October 2015

Arts & Letters

Standing on the outside

By Anwen Crawford

Jimmy Barnes performing at Cold Chisel’s Last Stand concert in Sydney, December 1983.

Cold Chisel reconsidered

Someone somewhere in Australia is listening to a Cold Chisel song right now. Perhaps it’s you, tarrying with the ever-present ‘Khe Sanh’, or with ‘Choirgirl’, ‘Cheap Wine’, ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’ or ‘Forever Now’. Maybe, without even needing to tune the radio to the nearest Classic Hits station or dig out the records, you can hear those songs in your head, like I can hear them, as if each were a part of some interior musical script learnt off by heart so long ago now that you can’t recall a time when you didn’t know it. What can I tell you about Cold Chisel that you don’t already know?

The albums that Cold Chisel released at their popular height form some of my earliest memories. It is a time I am hardly aware I can remember, until I play East (1980) and Circus Animals (1982) and recognise the songs almost note for note. Back then, the vinyl records with their memorable sleeves (Jimmy Barnes in the bath or the band standing on the salt flats of Lake Eyre) sat on the shelf below the turntable, and they felt big in my small hands. Next to them were the likes of John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Beatles’ ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ anthologies. (Looking at The Beatles’ sleeves I would wonder if my dad was George Harrison, because he looked something like Harrison and, to further my confusion, played guitar in a band that performed a Beatles cover or two.) This was before my parents split up, and we lived in Blacktown, which, then and now, seems an appropriately Cold Chisel place to live, the kind of place that a songwriter like Don Walker might write about. I remember a lawn that felt eternally scorched underfoot, and a plastic paddle pool that we filled with a hose. Dancing by the stereo. A flyscreen door.

Cold Chisel showed up frequently at western Sydney venues like the Blacktown RSL, the Penrith Leagues Club, and the Comb and Cutter Hotel. They were an indefatigable gigging band. Listening to a live album like Swingshift (1981), recorded during the Youth in Asia tour of 1980, I can sense what people must have loved about watching them play. The more orthodox rock songs like ‘Conversations’ or ‘Shipping Steel’ (both from 1979’s Breakfast at Sweethearts) are looser and sparkier than they sound in studio form, and ‘One Long Day’, a blues-inflected jam from the band’s self-titled 1978 debut, just soars. It’s nearly ten minutes long, the interchange between instruments and vocalists (Ian Moss on the verses, Jimmy Barnes adding high drama to the outro) playing out like a conversation between equals. This democracy of musicianship – five songwriters, two vocalists – is one of Cold Chisel’s great strengths, and though it must have contributed to the personal tensions that initially split the band up at the end of 1983, it also made them a hard live act to beat. And you didn’t have to wait a year between gigs. They were always playing somewhere.

Listening to Cold Chisel feels, to me, like a homecoming, but one so specific and so elemental that it’s almost uncanny. The outer suburbs of Sydney – or of Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane – were Cold Chisel’s heartland, alongside regional centres like Newcastle and Wollongong. But if these were the places that rejected you, or to which you were never allowed to belong, you might well run from Cold Chisel, and all that they have come to stand in for. I spent a long time running from them, or from the band I believed they were. The totemic status of ‘Khe Sanh’ in the national imagination and Barnes’ solo success with rock anthems like ‘Working Class Man’ have shaped a retrospectively narrow idea of Cold Chisel as nothing more than a parochial pub rock band, good for a drunken singalong and little else.

Beyond the hard-riffing myth lies a group who were willing to experiment with their sound on slow-building, ominous dramas (‘Taipan’ from Circus Animals), or to push themselves towards pop (the mellow ‘My Baby’, written by bassist Phil Small, sounds like a Smokey Robinson song re-figured for a rock band instead of a Motown vocal group), or even to reggae (‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’). Cold Chisel’s versions of popular styles, from blues to rockabilly to reggae, were always done in good faith. This sincerity sets them apart, even if it also dates them; almost no rock band today would approach Cold Chisel’s musical range as anything but pastiche.

Perhaps inevitably, through force of habit and the passage of time, the range has narrowed across the course of Cold Chisel’s various reformations. The Last Wave of Summer (1998), their first comeback album, is certainly stronger than you might expect from a band that hadn’t made a record in 15 years. It contains some vivid character studies (‘Mr Crown Prosecutor’ and ‘Red Sand’, a story of indigenous dispossession) to stand with others from their back catalogue, like East’s wonderful ‘Ita’, a homage to the power of Ita Buttrose, which veers into standard male fantasy (“I’d like to take her out to dinner”) before, almost literally, turning the tables (“But when I think about the places I’ve been / I’d probably hold my fork all wrong”). No Plans (2012), the last Cold Chisel album to feature drummer Steve Prestwich, who died in 2011, is less interesting, and The Perfect Crime, released this month, has a first half dominated by a number of musically predictable rock boogies. There are moments of intrigue, though: the short, sharp title track; a Barnes-penned drama called ‘Long Dark Road’; and the loping, spacey ‘Bus Station’ (“A lot of miles / A lot of pills / A lot of time to kill”), which recalls the adventurousness of an earlier Cold Chisel. That’s no coincidence – Don Walker’s been sitting on the song since 1986. Recorded back then as a demo, with a vocal by Moss, it now boasts one of Barnes’ most melodic performances in a long time. The screamer redeems himself.

Remarkably, considering the shadow they have cast over Australian popular music, Cold Chisel have never had a number-one single in this country. Their status as an FM radio staple came after they had disbanded, and their national tours in recent years reflect that ever-growing popularity. A new tour beginning this month, in support of The Perfect Crime, will wind on through to December, concluding at the venue formerly known as the Sydney Entertainment Centre (now the Qantas Credit Union Arena). In 1983, the same venue played host to what was, at that time, the band’s final performance.

Released after the band’s initial break-up was one of Cold Chisel’s highest-charting songs, ‘Saturday Night’, taken from their 1984 album Twentieth Century (which did go to number one, the third consecutive Cold Chisel album to do so). In many ways it represents the best of Cold Chisel. It begins with a collage of found sounds, recorded by Walker during his strolls around Sydney’s Kings Cross. The music fades in slowly over the sound of voices and traffic, with an arrangement that borrows from soul (Marvin Gaye comes to mind), but isn’t quite that. Moss, the more melodious of Cold Chisel’s vocalists, takes the lead, with Barnes chipping in for an explosive interlude. Electric guitar and saxophone are woven together in a twisting instrumental melody.

The song’s accompanying video was shot by Richard Lowenstein, who had just made Strikebound, a drama about Gippsland coalminers during the 1930s, and who would go on to make the cult classic Dogs in Space, starring INXS’s Michael Hutchence, in 1986. Lowenstein’s vision of Kings Cross resonates perfectly with Walker’s lyrics, taking in the derelicts, touts and rubberneckers of the inner city. The video also includes footage of the 1984 Sydney Mardi Gras, long before it was a commercially sponsored or widely esteemed event.

Cold Chisel have gone down in Australian history as the most blokey of rock bands, and it is not their fault. The reduction of the group’s songs and ethos to a simplistic myth of (white) male bonding has little to do with what Cold Chisel were, or are, and a lot to do with two decades of increasing conservatism in Australian politics. Our politicians perform a stereotype of working-class identity (just think of them campaigning in an endless parade of hard hats) and spout empty clichés about “battlers” that only serve to bolster their own machismo. Small wonder that, in turn, many Australians feel disengaged from politics and suspicious of those they perceive as outsiders.

What Cold Chisel offered in their songs was, by contrast, a deep sympathy with the country’s forgotten and scorned, be they prisoners (‘Four Walls’), rioters (‘Star Hotel’) or the weary commuter of ‘One Long Day’ who worries that the “bus timetable’ll be my elegy”. No surprise that Jimmy Barnes has publicly condemned the use of songs like ‘Khe Sanh’ at rallies held by the far-right group Reclaim Australia. If Cold Chisel write songs worth bonding over, it is because the songs are told from the perspective of an outsider looking in, one who is lonely, lost and afraid. Given the wrong circumstances, that could be any one of us. But inside their songs, there is a place to belong.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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