Cover story Cold Chisel: Iain Shed­den charts the band’s un­likely re­nais­sance

They’ve sur­vived punch-ups, break-ups and tragic loss, and emerged more mel­low and ma­ture. Yet Cold Chisel’s brand of driv­ing rock is still some­thing we want, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - The Per­fect Crime is out now through Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Aus­tralia.

Don Walker is re­lax­ing on a sofa in the Syd­ney of­fice of Cold Chisel’s man­ager, John Wat­son. The two men are dis­cussing the mer­its of sin­gle malt whisky, toss­ing back and forth names of par­tic­u­lar favourites and mus­ing on the meth­ods and pe­ri­ods in which their pre­ferred drops are ma­tured to per­fec­tion.

On a sim­i­lar theme, one could spec­u­late on when ex­actly Cold Chisel’s rich for­mula for Aus­tralian rock ’n’ roll reached its op­ti­mum point. Their sec­ond al­bum, 1979’s Break­fast at Sweet­hearts per­haps; or East, from the fol­low­ing year? Or maybe The Last Stand tour of 1983, thought to be the group’s swan song at the time, best demon­strates that as an Oz rock phe­nom­e­non no­body did it bet­ter than Cold Chisel.

Yet here we are more than 30 years later, and the Chisel jug­ger­naut rolls on; more ma­ture, cer­tainly, but en­joy­ing a twi­light in which, when the mood takes them, a new al­bum is the cat­a­lyst for a na­tional tour on a grand scale.

Walker, 63, the band’s key­boards player and chief song­writer, treats this re­nais­sance with good hu­mour and a de­gree of be­wil­der­ment. The band’s new al­bum, The Per­fect Crime, re­leased last Fri­day, has been crit­i­cally well­re­ceived and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing tour, which be­gan on the same day at the Deni Ute Muster in De­niliquin, NSW, and was fol­lowed by a well-re­ceived seg­ment at the NRL grand fi­nal, will see them per­form to more than 300,000 fans be­tween now and De­cem­ber.

Such num­bers are a re­minder of Chisel’s peren­nial ap­peal. Walker didn’t think the band had a fu­ture — or in­deed that it de­served one — be­yond its first phase. Now he sees no limit to the group’s po­ten­tial. “Ten years ago our man­ager Rod Wil­lis used to come to me and say, ‘ What about a Cold Chisel re­union?’ ” the qui­etly spo­ken song­writer says, “and I used to tell him over and over again that Cold Chisel broke up in 1983. I’m busy with other stuff.

“Now I have the op­po­site view. My feel­ing is ... let’s do as much as we can be­cause each record that we make could be the last one.”

A pro­found in­flu­ence on that new per­spec­tive was the death of Chisel’s drum­mer Steve Prest­wich in 2011 at the age of 56.

“I don’t know that I re­gret that view 10 years ago,” Walker says, “but I know if hadn’t had that view I would have got to make more mu­sic with Steve. That has been a big part of my change of view. And also the fact that now we seem to be able to make mu­sic be­tween us with­out the hor­ror and the drama that was al­ways a fea­ture of us try­ing to make mu­sic.”

Prest­wich’s death aside, the Cold Chisel of 2015 is nei­ther the same one that emerged in the pubs of Ade­laide in 1973, nor the one that moved to Mel­bourne, then Syd­ney, in the sec­ond of half of the 1970s, quickly be­com­ing the most talked-about band on the pub rock trail.

Chisel — Walker, Prest­wich, singer Jimmy Barnes, bassist Phil Small and gui­tarist Ian Moss — hit the head­lines then as much for the fast liv­ing, hard drink­ing and tem­pes­tu­ous re­la­tion­ships of some of its mem­bers as for the mu­sic they were play­ing, a hy­brid of soul, blues and pop honed to stage per­fec­tion by re­lent­less tour­ing.

“Off­stage ev­ery­body is mel­lower now,” says Walker, “and ev­ery­body has a lot more per­sonal skills. I’m talk­ing about my­self too. There are a few of us who were com­pletely blind and deaf to such so­cial con­sid­er­a­tions of not up­set­ting other peo­ple — and each other. We prob­a­bly have a lot more skill in that depart­ment now and have our fam­i­lies to thank for it. That was a long time com­ing. Now there’s not that much ag­gra­va­tion off­stage. That cer­tainly helps a lot, be­cause I hate that shit.”

Barnes and Prest­wich came to blows fre­quently in the early days, and later when the hits — Khe Sanh, Flame Trees, Bow River and more — made Chisel a house­hold name in Aus­tralia. There were other in­ter­nal pres­sures, such as the group’s fail­ure to break in the US. Cir­cum­stances in the US, in­clud­ing con­cert mis­matches with, among oth­ers, Ted Nu­gent, and their record com­pany’s lack of sup­port, con­spired against them. Walker wishes it had turned out dif­fer­ently, but has no re­grets about sign­ing off in the 80s.

“The fact is we went to Amer­ica for five weeks in 1981,” he says. “No one went to Amer­ica for less time than we did. In those days we were spend­ing 95 per cent of our time deal­ing with in­ter­nal, non-mu­sic dra­mas, at an in­dus­trial level, which is why the band broke up.

“We had five weeks that was very dys­func­tional, not just be­cause of what was go­ing on in the band, but our record com­pany hated us be­fore we landed. You couldn’t say we never made it in Amer­ica. We never even tried. The only band that has made it in Amer­ica in less time than us was Sav­age Gar­den. I would have loved to have spent the time try­ing to make it over­seas, but by the time we broke up, in­ter­nally it was un­en­durable. Un­en­joy­able is not the word … un­en­joy­able on steroids.”

Walker, a Queens­lan­der who has lived in Syd­ney for al­most 40 years, is in­deed busy with other stuff and has been for most of the time since Chisel’s ini­tial hey­day. On a much smaller scale than the band, he has pur­sued a solo ca­reer — un­der his own name and as Cat­fish — since 1988, as well as re­leas­ing al­bums and tour­ing with Tex Perkins and Char­lie Owen (Tex, Don and Char­lie) and with his most re­cent ensem­ble, the Suave F..ks. He pub­lished his first book, Shots, a col­lec­tion of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­says, in 2009 and is plan­ning another one.

“I do a range of things,” he says. “It won’t make a huge dif­fer­ence to my net worth. All of these things have a dif­fer­ent eco­nomic pay­off. But they are mu­si­cal things that I love to the same ex­tent.”

What will make some dif­fer­ence to his bank bal­ance is the cur­rent tour, which winds up in De­cem­ber at the soon-to-be-de­mol­ished Syd­ney En­ter­tain­ment Cen­tre, the venue at which Chisel bade Aus­tralia farewell in 1983. Walker ac­knowl­edges money is a fac­tor in the band’s 21st-cen­tury man­i­fes­ta­tion, but not the driv­ing force be­hind it.

“Since 1980 I haven’t had to think about a real job and nei­ther has any­body else in Cold Chisel,” Walker says. “That’s not to say we’re rich. Take the kids to school and there’s some­one who is a lot bet­ter off than you are, but hav­ing been in Cold Chisel once means there is a cer­tain weight lifted. No one had to go find a job. Com­pared to a lot of peo­ple who I look up to as mu­si­cians … they’re not in that for­tu­nate po­si­tion. They have to go out and do some­thing five days a week and then do the mu­sic. It’s good to be in our po­si­tion, but it doesn’t play a part in mu­si­cal de­ci­sions.”

One de­ci­sion that had to be made in 2011 was who should re­place Prest­wich. New Yorker Charley Dray­ton toured with Chisel in 2012 to pro­mote the band’s al­bum No Plans, which fea­tured Prest­wich’s fi­nal con­tri­bu­tions as drum­mer and song­writer. Ses­sion player Dray­ton, once of Divinyls and wi­d­ower of that band’s singer Chrissy Am­phlett, was wel­comed into the fold by the re­main­ing orig­i­nal mem­bers and is now a per­ma­nent fix­ture — or as per­ma­nent as mak­ing a record and tour­ing with it ev­ery few years en­tails.

Walker con­sid­ers Dray­ton “one of the best drum­mers in the world” and, as he did with Prest­wich, po­si­tions him­self be­side the drum­mer for stage per­for­mances.

“That was my joy in the early days, sit­ting

next to Steve,” Walker says. “Now I’m sit­ting next to Charley, in front of a huge au­di­ence. That’s where my joy is. The nos­tal­gia and history doesn’t re­ally play a part.”

Dray­ton also plays on the new al­bum, a 13song col­lec­tion that fea­tures song­writ­ing con­tri­bu­tions from all four orig­i­nal mem­bers, al­beit with Walker as the main con­trib­u­tor. On what is a pre­dom­i­nantly rock ’n’ roll al­bum, his com­po­si­tions in­clude the ti­tle track, the open­ing

Alone for You and a song he wrote in the 80s, the disco-inspired track Bus Sta­tion.

While Chisel’s out­put has fea­tured ma­te­rial by all five orig­i­nal mem­bers, Walker has penned some of the band’s most mem­o­rable mo­ments, in­clud­ing Flame Trees, Khe Sanh, Choir­girl,

Cheap Wine and Break­fast at Sweet­hearts. He has writ­ten hun­dreds of songs in his ca­reer, but has al­ways been able to make the dis­tinc­tion be­tween what is a Don Walker song and what is a Cold Chisel one. “It’s a Cold Chisel song if I can hear Jim or Ian singing,” he says.

Walker says there was no pre­con­ceived idea about what The Per­fect Crime should be. Ev­ery­one brought songs to the ta­ble when the idea sur­faced last year.

“We don’t sit down ahead of time — we should — and dis­cuss what kind of record we want to make,” he says. “I had an idea that I’d like us to make a record with a lot more par­tic­i­pa­tion. It’s healthy when ev­ery­one is bring­ing in songs. You get a bet­ter record.”

Walker, Moss and Small col­lab­o­rated on the Latin-flavoured Mex­i­can Wed­ding, while Barnes and his son-in-law Ben Rodgers co-wrote

Long Dark Road and rocker All Hell Broke Lucy. The al­bum was pro­duced by Kevin Shirley, who also worked on No Plans. The at­mos­phere in the stu­dio was re­laxed and friendly, ac­cord­ing to Walker.

“It’s much more of a set­tled team,” he says. “The first time you work with a pro­ducer, you’re hold­ing all of your cards to your chest and watch­ing them like a hawk. When­ever any­body new gets in­volved it takes it some­where else, slightly. There’s an in­se­cu­rity that some­one is go­ing to grab it and take it some­where you don’t like. In the old days Steve would leave or get in­jured and we’d get another drum­mer in and that would change things. Now ev­ery­body is a lot more com­fort­able and we know it will work. We’re all a lot more re­laxed, trust­ing the other peo­ple in­volved.”

There are enough songs on the back­burner to make another al­bum, Walker says, but it re­mains to be seen whether that hap­pens. Chisel is look­ing no fur­ther ahead than the cur­rent tour, which con­tin­ues on the Gold Coast on Oc­to­ber 24.

He’s ap­pre­cia­tive that The Per­fect Crime tour and the No Plans one that pre­ceded it at­tracted mas­sive ticket sales, but Walker is re­al­is­tic about main­tain­ing that level of suc­cess.

“You can’t guar­an­tee that’s go­ing to hap­pen again, and if you keep do­ing it one day it’s not go­ing to hap­pen,” he says. “But I’m glad peo­ple want to hear some new mu­sic as well. Once we are match fit there is a great amount of en­joy­ment in it for us, from the first count-in to the end of the show.”

When the tour ends on De­cem­ber 18 in Syd­ney it will be 32 years since the band broke up, but Walker has no sense of nos­tal­gia about that farewell. “My per­sonal view at the time was that I re­ally wanted to get be­yond the whole thing,” he says. “That’s why we were do­ing the fi­nal shows. It’s not a pe­riod of life that I have a lot of nos­tal­gia for. I don’t seem to have clocked too many nos­tal­gia pe­ri­ods. I don’t think peo­ple will be ex­pect­ing a ref­er­ence back to those 1983 shows.”

And what is it that has kept Cold Chisel go­ing, al­beit with a few gaps, for the past 42 years?

“It’s not widely recog­nised,” says Walker, “but the en­dur­ing qual­ity of Cold Chisel is the pi­ano play­ing.”

WE SEEM TO BE ABLE TO MAKE MU­SIC WITH­OUT THE HOR­ROR AND THE DRAMA

DON WALKER

From left, Ian Moss, Charley Dray­ton, Jimmy Barnes, Don Walker and Phil Small, left; Barnes per­form­ing at the band’s ‘last’ con­cert in 1983, be­low

Moss and Barnes dur­ing Cold Chisel’s per­for­mance be­fore the NRL grand fi­nal last week­end, far left; Walker in 2013, left

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