DISCLAIMER of sorts for a certain generation of readers.
If you grew up in rural Australia during a particular time period, Cold Chisel was probably ruined for you by the football players, and the sad pub singalongs, and the builders and dockers and tradies and FM radio and beer ads and fucking Chiiiiissssel. But if you get past that, you will discover they had an amazing ’78-’84 run of literate, well-crafted albums.
COLD CHISEL (1978)
It’s not surprising that, at a recent press conference, both Phil Small (bass) and Ian Moss (guitars) chose the debut album as the one they would direct a newcomer of the band towards. It is, after all, the band at their earliest and most ferocious (at least in sanctioned release form) and both Small and Moss are given ample room to move.
It’s true that Cold Chisel, while embryonic, is certainly the band at their most spirited. It is a live band showcasing the breadth and depth of their stylistic range, it is a literate songwriter (Don Walker) with an amazing turn of phrase who had not yet adapted the pop formula he discovered just prior to East. It also is the album that has Khe Sanh on it; the radio anthem that was initially banned at radio. Here, the song makes sense, surrounded by other slow burning songs that both instantly draw the listener and draw out the experience – for all its ubiquity, it is easy to forget Khe Sanh is a five-versed country song with no actual chorus until, at the very death, the band offers up three variations of one and asks you to choose.
Home and Broken Hearted is infectious boogie; if that term makes you cringe just listen, this song rollicks in a way not many can. Juliet is a Barnes melody affixed to a Walker lyric, and the perfect indicator that Walker wasn’t just another easy lyricist. One Long Day perhaps overstretches in its 8-minute kitchen-sink feeling, but it is masterfully done. Rosaline is nice and necessary.Northbound is neither.
There are at least three classic songs here. The aforementioned Khe Sanh is the first (when reclaimed from the BBQs and the footy club raffles and the walking beer commercials); the second is the brutal Daskarzine, which mixes Zeppelin, Doors and a number of other naff influences (yeah, yeah) and arrives at something much more artful and restrained than either band was ever capable of.
The finest track on the album, however, is the stunning closer Just How Many Times, in which Barnes’ most tender vocal in the Cold Chisel catalogue is coupled with Walker’s most unguarded and wounded set of lyrics, dripping with nostalgia. It’s a perfectly executed song, and one that has long deserved a place in the somewhat arbitrary FM-Chisel-canon. Hopefully these reissues will sort this oversight out (If not, commercial radio: sort this oversight out). Good song, and the band were only just getting started.
BREAKFAST AT SWEETHEARTS (1979)
Campbell Lane/ Through the window, curtain rain/ Long night gone, yellow day/ the speed shivers melt away. Location/ weather/ time/ situation. Don Walker is an eloquent man, as is revealed in the opening lines to this album’s title track. But, more vitally – at this stage of Cold Chisel’s career – he, along with the other four members, were hungry, and at that wonderful stage where a band has unblinkered belief and limited studio time.
Breakfast At Sweethearts is commonly agreed upon by Chisel pundits as the most “pissweak sounding” record in the band’s catalogue and these remasterings have bolstered all the frequencies you’d want bolstered and now it sounds like it should. Which is good news, because this album also happens to be their most four on the floor, live-sounding, rock and roll album. Goodbye, I’m Gonna Roll Ya, Merry Go Round, Shipping Steel (perhaps the closest Chisel got to embodying a prescient pastiche of their post-breakup early-‘90s Triple M fans – but still a great tune) and even The Door are basic stomping tracks the likes of which you’d expect to hear from Chisel – should you not really be aware of the band’s varied nuances.
Which is why the beautiful and resigned Plaza (one of Chisel’s most under-rated gems) the artful and literate Dresden and the lyrically hefty and serpentineShowtime are such necessary components to this album, and also why they are the most overlooked tracks. They don’t rock or roll; a travesty in 2011-Chisel-land (until these reissues redress the balance). The title track is dangerously close to dub or reggae, but somehow manages to work. In this week’s magazine (TMN #846), Brian ‘BT’ Taranto recalls drinking cheap Brandavino “because it’s mentioned in Breakfast At Sweethearts.“ That type of adherence makes perfect sense, even now.
To misquote and appropriate something Don Walker might have said in some liner notes at some point – once East was released into the water stream, things began to change. And while this was certainly true for the inner-city patrons who witnessed, championed and mourned the rise of Cold Chisel, for most people in Australia, East was the first taste of Cold Chisel they had enjoyed – and it was an FM-friendly, verse, chorus, verse introduction. Don Walker had planned it that way; discovering the essence of a three-minute FM hit wasn’t all alchemy.
Walker, while planning his assault on the chats, had become fed up with being the sole-songwriter; East saw all five members offer up tracks. While Mossy’s offering was purely embryonic (Never Before) and Prestwich’s Best Kept Lieswas but a taste of things to come, Barnesy seemed able to distill his entire whirlwind personality into a couple of radio friendly tracks; the slightly racist, slightly lovelorn Rising Sun, and the underrated pop tune My Turn To Cry, which closed both the album and the 1980 Countdown Awards alike (a gleeful protest which saw Cold Chisel trash the Countdown Awards stage).
Anyway, East has all the hits: Star Hotel, Cheap Wine, Choir Girl, Standing On The Outside, My Baby… My Baby!: even Phil Small got involved, writing one of his only two Chisel songs that would see the light of day (the other, Notion For You, popped up on the Teenage Love rarities collection and revealed a talented, if slow and sporadic, songwriter). Four Walls is one of the lesser known tracks from East, but by far one of the best Cold Chisel songs: striking, brief and poignant. But in reality, this album is fairly perfect. If you only have forty minutes to absorb the essence of what Cold Chisel are about, listen to this record. And repeat Ita if you have a few minutes spare at the end. “How can I not believe?”
CIRCUS ANIMALS (1982)
Circus Animals. The necessary response to East, and the finest moment in the Cold Chisel canon. You Got Nothing I Want is angry, visceral, and an early low-point in retrospect; I’m sure at the time this was an amazing opening blast, but it’s now – in 2011 – too obviously Chiiissseeellll, to be held in high regard.Forever Now is Steve Prestwich’s first masterpiece… he follows this barely 20 minutes later with the arguably-better When The War Is Over – his best two tracks, recorded within the same month.
No Good For You is an obvious yet underrated Cold Chisel radio hit – if Austereo started playing this song twice a week on heritage stations, this would be a staple within a month. Undeniable melody, vocal and chorus, and the best song Ian Moss unleashed during his Chisel years. Numbers Fall is Kings Cross in four sleazy minutes and much better explored by BT in his excellent essay on the record while Letter To Alan makes a strong play for the best Cold Chisel song; it matters in a way most songs don’t even try to. From here, it was always going to head downhill.
TWENTIETH CENTURY (1984)
The final record, mostly created in the wake of Cold Chisel as a going concern; Prestwich had stormed out, America hadn’t happened and the band splintered. Shame, as Barnesy really hits his songwriting stride here (Only One, Temptationand No Sense stand up to most of Walker’s efforts), to the point where mostwould hear this collection and wonder what he could have gone on to do, should his post-Chisel trajectory not have long since been heritage-listed by the ARIA board.
The title track is a great stomping postscript, Saturday Night captures the eternal promise and inevitable emptiness of a Saturday night in the city andFlame Trees is fairly perfect – a mishmash of chord changes that shouldn’t ever be, presented by a hopeful Prestwich and twisted into the most nostalgic, literate and well-written tome of Walker’s impressive career. The first verse follows the slightest of rhyming structures, the second verse collapses into spoken word, and the key-change comes halfway through the bridge. The fact such an oddly crafted and deeply personal track became a radio staple speaks less of Cold Chisel’s infinite appeal and more of the odd FM genre-casting during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s a fitting last single for the band, and a definite high water mark. Still, as the song says, “Who needs that sentiment bullshit anyway?”
THE LAST WAVE OF SUMMER (1998)
The reformation album. Opener Mr. Crown Prosecutor is a slow burner and a sinewy, serpentine track. Yakuza Girls is pretty brutal, almost as brutal as anything post I’m Gonna Roll Ya, but it’s not quite the same, and it’s not quite Chisel, and the Barnes-written tracks are great but they sound like Barnes solo tracks – ditto with Red Sand by Mossy.
Prestwich has the most obvious hits (Water Into Wine, Way Down) on The Last Wave Of Summer, neither of which were hits by any stretch. The first single from the record was The Things I Love In You (a Walker penned track), which opens with a Barnes wail and the line “Sitting on the corner, drinking my beer;” very dangerous, pastichey territory for Cold Chisel’s first single in 14-years. When it lifts a key for the second verse and everything kicks up a gear, things begin to make sense; by the three-minute mark it sure sounds like Cold Chisel.
The title track closes the record, and is one of the darkest, moodiest pieces in the Chisel canon; a perfect place for them to have left the band. What it will sound like when Cold Chisel pick things up again is anyone’s guess. Prestwich has sadly passed, as have thirteen years since their last studio release. We assume it will sound like Cold Chisel. Whatever that means…