Cold Chisel

Released in 1978, at a time when disco and Abba were polluting our ears and airwaves, it’s little wonder that Cold Chisel’s eponymous debut received little attention from the music buying public at large. The band had formed in Adelaide some five years earlier and pretty much hit the ground running from then on, playing the sort of establishments most musicians today wouldn’t even walk past much less perform in. But those five years eventually paid off, allowing them to hone their skills and ultimately forge a style all their own. A sound that was unique to Australia and nowhere else.

Opener “Juliet” explodes from out the speakers with an energy so raw it sounds like they’re playing live in your living room. The band is tight and focused, while lead singer Jim Barnes delivers a vocal married between Robert Plant and Rod Stewart. Next is “Khe Sanh”, arguably their most celebrated song, and the one which probably receives the most rotation on commercial radio to this day, ironic really, considering it was banned at the time of its release by most stations, owing to a reference to prostitutes. The lyrics were penned by Don Walker, and are without a doubt some of his most thoughtful, describing a Vietnam veteran, and the trouble he has re-adjusting to society after his experiences; a dysfunctional drifter who no longer knows where he fits in. An important theme but one I fear is absent on all the drunken yobbos who belt it out at the local pub or family barbeque as if it were the nation’s official anthem.

“Home and Broken Hearted” is an autobiographical number penned by Barnes, where he writes about his girlfriend leaving him while he’s away on tour, only to find out when he arrives home. “One Long Day” is another Walker tune, with lyrics that express the dissatisfaction with “city life” and the existential doldrums one gets from a nine to five job, ever lusting for escape. The song begins on a bluesy beat, with Ian Moss singing this time, whose smooth and highly rhythmical vocals convincingly add texture and nuance. And when he sings “Up at seven every working day/Pay comes in, pay goes out/It’s a week by week charade”, you can believe him. At about the half way point the song slows down, and Barnes comes in, crooning about “Soft low words”, “Spanish Towns” and being “A million miles away”, before the group launch into a full on Zeppelinesque assault, all done with the skill and precision of a band who have undoubtedly paid their musical dues. “North Bound Train” is another blues oriented number, with some tasteful harmonica by Dave Blight, who would hence remain as an unofficial member right up until their final tour several years later. “Rosaline” is undoubtedly the most romantic song they ever recorded, and a show case for Ian Moss’s silky vocals. Wilber Wilde adds some classy saxophone, and the whole thing just flows along in a dreamy kind of way, proving that Chisel could play more than just head-banging rock and roll. And speaking of head banging, “Daskarzine” raises the temperature again in the vein of vintage Zeppelin, with some hot guitar, and a sizzling rhythm section. But it’s the lyrics that are worth noting, especially the lines “Her every move/Is a lesson in street ballet/And they speak her name in cheap hotels/From Turkey to Marseillaise”, Walker is obviously referring to smack, and the darker shadows in which humanity dwells, a subject he would revisit repeatedly over the following years. The album ends on a more reflective and jazzy note in “Just How Many Times”, another Walker composition about lost love, and the transience of relationships, all played in a slow and sombre tone, which serves to enhance the song’s sad and nostalgic observation.

The album was warmly received by critics, and sold a respectable 10,000 copies. Not bad considering all the pop dross they had to compete with at the time (this was the late ‘70’s after all). But it wasn’t enough. The band once again had to embark on that endless highway of gigs and self promotion. “Cold Chisel” was a fresh and fine beginning that might have seemed a little anachronistic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. This may not be their most popular or commercially successful LP, but is perhaps the best place to start for anyone who cares about the group and Australian pub-rock in general.