Cold Chisel is a brand name as easily recognisable as Vegemite. Or Qantas. Or XXXX.
They are as identifiably Australian as any of the above, and hold a place in the hearts of all Australians to rival anything else this country has produced – musically or commercially.
To put it simply, they are a national icon.
Their resume of hits, including ‘Cheap Wine’, ‘Choir Girl’, ‘Khe Sahn’ and ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’ are to some more recognizable than ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the names of two of the bands members – Jimmy Barnes and Ian Moss, are noted by even the harshest of critics.
From their inception in 1973, when they were a heavy metal cover band going by the name of Orange, to their upcoming release, ‘A Perfect Crime’, Cold Chisel have had one of the most tumultuous yet ultimately rewarding careers in Australian rock history.
They have been called wild and brash and unconformist – which may all be true – but their place at the forefront of our musical revolution has never been in question.
A couple of months out from their ‘One Night Stand’ national tour guitarist and vocalist Ian Moss says the band are currently busy in preparation for yet another trip around the country.
“I think everyone is just keeping themselves occupied until the tour starts,” he deadpanned.
“I know Barnes is about to launch off on a ‘Flesh and Blood’ tour or something and I’m doing a bunch of acoustic shows all throughout July. I’ve just finished a week of recording my own new album and I’ll get back into that in August then in September we’ll start getting ready for all the Cold Chisel dates towards the end of the year.”
For a band now lauded as a rock and roll masterpiece it is difficult to imagine Cold Chisel playing anything but the brand of music they are renowned for, but if things had have continued down their original path things might have been a little different.
“I guess heavy metal is one way of describing our early sound, but I think we were more of a hard rock band – more blues based than rock. Back then it was a case of making a decision of stopping doing covers more than making a decision to do a particular style. As far as we were concerned we were writing hard rock songs initially. Take songs on the first album for example. There’s straight out blues – or blues based at least – but with a much more complex, almost blues/jazz feel because of Walker’s writing style. You’ve got songs like ‘Just How Many Times’ and ‘One Long Day’ and they are quite complex blues songs but ‘Khe Sanh’ is also off the first album so that was a step into messing around with different styles. We ended up being…. still a hard rock band…. with a bit of pop melody in there I guess, but we always played things with plenty of hard rock weight to it.”
In the early days, partly due to members not getting along and leaving, and partly due to experimentation, several later to become big names, notably Joe Camilleri and Wilbur Wilde, drifted through the band and their recordings, but Moss says that none of them, with the exception of John Swan, were ever likely to become full time members.
“No, not at all,” he stressed.
“John Swan maybe because he was Jim’s brother and real early on in the piece Steve (Prestwich, drummer) decided – well he did this a couple of times – to leave the band and so John was the obvious replacement because he’s not only a great singer but he’s also a great drummer. But yeah, as the word goes, Steve saw the light and begged to come back and we felt we had to give the position back to him. The other guys, they didn’t come through the band as such. They might have played on certain tracks on the album but just because you play on the album doesn’t mean you join the band.”
Despite the early comings and goings and coming back again, Moss says that it wasn’t until Cold Chisel officially broke up in the early 80’s that he thought they were spent as a band.
“It wasn’t until 1983 when we called it quits that I thought that. The other times… I think Barnes cracked the shits once and Prestwich had a meltdown once or twice more after that….. Once early in the piece Jim left the band – this is in the real early days – and joined a band called Fraternity, a very famous Adelaide band, but that didn’t get too far and he more or less begged for forgiveness to come back to the band, which is a good thing he left in a way because I took over the lead vocals and I learnt how to be a lead vocalist. So it was all funny how things have come and are meant to be.”
Although later becoming the first Australian rock band to score hits written by each band member, in the early days it was keyboardist Don Walker who wrote the majority of the songs. It wasn’t until their third album ‘East’ that Moss and the others started feeling comfortable in that role.
“I guess experience, and confidence were the big things,” Moss explained of the time it took for all of the band to share writing duties.
“It was the same for everyone in the band really. Don Walker was great and he got stuck into it but back then there was no – one teaching us how to write songs. These days there’s song writing courses and people go to University and stuff but back then you were completely winging it. But my first effort I guess, aside from a co – write on ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’, was ‘Never Before’ and I’m quite happy with that,” he laughed.
One of those early songs penned by Walker, ‘Khe Sanh’ is a classic of Australian rock, and it’s hard to think in this day and age that the song was nearly buried by Australian radio before it even had a chance to breath, with local radio deeming some of the songs lyrics too offensive for the airwaves.
“I reckon we got fucked over on that quite frankly,” Moss said.
“It was just that we kept going with it and were a good band and toured round and round the country and played it and played it that people finally got to know the song and heard it. That’s why it ended up being popular. But the Australian Censor Board at the time was pretty stupid. They were letting international bands get away with all sorts of stuff – I can’t think of any examples right now but I could track them down if anyone wanted proof – and they were letting these through and it was like ‘they’re from overseas so it’s okay, but our local boys…. How dare they! How naughty and smack, smack, smack’ so it’s all because we pushed it that it became the great song that it is.”
It is now nearly 40 years since that song was released, and to this day Moss says the band are proud that it is still revered in such fashion by fans.
“I know the song is very special to a lot of people,” he conceded.
“Us, when we are playing it and delivering it, yeah it still does. It’s one of those things and that’s the beauty of a lot of Cold Chisel songs. I often get asked ‘do you get sick of playing these songs?’ and no, I don’t. They are great songs! Don Walker, who wrote most of them, he’s the kind of guy to sweat over not every last word, but every last syllable to make sure it was right. With all of the Cold Chisel songs there’s a built in level that lets you improvise a bit and to me that’s why I picked up the guitar. To try and improvise a solo and come up with something different every night and that is built into all Cold Chisel songs.”
Not so much in the modern era, but back in the earlier days, Cold Chisel had a reputation for being a wild and unpredictable band both on and off the stage, but Moss says that was more a product of the times than a conscious attempt to create an image.
“I reckon with Barnesy leading the charge we would have been hard to match in a lot of ways with our intensity,” he laughed.
“We were wild but we could still play properly. Ah,…. yeah, yeah, we’d be pretty hard to beat on a good night then and still pretty hard to beat today.”
“I think during the mid to late 70’s there were other bands that were developing this sensibility, this professionalism I guess, of blood and violence; let’s mess around. What songs are we going to play tonight or do next? Then stand around for five minutes scratching your balls while you work out what song you’re going to play next and if you feel like it or not. Bands started to develop the meaning of a show and how every second you were on stage had to mean something and a lot of bands discovered that. Midnight Oil, the Angels, AC/DC were all kicking off around the same time and we were all pushing each other along so we just realised you had to treat it like a Grand Final of a football game and fight. It was a total fight every night and it had to be like that and that’s the same attitude we like to take now.”
After Cold Chisel disbanded in 1983 there were several efforts by promotors to reform the band, with major money reportedly thrown at them if they would do a reunion tour. Many bands would have jumped at the money bandied around, but it was testament to the bands morals and ethics that that they waited until it was right for themselves to make the call.
“It just kind of fell into place when we made that special decision,” Moss explained.
“I remember it was as early as about 1986 I had a conversation with Jim and the time had gone by really quickly and Jim said any time you want to get back together I’m interested and I couldn’t believe I had heard it because Jim was one of the ones really keen to move on. And then I had ‘Matchbook’ coming up in ’89 which was my first solo album and it had gone well…… and by that stage everyone was doing their solo thing and the band was putting out the Greatest Hits album and sales for that were going through the roof and the radio never stopped playing us and we didn’t expect that at all. When we split in ’83 we thought we had better make a real go of the solo gigs as a career and give that a shot otherwise we’d better start looking for a real job!”
In fact it wasn’t until 1998 that Cold Chisel got back together for the album and sold out national tour ‘The Last Wave of Summer’ and from there the band have seamlessly fit back into the musical landscape.
After all these years playing and touring you would think the spark would have gone out even just a little, but Moss is emphatic when refuting this.
“I love it still!” he enthused.
“There’s not enough dates haha. In 2011 on the ‘Light the Nitro’ tour we did 36 dates in 60 days which sorted out the men from the boys. That would have been real tough if we didn’t have a physical trainer. It’s more about pacing yourself but this tour is a little more sparse than that so I’m sure we’ll have no problems getting through it!”
He is also pretty adamant that this is not a farewell tour, which will be much to the relief of their fans.
“Not necessarily,” he said. “We’re just about to put out a new album in September just before this tour and I know that we’re still writing well and still got a lot to say. Nah mate, it won’t be the end.”
Cold Chisel as a band means many different things to many different people, and Moss says that that extends to the band as well.
“It means something that’s a great source of pride to us mate,” he said.
“We’re just amazed that we’ve done as well as we have. We’d never have dreamed – we’d hoped – but never dreamed or took it for granted that we’d go as well as we did and to this day we’d be doing something for a living that we love doing. My only regret is perhaps that we didn’t do what obviously AC/DC did in their earlier years and go overseas rather than just thrash it out around the country to become a big band and then deciding to go over. I think they recognised the potential for when a band is really good it burns bright and you can’t sustain that forever so they took off overseas early in the piece and started doing all their burning bright over there where there’s a lot more people. That’s my only regret is that we didn’t make it internationally but we should have gotten out of Australia well before. Our first trip was 1981 to the United States but we should have left three years before that…..”
Cold Chisel play at the Cairns Convention Centre on Thursday November 5. Tickets are available from Ticketek