In this new Rolling Stone AU/NZ series, we look to Australia’s musical past to understand what’s going on in its music scene today. In each column, we look at an iconic moment or release in Australian music history and unpack its significance – first up, it’s the release of Cold Chisel’s first album in 1978.
“I wouldn’t be Australian if I wasn’t.”
Someone said this when I asked if they liked Cold Chisel last week. It was said drolly, but a certain truth was hidden in the hyperbole. Much like The Kinks and London, Jay-Z and New York City, or The Chills and Aotearoa, it just doesn’t feel like Cold Chisel could have come from anywhere but Australia.
A singular force of nature, Cold Chisel concocted a sound that merged blues, soul, rockabilly and – of course – pub rock into something quintessentially Australian. Their sound was unvarnished and unfiltered, forged in the country’s thriving but unforgiving live music circuit of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Cold Chisel came together in Adelaide in 1973, featuring Ian Moss on guitar and vocals, Steve Prestwich on drums, Les Kaczmarek on bass, and Don Walker on piano. Jimmy Barnes – still just a teenager – soon arrived as lead singer, joined by Phil Small as Kaczmarek’s replacement as bassist in 1975.
They would disband just eight years later, but not before leaving behind a strong five-album run that started with their self-titled debut album in 1978 and culminated in 1984 with Twentieth Century. Before myriad reunions, before their ARIA Hall of Fame induction, before they even had a street named after them in Adelaide, that flawed first album set them on their way to national stardom.
The truth is Cold Chisel were, and forever will be, the undeniable kings of one of the most macho and cutthroat musical eco-systems to have ever existed: beer-swilling Oz pub rock.”
Kirin J Callinan said this of the band in Rolling Stone Australia’s countdown of the Greatest Australian Artists of All Time two years ago, capturing a sentiment held by countless other Australians acts.
But while there’s little of Cold Chisel in J Callinan’s extremely experimental approach to rock – except from an unforgettable Barnes cameo in one of his striking music videos – so much of their muscular pub rock can still be heard in the country’s music today. It’s there in The Chat’s insistently Aussie anthems; it lives on in Amyl and the Sniffer’s barnstorming live performances (their searing song “Security” is about an Aussie battler that could have been conjured up by Walker himself).
Back to 1978: perhaps a retrospective success, more than an immediate one, Cold Chisel’s debut album has nevertheless earned its place in the country’s music history. What do two of its makers recall of that time, though? For Barnes, making the album was all “a bit of a blur.”
“We were not used to being in that recording studio environment,” he told Rolling Stone Australia last week. “We sort of walked around the place bumping into each other until we let go of the reins and let the producer, Peter Walker, take over.” Although they had no problem with Peter personally, relinquishing control “didn’t sit well” with Barnes and his bandmates. “At the time I had the attention span of a small soap dish,” he adds.
While the rest of the band worked on overdubs in the studio, Barnes would hit the town, returning when they required him to sing. “It was probably better that way because studios tend to be small and it’s not good for anyone to be locked in a confined space with me,” he insists.
Given a lot of freedom by their new label, and being paired with a helpful producer in Peter, they worked to create the best debut album possible. “We were inexperienced in the studio, so the result is more stilted than when we were live, but it’s as good as we could do at that time,” is how Walker remembers the recording. “The tapes were spoiled somewhat by record company negligence between mixing and mastering. We certainly made better sounding records later.”
Cold Chisel had worked hard to get to that point, though, grafting for several years before getting their big break when Warner Music Group signed the fledgling band. “We took a long time to get a deal, so we were elated to finally be able to make a record at all,” Walker adds.
In terms of its structure, the band was firmly committed to not being a singles band, according to Barnes.
“We thought we’d just release albums and keep away from the singles chart,” he explains, reflecting an attitude that feels more and more rare in today’s musical landscape.
That was until one certain song changed things. When Cold Chisel came out with “Khe Sanh” – a single that told the story of the Vietnam vets, in a style that epitomises what was so popular at the time – it’s little wonder it became such a resonant sound in Australian pop culture.
The song was picked up as a single by the record company before it was infamously banned before it could even become a hit, not reaching its chart peak until 2011. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to walk into a venue in any corner of this country 45 years later without hearing a local band covering the track with an enthusiastic crowd singing along (“Some of the songs from that album are played and streamed a lot more now than they ever were then,” Walker notes).
“Maybe we knew more than we thought because it seemed that the best thing anyone can do for a rock ‘n’ roll band is ban them,” Barnes says of “Khe Sanh”. “Suddenly people wanted to know about us, and after hundreds of gigs up and down the coast, the album eventually went gold.” Like so many other Aussies, ”Khe Sanh” was also Barnes’ favourite song. “Being the first single I should be sick of it by now, but the lyrics were so well-crafted I feel it still holds up to this day,” he insists.
He also admits to having a soft spot for “Just How Many Times”, which made him “work hard as a singer,” and which showed a lot of what was to come from Walker’s songwriting. “Delicate, intricate melodies that I would really have to concentrate on to get my head around. Singing songs like this one made me a better singer I think,” he adds.
While Walker doesn’t have a favourite song from the album (“I think it’s a good song line-up for a first (album)”), what he does have are “great memories” of recording it all. “I sometimes used to walk from the studio in Annandale back to the Cross in the early hours of the morning after we finished a session,” he recalls. “That’d be a long walk for me now.”
In fact, he reveals he hasn’t listened to Cold Chisel’s debut in a long time. “I listen to albums so much in the making I seldom go back.”
For Barnes, Cold Chisel was a sign of where the band was heading. “We hadn’t reached anywhere near where we wanted to go yet,” he reflects, “but that record set us on the right road.”
And, really, the thrill of Cold Chisel lies in the live setting: like Amyl and the Sniffers or The Chats, they deserve to be felt at full pelt, at their boisterous best. “On the whole Cold Chisel were at their best on the stage,” Barnes says. “Live, loud, and living on the edge. There was something that happened between us and an audience that brought out the best in the band. I think it’s still that way to this day.”
Cold Chisel’s debut is about to turn 45.
Both musicians are still going strong: Barnes’ supergroup The Barnestormers, consisting of The Living End’s Chris Cheney, Jools Holland and more, is about to release an album, while Walker recently announced a national tour in support of his upcoming solo album, Lightning in a Clear Blue Sky.
How does it feel, then, to still be making music at such a high level so many decades after tentatively finding their feet in Australian music? “Time goes by so fast,” Barnes ponders. “One minute we are a struggling young outfit trying our best to be a good band, and the next minute we are a much older outfit still working our arses off to be a better band.
According to Barnes, that’s the beauty of being in Cold Chisel: they’re never satisfied and never stay still. “We always want to play better, harder, longer, sweeter, tougher, the list goes on. So much to learn and still plenty of time to do it.”
What will Cold Chisel’s legacy be another 45 years from now? Their story feels like a cautionary tale. In a time when Sydney has lost Frankie’s Pizza by the Slice, a beloved rock spot not far from where Walker and co. found inspiration for so many of their songs at the Cross, and Melbourne’s iconic Tote Hotel faces an uncertain future, it’s vital that Australia realises just how much it needs such sturdy live music venues: without them, the next Cold Chisel may be lost.