It’s hard to think of Cold Chisel as anything other than part of the fabric of Australian music. But it wasn’t until their third LP, East, that the band exhibited the sort of greatness that’d secure their place in music history.
Chisel’s self-titled debut album came out in 1978. By this point, they were seasoned live performers, having formed in Adelaide in 1973 and spent time based in both Melbourne and Sydney. They’d already endured a couple of near break-ups, with singer Jimmy Barnes often clashing with his fellow band members.
But Barnes’ off-stage temperament translated into an undeniable vocal presence onstage. Combine this with Don Walker’s songwriting and Ian Moss’ guitar playing, and the seeds of the band’s legend were evident from the early days.
Cold Chisel includes the band’s most famous song, ‘Khe Sanh’, which follows a Vietnam vet as they attempt to readjust to life after the war. It’s one of those rare hit singles that evades conventional format – there’s no chorus and the hook doesn’t contain the title – but the album as a whole wasn’t capable of moving mountains.
Check out ‘Khe Sanh’ by Cold Chisel:
Their next album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, features four songs that still show up in the band’s live shows until this day – ‘Merry-Go-Round’, ‘Goodbye (Astrid Goodbye)’, ‘Shipping Steel’ and the title track. However, it didn’t bring about the commercial breakthrough Chisel were so eager to achieve.
Things would be different on East, though. The band called in producer Mark Opitz, who’d apprenticed with seminal production duo Vanda and Young and produced a couple of albums with The Angels. Opitz wanted to dismantle Walker’s songwriting monopoly, urging the rest of the band to submit songs for the record.
The ploy was successful – Moss, bass player Phil Small and drummer Steve Prestwich contributed a song a piece, while Barnes wrote two. Meanwhile, freed from the pressure of penning the entire album, Walker came up with his best and most consistent set of songs to date.
The track listing of East reads like a greatest hits collection. ‘Standing on the Outside’ kicks things off, showing the band were still steeped in the world of pub- and blues-rock, but now also had the melodic heft to reach a wide audience. The singles ‘Choirgirl’ and ‘Cheap Wine’ weren’t just instant classics, but demonstrated commercial rock music needn’t abandon its thematic complexity.
East was a big success. It went gold in a week, double platinum in three months, and stayed in the top ten for six months. Over the years, Chisel have become associated with a sort of drunken, narrow minded yob, but at 40 years old, East remains a showcase of the band’s classy musicality and visceral power.