Chisel wear their hearts on their sleeves and unleash a classic in the process
On the cover for their fourth studio album we see the group congregated around a lone and disused caravan somewhere in the vast and scorching Australian desert. If it weren’t for the enormous blue horizon behind them, you’d be mistaken for thinking that they were the first rock band to land on the moon. The image is no doubt symbolic of how Cold Chisel saw themselves at the time, not only as outsiders of society but the music industry in particular. Interestingly, Richard Batchens returned to produce, which is surprising considering all the conflict that had occurred the last time they worked together. But something must have changed, because this is the most powerful and passionate sounding album they ever made.
Once again, most members contribute at least one song (the exception being Phil Small), with Don Walker naturally writing the bulk of the material as expected. Since the enormous success of East, the group had been working hard, touring up and down the Australian coast, and even embarked on an onerous tour of America. The LP’s title was coined by Walker, who felt that life on the road was not unlike being in a travelling circus, and certainly a good portion of the lyrics seem to reflect that sentiment.
First track, the muscular “You Got Nothing I Want” comes crashing through your speakers like a horde of barbarians hell-bent on burning all your jazz fusion records. Walker pounds away on the piano with pugilistic fervour, while the rhythm section hammer away at your brain’s outer membrane. Barnes wrote the song as an angry rebuttal of the American music business. And boy, does he sound pissed off. Issued as the first single a few months before the album’s release, Jim’s vocal delivery matches the invective contained in the lyrics, and which must have come across as a bit of a shock to those fans who might have been expecting something more radio oriented after the relative accessibility of East.
“Bow River” starts off with some soft piano, where Ian Moss, who wrote the song, implores you to “Listen now to the wind/Listen now to the rain.” But the train soon begins to gather steam with ever increasing pace, and by mid way through the band are in full flight, a soaring guitar solo carries the listener forwards, before Barnes grabs the vocal reins, taking it even further and faster down the track, until the song reaches its sudden and final stop, yet instead of Jim, it’s Moss who gets to sing the final two lines, thus ending an absolute tour de force of rock and roll acrobatics.
“Forever Now”, written by Steve Prestwich, sees the band in more laid back semi-reggae mode, with some tasteful and endearing guitar by Moss interspersed throughout. Selected as their second single, it fast became a radio favourite, with a charming video clip to match.
“Taipan” is Walker’s first outing here, and it’s a slow burner. Prestwich keeps the steady beat while Barnes sings “These days I can’t explain/But I can smell the monsoon rain/Seasons come, and seasons turn/More and more, cane fields burning.” The band executes the subject so well that you can almost smell the fires and see the mangrove trees.
“Hound Dog” (not too be confused with the Leiber and Stoller song) erupts like a hurricane, lifting you up and destroying everything in its path. At around the half way mark Moss comes in like the eye of the storm, singing about “Hornsby Station”, in the hope to “Find my circus animals again”. And then the whole thing takes off again, with some impressive lead guitar where Barnes sings about “petrol heads and country hicks/Bible freaks and lunatics”, where you get the feeling all they’re really looking forward to is getting home and experiencing some normality.
“Wild Colonial Boy” is another pounding number, with some strong and rhythmic abstract guitar which for some reason reminds me of Hendrix. Next is “No Good for You”, a tune written by Moss although sung by Barnes. It’s the most pop oriented track on the album, and why it wasn’t released as a single I’m sure only the band themselves would know.
“Numbers Fall” starts things off with some sleazy organ before being before the rest of the group joins in. Moss adds some more Hendrix inspired textures to the slow burning fabric, while Barnes sings about those addicted to the roulette table, who throw the dice as if their very lives depended on it.
“When the War is Over” was the third single lifted from the album, and Prestwich’s finest ever contribution. In fact his finest song period, and the one he will undoubtedly be best remembered for, whose narrative is concerned about two lovers separated by conflict.
What can be said about “Letter to Alan”, other than it is one of those eight-cylinder epics which by now the band excelled at. It is also one of the most personal and reflective songs Walker had written up to that point, dedicated to two of Chisel’s roadies who perished when their van hit a tree and burst into flames on the way to a gig in 1980. Each member was profoundly impacted by the double tragedy, and the lyrics are an attempt to capture and express those emotions. The track also contains some of the most ferocious and inventive guitar playing of Moss’s career.
All in all, Circus Animals is their greatest artistic statement, reaching number one on the Australian charts, and remains a benchmark of Oz rock in general. Unfortunately such a high musical standard proved unsustainable, as the following year saw the band begin to implode under the weight of family pressures and factional infighting. Yet they had at least one more album in them before finally throwing in the towel for good, choosing to go out with a bang, and a few extra bucks to boot.