moss had never been to “Bow River”, however his brother Peter, a roadie for the group in the early years, worked there.
One of the few Don Walker songs written from a woman’s point of view. This track from East was an unlikely hit, dealing as it does with a girl facing an abortion.
A song that became identified with Jim Barnes, a man who certainly knew his way around Rocket Fuel, which is made from three types of white spirit – probably bacardi, vodka and tequila -the recipe has been lost over time. “I can’t remember much of those days now,” says Jimmy. ” But then I couldn’t remember much when I was drinking them.” Don Walker is similarly vague recalling only that Rocket Fuel had “no mixers, no colouring, no bullshit.”
The film clip for ‘Cheap Wine’ showed Barnes as the quintessential frontman, wearing a good three days’ stubble. This is a timeless song of nonchalance.
Steve Prestwich’s hit from the Circus Animals album, on which drummer Steve Prestwich became the unlikely pop meister of the band. While Chisel was known for its full tilt boogie, they were equally capable of well crafted pop. “He’s from the River Mersey. His old man played drums with Gerry and the Pacemakers and those groups. He was the drummer in the house band at the Cavern,” says Don Walker enigmatically when quizzed on Prestwich’s pop sensibility.
When the War is Over
Written by Steve Prestwich and recorded on Circus Animals, This is the only Cold Chisel track to be covered twice, first by Little River Band when John Farnham and Steve Prestwich were members of that band, then later by a heavy metal band out of England. Jim Barnes later recalled that following the massive pop success of East, the band decided that rather than re-do the formula they’d established they’d go on the road with unfinished songs and change them every night according to whim and the rules of improvisation. Consequently the tracks on the album all have a certain oddness in their arrangements and this cut certainly reflects a band trying to push the parameters of its work.
Cold Chisel’s legacy is of ten thousand Saturday nights. Saturday night is the night of freedom, the night where you can sneak through the cracks of the everyday world, the night where you can be alone. This version of the tale begun on “Breakfast At Sweethearts” is kids in the Western Suburbs. The film, Kids, was apparently too tough for the Health Commission and has never been screened.
Written about Grafton where Don spent most of his formative years. The song was inspired by a girl whom Don had known in his youth and who “doesn’t live there anymore”. Grafton is actually known as the Jacaranda City but it had acquired flame trees as a result of a television program called The Flame Trees of Thaw which starred Hayley Mills, an old flame of the lyricist’s dreams, and the flora stuck. It’s a song of lost love, of mortality and what’s left behind. Steve Prestwich’s melody and Don Walker’s words. Appropriately, the band’s last hit.
As Barnes says, this is only the second time the band had ever played a song which was to become a staple of their live set. The now-legendary EP, You’re Thirteen, You’re Beautiful And You’re Mine was recorded live at a 2JJJ concert at Sydney’s Regent Theatre on a bill which saw Chisel supported by Midnight Oil and Captain Goodvibes.
You’re Thirteen, You’re Beautiful And You’re Mine showed Chisel at its most raw. They were still in the process of recording a second album, and working out songs in front of their audiences. This song contains the band’s de-facto motto, “Gonna set fire to the town”, which was reprised in “Flame Trees”.
Newcastle’s Star Hotel was the town’s main venue for youth and live music. The closing of the hotel on Wednesday, September 19, 1979 was the last straw for a generation which had seen massive unemployment, government cutbacks and little future in an age of economic rationalism. To take away rock & roll was good grounds for a stand-up fight which is what the police got when they arrived in force. Police cars were overturned and burnt, civilian cars were attacked and the Star riot – the largest public disturbance since the Springbok tours of the early Seventies – scared the shit out of the establishment.
Don Walker documented the Star Hotel riot on the East album and placed it in the context of a new generation of “uncontrolled youth in Asia” that was brewing through the Fraser years of the late-Seventies. They had none of the trappings of punk rockers in the city but rather an abiding anger. The mood of the time was never better expressed than here in concert from the Swingshift double live album with the smouldering guitar of lan Moss mirroring the sound of the flames as they melted the police sirens, on top of the raw power of the rhythm section. Swingshift ruptured what was termed the pub-rock sound better than any other Australian release.
Ironically the song that will forever mark Chisel was originally banned from commercial radio. “Khe Sanh”, the story of a returned Vietnam vet, embodies many of the lyrical themes that ran through all of Chisel’s best work.
Firstly it was a song of a specifically Australian experience. The song highlighted our geography and our proximity to Asia as distinct from always looking to the old world of Europe and America. The direct sexuality of the song, which got it banned from radio, was always a part of the best Cold Chisel – the songs were never lewd, they just told it like it was. But most importantly it was the song of a man who just couldn’t settle down in the “fast suburban chains”. “Khe Sanh” is a story of restless youth. Originally recorded on the first album, this version has a new vocal and keyboard part recorded for the international release of East.
Goodbye (Astrid Goodbye)
A perfect combination of Jim Barnes and Don Walker here with Bames’s flat-chat twelvebar delivered with a primal scream and Don Walker’s strident piano going for all it’s worth. ìAstrid” is one of Chisel’s finest moments in its wry description of the end of “seven long years of give a little, take a little. Stack a little money away.” It’s one of Chisel’s funniest songs, invariably delivered at full throttle as here on the Youth in Asia tour and recorded on Swingshift”.
When Don Walker’s piano comes in before the chorus it sounds like an engine out of control. Moss’s guitar solo is likewise walking a tightrope of attack and abandon which Barnes sums up succinctly as “fuckin’ classic”.
- TOBY CRESWELL, 1991