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Cold Chisel – 10 Essential Tracks

Written by Brenton Harris on January 28, 2020

Cold Chisel. Two words that’ll inspire a reverential smile from most Australians and a spontaneous outburst into song from others. National icons, music legends, pub rock poets, all fitting descriptors for a group of mates that emerged from tumultuous Adelaide origins, to become both the soundtrack to and the narrator of the Australian cultural experience.

Cold Chisel’s presence is so deeply ensconced in our collective consciousness, that as a person who has called Australia home for all 34 years of my life, I can’t for the life or me remember how, where or when I first heard their music. I’m not even sure my parents owned any Cold Chisel records (although I think I can safely assume they must have, I mean everyone owns at least that Chisel, best of, right?) All that I know is that I somehow know every single word to every single song. You need only to walk into any suburban pub, attend any BBQ or turn on the radio, to discover that I’m not alone. Cold Chisel is omnipresent.

Somehow, despite being so synonymous with a time and place (late ’70s /early ’80s Australia), the songs that Ian Moss, Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, Phill Small and the late Steve Prestwich penned and performed during the golden era of Cold Chisel, remain endlessly relatable and seemingly timeless. From ‘Flame Trees’ to ‘Khe Sanh’ to ‘Rising Sun’ to ‘When The War Is Over’, ‘Bow River’ and beyond, these are the songs that have served as musical accompaniment to our triumphs and tribulations, our breakdowns and failures, our heartbreaks and our honeymoons, our glory days and the days we’d sooner forget. For some they are our true national anthems, for others, they are company on a long drive or an excuse to sing out of key in public. Whatever they are to you, to us all, they are essential.

Khe Sanh, Cold Chisel (1978)

Inarguably Cold Chisel’s most famous song, ‘Khe Sanh’ inspires even the most docile of Aussies to embrace their inner Barnsey and belt out every word. There’s a bloody good reason for that too. This Don Walker penned song is positively anthemic. From the instantly recognizable piano intro to Barnsey’s trademark soulful verse delivery, the perfectly timed harmonica, and of course THAT joyous sounding major key refrain (“The last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone!”). It’s absolutely the most triumphant sounding song ever written about the horrors of PTSD and the endless restlessness and displacement felt by some Vietnam veterans. It’s worth noting that its focus on some less than ideal choices of coping mechanisms, (drugs, womanizing), inspired some controversy initially, with the record label reluctant to release it as a single until their hand was forced by popularity. But that duality of character and the juxtaposition of key and narrative, are perfect examples of why Don Walker is one of Australia’s finest songwriters. In my opinion, it’s not Cold Chisel’s best song, but it is a really good one and in the court of public opinion, it’s our alternate national anthem.

Breakfast at Sweethearts, Breakfast at Sweethearts (1979)

The title track of off Cold Chisel’s second studio album, Breakfast at Sweethearts is an exercise in people-watching by Walker, only the people he’s watching aren’t exactly the 9-5 types. One of the most instantly recognisable songs about peak-era Kings Cross ever written, Breakfast at Sweethearts combines Walker’s knack for seeing beauty in the mundane with his instinctive songcraft. The combination of slow reggae bass and electric piano, locking in with reverb-drenched guitars and Barnes’ contemplative vocals to create a sonic soundscape that genuinely feels like having breakfast at 6am with a hangover. No one has ever made drinking cheap wine out of a paper bag, when you should be having a coffee, quite as poetic as Walker does here, and that ability, to not just write songs you hear, but songs you live, goes on to become one of Cold Chisel’s defining characteristics.

Rising Sun, East (1980)

In the early years, Cold Chisel gigs had a reputation for being wild and unruly affairs, and it’s tracks like ‘Rising Sun’ that undoubtedly inspired many to bust a move (or as legend may have it, a skull or two). A rollicking rockabilly number and Barnes’ first solo writing credit, ‘Rising Sun’ is powered by a constant guitar/piano interplay and a simplistic yet urgent rhythm that gives Barnes just enough room to go full Barnesy. There’s a scorching solo from Ian Moss, and that chorus of “The rising sun just stole my girl away” is just too addictive not to be belted out. It’s ostensibly a song about a certain type of heartbreak, but it almost doesn’t matter, this is Cold Chisel in ‘good time’ mode and it is one hell of a good time.

Choir Girl, East (1980)

Don Walker is on record as saying that ‘Choir Girl’ was a deliberate attempt to write a commercial hit. He’s also on record as saying that the song is written about pregnancy termination. Not many people could make those two seemingly disparate notions coexist, but with the help of his Cold Chisel bandmates (and East producer Mark Opitz), he absolutely nailed what he set out to achieve, with the r’n’b influenced track scoring Cold Chisel their first ‘official’ hit, landing at #14 on the Australian charts. It’s not hard to see why either. After Walker’s trademark electric piano intro, ‘Choir Girl’ lets its gorgeous soulful melody shine, with Barnes’ voice, placed high in the mix as the track is driven along by electric piano and a simple bass groove, with new layers of instrumentation introduced throughout. There are some stunning backing vocals and guitar lines from Ian Moss, who also sings the lead on the bridge in a wonderful vocal interplay with Barnes. It’s 3.13 of blue collar pop-nous and arguably a template for some Cold Chisel hits to come.

Four Walls, East (1980)

Another gorgeous piano-led slow burner, ‘Four Walls’ is one of the finest early examples of Cold Chisel in bogan poet mode. A song about the experience of a prisoner in the aftermath of the riots at the Bathurst Gaol, it is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Compositionally, quite a simple song, essentially some piano, delicate guitars, handclaps and some occasional soulful backing vocals, but the hero of ‘Four Walls’ is its lyrical narrative. The sparsity of the musical accompaniment gives Barnes just the right amount of room to make us feel every word. Walker’s lyrics are inspired with the opening verse (“They’re calling time for exercise, round her Majesty’s hotel/ The maid’ll hose the room out/ When I’m gone/ I never knew such luxury/ Before my verdict fell/ Four walls, washbasin, prison bed”) placing you right there in the cell with him. As the song unfolds and the poor chap’s despair grows, so to does the mournfulness of Barnes’ delivery, with the last verse (I can’t see/ I can’t hear/T hey’ve burnt out all the feeling/ I’ve never been so crazy/ and it’s just my second year/ Four walls, washbasin, prison bed) absolutely devastating.

Bow River, Circus Animals (1982)

Choosing the essential songs off of one the most essential Australian albums of all time is quite the task, so with my sincerest apologies to ‘You’ve Got Nothing I Want’, ‘Bow River’ gets the nod in the booty-shaking slot on Circus Animals. An absolute riot of a song, this Ian Moss written number is an arena-sized blues-rocker, with a kitchen sink approach to instrumentation, that absolutely goes off at the Deni Ute Muster. Everything that makes Cold Chisel so fun as a live band is present on this song. Moss’ incendiary guitars, Walker’s honky-tonk pianos, Small’s rolling bass, Prestwich pounding drums and yes, Barnsey’s shrieking vocal. It’s such a good time that you’d be forgiven for missing that it’s actually quite brilliant lyrically, capturing the essence of the working man’s battle between the need to work and the will to actually live, I’m particularly fond of the couplet: “I’ve been working hard, twelve hours a day/ And the money I saved won’t buy my youth again”. Put it on, crack open a can, have a blast with your old man (or your inner old man).

Forever Now, Circus Animals (1982)

The late Steve Prestwich didn’t write a lot of Cold Chisel songs, but the ones he did write, were typically great, and ‘Forever Now’ is one of the best. Released as a single in March 1982, the track hit #4 on the Aussie charts and has gone on to become a staple of Cold Chisel’s live sets. A mid-tempo melodic rocker that’s anchored by some typically inspired lead guitar playing by Moss, the song’s best feature is the absolute earworm of a chorus, which Barnes absolutely smashes. A structural departure from much of what Cold Chisel presented on Circus Animals, this anthem of unrequited love, is worthy of the vocal damage you’ll do trying to singalong.

When the War is Over, Circus Animals (1982)

‘When the War is Over’ is one of the most frequently covered Cold Chisel songs by other recording artists, and it’s not hard to understand why. From the moment the opening refrain of “Ain’t nobody gonna steal this heart away” hits, this song just oozes emotion and sentimentality. Another Prestwich written song, ‘When the War is Over’ is a beautifully composed power ballad with a deliberately non-typical song structure. A song about undying, albeit potentially non-mutual love (a definitive theme to much of Prestwich’s writing) ‘When The War is Over’ is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. It shouldn’t work, but in the hands of Cold Chisel, it does. Despite originally peaking at #25 on the charts, it did eventually take the #1 spot, thanks to Australian Idol’s Cosima De Vito, a fact that much like the song has been known to make even the most battle hardened barking spider a little teary eyed!

Saturday Night, Twentieth Century (1984)

The most oddball moment on this list, ‘Saturday Night’ is a delightfully off-kilter rock song with an infectious hook, that will get stuck in your head for days on end. Ostensibly a song about the aftermath of a Saturday night out in Kings Cross, it has also (quite reasonably) been interpreted as being Walker’s metaphorical ‘goodbye’ to the chaos of life in Cold Chisel. Twentieth Century is an album recorded by a burnt-out band, yet, it features some of their finest songs and most obtuse ideas and ‘Saturday Night’ is the quintessential example of that weirdness. Loneliness and longing has never sounded so invigorating as it does here, with Phil Small’s bassline laying the grounding for the vocal tandem of Moss and Barnes to dazzle with. Moss’ verse vocals give the song a Police-esque vibe and Barnes; rock outbursts ensure you don’t forget that it’s Cold Chisel. There’s some awesome saxophone from a local busker, some crowd noise from an actual Saturday night in Kings Cross, and pretty much anything else they could think of. The weirdest Cold Chisel hit ever.

THE MOST ESSENTIAL COLD CHISEL SONG EVER IS:

Flame Trees, Twentieth Century (1984)

You thought I’d left this out didn’t you? That was never going to happen.

In my humble opinion ‘Flame Trees’ is one of the finest songs written by any Australian artist. It is irrefutably the essential Cold Chisel song and one of my favourite songs of all time. Everything about this song is so perfectly executed. From the song structure to the instrumental performances, to Barnes’ vocal delivery and ESPECIALLY the lyrics. ‘Flame Trees’ is a flawless song and it seems so fitting that it came into existence at the end of Cold Chisel’s initial run because it sounds like the culmination of everything they’d learned. Penned by Prestwich, ‘Flame Trees’ is to me what living in Australia sounds like.

From the moment another perfect Walker piano intro gives way to Barnsey’s opening lines, you are immersed in a world so beautifully, hauntingly familiar, that you can’t help but try to reach out and touch or maybe even hug the narrator. The references are so specific, so inherently small-town Australia, that it’s almost too relatable. It’s as if Cold Chisel somehow captured the entirety of our cultural experience and distilled it into song.

The utilisation of the ‘Flame Tree’, a tree native to the subtropical regions of the East Coast, gives specificity to the geography, but not so much as to remove it from universal relatability. You could live in Broome or Glenorchy or Frankston (as I did) and still connect with the experience of this song. The fact that I can barely ever make it through this song without shedding a tear, one that’s seemingly neither happy nor sad, but somehow nostalgic in nature (and that was BEFORE Sarah Blasko went and covered it for Little Fish, absolutely destroying any hope I ever had of simply just listening to the song, instead of living it) speaks so much to the power of Cold Chisel as storytellers. Only Cold Chisel could take a song about longing and heartbreak, and turn it into something so truly timeless.

Cold Chisel’s ‘Blood Moon’ tour continues this week. Remaining dates and details here.

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