The Complete Cold Chisel
Liner notes written for ‘The Complete Cold Chisel’. Released the year of their reunion tour, 2011.
Jimmy Barnes is screaming in my ear. It’s 3 am one winter’s night in 1980 in the Byron bay hinterland. Midnight Oil is recording ‘Bird Noises’ at a studio called The Music Farm. Chisel are having a night off before tomorrow’s gig at Bangalow Bowling club. I’m at the piano (amongst others) and we’re having a sing a long. Ian Moss has found an amp somewhere and is playing VERY loud wearing a Cheshire Cat smile. Then it got louder again. We play blues, Beatles, Abba, showtunes, anything. It’s a glorious noise. Don Walker hovers around watching events amusedly. Both bands had experienced some degree of success at that point, and it was all on our own terms. Gigging the same pubs, driving the same highways, and eating the same rubbish at the same roadhouses. That united us in a special way. I can’t remember much but we were only a short ride from Mullumbimby. If there was some incredibly powerful weed, it didn’t hinder anything.
Breakfast at Sweethearts is as good an album you could make in Australia in 1979. It sounded positively soft rock Californian then, housebroken even, compared to the blaze of Cold Chisel live. I saw them storm Brisbane’s Cloudlands in 1980. Enough said.
It’s the songs here that are now classics. Shipping Steel, Goodbye Astrid Goodbye, Merry Go Round, Breakfast at Sweetheart’s. Listening now to it remastered, it’s a fantastic record. But it really kicked live. Midnight Oil supported them many times. They didn’t stop and take names. They were bluesy, mean and virtuosic, all incredibly strong and talented people who delivered the goods in a blitzkrieg every single time I saw them. The cover of ‘Breakfast’ shows them looking powerful and regal in the Marble Bar. They looked like kings, self-assured, scarily confident. You felt they had their hands on the power button.
They were inspiring to me as a writer. They were on the vanguard of writing unashamed lyrics that were effortlessly Australian-centric rather than the cod Americana or corks-on-hats bush balladry that was being bandied about at the time. That makes them important. Post Whitlam pride in country. It’s Time. Not to leave the folk movement out of it entirely, Bogle, Schumann et al, but Skyhooks and Chisel were the first rock bands here to achieve a massive audience that wrote from their local area, with no cowering to Uncle Sam or Britain. No real concern about making it there, here was just fine, thanks. Pro audience connection, say goodbye to disco/plastic floor/teenybopper bullshit.
And they put Copmanhurst on the map in ‘Merry Go Round’, made it sound, well, interesting. Where the hell is Copmanhurst? An easy commute from Grafton.
On TV’s Countdown, after they got on the charts and cleaned up all the awards in 1981, they smashed the stage: bands really did that then, not with their roadies, or with special effects. They gave Countdown the finger. ‘Eat this!’ If there is such a thing as an Australian collective unconscious, they were tapped into it. I’ve seen grown men ripping off their shirts, devoted heads to the ground weeping, on their knees screaming “MOSSY!” during ‘Bow River’. More than just love in the room. People got married, had babies, crashed cars to those songs. The soundtrack of many a life. Real connection.
I was playing with Don Walker a few years ago. He is dry, to say the least. We played to 12 people one night. The songs were great as usual. At one point he said to the room ‘I can’t pull a crowd, but I can sure pull a band’. Don lived in the Plaza Hotel in Kings Cross for many years. ‘Plaza’ is a tender song here beautiful sung by Ian. Chisel wasn’t all ball tearing bluster, it was about the songs: they consistently did great ballads: look at ‘Four Walls’ for one.
Sweetheart’s Café was the dawn stop off for those dodging the street sweepers and doing an all-nighter up at The Cross. “The coffee’s hot and the toast is brown” and “She doesn’t have to smile or flirt, she just wears that mini skirt” are possibly centerpieces of the Australian zeitgeist. The slow grind of the Darlinghurst Road underworld, those characters and set piece sleaze infects this record. On ‘Breakfast’ Don’s writing is at its most crystalline.
Steve had yet to assert his writing skills on ‘Breakfast’. On that legendary night at The Music Farm he ventured that he was writing songs. He had a pop sensibility that surfaced on “East”. I was lucky enough to see them slay Shellharbour Workers Club in late 2010, while Steve was still with us. It was all still there, intact.
Australian audiences would take a bullet for these guys, and their back catalogue is a work of art. They split in 1983, for all the wrong reasons bands always do, a damn shame. I’m so glad they plan to keep going now dear Steve has gone, he would approve. Because their Last Stand was way too early, because they have all kept playing individually so the tools are sharp, and most importantly, because the songs speak to and mean so much to so many people.