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 Everett True

In defence of Cold Chisel – an incomplete aural + visual history of GOOD Australian soft rock

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There was an interesting conversation that took place on Facebook recently, following the publication of this article decrying Australian ‘classic’ rock as portrayed by a commercial video channel. It started with the bald statement, “Cold Chisel. Please explain.”

P.S. The conversation really starts getting interesting from the second page on when Nazzinator Nassari and Ng Taylor address the main question. Page one is more of an attempt to provide some context.

COLD CHISEL. PLEASE EXPLAIN.

Suzy Ramone
We can’t explain Chisel. Bogans liked it then and now. But these will make you happy: Ratcat, The Stems, The Reels

Ed’s note: I liked early Ratcat, but wasn’t sure how they turned out. Here.

Ed’s note: The Stems are just fine, in a Paisley Underground way.

Ed’s note: The Reels are new to me. Quirky, new wave. The UK had a thousand of them. I’m sure Australia did too. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

Nazzinator Nassari
Aye, not a fan but love Don Walker’s lyrics. He was doing something naughty and that always gets points from me. So many digs at the hegemonic myths of Australian masculinity

Nazzinator Nassari
Triffids!! Scientists!!

Ed’s note: Well, of course. Here are The Triffids.

Ed’s note: And here are The Scientists.

Neil Evans
I’d like them if Jimmy Barnes didn’t SCREAM on EVERY NOTE!!!!!! Ian Moss always had the better voice.

Ng Taylor
Bogans is such an offensive term … Chisel have their place, and Walker is a supreme songwriter, again check out The Loved Ones.

Nice.

Kids out driving Saturday afternoon pass me by
I’m just savouring familiar sights
We share some history, this town and I
And I can’t stop that long forgotten feeling of her
Try to book a room to stay tonight

Number one is to find some friends to say “You’re doing well
After all this time you boys look just the same”
Number two is the happy hour at one of two hotels
Settle in to play “Do you remember so and so?”
Number three is never say her name

Oh the flame trees will blind the weary driver
And there’s nothing else could set fire to this town
There’s no change, there’s no pace
Everything within its place
Just makes it harder to believe that she won’t be around

(‘Flame Trees’ – Cold Chisel)

Nazzinator Nassari
Everett, if you’re like me and the music leaves you cold, just try the lyrics of say ‘Flame Trees’ – coz I just didn’t get it for years. I’m English too so I found it pretty impenetrable – until I realised how the music was forged, in what venues, to what crowds. They come from a pretty bloodthirsty training ground. And the redeeming quality about them is Walker and they way he reads those audiences and tells them things they’ve never been told before (and probably, as with Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’, don’t ‘get’). Springsteen’s a pretty good measure for them actually now I think about it.

There’s something Don Walker does there where the speaker is, on the surface, an Aussie alpha male trying desperately not to be sentimental but something stirs in him when he returns to his old haunts that causes something important to emerge in him. He’s still sorta inarticulate about it. Anyway I don’t want to bore you but it’s quite a deft piece of observation on Walker’s part about his audiences.

Well, you asked. I had a crack

Everett True
Cheers Nazzinator. Not expected, but appreciated.

Ng Taylor
Also Don Walker’s book is beautiful, for further Don you might enjoy, check out Tex, Don And Charlie …great album. Oh and you overlooked proto schoolgirl punkster Chrissie Amphlet, truly a hard rocking chick and world-conquering one at that … and let’s have no more trash talk about AC/DC, ok?

Tex, Don And Charlie

Chrissie Amphlet (The Divinyls)

AC/DC

Nazzinator Nassari
This has really started me thinking about the jarring cultural shift I felt moving from the UK to Australia. It’s taken me quite a long time to find appreciation for some of the bands quite a lot of Aussies love the shit out of. Chisel being a major case in point. Even now I appreciate them because of what they caught that I couldn’t see, more than I’m actually a fan. Like, for instance, I now like a fair whack of Skyhooks – partially for their cheek, partially for the proud Australianisms in the lyrics. This I love:

But THIS I can only appreciate for biting political satire more than I can actually like:

Divinyls are MUCH easier to love. Who wouldn’t love this?

or this?

or this?

Even as straight pop – and I have no frickin problem with that whatsoever IF it’s done well – it’s cagey stuff.

I’m a bit of a garage 60s slut so I think early Masters Apprentices, Loved Ones and choice Easybeats are as good as anything at the same time anywhere. And Scientists, Triffids, Go-Betweens, and The Birthday Party are a really easy sell:

Masters Apprentices [this is fucking great – Ed]

Don’t know how anyone could have a problem with Bon Scott-era AC/DC … that naughtiness, that impish charisma, that street wit and balls-to-the-walls, cut the crap, rockin’ … still fascinates the hell out of me

But Powderfinger and Silverchair? I won’t ever get and don’t effing want to.

Silverchair

The best stuff is in the underground (like The Coloured Balls who I would argue are one of the greatest bands this country or any other has ever produced – in their field. Same for Buffalo. Big Beasts Of Bourbon fan too) but there’s been plenty of overground crackers. Even the freaking Angels who, for the most part, are straight ahead boogie rock plodders had Doc Neeson who came up with some of the freakiest and demented shit straight rock has ever seen. Not every time. But when he pulled a swifty, by gum was it an eyebrow-raiser.

The Coloured Balls

Buffalo

The Angels

Beg pardon for the Mr Ranty Pants routine but you posed a fantastic question and it got my cogs a clicking. This is a very very unusual (and remarkable) country when it comes to music.

Ng Taylor
nice one mr Nassari !

Nazzinator Nassari
For pop you can’t really go past anything Dom Mariani had a hand in and I’ve always been very touched by Spencer P Jones’ stuff. And when he does pop it’s quite something. On the other side, X, Powdermonkeys, Bored!, there’s just so much to love. And the only band I ever saw get a rowdier audience than The Hard Ons was the Ramones. True dat.

The Hard Ons [I interviewed them around this time for the NME – Ed]

I think the audience and overplay is half the problem with some of the songs you named in your article. I couldn’t help but nod with empathy. ‘Khe Sahn’ [Cold Chisel] has never had a chance to be the song it was supposed to – and I will never play it as a DJ no matter what the gig is. I find myself a little saddened that I can’t find a space in me to enjoy it coz 99.99% of the people ever request it are the same people who want ‘November Rain’ – and only what’s in their record collection. And that’s just a bridge too far … as far as I’m concerned anyways.

The Lime Spiders (Dom Mariani)

Spencer P. Jones (with Rowland S. Howard)

Ng Taylor
Also in regards to Chisel … they had a quite a few overtly political songs, and stuff like ‘Khe Sahn’ resonated with a lot of Australians because of the Vietnam experience etc. It’s pretty meat’n’potatoes musically, but Don is a super gifted writer. ‘Cheap Wine And A Three Day Growth’ (great title) contains some fantastic lines, such as “I had a friend, she died, on the needle she was crucified” and “I don’t mind taking charity from those that I despise”. I mean, c’mon that’s a corker.

Ng Taylor
Never thought I’d be defending Chisel, but there you go.

Nazzinator Nassari
I think Everett’s post opens up something I’ve always felt about the specificity of quite a lot of Australian music – and the type that has been mega-popular with the Aussie mainstream but has great trouble translating outside the country. And it has been notoriously hard to spot for Australians. It’s most obvious – as someone not from here – in the mainstream acts. I think Cold Chisel definitely have it (and it’s odd because from an acclimatised point of view it’s like a cross between Springsteen and ooh I dunno, early Elton John or something).

Early Midnight Oil definitely had it too, as does most Oz Rock. Dinvinyls and INXS don’t – and no matter what Ev says about them, I’d take them over say Duran Duran or Culture Club any day but then again I felt that when I was in England too. But it’s not important whether we agree on every bit of music, I think the point is, this classic rock bugbear really does pound the pants off of a lot of music. Our commercial radio stations seem hellbent on a long and slow assassination of any merit these bands have ever had. And then there’s also the Status Quo-y/Eric Clapton brush the music of Chisel is tarred with. But it really makes sense if you know the suburban beer barn background it sprang from.

Midnight Oil in 1977

This is a really intriguing topic when you stop and think of it – especially from a point of view of being a huge pop, garage (60s) and Scientists/Birthday Party fan

Editor’s note: I can’t abide Duran Duran.

Nazzinator Nassari
And just in case that sounds like I think there’s something inferior about those bands, I don’t. I think that specificity lends them something very special – even the bands I wonder whether I’ll ever actually love (Chisel again). But they’re a great case study and Walker really is a class act. I would say Paul Kelly can fall into this category too even though I find him much easier to like.

Paul Kelly And The Coloured Girls

Ben Munro
Nazzinator – very good point. I grew up hating Chisel while I lived in Australia and then funnily enough started liking them after moving out of the country. Definitely a unique Australian-ness about most of the great Aussie bands

Ng Taylor
Unlike the US or UK, bands in Australia even at their peak of succsess would have to slog it out on the live circuit, playing in some prettty rough and tumble beer barns around the country. That was how you got known, and made some dough, records seemed much more secondary… If a band got the crowds up and into it, they created a following of devout fans, so speed, volume, energy were always the order of the day. This held true for AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, and equally for bands like the Birthday Party and The Dirty Three … Aus Rock always came from the live venues then into the studio, which seems to be the reverse of the UK, where it’s much more about making a record then trying to reproduce that on stage.

The Dirty Three

14 Responses to In defence of Cold Chisel – an incomplete aural + visual history of GOOD Australian soft rock

  1. Darragh June 14, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I fundamentally disagree with the idea that Walker was a great songwriter. Chisel represent everything that I hate about Australian music, so this post reads more of an attack on Chisel, rather than a defense, particularly when you add in all the other more interesting bands as has been done above.

  2. Nazz June 14, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    I was hoping those other bands provided context – obviously they are the directions we went in when avoiding Chisel. But since I’ve had a ‘penny drop’ thing with Walker I can’t in all good conscience say he ISN’T a great songwriter. I honestly think he showed exceptional skills at expressing what’s wrong with the nationalism or myth of Australian masculinity in their bloodthirsty, boozed up audiences – and remember he did so with such uncanny skill that they’ve pulled him to their heart not pushed him away. It’s one thing to like something when you’re pissed. It’s another thing for them to buy the records and play them over and over, especially when they can sometimes be so cutting .
    Everett unfortunately missed off my favourite bit of Flame Trees, where the speaker’s sorta taken aback back the stirring feelings he’s having over hoping to see that girl he used to know even though he knows she’s gone (and we’re never told one way or another whether they were ever even together). Her ghost is everywhere and he’s clearly pining but in denial.
    Then he says, in what has to be one of the best and most loaded lines of all Oz Rock:

    “But Ah! Who needs that sentimental bullshit, anyway”

    Where it goes next is bitter, clench-lipped and deeply observant:

    “Takes more than just a memory to make me cry
    I’m happy just to sit here round a table with old friends
    And see which one of us can tell the biggest lies

    And then, he buckles under the weight of his own bravura in this spectacular set-up (although it helps if you know what’s going on in the song and how they handle it because it’s as much about what he’s not saying as what he is – has the nostalgia finally gotten to him through ‘the absent girl’ or is it something much much deeper? What has really been lost?).

    The music rises to meet his emotional wrestling:
    “There’s a girl falling in love near where the pianola stands
    With her young local factory out-of-worker, holding hands
    And I’m wondering if he’ll go or if he’ll stay

    DO YOU REMEMBER, nothing stopped us on the field
    …In our day”

    I’m sorry if you disagree man, but that’s spectacular and entirely unexpected skill in the world of Alpha Male blood, booze, and rawk. There’s nothing meat-head or bogan about that. You may even think I’m making more of it than is there but, after hating Chisel for so long, something in that song opened my eyes to just how smart Walker is. I’m still not a fan per se but I finally have respect.

    And you’re totally allowed to hate Chisel. They’ve been rammed down our throats so often and been the soundtrack of rowdy suburban barbecuesfor so long that it can be really hard to even hear them on their own merits. I can’t tell you I’d pick them over, say, the Beasts Of Bourbon coz it’d be a lie. But I have to stand by Walker on this.

  3. Nazz June 14, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Oh and Lime Spiders isn’t Dom (love the Spiders tho :), but Darryl Mathers from them hooked up with Dom in the 80s to create this wicked power pop band – The Someloves – that were sadly roundly ignored. Their loss!

  4. Denton Mackay June 15, 2011 at 1:14 am

    I find it interesting that you focus on songs like Khe Sahn and Flame trees and refer to the fact that these songs have been rammed down our throats for a long time now… This is the superficial negative commentary I see about Cold Chisel time and time again.

    You have to look far deeper to know the band. They can play sets up to 3 hours standing on their head, and in many different styles ranging from reggae to ballad to pop to hard rock. A guitar player who doesn’t need to distort the sound to sound good. A drummer and bass player who were tighter than anybody before and anybody since. A great songwriter and keyboard player in Don Walker and Jim Barnes was just there to bust up the perfect playing from the band, to give them a wild unpredictable slant. Cold Chisel simply shine on stage. And who else can demo 60+ songs when they make a record as they did in 1998? They have an enormous power and a great set of songs.

    For your education check out songs like Conversations, Misfits, The Door, Nothing But You, Somewhere In The Silence, Never Before, How Many Times, Tommorrow, Letter To Alan, Wild Colonial Boy, No Sense, Drinkin in Port Lincon and The Game then you might get a better idea about the band other than thinking you know them from Khe Sahn, Flame trees and Cheap Wine! These are not their best songs any how 🙂

    No props needed, no expensive stages needed AC DC / U2 style, Chisel don’t need it, the music speaks for itself.

  5. Darragh June 15, 2011 at 7:42 am

    So Denton, you’re saying Chisel are good because they can play 3 hour sets?

    I admit that personally I don’t know Chisel much beyond their radio hits, but, frankly, those songs, apart from perhaps Flame Trees, have never made me look further. The band’s appropriation by Dickhead Australia ruined any potential for me to get interested in the band.

  6. Tim Footman June 15, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    There is a strain of earnestness in much straight white white male guitar rock (best personified by Springsteen and U2) that I don’t find offensive, just utterly tedious: from what I’ve heard, Cold Chisel seem to share it. I even find AC/DC preferable, because their dumb, cartoonish bad-boy antics suggest that they at least know how preposterous they are.

    ‘Flame Trees’ just seems to be a soundtrack for a razor commercial that hasn’t been made yet.

  7. Lucy Cage June 16, 2011 at 3:51 am

    I’m afraid I have nothing useful to say about Cold Chisel – nothing here makes me want to hear them, especially not tales of their feats of endurance/power/tightness on stage, although I enjoyed reading Nazz’s analysis of Flame Trees – but oh my bleeding christ on a bike I could watch that video of Warren Ellis coaxing magic from his violin forever. Whfft.

  8. David Nichols June 17, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    ‘The band’s appropriation by Dickhead Australia ruined any potential for me to get interested in the band.’
    That’s the whole story, of someone’s assessment of someones unknown as Dickheads, and someone’s idea that they can’t possibly like something putatively liked by people they believe they have no empathy with.
    I mean, nothing personal, but who actually is the dickhead here? The Dickhead, or the person talking about how they can’t like something a Dickhead likes?
    I don’t sit round listening to Cold Chisel all day god knows and there is a lot I don’t like about Cold Chisel but I sure don’t let the notion that other people enjoy something stop me from enjoying it. ‘Saturday Night’, ‘No Sense’ and many others are very marvellous songs. ‘Forever Now’, ‘Cheap Wine’, also, so now I have pulled four out of the air. Excellent songs.

  9. David Nichols June 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    And by the way – I am of a certain age so I saw them and enjoyed them at the time so my feelings are wrapped in staunch sentimentality possibly, but The Reels – much, much more than quirky new wave, which they ate for breakfast.

  10. Darragh June 17, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Well David, I do appreciate your tenacity in trying to defend the band, it’s brave but I’m afraid I may be a lost cause.

  11. julian_k June 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Chisel definitely have their rightful place in Australian music history. They were never indie, they were never cool. But who cares? That’s hipster nonsense. They represented a major current in Australian music in thw 1970s and 80s that had nothing to do with fashion. They worked hard and had a broad catalogue of strong songs. They’re not my cup of tea musically, but they undeniably are a band of substance. Put them in the camp of Australia’s answer to Springsteen.

  12. julian_k June 17, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Ratcat, on the other hand, just seemed to me to be cookie cutter Ramones. I never got it. It seemed to be popular with people who had never heard the Ramones.

  13. David Nichols June 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    RE: David, I do appreciate your tenacity in trying to defend the band, it’s brave but I’m afraid I may be a lost cause

    I’m not trying to defend anything. I have no vested interest. I am just sick of this attitude. Do you like the things you like because you like them, or because you think the cool people will like them? OK. Well, don’t dislike things because you have formulated a hypothetical group of people who you have decided you don’t like, and who you’ve decided like something, which you must therefore dislike.

    I think anyone who thinks that Ratcat were popular with people who had never heard the Ramones must have never heard all the other bands that Ratcat sounded a lot more like, but whatever.

  14. Aaron Curran August 19, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Good comments from David Nichols, I agree with him. I too am old enough to remember the great divide, that saw oz pub rock on one side and post-punk/alternative on the other. Chisel were public enemy #1 to those of us who bought copies of ‘Treeless Plain’, ‘Junkyard’ and ‘Before Hollywood’. However in retrospect that all seems a little stupid, as Cold Chisel had (in Don Walker) one of the finest songwriters in the country, and their resolutely independent streak meant they walked it like most alternative bands talked it.

    For example, they were pissed off that most pub owners were taking an unfair commercial share of live music attendances, so they started their own booking agency and re-invented the traditional ‘deal’. They didn’t like Countdown’s brand of crass commercialisation, so they didn’t appear on it (just sent in videos) And when they won the Countdown Awards, they trashed the set on live TV, singing impromptu lyrics that made it clear they had no time for anyone who tried to leverage their (new) commercial standing, who hadn’t been there with them from those first live shows at places like Larg’s Pier in Adelaide.

    Sure, they’ve been co-opted along the way, despite their efforts when the band was still going, but Cold Chisel weren’t so different to the Saints and Birdman – perhaps that’s why Chris Bailey and Jimmy Barnes became such good friends.

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