Don Walker was once a star. He was once screamed at by teenage girls with damp knickers and no sense. He played in sell out tours and was on the television all the time.
Not that he was really a poster boy, he was the keyboardist and songwriter for a long defunct blues rock combo named Cold Chisel. In Australia, amongst the aging cognoscenti, they are known simply as “Chisel”. Chisel was (and is) much beloved by blokes of a certain age (a bit older than me I must say): if you went to the pub wearing shorts and thongs in a largish Australian suburb during the late seventies or early eighties you were the target market for Chisel.
They came from a 1950s model town, named after the Queen, called Elizabeth in South Australia. In the dark old days of the 1970s Elizabeth was where Mitsubishi built cars and about a hundred car part fabricators put their factories. It was a hot dusty industrial town (think Flint Michigan or Pittsburgh but much hotter) where men were men and if you weren’t a man you were a fuckin’ poof. Many, many migrants were drawn to Elizabeth, especially post war “ten pound” British immigrants who came to work in the factories and live in the most awful prefab housing with limited (none) social amenities and no air conditioning. Elizabeth is now a suburb of Adelaide and has changed its stripes somewhat (wine, focaccias, nice brick veneer, ducted air conditioning) in recent times.
But a group of teenagers (aren’t they always?) put together a pretty ordinary blues band which performed in the factory pubs and plugged away with covers of the Stones, Led Zep, and the usual guitar heroes (interestingly Bon Scott of ACDC fame started out singing in the factory pubs of Elizabeth). And you’d have thought (especially if you look at the footage) they wouldn’t last long with a very shouty singer (Jimmy Barnes), an almost invisible organist (Walker) and a pretty unremarkable rhythm section (Phil Small and Steve Prestwich). The stand out member of the band was a guitarist and second vocalist named Ian Moss, who at least could sing and play. (You can google them, and look them up on wikipedia if you like, there is also the usual bunch of decaying videotape on youtube if you’re keen.)
But last they did, mostly through that hallmark of the seventies music scene: live performance and endless touring. They played and played and played. Every town as big as Elizabeth or bigger generally got a Chisel show or two each year. And Elizabeth was then sized at around twenty five thousand people, so a lot of piss poor regional centres got a live gig.
And so Chisel did all the usual stuff, they made EPs and albums and released singles and appeared on various promotional tv shows. They were pretty big for Australia, which is to say biggish. Famously they once destroyed their gear live at a TV music awards show in protest against the pointless vanity of the whole exercise.
It was at this point I became aware of Chisel since I was a tiny young boy in the bush watching this on television. With the benefit of hindsight there is nothing remarkable about any of Cold Chisel’s products: songs played well enough for the most part but mostly variations on twelve bars blues and ballads that weren’t sentimental enough to really pull your heartstrings.
But the core bit here is ‘for the most part’ because in the Chisel oeuvres are maybe half a dozen songs of considerable beauty and charm. But more than charm, there is a thoughtfulness and grace about where we are and what it might mean. For me Chisel’s half dozen really wonderful songs were all written by Don Walker.
More on Don Walker tomorrow…