Cold Chisel are an Australian rock band that formed in Adelaide, Australia. It had chart success from the late 70s up until their most recent album releases since 2011, with nine albums making the Australian top ten. Cold Chisel are regarded as having a distinctly Australian popularity and musicianship, exemplifying “pub rock” and highlighting the working class life in Australia.
Originally named Orange, the band formed in Adelaide in 1973 as a heavy-metal cover-band comprising bassist Les Kaczmarek (died December 5, 2008), keyboard player Don Walker, guitarist Ian Moss and drummer Steve Prestwich (died 16 January 2011). Seventeen-year-old singer Jimmy Barnes— called Jim Barnes on the initial run of albums— joined in December 1973, taking leave from the band in 1975 for a brief stint as Bon Scott‘s replacement in Fraternity.
The group changed its name several times before settling on Cold Chisel in 1974 after writing a song with that title. Barnes’ relationship with other band members was volatile; as a Scot he often came to blows with Liverpool-born Prestwich and he left the band several times. During these periods Moss would handle vocals until Barnes returned. Walker soon emerged as Cold Chisel’s primary songwriter. Walker spent 1974 in Armidale, completing his studies and in 1975 Kaczmarek left the band and was replaced by Phil Small. Barnes’ older brother John Swan was a member of Cold Chisel around this time, providing backing vocals and percussion but after several violent incidents he was fired.
In May 1976, Cold Chisel relocated to Melbourne but found little success, moving on to Sydney in November. Six months later, in May 1977, Barnes announced he would quit Cold Chisel in order to join Swan in Feather, a hard-rocking blues band that had evolved from an earlier group called Blackfeather. A farewell performance in Sydney went so well that the singer changed his mind. The following month the Warner Music Group picked up Cold Chis.
Influences from blues and early rock n’ roll was broadly apparent, fostered by the love of those styles by Moss, Barnes and Walker. Small and Prestwich contributed strong pop sensibilities. This allowed volatile rock songs like “You Got Nothing I Want” and “Merry-Go-Round” to stand beside thoughtful ballads like “Choirgirl”, pop-flavoured love songs like “My Baby” and caustic political statements like “Star Hotel”, an attack on the late-70s government of Malcolm Fraser, inspired by the Star Hotel riot in Newcastle.
The songs were not overtly political but rather observations of everyday life within Australian society and culture, in which the members with their various backgrounds (Moss was from Alice Springs, Walker grew up in rural New South Wales, Barnes and Prestwich were working-class immigrants from the UK) were quite well able to provide.
Cold Chisel’s songs were about distinctly Australian experiences, a factor often cited as a major reason for the band’s lack of international appeal. “Saturday Night” and “Breakfast at Sweethearts” were observations of the urban experience of Sydney’s Kings Cross district where Walker lived for many years. “Misfits”, which featured on the b-side to “My Baby”, was about homeless kids in the suburbs surrounding Sydney. Songs like “Shipping Steel” and “Standing on The Outside” were working class anthems and many others featured characters trapped in mundane, everyday existences, yearning for the good times of the past (“Flame Trees”) or for something better from life (“Bow River”).
Alongside contemporaries like The Angels and Midnight Oil, whose rise to popularity came in their wake, Cold Chisel was renowned as one of the most dynamic live acts of their day and from early in their career concerts routinely became sell-out events. But the band was also famous for its wild lifestyle, particularly the hard-drinking Barnes, who played his role as one of the wild men of Australian rock to the hilt, never seen on stage without at least one bottle of vodka and often so drunk he could barely stand upright. Despite this, by 1982 he was a devoted family man who refused to tour without his wife and daughter. All the other band members were also settled or married; Ian Moss had a long-term relationship with the actress Megan Williams (she even sang on Twentieth Century) whose own public persona could have hardly been more different. Yet it was the band’s public image that often saw them compared less favourably with other important acts like Midnight Oil, whose music and politics (while rather more overt) were often similar but whose image and reputation was far more clean-cut. Cold Chisel remained hugely popular however and by the mid-90s had continued to sell records at such a consistent rate they became the first Australian band to achieve higher sales after their split than during their active years. While repackages and compilations accounted for much of these sales, 1994’s Teenage Love album of rarities and two of its singles were Top Ten hits and when the group finally reformed in 1998 the resultant album was also a major hit and the follow-up tour sold out almost immediately.
Cold Chisel is one of the few Australian acts (along with AC/DC, The Easybeats,and Slim Dusty) to have become the subject of a major tribute album. In 2007, Standing on the Outside: The Songs of Cold Chisel was released, featuring a collection of the band’s songs as performed by artists including The Living End, Evermore, Something for Kate, Pete Murray, Katie Noonan, You Am I, Paul Kelly, Alex Lloyd, Thirsty Merc and Ben Lee, many of whom were still only children when Cold Chisel first disbanded and some of whom, like the members of Evermore, had not even been born.