Cold Chisel

Cold Chisel

Jimmy Barnes – circa 1981

 “You got nothing I want / You got nothing I need…You’ve got the money and I’ve got the time / Nothing better to do, so you might just change my mind” – ‘You Got Nothing I Want’ (Jimmy Barnes)

In April 1981, Cold Chisel attend an awards ceremony.  The event is co-sponsored by ‘Countdown’, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s popular television rock program, and the magazine ‘TV Week’.  Cold Chisel do very well on the night, receiving a number of laurels.  The television special airing the ceremony concludes with Cold Chisel performing a live version of their song, ‘My Turn To Cry’.  In the midst of it all, vocalist Jimmy Barnes starts spouting some new, possibly improvised, lyrics.  He castigates the sponsors for not being present when Cold Chisel were paying their dues in hundreds of raw, seedy gigs (“Where were you?”) and, so far as can be discerned in the noise and babble, accuses them of jumping on the bandwagon of his band’s success to sell their magazine or promote their program.  Message delivered, Cold Chisel proceed to destroy the set and / or their instruments, whichever breaks first.

A moment of childish petulance?  Or is it ‘Cold Chisel’s most confrontational and controversial public moment…If you didn’t get it, you didn’t get Cold Chisel’.

The five members of Australian rock band Cold Chisel come from somewhat diverse backgrounds.

Although Jimmy Barnes, by virtue of being the bloke out front, is probably the best known, the true heart of the band may be Don Walker (born 29 November 1951).  His formative years are spent in Grafton, New South Wales.  However, he also writes of watching “Townsville [Queensland] sugar sunsets back in 1959” in the song, ‘Showtime’.  (Sugar cane farming is one of Queensland’s agricultural industries.)  Walker is highly literate and intelligent.  He takes time out from Cold Chisel during their formative period to complete a post-graduate degree in quantum mechanics in Armidale, New South Wales.  Walker also works at a weapon’s research establishment in Adelaide, South Australia.  While his bandmates in the nascent Cold Chisel are listening to Deep Purple’s heavy metal, Walker is tuned into Bruce Springsteen’s story-songs.  “There were all these people I admired, like Elvis [Presley], Jerry Lee Lewis, Jim Morrison [of The Doors], Ray Charles…Sitting in Australia, I thought that was what America was all about,” says Don Walker.  The band’s primary songwriter, Walker is also Cold Chisel’s keyboards player.  He attacks the instrument in a style that would do credit to Jerry Lee Lewis, though such forceful playing is just a necessary measure to be heard while working amidst the din of Cold Chisel in full flight.

Guitarist and second vocalist Ian Moss (born 20 March 1955) grows up in Alice Springs, the largest city in Central Australia.  Technically, this desert fringed place belongs to the Northern Territory, but it’s a long way from the tropics and the capital city of Darwin.  For many, it is easier to travel to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.  It is in Adelaide, in October 1973, that Ian Moss puts together a band called Orange.  The line-up includes Don Walker.  They play their first gig in that city at a workingman’s club for Italian immigrants and their families.

Bassist Phil Small is perhaps the quietest member of Cold Chisel.  He is there alongside Walker and Moss in the beginnings of Orange.

Steve Prestwich (5 March 1954 – 16 January 2011) is an immigrant from Great Britain.  As Don Walker explains it, “He’s from the river Mersey.  His old man played drums with Gerry And The Pacemakers and those groups.  He [Prestwich senior] was the drummer in the house band at [famed Liverpool venue] The Cavern.”  Steve Prestwich’s skills at the drum-kit are put to good use by his new mates.

The members of Orange decide they need a full time lead singer.  They offer the job to John Swan, who declines.  Swan suggests his sixteen years younger brother, Jimmy Barnes (born 28 April 1956).  (Note: On the sleeves of Cold Chisel’s first five albums, their vocalist is listed as ‘Jim Barnes’, but even during those years, and certainly later, he is better known to the general public as ‘Jimmy Barnes’.  For the sake of consistency, he is referred to throughout here as ‘Jimmy Barnes’.)  ‘A dangerous, hard-drinking Scot’ they find in Elizabeth, South Australia, the Glasgow-born Barnes accepts the position.  The ‘volatile’ vocalist ‘leaves the band, returns, is sacked, and forgiven.  Several times.’

In 1974, the group changes their name to Cold Chisel – which is a genuine tradesman’s tool.  The line-up is: Jimmy Barnes (vocals), Ian Moss (vocals, guitar), Don Walker (keyboards, vocals), Phil Small (bass) and Steve Prestwich (drums).  In August 1976, Cold Chisel relocates from Adelaide, South Australia, to Melbourne, Victoria.  Frustrated at their lack of progress, two months later they change their base to Sydney, New South Wales.  Three months later, they are still getting nowhere and consider changing their name to The Dogs.  Around this time, they acquire a manager, Rod Willis.

“It has been suggested that we developed in response to that sweaty, wild Australian pub audience that everyone likes to talk about these days,” begins Don Walker.  “It didn’t really exist when we started out.  If anything, our generation of bands were guilty of creating that audience”.  If Cold Chisel’s basic sound is ‘meat and potatoes hard rock’, it is also flexible enough to incorporate strains of country music, reggae, ‘rockabilly, metal and roughhouse soul and blues’.  It is ‘high-volume, high-energy music’ that espouses a ‘larrikin ethic’.  Over Steve Prestwich’s peculiarly dry snare-drum crack and Phil Small’s unassuming bass, the musical weight is carried by Don Walker’s honky-tonk piano and the reptilian bite and sway embodied in the guitar work of Ian Moss, ‘Chisel’s only real virtuoso’.  However, the most indelible element is Jimmy Barnes, ‘crouched, sweating, as he roars his vocals in the microphone at the top of his lungs’.  Though his detractors interpret Barnes as a mere shouter without any nuance, rather than a proper singer, it may be misunderstanding the intent.  “I’m not exactly diligent about my singing,” confesses Barnes.  “When I’m recording, I have the music up so loud I literally can’t think of anything else.  That’s how I work on stage and how I like to work all the time, really.  I just get right into the feel of the music and then the singing just happens.”

Trying to get a recording contract proves difficult for Cold Chisel.  A four song demo tape is made and, despite it being rejected by another company, is accepted by WEA (Warners / Elektra / Asylum).  Warners are actually tricked into singing them, being led to believe the group is managed by Peter Rix, who handles pop acts like Hush and Marcia Hines.  However it comes about, Cold Chisel are signed in May 1977 and put in the studio with producer Peter Walker.  When WEA scores the group a support slot on an Australian tour by visiting overseas group, Foreigner, the recording sessions are hastily wrapped up so the album can be released in April 1978, in time to make the most of this exposure.

‘Cold Chisel’ (1978) (AUS no. 31) is issued ‘without setting the world on fire’.  The single from the album is ‘Khe Sanh’ (AUS no. 41), a Don Walker composition, as are all the songs mentioned here unless otherwise stated.  ‘Khe Sanh’ is the story of a veteran of the Vietnam war returning to Australia and finding it difficult to reacclimatise.  The song is unusual in highlighting Australia’s ‘proximity to Asia as distinct from always looking to the old world of Europe and America’.  It is powered by Don Walker’s tinkling piano and guest musician Dave Blight’s harmonica.  The song is ‘banned from radio’ because of this ‘lewd’ lyric: “She was like so many more from that time on / Their lives were all so empty until they’ve found their chosen one / And their legs were often open / But their minds were always closed / And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains.”  The legend of ‘Khe Sanh’ has seen the song’s importance swell far beyond its initial impact.  It is one of the most requested pieces in the Chisel songbook.  Another notable track is the humorous ‘Home And Broken-Hearted’: “I bought a second-hand Morris for a cheap two twenty and I drove it down to Adelaide / It boiled for an hour twenty miles out of Euston / I thought that heat would never end / But I knew I’d be home for Christmas with my Sandy / And a few extra dollars to spend.”  Instead, the narrator finds the “Boxing Day break is wasted sittin’ here on my own / What a lowdown time of the year to pack your luggage and leave.”  This could be a mournful dirge, but Chisel deliver it tongue-in-cheek while still retaining the (understandable) resentment.

Also in 1978, a live EP, ‘You’re 13, You’re Beautiful And You’re Mine’ is recorded at Sydney’s Regent Theatre in a concert sponsored by Sydney radio station 2JJJ.  The disc includes a cover version of The Troggs’ 1966 hit ‘Wild Thing’.

The second Cold Chisel album is ‘Breakfast At Sweethearts’ (1979) (AUS no. 4).  ‘Sweethearts’ is a coffee shop on Darlinghurst Road in King’s Cross, New South Wales.  The establishment is ‘cramped between strip clubs and sex shops, patronised by hookers, pimps and drug dealers and the lost and lonely debris of the night’.  The photo on the album cover showing Cold Chisel gathered around a table is not taken in ‘Sweethearts’, but across town in The Marble Bar.  The song ‘Breakfast At Sweethearts’ (AUS no. 63) portrays a seedy scenario with a brooding jazz / blues hybrid marked by Walker’s organ huffing along like it has a hangover.  It’s more low-key than previous Chisel songs and, for that reason, perhaps easier for a wider audience to accept.  The thumping ‘Merry-Go-Round’ bemoans the working week hassles and notes “when the weekend comes I’m gonna set fire to the town.”  The ‘set fire to the town’ phrase is used to name a Cold Chisel tour somewhat questionably publicised with the image of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk.  Ian Moss’ guitar solo is much more tasteful, if hardly less powerful.  It’s one of his best.  Jimmy Barnes co-authors ‘Goodbye (Astrid Goodbye)’ (AUS no. 65) with Don Walker, a brutally funny break-up song: “You can drown your tears in Valium and brandy” proclaims the departing swain.  ‘Shipping Steel’ is a truck-drivin’ song with Tony Faehse from Jo Jo Zep And The Falcons making a guest appearance on slide guitar.  The album also contains ‘Showtime’, a pained and cynical look at the hazards of being in a band.  ‘Breakfast At Sweethearts’ is produced by Richard Batchens, but the band is ‘never happy with the recording, feeling it was too limp to represent their sound’.  The group can hardly complain since this album catapults them towards being the biggest rock band in Australia, a status rivalled at the time only by The Angels.

In November 1979, Jimmy Barnes meets Jane Mahoney (born Jane Dejakasaya in Bangkok, Thailand), the step-daughter of an Australian diplomat.  They fall in love, but Jane suffers from cold feet and joins her father at his posting in Tokyo, Japan.  Barnes pursues her overseas and wins her over.  The couple marry on 22 May 1981 and have four children: Mahalia (born 1982), Eliza Jane (born 1985), Jackie (born 1986) and Elly May (born 1989).

The next album by Cold Chisel, ‘East’ (1980) (AUS no. 2, US no. 171), is their finest work.  The cover is a photograph based on Jacques Louis David’s painting ‘Marat Assassinated’ (1793).  The subject of the painting is a French revolutionary who made a habit of working in his bathtub.  He was slain by a woman while in his watery workplace.  On ‘East’ it is Barnesy slumped over in the tub, wearing a bandana emblazoned with Japanese characters, in a bathroom filled with knick-knacks and furnishings from the orient.  Part of what distinguishes ‘East’ is the production by Mark Opitz that, in his words, makes Cold Chisel “more accessible”.  This album is certainly the most ‘pop’ in the band’s catalogue.  The first single is ‘Choir Girl’ (AUS no. 14), allegedly about ‘a girl facing an abortion’.  That may be true, but there is no lyrical evidence to clearly back it up.  This plaintive, piano-based ballad just seems to be about a girl “crying like a refugee” while “all day the doctor / He handles his responsibility.”  This is followed by ‘Cheap Wine’ (AUS no. 8), the best song in Cold Chisel’s history.  It marries a catchy pop tune to the band’s unquestioned musical strength.  “I don’t mind taking charity / From those that I despise,” sneers the lyric.  The song refers to “Sittin’ on the beach drinkin’ rocket fuel.”  Jimmy Barnes claims that ‘rocket fuel’ consists of three types of white spirits, probably Bacardi, vodka and tequila, but cautions, “I can’t remember much of those days now,” before adding, “but then I couldn’t remember much when I was drinking them”.  Don Walker is also vague, but says ‘rocket fuel’ had “no mixers, no colouring, no bulls**t”.  Another thing that distinguishes ‘East’ is greater songwriting contributions from the rest of the band, ‘with Don Walker’s blessing’.  ‘My Baby’ (AUS no. 40), a Phil Small composition, is an example of this approach.  Ian Moss provides the lead vocal and Cold Chisel neatly navigate the modern rhythm and blues groove of this charming song.  Mossy himself pens the smouldering and soulful ‘Never Before’.  Jimmy Barnes writes ‘Rising Sun’, a rollicking rockabilly autobiographical account of his adventures in Japan pursuing his beloved Jane and the blistering ‘My Turn To Cry’.  Don Walker’s ‘Ita’ is a tribute to Ita Buttrose, the lisping lady editor of ‘The Australian Women’s Weekly’.  Watching the television advertisements for her periodical, the narrator notes “She’s got wholesome news for the family” before adding lasciviously that “though the desk-top hides her hips / My imagination’s strong.”  In a less amusing vein, three other Walker contributions, ‘Standing On The Outside’, ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Four Walls’, all deal with crime, criminals and / or prison.  ‘Star Hotel’ is a spooky reggae song about the closure of a pub in Newcastle, New South Wales, on 14 September 1979, an action that provoked a street riot of “uncontrolled youth in Asia.”  The last words in that line are, not entirely coincidentally, a homonym for ‘euthanasia’.  Early printings of ‘East’ come with a bonus single, a live cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ backed with ‘Party’s Over’.

In the wake of the success in Australia of ‘East’, Cold Chisel tour the United States, but find the experience ‘frustrating’.  Returning to Australia, the band re-engages producer Mark Opitz for their fourth album, but try to ensure it will have a rougher sound, closer to their live performances.  The result is ‘Circus Animals’ (1982) (AUS no. 1), an album promoted with big top shows including lions, tigers and motorcycle daredevils.  The first single is Jimmy Barnes’ ‘You Got Nothing I Want’ (AUS no. 12), a rebuke to their American record company’s representative.  Barnesy tells the man “ I don’t mind just puttin’ you down.”  The band don’t spare the horses either.  Ian Moss’ sandpapery guitar trades blows with the vocalist’s trademark fiery howls.  Perhaps the album’s biggest surprise is ‘Forever Now’ (AUS no. 4), a sweet almost-ballad written by drummer Steve Prestwich.  For all the ferocity displayed on ‘You Got Nothing I Want’, Cold Chisel prove equally capable of the restraint and finesse this song requires.  Another Prestwich song, the wistful camaraderie of ‘When The War Is Over’ (AUS no. 25) confirms the drummer’s songwriting talent.  ‘Bow River’, written and sung by Ian Moss, is named for the outpost in Western Australia between Kununurra and Hall’s Creek.  After “wasting my days on the factory floor,” it is the place to which the singer returns.  This is after he manages to “p**s all my money up against the damn wall” (this last sentiment is sung by Jimmy Barnes who provides the vocal for the final verse).  Don Walker is not slacking off either.  He contributes pieces such as ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ (not the traditional bush folk song) and ‘Hound Dog’ (not the Elvis Presley song) as well as the tropical menace of ‘Taipan’ (named for a venomous Australian snake) and the deeply personal ‘Letter To Alan’ (about two Cold Chisel roadies killed in a motoring accident).

In August 1983, Cold Chisel announce a farewell tour, ‘The Last Stand’, and a final studio album.  Why would Cold Chisel, a band whose last album made it to the top of Australia’s album chart, decide to split?  According to one account, Jimmy Barnes is ‘less frugal than the others’ and asks ‘for a $10,000 advance’.  This would have meant giving the same sum to the other members, so the request is denied.  At the meeting to discuss the issue, the band decide ‘to call it a day’.  More diplomatically, Don Walker claims, “We just felt that we had covered everything we wanted to do, at least musically.”  He also notes, “The type of person who wants to make billions of dollars [in Australia] doesn’t go into rock music.  These people go into real estate or they import smack [heroin].”  It must also be acknowledged that ‘their failure in America represented a major blow.  Their attempts to break into the American market by touring only completed their disillusionment’.

The next four months prove torturous.  ‘Some of the band are barely on speaking terms.  None of them can wait for it to be over’.  Cold Chisel play their last gig at the Sydney Entertainment Centre on 12 December 1983.  Their self-produced final album, ‘Twentieth Century’ (1984) (AUS no. 1) follows.  Steve Prestwich is absent from some of the tracks, with Ray Arnott filling in for him on drums.  The first single (released in 1983) is ‘No Sense’ b /w ‘Hold Me Tight’ (AUS no. 14).  ‘No Sense’ is a stiff-legged reggae number written by Jimmy Barnes that lambasts fan mail: “Another letter from a girl that I don’t know / Another letter full of no news…She tries to tell me that she’s gonna be my one and only / But I wouldn’t take no bets”.  ‘Hold Me Tight’ is a gibbering, flat-chat rockabilly scorcher.  ‘Saturday Night’ (AUS no. 11) is a bruised vocal duet for Moss and Barnes: “Goodnight, my friend, goodbye”, it says sadly.  A weary nostalgia pervades ‘Flame Trees’ (AUS no. 26) as well, a song that combines Don Walker’s pensive lyric with Steve Prestwich’s glistening melody.  “We share some history / This town and I / And I can’t stop that long forgotten feeling of her,” it painfully accepts.  The song goes on to see a parallel: “There’s a girl / She’s falling in love / Near where the pianola stands / With a young local factory out-of-worker / Just holdin’ hands / And I’m wondering if he’ll go of if he’ll stay.”  The title track, ‘Twentieth Century’ (AUS no. 91), looks around in bewilderment, stuck on a traffic island.

Fourteen years later, Cold Chisel reconvene for ‘The Last Wave Of Summer’ (1998) (AUS no. 1), but it proves that ‘sometimes the weight of the past can be impossible to lift’.

After another lengthy hiatus, Cold Chisel begin work on a new album.  Steve Prestwich dies of a brain tumour, aged 56, on 16 January 2011.  The four surviving members complete ‘No Plans’ (2011) (AUS no. 2) without him, an album that meets with a warm critical reception.  Charley Drayton plays drums for the subsequent tour.

‘The Live Tapes Vol. 1’ (2013) (AUS no. 27), released on 22 November, begins a series of official releases of concert recordings from Cold Chisel’s past.  In this instance, it is a gig recorded at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney on 18 April 2012.  ‘The Live Tapes – Vol. 2 – Live At Bombay Rock’ (2014) documents a Cold Chisel gig from 29 April 1979 at that Melbourne, Victoria, Australia venue.

By the time of ‘The Perfect Crime’ (2015) (AUS no. 2), Charley Drayton has settled in as Cold Chisel’s drummer.  The album is produced by Kevin Shirley.  Perhaps the most notable track is ‘Lost’ (AUS no. 92), a plaintive piano ballad.  It is co-written by Don Walker and an alumnus of T.V. reality show talent quest ‘Australian Idol’, Wes Carr.

‘The Live Tapes Vol. 3’ (2016) (AUS no. 11), released on 2 December, is a two CD set that captures a Cold Chisel show at the Manley Vale Hotel in Sydney on 2 June 1980, the week that ‘East’ was released.

Cold Chisel lived hard and played hard and their legend reflects this.  Yet they were also capable of much more light and shade, both musically and emotionally, than their image would suggest.  Part of the reason ‘East’, their finest album, confounded American marketers is the variety of styles it displayed.  Yet, paradoxically, it is that diversity that makes the record – and Cold Chisel in general – so satisfying.  ‘Cold Chisel figured in the lives of so many…simply because they were the most feral and beautiful pub rock & roll band in the world’.  In Cold Chisel’s songs, ‘you can hear the silence of the desert, the alcoholic confusion of The Cross [King’s Cross], the bubbling frustration of endless red-brick suburbia’.

Sources:

  1. ‘Chisel’ – Sleeve notes by John O’Donnell (Warner Music Australia, 1991) p. 4, 5, 7
  2. ‘Chisel’ – Sleeve notes by Toby Creswelll (Warner Music Australia, 1991) p. 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
  3. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 117, 118, 128, 141, 145
  4. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Cold Chisel’ by Ed St. John (Megabooks, 1985) p. 19, 54, 55, 56, 121
  5. netspace.net.au/~justin/chisel/history-brief.html as at 8 October 2001, p. 1
  6. wikipedia.org as at 31 December 2012, 1 January 2016
  7. wiki.answers.com as at 10 December 2012
  8. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘Barnsey’s on the Inside Looking Out’ by Kathy McCabe (26 December 2013) p. 26 of ‘Hit’ liftout
  9. coldchisel.com as at 1 January 2015

Song lyrics copyright Rondor Music with the exceptions of ‘You Got Nothing I Want’ and ‘No Sense’ (both EMI Songs); ‘Bow River’ (Moss/Trooper); ‘Saturday Night’ (Burdikan Music); and ‘Flame Trees’ (BMG/Burdikan)

Last revised 15 December 2016

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