Article: Ringside Cold Chisel


An article on Chisel I got published in 2003 by Ross B ©2003

Cold Chisel have reformed once again, to headline a series of ‘Ringside’ concerts Elvis-style at the Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, amongst other dates & venues including one of their favoured stomping-grounds, Newcastle. The date is 3 June 2003 and that’s exactly thirty years ahead of the time this 5-piece formed in Adelaide, Australia. Since forming as ‘Orange’ in Adelaide 1973 – to change their name to ‘Cold Chisel’ at the end of that year – the band have endured only one line-up change, and that’s when founding member / bassist Les Kaczmarek was replaced in 1975 on bass by Phil Small. And along with Jim Barnes (vocals), Ian Moss (guitar), Steve Prestwich (drums), & Don Walker (keyboards), these guys set out to become an enduring Australian success story.


What’s particularly astonishing about Chisel’s formation is the fact that, aside from founding member / bassist Les Kaczmarek and his replacement Phil Small, none of the band were actually from Adelaide. Jim Barnes had lived there the longest, migrating at age five from Glasgow, Scotland with his family to settle in the workers’ satellite town of Elizabeth in the northern outskirts of the city. Like the Great Coming of the Spheres, the rest of the band converged onto the city in the year prior to their meeting and formation; Ian Moss was born and bred in Alice Springs and moved to Adelaide in 1972 to attend high school where he played in a band with bassist Phil Small. Steve Prestwich was – like many a successful popster - a Liverpudlian, who migrated to Adelaide in 1972 at a relative’s recommendation, that the music scene was good etc. Steve was about to head back to Liverpool but cancelled his ticket after rehearsing with Chisel, it was Ian Moss singing the Ray Charles standard ‘Georgia on my mind’, that won him over to stay. As for Don Walker, he came over to Adelaide from Armidale NSW at the beginning of 1973 to take up a position with the Defence Department’s Centre for Weapons Research.

Cold Chisel’s long-term success is reflected by the fact that they’ve sold more records after their demise than during their time together as recording artists, which was 1978 – 1983/4. Their latest ‘best of’ package sold over a million copies, and their studio albums have been remastered & repackaged and continue to sell 150,000-200,000 copies annually. Their audience is predominantly Australia & New Zealand but they have accrued a sizeable cult following internationally over the years, and the band’s appeal is universal. This places Cold Chisel into a select group of bands whose stature grows with each passing year after their demise, in effect, they are transgenerational. Others of the like are the Beatles, the Doors, The Jam, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Cold Chisel are the only Australian band thus far to have done so. Their success is reflected in other ways; talent, self-belief, ambition, and the old adage of “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” rings absolutely true with Cold Chisel. These guys worked hard all through the ‘70’s, and took no short cuts. Their success is hard-earned, it could be said.

They were lucky as well. Firstly, they were lucky to find each other. As so often is the case with great bands, the sum of their parts was exponentially greater than the parts themselves. To see them up there at ‘Ringside’ in 2003 was to witness what appeared to be five very distinctive individuals – but put them together, something special happens, they are ‘right’ for each other, a “karass” as Walker once called them, a family, meant to be together. The various musical and personal synergies between members is remarkable; Barnes & Moss, Moss & Walker, Walker & Barnes, Barnes & Prestwich, Small & Moss, etc. The band knew they were destined from the start, and they proved themselves correct.

They were lucky for a second reason, they hit at precisely the right time. From an Australian perspective, whatever it was that made the 1970’s the “seventies” and the 1980’s the “eighties”, those years between 1978 and 1983 were the bridge, and Chisel rode that wave and articulated in their successive recorded works the mood & spirit of the times better than anyone else, another reason for their enduring quality. Their drawcard for this achievement is that they carried with them a great & intuitive songwriter, Don Walker.

Cold Chisel were the most multi-dimensional of the great Oz Rock bands, something that accounts for their wide-spread and continuing appeal. It’s difficult to pin them down in a sentence; they represent everything from rock’n’roll, jazz-blues, to soul, to swing, to country, to heavy rock. There’s always an underlying sophistication to their music – not “sophisticated” in the sense of a Cole Porter, but sophisticated in terms of innate talent, inspiration, street-smarts and musical influences. Their music can be best described as being a hybrid between the British heavy metal / white-boy blues typified by bands like Led Zepplin, Deep Purple & Free, mixed primarily with American soul & blues. With Prestwich’s big bass drum and Small’s punchy Fender Precision sound, they even sounded quite like boogie. Maybe Barnes said it the best when he opined in 1978, “…when we’re in our cool moods we’re one of the pseudo blues / jazz / root-type bands, but really we’re just a heavy rock band with different influences, that’s all.”
Many of these “different influences” can be attributed to Don Walker’s own musical and songwriting influences, ranging from the jazz blues of black American artists such as Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, and in particular Ray Charles, to the rock’n’roll piano stylings of Jerry Lee Lewis, to the erudite verbosity and highway street-smarts of Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen. Walker also shared a passion for the contemporary rock bands favoured by the rest of the band, and with that, as a pianist/organist, a liking for the Doors & The Band.

Cold Chisel began getting gigs towards the end of 1973, hustled and pulled together by Les Kaczmarek. Early in 1974, Walker pulled the plug on the band by returning to Armidale and UNE to complete an honours degree in Quantum Physics. The rest of the band, in an unusual yet telling display of allegiance, followed him up and set-up camp in a farmhouse outside Armidale and continued on as a 4-piece, rehearsing & organising their own gigs while Walker stayed at the Uni and studied. In August, the four-piece Chisel moved back to Adelaide while Walker completed his studies and, incidentally, won a local song-contest organised by Mike McClellan. Meanwhile in Adelaide, the 4-piece Cold Chisel made their first important connection by hooking up with promoter Vince Lovegrove who became their first manager and life-long confidant. Lovegrove gave the band their first gigs, among them support spots for bands such as Skyhooks, who were told by lead singer Jim Barnes at the time, “Just wait till our keyboard player gets back, then we’ll do all originals too. And we’ll be big.”

He was right, but he’d have to wait longer than expected. Walker’s return to Adelaide and showcase of new songs which slanted towards a slower jazz-blues style left Lovegrove nonplussed and the band were at an odds as to whether to continue on as a covers band with their retinue of songs from Zepplin, Deep Purple, Free, & Bad Company. They decided to continue the covers while adding faster, harder originals to the set. Les Kaczmarek was the only member of the band with a day job and wasn’t comfortable with the blusier, urgent style the band were gravitating towards. He was replaced with Phil Small halfway through 1975. Jim Barnes soon left for a few months to join his brother’s band Feather, at which Ian Moss took over the lead vocal reigns. Nonetheless, 1975 saw Cold Chisel consolidate their position as the premier band in Adelaide, and got a few key supports including Joe Cocker & Deep Purple. Early in 1976, with Barnes returning, they moved to Melbourne, and later on in the year, Sydney. This was the toughest time for the band and starving and going without food became a common for them. Early in 1977, with Walker as manager, the band began getting bookings at all the major Sydney city nightspots – most of them now gone. The band scored particularly well in Newcastle. By mid-1977, Chisel began to attract a sizeable following and were known as the only band headlining at the Bondi Lifesaver (now a car-park, shopping centre, Coles supermarket & apartment blocks) not to have a record contract. During this period the band were knocked back by every major record label.

Walker met their final (still-current) manager Rod Willis mid-way through 1977. Coinciding with that, a young A&R guy from WEA, Dave Sinclair signed the band in August 1977 for an album on a modest budget. Finally. Demos were made in September 1977 (all fine songs & performances that are available as extra tracks on the remastered versions of Chisel’s first two albums), and the band began recording their first album, the eponymously titled ‘Cold Chisel’, in January 1978. Here’s a run-down of the albums:

Cold Chisel ; recorded January 1978 at Trafalgar Studios in Annandale, produced by Peter Walker, released in April 1978. Chisel recorded their first two albums in between heavy gig schedules, no breaks for them. Critics do not usually distinguish their first album but in many ways, it’s their finest album and possibly one of the greatest albums ever made. Very few records capture the perfect musical synergy between members and with that, a perfect chemistry between band and songwriter, which in this case, was crafted and grafted through all their years of playing together. Don Walker composed all of the album’s eight songs with the opening track ‘Juliet’ a co-write with Barnes. The writing is simply extraordinary. The mood of the album is so unselfconscious, almost as if exists in its own bubble, a timeless testament to life in the seventies. Only ‘Khe Sahn’ seems to be the hook to the present moment – a song that became their first single (albeit banned from radio play). Key to the songwriting is Walker’s narratives, and the wide range of blues-related stylings on much of the album’s material. Amongst the best songs are ‘Khe Sahn’, ‘One Long Day’, & ‘Rosaline’. ‘One Long Day’ is an ambitious yet awesome bluesy epic in four parts that structurally resembles ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘Rosaline’ is simply one of the finest jazz-blues songs ever created, sung by the angelic-voiced Ian Moss. The album draws the listener back to what appears to be a more innocent time, and although one can virtually smell the leaded petrol emanating off the playing grooves, it’s an album that provides listeners, both new and familiar, with a rewarding and challenging experience with every listen. It’s very much an album of the seventies, but like all great works of art, it exudes a sense of timelessness. Arguably, of all their albums, it is Cold Chisel’s debut album whose force or value increases with the passing of time.

Breakfast at Sweethearts ; recorded in bits during the second half of ’78 at Alberts Studios, Neutral Bay, produced by Richard Batchens and released in February 1979. The mix and production of this album is fiercely disappointing. Much of it is almost bland demo quality. Batchens was unsympathetic to the band and the band themselves were tired from relentless gigging and touring. Nonetheless, it’s good enough to be a classic. The album is the band’s most erudite lyrically with some of the songs, namely ‘Dresden’ reaching something akin to high poetry, as good as anything Bob Dylan ever wrote. Again, Don Walker wrote the album with co-writes on two of the tracks. It’s an album that has a sense of up-to-dateness about it, the windswept feeling of the seventies drawing to a close. It’s a “happy” album in that reveals a romance of observing life both on the road, and from inner-city Sydney & Kings Cross (where Walker resided) from a vantage point of liberation and not having to get up in the morning, so to speak. Songs like ‘Conversations’ & ‘Merry-go-round’ added credence to the “socio-political awareness” tag that was bandied about the band at the time, ‘Dresden’ & ‘Shipping Steel’ reflected the expanse and freedom of life on the road, escaping, whilst ‘The Door’, ‘Plaza’, & the Smokey Robinson-influenced ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’ were penned from Walker’s own inner-Sydney city living experiences, the latter & title track a magnificent expression of Chisel music and songwriting in general.

The band fired through 1979 with the ascendant of the zeitgeist, their fan-base and crowd attendances soaring exponentially. They had their first holiday in June of that year, a two-week break. Towards the end of that year, with Walker intent on writing a chart song, they encountered their producer-to-be Mark Opitz and scored a Top 20 hit with ‘Choirgirl’. Early in 1980, the band re-entered the studio to record their third album, and for the first time, were allowed the privilege of recording an album in comfortable surrounds without the distractions of gigging.

East; recorded March – April 1980 at Paradise Studios Woolloomooloo, produced by Mark Opitz, released June 1980. ‘East’ is the most celebrated Chisel album, cohesive, radio-friendly and infused with a sparkling confidence and dynamism not witnessed in their first two albums; Jim Barnes’s voice in particular improving in a quantum leap from the previous albums with a poise, presence, control, clarity & soulfulness that helped give this album such a fresh and invigorating sound. The band’s most enduring and popular album, it rendered them at the very top of the tree. For the first time, other members besides Walker contributed complete songs, all five members got on the album. Jim had ‘Rising Sun’ and ‘My Turn to Cry’, Moss had ‘Never Before’, Prestwich had ‘Best Kept Lies’ and Phil Small had ‘My Baby’. Walker himself had hits with the soulful ‘Choirgirl’ and ‘Cheap Wine’, his other songs on East dealt with life both in and out of gaol (‘Standing on the Outside’, ‘Four Walls’, ‘Tomorrow’), the ‘socio-political’ awareness theme of ‘Star Hotel’, plus one delightful pop quirk, ‘Ita’, a tongue-in-cheek take on the allure of Ita Buttrose.

On the day of the completion of East, 12 April 1980, two of the original Chisel roadies Alan Dallow and Billy Rowe died in a car smash in the Southern Highlands whilst roadie-ing for Barnes’ brother, John Swan. Chisel found themselves at the top of the Australian pop and rock tree and were patently and demonstrably uncomfortable with the trappings, rock awards, TV Week pin-ups etc. In 1981, their first tour of America proved to be something of a dead end, and embittered by the loss of Billy and Alan and the ickyness of chart success, Walker penned a new set of songs in an entirely different direction that would make up the band’s fourth album.

Circus Animals ; recorded September – October 1981 at Paradise studios, produced by Mark Opitz, released March 1982. Recorded same place with same producer as East, with Walker writing half the album while the remaining songs were written by the other members, exactly like East. That’s where the similarities end. Prestwich wrote the pop songs for this album, ‘Forever Now’ and ‘When the War is Over’, Moss pulled in his finest song ‘Bow River’, while Barnes delivered an OzRock screamer, (written about the American experience), ‘You Got Nothing I Want’. Walker’s aggressively-edged songs were not pretty or charming, yet were in a way, elementally sublime. They featured expansive arrangements akin to sprawling mathematical equations with an intensity and integrity rarely witnessed in rock music. There’s the suffocating humidity of ‘Taipan’, the “mathematical” bingo/boogie sound of ‘Numbers Fall’, the elemental rock of ‘Hound Dog’ & ‘Wild Colonial Boy’, and an ode to lost friends, ‘Letter to Alan’. What distinguishes these songs from Walker’s earlier fare is the loss of innocence; where Walker’s principles and values were implied on earlier albums, here they are spelled out in writing. It was clear that chart success did not sit easy with him and with the deaths of Billy & Alan and the souring American experience, it was time to be explicit about where he and his band were coming from, as the last verse of the album’s closing track ‘Letter to Alan’ reveals, “…and if I don’t hang around our old gambling grounds, it does not mean that I’ve forgotten / We believed and I still do…”.

Perhaps the pressure of procuring this level of intensity took its toll on Chisel. Although many of their gigs of 1982 were regarded as their finest, by 1983 things were going awry when on a German tour, the band were dismayed at their perception that they weren’t playing well. Prestwich left the band soon after to be replaced by Ray Arnott. Unfortunately, other headaches and hassles got in the way and as such, in August 1983, the band decided to split at the end of that year. Prestwich was called in for the final string of concerts while Ray Arnott continued recording with the band. Cold Chisel played their final gig on 15 December 1983 at the Entertainment Centre in Sydney, and wouldn’t reform to play for another 14 years, until 1997.

Twentieth Century ; released in 1984 is the band’s most haphazard album and was recorded throughout 1983 and early ’84 with a variety of producers, mostly at the Capitol Theatre off Broadway. It’s almost ‘not’ a Chisel album with Prestwich featuring on few tracks; as fine a drummer as Ray Arnott was on these sessions no-one could take the place of Prestwich whose sound – that percussive almost melodic elasticity – was the Chisel sound. Nonetheless, it’s a fine collection of songs and heralds in a new era of which Chisel were not to play a part, with songs like ‘Saturday Night’ & ‘Twentieth Century’. ‘Build this Love’ was a precursor to the direction Walker was to take with his band Catfish five years later, and ‘Janelle’ is a bona-fide jazz/blues classic ala Ray Charles, a Walker gem. Unfortunately, this album is where Barnes began ‘screaming’ his vocals, to become something of trademark for him during his solo years. The album contains ‘Flame Trees’ which is something of a swansong for the band. The band closed this era with a full-length feature film, ‘The Last Stand’, centred around their last concerts in Sydney in December 1983.

In 1984, Cold Chisel were no more. At this time in Australian music, Midnight Oil were peaking with two of their finest albums, ‘10-1’ of 1983 and then ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ of 1984. INXS made what was possibly their finest album in 1984, ‘The Swing’ and were on the verge of riding a 5-year international fame wave. The eighties as we know it had taken off.
During the “studio years” of Chisel, they released one live EP and two live LP’s, ‘You’re 13, you’re beautiful and you’re mine’, ‘Swingshift’, & ‘Barking Spiders Live’. Posthumously, there has not been no shortage of “best of…” style packages, such as ‘Radio Songs’, ‘Razor Songs’, ‘Gold Chisel’ etc. The Last Stand film was released on video and CD and is about to be re-released on DVD with extended footage. In 1994, Cold Chisel released a most interesting collection of demos and offcuts, the 16-track album ‘Teenage Love’. In 1997/8 they reformed for a new tour and album and in 1999 the original studio albums were remastered and repackaged and included bonus tracks on each CD, often demonstrating the more eclectic side of the band’s musical range.

And so to Ringside in June 2003. What you saw up there was what you got. Simply, they were no more or less a great band playing great songs, with it must be added, a commanding sense of dynamics. Only Phil Small’s 5-string active Fender bass & Mossy’s impressive array of stomp boxes suggested that this could be 2003, and not 1978. Walker’s keyboard set-up was a traditional Yamaha grand and electric Hammond organ. They played a selection from each studio album, including their latest from 1998, ‘The Last Wave of Summer’. Jazz/blues, soul, rockabilly, country (they did a Johnny Cash cover), rock’n’roll was the key to the night. David Blight, one of the original members of the Chisel “family” way back from the Adelaide days, featured extensively on harmonica, and Andy Bickers played sax as well. Moss’s voice was stunning, better than ever. Even Walker sang a couple and his voice has improved markedly since the Catfish days. He sang one called ‘Fallen Angel’ which sounded very Kurt Weill, one humorous lad from the audience shouted out “Go Donny” which left a large segment of the audience laughing. He sang a great song from the last album, ‘Bal-a-Versailles’, there were constant calls from the audience such as “wrap it up Don!” which might be a nice-ish way of saying luv ya work mate but let Barnsey do the singing…, either that or they were very aware of Walker’s lyrical prolixity which often knows no end. Moss sang his crowning glory, ‘Bow River’, and did a stunning rendition of ‘Plaza’ off the Breakfast at Sweethearts album. Moss sang a jazz standard ‘Cry me a River’, and, the pick of the bunch, the classic ‘Rosaline’. Barnes was solid and professional and in good voice, although I felt that his take on ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’ could have been performed with more subtlety. Phil Small was solid and flawless, seemingly a background figure though his musicality is always a prominent feature of the Chisel sound. Steve Prestwich was solid and commanding, and stunned everyone when he got on acoustic guitar to sing a couple of new songs with the band backing. His voice was strong and fine, stony & bluesy with fine songs from the drummer who in the Chisel days, demonstrated himself to be the most promising songwriter of the band, Walker aside.

The band could never have achieved its lasting success and ‘transgenerational’ status without Don Walker. His organisational and leadership skills helped get them through those early, lean years, along with the songs he kept bringing to the band. It’s inarguable that Walker’s talents, capabilities and capacities as a songwriter are truly extraordinary. Much of his work has a somewhat “mathematical” quality to it, maybe that’s a nebulous concept, but it’s possible and even likely that the years he spent studying maths and physics at a post-graduate level helped stimulate his innate compositional talents – now there’s something they don’t teach in songwriting courses!!

Prestwich’s ‘When the War is Over’ was one of the more stunning numbers of the set, Prestwich on shaker, Walker on organ, Mossy on acoustic and he and Barnes superb on vocals – this is one song that speaks for today as much as anytime. The band simply were what they were on stage, there was no blazing zeitgeist running through them as say it did in 1979 with set-fire-to-the-town tours and touring posters of burning monks etc, still, on ‘Flame Trees’, in that middle section after that striking key change during that climactic middle section, the band were all at the microphones singing “…do you remember nothing stopped us on the field in our day…” and that electric synergy was running through them as a collective…you could tell then, so clearly, that these guys had been or are something uniquely special, a true phenomenon.
by Ross B ©2003

Comments

Anonymous said…
great review of the life of Chisel. I learned a lot and it was extremely well written and researched.
Did you check out the quotes of einstein that I sent you from you tube?
Pete

Popular posts from this blog

Maton Factory tour

Neil Finn: a man I love, a man I hate