For Cold Chisel Don Walker was mostly the silent brooding beer drinker at the rear banging away on an electric piano (I always thought this was a moment of Ray Charles hommage) but he wrote most of the songs and some are pretty ordinary. “Flame Trees” and “Forever Now” are both ballads that aren’t sweet enough, both are about regret and the sense of failure and shame that come with wanting to go home. “Khe Sanh” covers much of the same territory but, I think, has one of the best verses in Australian rock music:
And she was like so many more from that time on
Their lives were all so empty, till they found their chosen one
And their legs were often open
But their minds were always closed
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains
And the legal pads were yellow, hours long, pay packet lean
And the telex writers clattered where the gunships once had been
But the car parks made me jumpy
And I never stopped the dreams
Or the growing need for speed and novocaine
“No Sense” is a song I really like, with nothing on offer but a huge serve of grump and bitterness and loneliness. “Standing on the Outside” is half empty: it is a ballsy a statement of not wanting to belong as any I’ve heard but it fills in no gaps, it leaves almost everything except its chorus unsaid. Meanwhile “Janelle” is a torch song that aligns not belonging with not wanting to be alone. All of these are very typical Don Walker songs. They are not warm, not fun, and have a feeling of an untethered broken heart reaching out, cold with loss.
The best Chisel products were the live albums, not for any particular grace on stage but because they sound so precisely wedged in their context. They spoke, and speak, so fluently when they engage the crowds: nailing down the “we are in the same place at the same time” sense of connection, the wondrous “lets sing it together” camaraderie. Sadly the live albums haven’t aged well, nor in fact has Chisel’s studio work. It sounds very much like it was recorded in the shed on an eight track. And now days the studio material sounds even more amateurish, leading to an almost annual re-release of Chisel packages as remastered, digitally enhanced, or just fixed up. Blokes of a certain age can be guaranteed to have annual spike of nostalgia, especially nostalgia for youthful drinking and shouting.
And alas Chisel broke up: they’d toured around the arse ends of Australia for fifteen years, had a go in the States (failing miserably) and the UK (no go there either). They had a couple of nights at what was then Australia’s largest indoor performance venue (the Sydney Entertainment Centre) and they called it the Last Stand. In typical Led Zep Allman Brothers fashion they played every song they knew for twice as long as usual, and played and played and played. They released a live album and video of the shows, which is not their best (that’s Swingshift), but is remarkable for the great affection the band and the audience share (Jimmy Barnes at one point says “look you fuckers, had a fuckin great time, great fuckin’ time” somehow stating obliquely that both the audience and band were having fun but without congratulating either).
And so the members of Chisel went their separate ways and did all the usual things: solo albums, guest spots, long years of Thursday night residencies in Harbourside bars. There were degrees of success and failure in these pursuits, mostly failures, though Jimmy Barnes pursued a modestly successful solo career for a decade or so. Don Walker, who had the goose that laid the golden egg in terms of being the songwriter and having written at least three songs that have been reprised time and time again (“Khe Sanh”, “Flame Trees”, and “Forever Now”) and undoubtedly remain profitable. As a consequence Don Walker walked away from Chisel to do nothing much at all it appeared.