Looking Back on 45 Years of Cold Chisel

BY MEL BONDFIELD

Cold Chisel are the quintessential Aussie band who wrote the soundtrack for a generation. 

Back in October 1973 Cold Chisel began playing their first gigs as a covers band doing the rounds in Adelaide. And in April 1978, a few years after settling on their final line-up, they released their self-titled debut album, featuring a single about a Vietnam veteran that would immediately be banned by commercial radio for its lyrical content.

The five members of the band Cold Chisel standing in front of a brick wall. Text at bottom reads 'Cold Chisel - October 1973'.

The first photo of Cold Chisel, October 1973. NFSA Title 784029

Four decades later, that song - 'Khe Sanh' - is as beloved by Australians as Vegemite, and Cold Chisel is the rock band we bond over, sing along to and reminisce about, arguably more than any other.

Throughout the 1970s and early 80s Cold Chisel built a reputation as a tough, work hard–play hard, pub-rock band. In a recent interview with the NFSA, Cold Chisel's legendary front man, Jimmy Barnes, reveals why he pushed the band so hard and how he came to be so wild on stage:

Over the decades, the folkloric narrative of a raucous pub band mired in the fast and loose rock’n’roll lifestyle has, to some extent, diminished the public’s ability to see Cold Chisel’s collective artistry. Their name conjures images of infamously out-of-control, alcohol-fuelled live performances, with Barnes belting out aggressive rock songs such as 'You Got Nothin' I Want', 'Goodbye (Astrid Goodbye)' and the anthemic 'Khe Sanh' to parochial fans.

Lead singer of Cold Chisel, Jimmy Barnes, in a crowd of fans during a concert.

I created chaos so I could hide in amongst it ... It was like smoke and mirrors.

Jimmy Barnes

Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll find a band that held a deep understanding of the hopes, struggles and insecurities of their working-class audience. Their lyrics, particularly those penned by Don Walker, spoke directly to those on the fringe – the lost, isolated, angry and downtrodden; they were given a voice and sense of belonging through the music of Cold Chisel. Songs including ‘Standing on the Outside’, ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Star Hotel’ were written for and about them.

In this interview excerpt, Barnes reveals his own personal connection to Walker's lyrics and talks about the album East, written mostly by Walker, as being a pivotal point in the band's career:

Across each studio album, Cold Chisel played with different sounds and genres, from pop melodies like ‘Forever Now’, ‘Ita’ and ‘My Baby’ to rock ballads including ‘Flame Trees’, ‘When The War is Over’ and ‘Choir Girl’, and the gamble paid off.

Poster with 'Cold Chisel' in red block letters at bottom left and the magazine name 'Smash Hits Replay' top right. Cold Chisel band members are pictured against a dark background. L to R: Phil Small, Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, Steve Prestwich and Ian Moss.

Lift out poster from Smash Hits magazine, 1988. NFSA Title 779094

Their ability to produce music that brought commercial and critical success, while staying true to their fans, helped to firmly cement Cold Chisel’s place as a cultural icon in Australian music history.

To this day many of their tracks remain on high rotation on FM radio, their songs have been covered countless times by other musicians, they have been inducted into ARIA's Music Hall of Fame and demand for Cold Chisel to perform live has never waned, with tours and reunion shows always a sellout. 

Now the NFSA is celebrating 45 years of this legendary Australian rock group with an online curated collection of interviews, images, documents, posters, reviews, documentary excerpts and more.

And if you're a big fan of Australian rock music, don't forget to check out our online shop for Running in the Shadows – Oz Rock Rarities 1983–1994, which features Jimmy Barnes along with many of Australia's best musical acts of the 80s and 90s.