Cold Chisel’s mindset when making records is simple. “All we’re doing is trying to make the best album we can, always assuming this might be the last one,” keyboardist and songwriter Don Walker tells Apple Music. It’s an approach that has served the band well: Between forming in Adelaide in 1973 and first disbanding in 1983, Cold Chisel—whose current lineup includes founding members Walker, lead singer Jimmy Barnes and guitarist Ian Moss, as well as bassist Phil Small, who joined the band in 1975—released four studio albums that helped define the Australian musical landscape. (Their fifth, 1984’s equally classic Twentieth Century, came out just after they’d broken up.) A heady mix of lyrical storytelling (“Khe Sanh”), wide-eyed rock abandon ("You Got Nothing I Want") and beautiful, bittersweet melodies (“Flame Trees”), each album widened the stylistic boundaries of Oz rock while simultaneously drawing from its beer-and-sweat-soaked heritage. In 1995, Cold Chisel decided to work together again, and their albums since have added to their already formidable legacy. Here, Walker offers insight into some of the band’s key hits.
“'Khe Sanh' is a song written in the mid-’70s about the recent finish of the Vietnam War and the people who had come home from that war to an Australia that had changed and in some ways divided substantially since they left. And it follows the alienation of one particular veteran.”
“For me, ‘Flame Trees’ is about regional Australia, and the picture in my head is Grafton. The important person here is Steve [Prestwich, the band’s original drummer, who passed away in 2011], who wrote the music. And I think for him the music sounded like Liverpool. Steve was, I think, 17 when he came out from Liverpool, and it had quite a large hold on him. He always struggled with the sense of exile. And when I wrote a song that was clearly—to me, and, I thought, to him—about Grafton, I think it wasn’t quite what Steve was expecting or looking for.”
“Unlike most of our other songs, ‘Cheap Wine’ is two or three different songs cobbled together. And it was written very quickly at a time when we were recording the East album. It does all the right things for how you’re supposed to write a radio pop song of that era. Big chorus, all that. The only difference between this and all the other pop songs is that it’s a work of unarguable brilliance.”
“It’s written about a young girl in hospital being wheeled in for an abortion, wrapped up in the most gorgeous melody I could think of at the time. I was always trying to write about real things… But that didn’t mean that the music should be unattractive. Quite the opposite. Music should be as attractive as possible. This is the first time we went in and recorded something we thought could be a radio hit.”
“This was a band breakup song. Lyrically it was a ‘leaving everything you’ve known and going into the unknown’ type of song—an early-hours-of-Sunday-morning rather than a Saturday-night song. There’s supposed to be some sadness in it, especially the bits that Ian sings. And then the big bits that Jim sings in the middle are ‘It’s gonna be all right, I’ve got the world laid out ahead of me and I’ve got the keys to the city.’”
“All for You”
“It’s a love song for my wife. Not the only one I’ve written, but there’s something about this song that easily resonates with other men thinking about the woman they love. It’s a favourite of Jim’s. Even though it’s not a Cold Chisel standard, I cannot write a setlist without this in because he will insist it’s in there.”