I used to hate Cold Chisel. As a teenager in the 1980s, it was hard to avoid them. FM radio couldn’t get enough of them, and Khe Sanh was especially ubiquitous, pumped out of every muscle-car stereo at the beach like an extra pipeline of exhaust fumes.
Despite growing up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I stood outside of their tribe; the mullet-headed kids that liked them were the ones that gave me a hard time at school. I hated all that masculine camaraderie, the “suck more piss” ethos of their fans and their totemic status in the pantheon of Oz rock.
But strangely, I don’t hate Cold Chisel anymore. They are the crocodiles of Australian rock & roll: a dinosaur that will outlive us all. Doc Neeson is gone, though the Angels gamely play on without him. Midnight Oil died when Peter Garrett stopped dancing and took his pulpit into politics.
Cold Chisel are Oz rock’s last great survivors.
On 2 October they will launch their eighth studio album, The Perfect Crime, at the Deni (Deniliquin) Ute Muster in the New South Wales Riverina. The cover depicts what looks like one of those muscle cars, tail-lights glowing on some lonely country road.
Maybe, like most men of a certain age, my ears are getting bigger. For all my efforts to beat ’em to deaf by standing close to amplifiers for more than half my life, they’re hearing things they didn’t before.
The band has endured for a number of reasons, the main one being an abundance of stellar songs from a multi-pronged team. Don Walker gets most of the kudos – behind the band’s boozy camaraderie (the image of Jimmy Barnes, wine flagon aloft, is synonymous with Cold Chisel), it was easy to miss the sensitivity and literacy of Walker’s lyrics.
But Ian Moss (Bow River), Phil Small (My Baby) and Barnes (No Sense) all took their share of credits too, as did drummer Steve Prestwich, who departed the band, and this mortal coil, in 2011. He also left us with two of the band’s classics: When The War Is Over and the gorgeous lilt of Forever Now.
Chisel rocked hard when they wanted to, and that was often enough. But what stands out now is their versatility; their ability to jump from white soul (Barnes’s voice, pre-solo career, was a marvel) to pop and even reggae.
These days they’ve outgrown the nostalgia understandably felt for them (and other so-called heritage acts) by those who grew up with them: the fans who came of age with them in dangerously overcrowded pubs, back when you could go home with a tumour on your lung from smoke inhalation.
Their One Night Stand national tour – a play on what was supposed to be their Last Stand tour back in 1983 – will be supported by Grinspoon, coaxed out of their indefinite hiatus. Singer Phil Jamieson tells of singing backing vocals for Flame Trees in 2011, arm in arm with his bandmates, as “a moment – I may have even fallen into a bush in my excitement”.
When I was younger, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that the middle eight in that song – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – somehow always made the hairs on my arms stand on end. These days I can safely admit to loving them.
It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.
Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?
Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.
“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)
In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.
Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.
Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.
One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.
As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.
The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.
And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.
These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”
The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.
In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.
10. PAUL KELLY/KEV CARMODY – From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991, 1993)
The ultimate compromise choice on this list. Both Kelly and Carmody should feature individually in any compilation of great Australian songs, but which ones? In the end, I’ve gone for this co-write, initially recorded by Kelly for his 1991 album Comedy, then by Carmody (featuring Kelly) in 1993 for Bloodlines, with a single released the same year. It’s the story of the birth of the land rights movement in Australia, a campfire folk tune that a young Bob Dylan would have been proud of, and at least the equal of anything in either songwriter’s canon. Despite its 11 verses, it’s a story that tells itself; a masterclass in protest songwriting that wears its moral lightly.
9. FLAME TREES – Cold Chisel (1984)
Khe Sanh may be their signature tune, but this for me is the better one; a piece of heartland rock to rival anything by Bruce Springsteen: a small town, you and your mates, a boozy night of nostalgia, and a girl you can’t forget. Don Walker peels off line after line of unforgettable imagery here, and that middle-eight – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – never fails to stop me in my tracks. All credit, though, to Jimmy Barnes, who brings those words to life with the best white soul vocal this side of John Fogerty. After that, Barnes’ entire career has seemed like one long scream, as though he took the line “Ah! But who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway?” to heart. What a crying shame.
8. MIDNIGHT OIL – Power And The Passion (1982)
“People, wasting away, in paradise.” With that arresting opening line, Midnight’s Oil’s acerbic broadside to the I’m alright, Jack complacency of suburban Australia – along with US Forces, both from the band’s Armageddon-themed breakthrough 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – firmly established their political bona fides, while catapulting them into the top 10 for the first time. To do it, they deconstructed their earlier surf-rock sound with the aid of producer Nick Launay, creating a new template that was complex, attacking and immensely powerful. Rob Hirst’s solo ensured he topped “best drummer” rock magazine polls for a decade to come, and a final blast of brass pushes this most ambitious of songs over the edge.
7. CROWDED HOUSE – Don’t Dream It’s Over (1986)
Aside from being an enormous hit both locally and in the US (where it reached number two), I’m not sure that Don’t Dream It’s Over can lay claim to any wider significance. It’s just a superlative pop song. Neil Finn’s bright, chiming guitar riff sets the pace and tone, and there’s the lovely Hammond organ break that many have compared to Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale. But really, this is all about the chorus, purpose-built for couples around the world as they do their best to outlast the kitchen-sink trials of everyday life: “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over / Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in / They come, they come, to build a wall between us / You know that they won’t win.” Even non-smokers like me needed a lighter to fire up for that one.
6. THE SAINTS – (I’m) Stranded (1976)
The first independently produced rock single in Australia, the Saints’ mighty debut not only beat fellow punk precursors Radio Birdman onto plastic, but also British counterparts the Damned and the Sex Pistols. In doing so, they inspired hundreds, if not thousands of others around the world, while kicking off a social revolution in their native Brisbane – which they quickly left. Dubbed “Single of This and Every Week” by British magazine Sounds after exported copies began arriving in Old Blighty, Stranded arrived like an emergency telegram from a lost land: such is its urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo. (The B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note.)
5. THE SEEKERS – The Carnival Is Over (1965)
For a long time, I was no fan of the Seekers. Simpering folk tunes like Georgie Girl did nothing for me. Then, in early 2009, I attended RocKwiz’s salute to the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, and Judith Durham closed the show with this old Russian folk tune (no surprise there; aside from Seekers gigs, the song has become synonymous with bringing the curtain down on major events in Australia). The purity of Durham’s voice, her power and control, cut through the still night air. I think I was among the first on my feet for the inevitable but deserved ovation. It’s been covered by everyone from Nick Cave to Boney M.
4. THE EASYBEATS – Sorry (1966)
In compiling this list, I’ve tried to strike a balance between genres, eras, cultural impact and unapologetic, if occasionally boneheaded personal favouritism. It’s purely the latter that leads me to choose this song over Friday On My Mind. That’s a masterpiece of pop sophistication, but this is raw R&B, as tough as anything cut by the early Rolling Stones, and thus I simply prefer it. Marking the dawn of Easyfever, it confirmed rock & roll was here to stay in Australia: George Young’s choppy rhythm guitar prefigures his younger brothers’ work in AC/DC, while Stevie Wright’s exuberant vocals – particularly his “I-I-I-e-I-I-I-I” outro – are completely infectious.
3. THE WARUMPI BAND – My Island Home (1987)
It’s funny that a song occasionally touted as an alternative national anthem is not about Australia at all, at least not per se. The Warumpi Band were formed in Papunya, in the deserts west of Alice Springs, and this achingly homesick song was written by the band’s white guitarist, Neil Murray, for their proud Yolngu singer: “home” in this case is actually the late George Burrawanga’s birthplace of Elcho Island, in north-east Arnhem Land. Burrawanga’s high, spiritual voice is perfect for the tune’s stately, hymn-like build; if your pulse doesn’t quicken with the tempo at 2.51, best check you’ve still got one. Belatedly made famous by Christine Anu’s hit version in 1995, but really, you can’t beat the original.
2. THE TRIFFIDS – Wide Open Road (1986)
As lonely, desolate and beautiful a song as any ever written, Wide Open Road is also based on the simplest of cyclical chord progressions (G-C-G-Em-Am). The song soars on Jill Birt’s sparse keyboards – note, again, the long, droning note that introduces the track, producing a vast, panoramic vista – with Alsy McDonald’s unusual kick-drum rhythm keeping the whole thing from floating away. Atop it all is the late, great David McComb’s commanding baritone: never forced, committed only to the story at hand, he matches naturalistic imagery with powerfully erotic longing. This is songwriting as a roadmap to the soul.
1. AC/DC – It’s A Long Way To The Top (1975)
It was hard not to put Wide Open Road here, but for me, It’s A Long Way To The Top is the one that still says it all. It exemplifies fundamental truths, not only about rock & roll, but AC/DC: the heart of the band is neither Angus Young nor Bon Scott (who liked to refer to himself as “the lightning flash in the middle”), but Malcolm Young. AC/DC are a rhythm machine: without Malcolm’s distinctive chop, the band is nothing; without the riff, rock & roll ceases to exist. Bon Scott’s high, wild vocal is joyous; his lyrics as economical as the music. This isn’t about the rock & roll lifestyle: it’s a metaphor for life itself, and it’s as real as it ever was – bagpipes and all.
AND HERE’S 10 MORE THAT COULD’VE/SHOULD’VE MADE IT …
The Loved Ones – The Loved One (1965)
Not Drowning, Waving – Sing Sing (1987; 1991)
You Am I – Purple Sneakers (1995)
The Master’s Apprentices – Turn Up Your Radio (1970)
Lime Spiders – Slave Girl (1984)
Ed Kuepper – The Way I Made You Feel (1991)
X – I Don’t Wanna Go Out (1980)
Died Pretty – DC (1991)
The Stems – At First Sight (1987)
The Passengers – It’s Just That I Miss You (1979).