Band of BROTHERS
Cold Chisel’s reunion plans took a massive blow with death of drummer Steve Prestwich, writes Kathy Mccabe
FROM cassette tapes in danger of disintegrating to original masters archived in temperature-controlled warehouses, the band and their team meticulously inspected every song, demo or whisper of an idea. They even bought bootlegs back from fans via eBay.
This expedition through their history was part of a plan hatched after the band performed at the inaugural V8 Supercars event in Sydney in December 2009 to more than 45,000 screaming fans.
Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss, Don Walker, Phil Small and Steve Prestwich were back in business.
‘‘ We felt probably as good as we’ve ever felt in 40 years, coming off after that show,’’ Walker says.
‘‘ We’d managed to get through a few warm-up shows and then the big one with [ such] a huge crowd, with no bad feeling off-stage amongst us all. And really, the band played well, we felt.
‘‘ I can tell you there are a lot of nights when we come off and they might be happy out there but we’re not happy with ourselves. That wasn’t one of those nights. We came off on a real high.
‘‘ We got together in a restaurant down The Rocks about a week later and sat around feeling as good as we’ve ever felt together.
‘‘ Everyone said ‘ How good was that? Let’s do some more . . . anything’. We spoke about live work, about writing more.’’
Chisel resolved to release their music online for the first time with an ambitious reissue of their recorded and filmed legacy. Back to the musical future.
They would also record a new studio album, their first since 1998’ s The Last Wave
of Summer, and embark on the biggest tour of their on-off career.
The band headed into the studio while the Johns – their managers John O’Donnell and John Watson – got working on the plans for Chisel to join the digital revolution and return to Australia’s biggest stages.
And then fate intervened with a kick to the guts. Drummer Steve Prestwich died after surgery for a brain tumour in January this year.
His loss was keenly felt at the press conference at the Marble Bar two weeks ago, where the band confirmed they were forging ahead with the reunion with The Divinyls’ drummer Charley Drayton stepping in.
Chisel have a history with the darkly ornate bar below the Sydney Hilton; it served as the backdrop for the cover of their 1979 record Breakfast At Sweethearts.
The day before the launch of their Light The Nitro tour, a shoot with the band to recreate that photo left the far left chair – Prestwich’s spot in the shot – empty with a jacket draped over the back.
‘‘ We shot the original cover a lot earlier ( in the morning) than this,’’ Barnes said. ‘‘ The media launch had kicked off at the very un-rock hour of 10am.
‘‘ It was six in the morning; we had to be out by nine. I think if I remember right we came straight down from the ( Kings) Cross. We were all really, really bleary-eyed and puffy.’’
Walker added: ‘‘ And the roadies were raiding the bar.’’
Their pre-eminent songwriter, Walker opened the Light The Nitro launch with an eloquent speech about the path the band had trodden to get to this point and how the Cold Chisel circle had been broken with Prestwich’s death.
Of course they wrestled with the question of whether to continue with the touring and recording. They decided life was too short not to.
Barnes reiterated those sentiments later that afternoon as Chisel and their minders milled around the bar.
‘‘ When Steve died, obviously there was a spanner in the works for a while. But when we sat back and thought about it, this is what we do. And what Steve did. He’d be loving playing with us and we’d love to have him still playing with us,’’ he said.
‘‘ He definitely wouldn’t want us to go and sulk and cry in the corner. He’d want us to pick ourselves up and tear the town down. That’s what we do, you know.’’
A share of tour profits will be given to the drummer’s children. And there will be more music from Prestwich in the years to come.
Besides his contributions to the new record during sessions late last year, Walker revealed last month they found demos the drummer had intended to present to the band on his iPhone.
He said they will be recorded and released in some form in the future but the discovery was too late to include them on next year’s album.
Going through those iPhone demo files wasn’t easy listening.
‘‘ Oh, you know, I don’t want to get into the emotional side of things too much but you can imagine,‘‘ Walker said.
‘‘ I always enjoyed listening to Steve, his demos, his particular way of playing guitar with his songs, his way of singing them.
‘‘ If he hadn’t been in Cold Chisel and people could see him as a singer-songwriter, he would be seen as a major Celtic artist because that’s what he sounds like.
‘‘ We all miss him, we’ve talked about it, we miss him every day anyway . . . wake up thinking about him, think about him at odd times during the day, so listening to that [ music] late at night, some songs finished, all of them beautiful, some that are just ideas that you can tell could be good songs it’s quite intense listening.’’
Chisel are forging forward with a particularly audacious plan considering the times.
Rock music struggles to make the singles charts and Australia’s touring market has softened in the wake of tough economic times and the country’s spate of natural disasters this year.
The Light The Nitro tour has 24 dates booked which include arenas, big tents in showgrounds and regional entertainment hubs.
Barnes has no fears the fans will come in their hundreds of thousands.
‘‘ I have been touring constantly since Cold Chisel broke up, as has Ian and Don. I get stopped in the street by people yelling out, asking when Chisel are going to tour,’’ he said.
‘‘ I know people are still passionate about this band. When we started playing together it felt so good for us; we don’t give a f---[ about what] anyone else would think.’’
Just like they did in the ’ 70s, ’ 80s and ’ 90s, Chisel will use the dates to road test a couple of new tunes.
One of them may be HQ454 Monroe, a Don Walker rocker they recorded in May and which features the lyric ‘‘ light the nitro’’.
It’s unsurprising they have a new car song in their repertoire considering the two biggest gigs Chisel have played in the past 18 months were the V8 Supercar event and the Deniliquin Ute Muster last year.
Walker wrote the track with country journeyman Troy Cassar-Daley and sought automotive advice from a mate of Ian Moss, who is Chisel’s expert petrolhead.
The four bandmates become unreconstructed teenagers when discussing the perennial rock ’ n’ roll theme of a man and his car.
In the HQ454 Monroe version, the girl gives her guy an ultimatum: me or the car. The car wins.
‘‘ Toys for the boys is always important no matter how old you are. And hanging out with the boys as much as possible,’’ Moss said.
Playing is what will keep Chisel together and what will keep them going indefinitely.
Yet don’t think the very chemistry which makes them so potent live has lost any of its legendary fire off-stage. They may be closer mates than they ever were but Chisel are a band of brothers. And brothers have their moments.
‘‘ When we get up there, if someone isn’t doing something right in the song, we’re not pulling any punches. We’re happy to jump on each other and say ‘ you’re messing up’ or ‘ lift your game’. Or ‘ can you back off a bit?’ in my case,’’ Barnes said.