It’s December 15th, 1983. Around 13,000 people, a capacity crowd, are packed into the Sydney Entertainment Centre. This is the last of five Cold Chisel shows there.
Fans had queued for blocks, some had even camped out overnight, to buy tickets. The original two shows became five. Sales were extraordinary. After all, this is the end of Cold Chisel’s final tour, and this show supposedly their last.
Now, Chisel are back with another tour and more shows, nearly 30 years after their “Last Stand” tour. With the last show of the tour tonight, now is a good time to reflect on the history of the band and what makes their music uniquely Australian.
Chisel hit the stage in that “last show” in 1983 with a rendition of “Wild Colonial Boy.” Not the nineteenth century Irish-Australian ballad but the song written by Don Walker who wrote most, but by no means all, of Chisel’s material.
“Wild Colonial Boy” was off Circus Animals, the group’s penultimate album, released in 1982.
Walker would have been well aware of the allusion to the Australian ballad. His song echoed the ballad’s subversiveness, and is an allusive statement of rebellious “Australianess”.
The band came to define the kind of Australian rock music that could be found in pubs in the 1970s and 80s.
This kind of music used to be called pub rock, the same term is used in Britain for music made there in pubs in the mid-1970s, just before the advent of punk. Nowadays, we tend to call the very different Australian music “Oz Rock”.
The Oz Rock tag emphasises the “Australianness” of the music itself – its unique blending of English and American musical forms played loud and hard. But, perhaps more importantly, the sense of nationalism, the feeling that for many groups the music being played was indelibly Australian.
Cold Chisel became a pinnacle of Oz Rock out of the pub rock scene in the 1970s.
The competition hotels faced from licensed clubs and the demands of younger hotel patrons for live music, created a new scene for Australian music.
Popular music expert, Shane Homan explains that changes in licensing laws, coupled with the late 1970s acceptance of women into public bars, led to the development of a new, suburban band circuit.
In Long Way to the Top, James Cockington suggests that venues such as the fabled Bondi Lifesaver in Sydney were “the natural home of … hard-boogie-blues bands.” This was “pure beer-drinking music” for an Australian audience.
Early on, when Chisel were playing the Lifesaver in 1976 they were still performing those English hard rock covers, but soon, with encouragement from rock journalist, Anthony O’Grady, Chisel replaced the covers with originals that appealed more to an Australian sensibility.
The Oz Rock groups took musical forms that came from Britain and the United States – beat music, hard rock, and the black American rhythm and blues and boogie traditions – and moulded them into something specifically Australian.
Oz Rock was the first distinctively Australian popular musical form.
Written by Walker, “Khe Sanh” is about a Vietnam War veteran who is suffering post-traumatic stress. At the time the song was not very popular, peaking at number 41 on the chart. In part this was because it was banned from radio play due to lines like “And their legs were often open/But their minds were always closed”.
Over the decades since it was released however, “Khe Sanh” has become embedded as part of Australian life, sung in drunken unison by groups of men and women, at barbecues and weddings.
Its detailing of the damaged existence of a veteran – his nightmares, his addiction to speed, his inability to make meaningful contact with any woman, and his need for casual sex with East Asian women – all contribute to a particular image of masculinity.
Flaws and all
Cold Chisel’s songs, including Khe Sanh, present an image of men – as struggling with the system, damaged but holding on to their pride – which speaks particularly to Australian male audiences.
Walker’s lyrics offer images of flawed men as well as, sometimes, women. For example, the Walker song, “Cheap Wine”, on the group’s third album, East, released in 1980, is another song with an anthemic feel.
The line “Cheap wine and a three day growth” is sung often by pub and party goers with a bravado that belies the meaning of the lyrics – the story of a man who was once successful but who, for reasons related to a girl who died of an overdose, now lives on the beach, out of contact with the world, drinking cheap wine.
In “Daskarzine”, a song off the group’s first album that appears at first sight to fit the Rose Tattoo mould of misogyny – “they speak her name in cheap hotels/From Turkey to Marseille” – we find that “no-one knows just who’s seducing who”. Men and women are as responsible as each other.
Unlike AC/DC, Cold Chisel were unsuccessful outside Australia. Many reasons are given for this, the lack of record company support being the most common.
However, lyrically, the group’s songs speak more specifically to Australian audiences, and particularly men. American hard rock groups rarely sing of the kind of damaged masculinity that Chisel offer.
After Chisel broke up, Barnes tried one more time to break into the US market. The vehicle for this was “Working Class Man”, a song that celebrates blue-collar life.
It was written by the keyboardist for the American stadium rock group Journey, Jonathan Cain.
The song failed again in the United States. It reached number 5 on the Australian chart in 1985 but could never have been part of the Cold Chisel canon.
The passing of Cold Chisel did not mark the end of Oz Rock. At the same time, it did signal the end of the music’s first wave.
Rose Tattoo underwent a major personnel change that year and broke up the following year, and AC/DC, who were by this time a long-standing major international rock act, began a period of relative commercial decline.
By the 1990s, changes in licensing laws and the increasing use of poker machines by hotels in Victoria and New South Wales meant a loss of the venues that had given the musical form its original name.
Chisel reformed in 1998, played a sold-out tour and released a final album, The Last Wave of Summer.
In January, 2011, drummer Steve Prestwich, who had had a stormy relationship with the group died.
Chisel have become identified as the definitive Australian group.
Suggesting the appeal of their songs to women as well as men, “Flame Trees” – a Prestwich and Walker song about nostalgia for lost youth from the group’s “final” album recorded during the Last Stand tour, Twentieth Century, released in 1984 – was recorded by Australian artist, Sarah Blasko in 2005.
It reached the top position on the Australian singles chart.
In his biography of Chisel, The Pure Stuff, O’Grady notes that like only half-a-dozen other groups, including the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, Chisel’s albums, rather than just greatest hits collections, have continued to sell after the band’s demise.
They are the only Australian group of which this can be said. Their audience has become transgenerational. Chisel’s Last Stand started their transformation into an Australian popular music icon.