Cold Chisel

Khe SanhCold Chisel
Goodbye (Astrid Goodbye)Breakfast At Sweethearts
Four WallsEast
Bow RiverCircus Animals
Choir GirlEast
Breakfast At SweetheartsBreakfast At Sweethearts
Saturday NightTwentieth Century
When The War Is OverCircus Animals
My BabyEast
Flame TreesTwentieth Century


Cold Chisel playlist



Contributor: David Lewis

Australian bands, as we are continually reminded in Australia, punch above their weight often in overseas success. Let’s ignore, for the moment, that many of the members of these bands were ‘Ten Pound Poms’, or New Zealanders, or Eastern European, or any of a number of countries, including Singapore, the United States and elsewhere. The success of Australian bands such as Midnight Oil, Little River Band, Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, INXS, Men At Work, Divinyls, Crowded House (yes, I know, Neil Finn, but Paul Hester and Nick Seymour were born in Australia) and others was often well-deserved, with quality product and hard work. There are a couple of acts that never made it in the States (the pinnacle of success for Australian bands), which puzzles a lot of us down here. One of these acts is the mighty Cold Chisel, who defined a certain type of Australian society for many of us.

For the obligatory personal story, I more or less missed Chisel at their prime; at high school in rural New South Wales I was a terrible music snob, and really ignored most Australian music, preferring (for the most part) British rock and folk and American country and blues. Many of my school friends were very much into these bands so I was not ignorant of them: I just didn’t listen too hard.

Upon leaving school, I moved to Sydney. Settling in on the classic rock radio station, I used to get frustrated by the ‘long blocks of non-stop Oz Rock’ that the station would play. Over time, however, I soon realised what many snobs realise as they grow up: closing themselves off to music means you miss a lot of great music. Chisel was the first band of the ones I refused to listen to properly which made me reconsider a lot (though not all) of the music I had previously dismissed. A couple of acts I still loathe – but that’s a secret I’ll take to my grave.

Two things stood out for me with Cold Chisel: the quality of the songwriting, and the quality of the musicianship. All of these received high rotation radio play. Most were singles. The albums are full of nuggets, but these are some of the songs which caught my ear, and forced me into a reconsideration.

All members of the band wrote songs. The band itself emerged from the Australian pub rock scene. They set a goal of not appearing on ‘Countdown’ (roughly analogous to ‘Top of the Pops’ for UK readers, and Dick Clark’s ‘Bandstand’ for Americans). The pub rock scene was tough, unrelenting and many bands crumbled under its rigours. In Australia, you might need to drive 500 kilometres or more to play a one night stand, just to drive back again for another gig the next night. The crowds were tough on poor bands, but revered good ones. Chisel paid their dues playing on the circuit. As they built a following, they played larger venues.

On stage, the focal point was Scotsman Jimmy Barnes. Barnes had somewhat of a musical pedigree – his brother is another legendary Australian vocalist, John Swan. But Barnesy was not in the shadow of his brother; he is one of the most dynamic and charismatic performers Australia has produced. Ian Moss is a world class guitarist, and has one of Australia’s best voices too. Don Walker is a gifted keyboardist, and a terrific and solid rhythm section was found in Phil Small on bass and Steve Prestwich on drums.

So, to the songs. Their first single was the incredible Khe Sanh. One of the things Australians are good at is anti-war songs and, yes, Eric Bogle wrote his stuff here. It tells the matter of fact story of the life of a Vietnam veteran who has returned to Australia to find nothing awaits him. Unlike Born In The USA, it’s more through sadness than the seething anger of Springsteen’s narrative. Khe Sanh’s protagonist wanders and wonders. It was banned for several ‘adult concepts’. The lyrics point out the stupidity and pointlessness of that war, without undue emotion.

Goodbye (Astrid Goodbye) is one of those songs which seems to be nothing particularly special, except the chemistry of the band lifts it. The energetic live show which Chisel had is perhaps best shown in this song. A great performance which documents a marriage breakdown. It was the set closer.

Another genre Australians are good at is prison songs, or songs about jail – yes, yes, I know, ha-ha…. how are those cricket scores? Four Walls captures the experience of jail; the languid melody and evocative lyrics are gorgeous. Jail is a lot of boredom, a lot of regret and a lot of sadness. And here it all is, beautifully expressed.

Bow River is a real place, and showcases the vocal talent of Ian Moss. Many casual listeners of Chisel wonder why Jimmy’s raucous voice was lifted above the smoother tones of ‘Mossy’. Jimmy was the superior frontman. But Bow River makes a strong case. Jimmy harmonises and takes the last verse. The wistfulness of having a menial awful job but knowing there’s a place where you can go to escape it all. Moss, who wrote it, had never been to Bow River in the Northern Territory. But as he says, all the money he saves won’t buy his youth back, and he can’t wait to get there. A perfect image of an escape. (Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins is another song of this type.)

The next track on this playlist should have been highly controversial. Choir Girl was about abortion. None of the radio censors picked this up, and it played on Catholic media as happily as it played elsewhere. A gorgeous melody, and an emotional honesty: “Lookin’ like a choir girl – she’s crying like a refugee”. A song which resonated with nearly everyone who heard it.

Breakfast At Sweethearts evokes the red light and bohemian district of Kings Cross in Sydney. Sweethearts was a real café, since demolished for a McDonald’s, and Don Walker (yet again) captures Cross living in a song – perfection. The album isn’t great, but it has some killer songs on it.

The other great ‘Cross’ song features some musique concrète as the tape captures various parts of Kings Cross on a Saturday Night. Don Walker wrote it as a goodbye to the band.

Steve Prestwich’s When The War Is Over is, despite its unusual structure, one of the best loved of the Cold Chisel repertoire. Described as a ‘Power Ballad’, it’s a great song. Australian singer John Farnham, for whom Prestwich drummed, also did a very good version of this.

Phil Small’s songwriting included the lovely My Baby. Its strong melody did find some traction in America, but alas, Chisel were unable to capitalise on this. One of my near-misses was You Got Nothing I Want which was apparently what US record executives told the band during negotiations.

Their last single in the 80s was one of the very best songs of the Australian songbook. Flame Trees is based on Walker’s experience of growing up in Grafton, NSW. It is such a clever song; listen to the lyrics carefully. Each time the narrator moves towards an emotional truth, he changes the subject – e.g. “And I can’t help but feel that forgotten feeling of her/ time to book a room and stay the night”. If your band is breaking up and can’t stand each other – Barnes appears only in archive footage, allegedly because they didn’t tell him they were making it – you could do much worse than go out with a song of this quality. They did try a couple of reunions, but as so many bands find, you can’t really catch the lightning in a bottle. All went on to significant careers, particularly Barnes who became a respected and immensely popular solo performer, but any further reunions would seem to be unlikely, after the untimely death from a brain tumour of Prestwich.

Nonetheless, Cold Chisel carved a place in Australian musical history by writing quality songs on the Australian experience. Perhaps this is why they didn’t thrive overseas. But the mythic landscapes of Springsteen, of Ray Davies, of many others, didn’t stop sales. I’ll go now and ponder, why not Chisel.


The Official Website for Cold Chisel

Jimmy Barnes official website

Jimmy Barnes: A Collector’s Guide

Don Walker’s official website

Ian Moss official website

Cold Chisel biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

TopperPost #320


  1. Ian Ashleigh
    Jul 18, 2014

    Many thanks David, another new name for me to explore. We’ve exchanged e-mails so you and our host know that I’m working on a Pom’s eye view of Little River Band.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jul 18, 2014

    A great piece – my taste in Australian music tends to go in another direction (Paul Kelly, The Go-Betweens, Rowland S. Howard) – but after reading this model introduction, will explore Chisel further…

  3. David Lewis
    Jul 19, 2014

    Thanks Ian. I’m looking forward to your take on LRB: one of the Australian bands I’ve always enjoyed. I probably should add for clarity: a ‘ten pound Pom’ refers to a UK citizen who took advantage of a generous subsidy for a ship’s ticket to emigrate to Australia. The UK and Australian government subsidised the tickets so that the cost to the ticket holder was 10 English pounds. Like all immigration to Australia, whether European, Asian, African or elsewhere, the vast majority of these entrants enhanced and enriched Australia immeasurably.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Jul 19, 2014

      You know LRB is now is no longer an Australian Band? Since 1999 it has been fronted by American Wayne Nelson and Brit Stephen Housdon, as they were the only member left from the “hit” years. Nelson was an American who was asked to join the band in 1980 after the band met him as a member of Jim Messina’s band which had opened for LRB, Housdon left in 2006, although owns the name LRB. So one of the most popular band Australia has ever seen sales wise in the states is still out there, albeit with all American members. Seems several of the Australian members are somewhat pissed about the whole situation, at least I got that from the Graeham Goble song “Someone’s Taken Our History”.

      • David Lewis
        Jul 20, 2014

        It’s a terrible situation…

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