The party’s over for one of Oz rock’s greatest bands
Having finished touring in support of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Circus Animals, Cold Chisel embarked on a European tour where the band were beginning to attract a following, mainly in Germany. This was in late 1982, with another German excursion scheduled for the following year. But by then, relations between all five members had begun to fray. Drummer Steve Prestwich walked out, which saw Ray Arnott, formerly of progressive 1970’s outfit Spectrum brought in as replacement. Following another brief tour, the decision was made to call it a day, that is until they were told they owed the tax office a lot of money. Jim Barnes was also broke. The only solution was to announce a final farewell tour, and make one more album.
Fortunately Prestwich was coaxed into returning, but due to circumstances out of their control, all the songs they recorded were pretty much bashed out on the spot at a range of different studios in between performing. Mark Opitz was asked to produce, but upon hearing the final tapes, he felt that more work was required before the songs could be made presentable for public consumption, so he asked the band to come back in for some reluctant and painful overdubs.
The first thing which strikes you while listening to the first track “Build This Love” is what a radical departure this is when compared to all their previous efforts. The sound is big, but not bombastic. The production is definitely of its time, but hasn’t dated unlike the majority of pop/rock acts of the era. Barnes wrote three of the songs presented here, and they’re all worthy, with single “No Sense” being the best. Don Walker wrote the rest, with the exception of “Flame Trees” and “The game”, which were co-written with Prestwich and Phil Small respectively.
“Twentieth Century” is a short energetic number. Barnes sings about “Watching personalities/Collapse and re-arrange”, where the 20th century has become nothing but a “Hollywood Democracy”. “Ghost Town” is another short tune, and sounds as if the band had imbibed a little too much speed and coke before picking up their instruments. “Saturday Night” was the second single, whose reflective lyrics are tinged with plenty of melancholic observation, where a night on the town becomes an analogy for old friends and the inevitable passing of time.
“Painted Doll” is another throw away number which ultimately fails to convince, despite some lively playing and colourful lyrics. “No Sense”, mentioned above, like several tracks on the album, is a little difficult to categorise. Not quite pop, certainly not reggae, but most definitely not pure rock and roll either. I guess it’s its own thing, and a fine addition to the Chisel canon.
But the stand out of side one, and the LP as a whole, is “Flame Trees”. Oddly the song was issued as a single several months after they’d called it a day. The story goes that Prestwich had the music but nothing else. Step in Walker, who came up with the words and, voila! An instant number one, and which can still be heard on commercial radio to this day (so I’m told. I no longer listen to those stations). I guarantee that there is not one jukebox in the whole of rural Australia which does not have this song on its menu (warning to all publicans, if you don’t have it, then there’s liable to be a riot, usually around midnight. But don’t worry, so long as your jukebox has either “Khe Sanh” or “Bow River”, such public disruption can still be averted). I should also mention that Megan Williams and Venetta Fields (yes that same Venetta Fields who sang with Pink Floyd, and can be heard on Exile on Main Street) add backing vocals.
“Only One” starts side two, where Barnes belts out how much his wife means to him, in the only way Barnes can. “Hold Me Tight” was a strange choice for first single, which reveals either one of two things: firstly how much they actually believed in the song itself as representing them at that particular juncture, or secondly that they had little else to release until they’d recorded everything afterwards.
“Sing To Me” is a slow bluesy piece fraught with bitter reflection on a relationship gone wrong. Barnes’s vocals might be a little grating at times, but that’s not unsurprising considering all the tension and ‘let’s just get this over and done with’ sentiment generally felt by the group as a whole. Moss saves the song by playing some raw jazz-blues licks, while the rest of them play along as sympathetically as they can.
“The Game” is one of only three tracks Prestwich could be bothered to play drums on. And what a difference it makes. As an album track it’s rather good. There’s an atmosphere going on here. And when Walker writes “When all your cards are done/Just leave your share/And make your run”, one can’t help but wonder whether he was referring to the demise of the band itself.
“Janelle” is an aching ballad written by Walker in dedication to his young daughter, whom he misses dearly while out on the road. “Temptation” is the second time in as many albums where Barnes gets the final word, with some vigorous hard-rock-boogie, and which sees him pleading for women to leave him alone. A tough decision for any married man to make, especially one as hot blooded as Mr. Barnes no doubt was.
Unless the record was a complete and utter piece of shit (which it obviously isn’t), being the band’s final studio offering in itself guaranteed that it would sell, and remain on the charts for much of 1984. Swansongs are often frustrating and bitter sweet affairs, and Twentieth Century was no exception. Ultimately it’s a mixed bag really, yet if one considers the tension that existed between the band before and throughout its creation, it’s a wonder it was made at all.