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
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
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