Don Walker's 'Catfish' Unlimited Address (1989): retrospective album review
(This review is to be published in a local magazine, the Songsmith. I hope it attracts attention to the album. Cheers, r.)
When Cold Chisel disbanded in 1983, most of its members fashioned either solo careers or stints with other bands. It was only the band’s principal songwriter, keyboardist Don Walker, who retired from the scene completely. Walker was to spend those four or five years after Chisel’s demise travelling throughout Australia and Europe and taking care of other personal matters, in his own words, “detoxing” from the music industry. He finally came to back to music in 1988 to record a new album under the moniker Catfish. Chisel guitarist Ian Moss, producer/guitarist Peter Walker, harmonica player David Blight, and drummer Ricky Fataar were some of the album’s guest musicians. The album was titled Unlimited Address and was released in 1989.
It seems an absurdity that one of Australia’s most gifted songwriters, responsible for penning those anthems such as ‘Khe Sahn’ and ‘Cheap wine’ that are perpetually juke-boxed and drunk-sung throughout beer-barns nationwide, should write and record a solo masterpiece that remains seemingly overlooked to this very day. In Chisel it was Jimmy Barnes, and to a lesser though no less prominent extent Ian Moss, who gave voice to Walker’s songs. And it was Barnes who rode the wave of popularity throughout the eighties with a solo career and a string of albums that in no way came close to matching the brilliance and synergy of Cold Chisel. Although Walker was the principal songwriter in Cold Chisel and something of the bandleader, he himself kept a low profile within the band, sitting with his piano to the left of drummer Steve Prestwich in the backline. He sang backing vocals but was nowhere the singer in the way that Barnes or Moss were. And all of a sudden, in 1989, Don Walker appears with a new album and his customary intense, eagle-eyed portrait on its front cover. With his Bob Dylan 60s-style polka-dot shirt, black jacket and cigar, he looked every bit – to paraphrase the name of his current band – a suave fuck.
21 years on, Unlimited Address stands as an enduring masterpiece within the Australian popular music canon, sounding every bit as vital and contemporary as it did back in 1989. Incredibly, very few people seem to know of it. Contemporary reviews of Unlimited Address were universally laudatory and yet despite this, the album has not enjoyed the retrospective accolade (or sales) that other albums of the time have had bestowed to them. One such album that comes to mind is the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane that shares a somewhat similar sound and flavour to Unlimited Address. Recorded in 1988, 16 Lovers Lane has since been proffered the full-retrospective treatment: the remastering, repackaging, extra tracks and a sunny synopsis. Unlimited Address on the other hand, the more powerful record of the two, is a comparative unknown.
Unlimited Address was produced by Peter Walker (no relation to Don Walker) who had previously produced Cold Chisel’s eponymously titled debut album in 1978. Theirs is a special chemistry where Peter Walker as producer intuitively understood Don Walker’s writing and its brilliance and durability. Peter Walker’s idea when embarking on the first Cold Chisel record was to showcase the range of Don Walker’s songwriting; he was to do similarly ten years later with Unlimited Address. Peter’s producing seems to galvanise Don’s songs in a way that makes them sound of a piece, and relevant to the times that they’re recorded. He is a perfect conduit to Don’s vision. There is a lovely purity or uniformity to both the debut Cold Chisel record and Unlimited Address that is not quite present on any other Chisel or Chisel-related album. Therefore, when listening to Cold Chisel and Unlimited Address, you hear not only Don Walker’s extraordinary songs, but you can’t help but be inadvertently taken back to the time and place at which they were captured. Both albums have remained durable and timeless, as all great art is. Whereas Cold Chisel’s debut album is firmly rooted in the Australia of the 1970s, Unlimited Address parallels the crazy, carnival atmosphere that was Sydney of the mid-to-late 1980s. Playwright David Williamson’s Don’s Party is to Cold Chisel’s debut album what Emerald City is to Unlimited Address.
Unlimited Address shares with 16 Lovers Lane that big, echoey, wall-of-sound production that’s most indicative of late-eighties rock, particularised most prominently by the drums in a very radio-friendly mix. Both albums, too, share in their sound and respective cohesiveness, a discernable sense of optimism and radiance that was felt in Sydney right up toward the latter end of the 1980s. Both albums are charged with inspiration and energy, remaining fresh-sounding and alive to this very day: the poppier 16 Lovers Lane deals alternatively with love and loss whilst the bluesier Unlimited Address showcases some of Walker’s finest, most emphatic writing. All of Walker’s familiar themes (and more) from the Chisel days are revisited in Unlimited Address; the injustices and absurdities of city life in all its warped and wild colours, refracted and filtered through the lens of an early hours night-owl that was Walker himself.
It’s those first three songs of Unlimited Address, ‘When you dance’, ‘Hiwire Girl’, and ‘The Early Hours’ that seem to capture the flavour, fervour and energy of times most readily. Kicking off with David Blight’s harmonica, ‘When you dance’ settles into a tight groove interspersed with the bluesy, almost modal, verses and Walker’s darkly wry observations of local nightlife. We, too, are introduced to Don Walker as lead vocalist on record for the first time, to which one’s first instinct is to compare Don’s voice to Barnes and Moss. Don’s voice appears weaker, even raspier, as he strains for some of the higher notes. Though for what Walker lacks in technique he makes up for with passion and the conviction of singing his own words, not unlike how Dylan sang during the mid-sixties. In fact, he sings great. Walker would eventually settle into a more of a country-style drawl as his career progressed that technically suited his range much better.
‘Hiwire Girl’ was the album’s first single. It starts off with a conga intro and a shady, almost atonal and somewhat chromatic chordal pattern that’s livened up by Blight’s harmonica and those eighties drums and punchy double bass-lines, resolving as they do into one of the most delightful songs that Don Walker has ever written. The song’s many musical twists, tonality changes and dynamic shifts are expertly crafted into an essentially hummable, memorable, inspired tune. On Unlimited Address, ‘Hiwire Girl’ is the song that probably comes closest to capturing the spirit of “Emerald City” of the late 1980s.
‘The Early Hours’ continues in the spirit of the opening two songs. An emphatic, howling blues with more than faint echoes of the Doors, ‘The Early Hours’ eschews much of Walker’s usual lyrical prolixity and is driven instead by its sheer musical joy and immediacy. The track’s overriding optimism and power shine through in Walker’s singing, in both the main phrases and in the delightful changes to the chorus/bridge sections.
The middle three songs of Unlimited Address are all quite extraordinary, equating to some of Don Walker’s very best work. ‘Subway’ commences with slashing D minor chords with the bass carrying the melody. Don’s melody in the verse mirrors that of ‘My Funny Valentine’ although the subject matter is vastly different. Writing about the homeless, Walker’s writing is at its very best: observant, sharp, bristling powerfully with imagination and poetic inspiration. These attributes are mirrored in the soundtrack of ‘Subway’ where Walker modulates up a key with almost every consecutive verse, climaxing with the powerful last verse that’s augmented with electric guitar to emphasise the chord-changes, and with Walker’s dry, cutting observations of the “majority”: “We learn to raise a little smoke then disappear, leaving subtle lies to hang below the ear like a pearl, these masquerades could never burn your powdered hands, now it ain’t so easy here in the subway of the world”.
‘One night in Soviet Russia’ is a slower, quieter track in waltz time that’s guided gently along by percussive brushes. The song swings along hauntingly, almost sinisterly, with a melody and harmonic progression redolent of East European folk music. A fine story that’s based on Walker’s travels throughout the Soviet Union in the mid-eighties, the song swells with a passion and intoxicating melody that take the listener to a freezing Siberian night-time scenario. The East European musical influence, on reflection, can be heard subtly in some of the other songs, like ‘Hiwire Girl’. ‘One night in Soviet Russia’ is a compelling, evocative narrative that matched with the song’s dramatic, inspired melody and harmonic progression, is one of Don Walker’s quietly assured masterpieces.
‘My Backyard’ is something of an equivalent to Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ and is perhaps the centrepiece track off the album. According to Walker, the song took a long time to finish. It had to be pared down and stripped back lyrically to fit into its final six minutes. Much of the song was written in Eastern Europe during the mid-eighties, and the song’s bracketed subtitle is “the moon over Manilla”. Despite this, ‘My Backyard’ takes on a discernable ‘Sydney’ feel about it. Many of the lyrics paint the picture of late nights in Kings Cross, a subject that Chisel fans know all too well via the many fine songs that Walker had written about the district. There is something too of an inner-west feel about the song; when you think of places like Annandale and Chippendale in the late eighties you can’t help but be reminded of bohemianism, a touch of the decrepit, all mixed in with a great feeling of creativity and vibrancy.
As with ‘Subway’, ‘My Backyard’ is one of Don Walker’s finest sets of lyrics. The lyrics, when read as a whole, read as a contemporary urban poem where the alarming chaos and emptiness of city life and its herd-like citizens is reflected back to the writer and his woman-friend who are engaged in an uncomfortable, fractured interaction, both of whom are standing on the balcony looking out over “my backyard”. The woman, herself, remains elusive and fascinating, the sort of character you’d visit in an anxiety-dream. Walker’s writing is vivid and exceptional; setting his words to punchy music that’s reflective of the tone and flavour of the story. The chordal/musical changes hit at just the right moments to create and build quite sensational musical tensions that mirror and reinforce the power of Walker’s lyric. ‘My Backyard’ is possibly Walker’s finest exposition of street-life, blending sharp poetic realism with an inspired and powerful narrative that makes this song one of the very best of its genre.
‘Pre-war blues’ cools the mood instantly with its jazzy, elegant sway. This is a jazz-blues based piece about the immediate post-war period and the return-home of the American soldiers, written with Walker’s characteristic poetic narrative and deft touch. The middle section of the song bursts through into a beautiful bout of melody with the words, “…high in the old Roman town the children of old American fortunes drown their luck, choosing their favourite Broadway tunes, and pre-war blues…”.
‘Station’ is a punchy Doors-influenced blues, indicative of the direction Walker would take with the second Catfish album, Ruby. Walker had pointed out in an interview that the line “…a man with velocity’s a man alive…” was inspired by his Physics/Mathematics past; Don Walker did an honours degree in Physics before embarking on the road with Cold Chisel in the mid-70s.
The album’s closing title-track is the album’s one song that explicitly spreads it subject matter beyond urban confines. In that, it vaguely reflects Cold Chisel’s early bluesy style and those early Chisel songs such as ‘On the Road’. ‘Unlimited Address’ was written during Walker’s sojourn around Australia after Chisel’s break-up in 1983 and features both the great music and the sharp lyricism that’s a constant throughout the entire album: “…down by the docks the casino plays the Asians and everybody else, they’re waking up to how they’re take-home pay is gonna leave them hanging off the shelf…”. The song ends succinctly with the lyric “…yes I dream, dream, dream each day of my wide unlimited address…” as the final harmonica wail swells down. It’s a fine ending that offers up a feeling of openness and opportunity amidst the sense of closure that befits the song’s status as the album’s closing track.
Don Walker was to record an excellent second album with Catfish in 1991, Ruby, which honed into more of a roots-y country-blues direction. His solo albums since have become even drier, more roots-based, like a drought-stricken, red-earthed Nick Cave. His narratives and stories remain as compelling as ever. In 2009 he released a fine book (his first), Shots, that is an evocatively composed, stream-of-consciousness autobiography. He now tours occasionally with his band the Suave Fucks and somehow fits the time in for sporadic Chisel reunions. But it’s this, his first solo album, which contains some of Don Walker’s best work in a career that’s spanned over three decades. Unlimited Address has everything going for it; it depicts wholeheartedly the exuberance of the era and is brimming with Walker’s masterful musicality, lyricism, craftsmanship, melody, and songwriting. The only pity is that with the passing of time, the album remains relatively unknown. Don, however, to his credit, remains every bit the suave fuck he’s always been, making music and writing books in his own low-key, inimitable fashion.