Standing On The Outside - Biograph By John Halfhide

 

Don Walker has been content to stand in the shadows. Even when his band, Cold Chisel, was at the height of their popularity and unquestionably the most popular rock & roll band in Australia, Don Walker was quite content to sit down, half obscured by the piano. They were Walker’s songs; "Khe Sanh", "Star Hotel", "Choir Girl", "Cheap Wine" - which made Cold Chisel what they were, which gave a backbone to the raw power of Chisel. Don Walker never begrudged the spotlight as it fell on Jimmy Barnes and Ian Moss. He was quite happy to have them articulate his tales of Australian life.

It’s now more than five years since Cold Chisel disbanded after a glorious decade. Their albums, from the eponymously titled debut, through Breakfast At Sweethearts, East, Circus Animals and Twentieth Century, as well as the live records, remain classics. They still sell and they are a constant part of radio playlists. While the singer Jimmy Barnes has picked up the mantle of Cold Chisel and rallied suburban youth with his working class anthems. The other members of the group have remained relatively quiet; bass player Phil Small has had a pub band for a while, drummer Steve Prestwich did a brief stint in the Little River Band and guitarist Ian Moss has slowly been working on a solo album.

Walker however has been plugging away at a variety of things. "Reluctant" is the adjective that best goes with this piano player. When Chisel disbanded he wanted to get away from music and even when he started writing songs again he was reluctant to use them himself. When finally drawn into making a record, Walker considered employing an actor to front the band and mime the songs.

In a sense Catfish, the band, and the first LP Unlimited Address represents Don Walker’s failure to retire from rock & roll. After the demise of Cold Chisel he set out to find something else in his life and he toured through Australia, Asia and Eastern Europe. Those travels are reflected in the locale of these songs. But the songs are linked, often unconsciously, to their author. There is the sense of detachment, a touch of voyeurism and an attempt to get some external reality into an emotional search.

These songs are linked by the narratives, the stories of cafes and bars in Europe and caravan parks in the Territory. Walker’s reputation as a songwriter largely stems from his ability to tell stories. With Cold Chisel they were the stories of young people growing up in Australia in the late Seventies - the "uncontrolled youth in Asia" of "Star Hotel".

Catfish is a more personal project. Because he was doing the album largely for personal reasons he has returned to his original influences - the blues. Recorded with a floating line-up that featured Dave Blight on harmonica, Ian Moss and coproducer Peter Walker on guitar and Ricki Fataar on drums, Unlimited Address is a reluctant first step in a career that may well have another golden decade left.

The hardest part for Don Walker will be the interviews.

How did you feel after Cold Chisel finished with the Last Stand?

It didn’t really finish for me until March of the following year, because there was all the post production, interviews and promotion for Twentieth Century to be done, but I was pretty elated. Very elated when the last concert was done but then I had to get back to work.

The day Jim and I did the last radio interview became an emancipation day. I had no more responsibilities or duties. End of project.

It was a long period of your life. Thinking hack over the songs you recorded on those albums it seems like there was a significant development.. . and then the hand finished. Did you know where you wanted to go? Did you know what was next?

No. But I didn’t want to do any of the obvious things. I didn’t want to get into anything until I’d got right away from anything connected with music and detoxed myself. If you’re in a business for that long you get a bit blinkered in the way you view the whole world, so I wanted to get that out of my system. I thought there might be something else out there totally unrelated but I didn’t know what.

Having made a right or left turn at one stage before, I wasn’t too worried about it. Before when I made a radical job change joining the band fulltime I had no money. At least now I was reasonably well off for awhile. I didn’t have to worry about the next bite to eat.

You did a fair bit of travelling?

I didn’t do nearly as much travelling as I would’ve liked. It would’ve been very difficult for me to stay in Sydney where I at least had a permanent residence since 1976. It would’ve been hard to remain there and detox myself.

You were prepared to give music away completely, after more than a decade of developing your talents?

I was sick of it. I couldn’t really say there were a lot of things for the band to do that hadn’t been done or seen. We weren’t the biggest band in the world but from what I had seen being the biggest band in the world meant the same dressing rooms in England and America rather than just here. I know for a fact that the dressing rooms in Los Angeles are nothing terribly different.

Meanwhile out there in the real world a lot of people were having a lot of people were having a lot of fun, quietly. In ways that people in entertainment never suspect. People in entertainment seem to think that’s where all the action is.

Did you go through periods where you wouldn’t go near the piano for instance?

Well, I don’t generally sit down at the piano. Occasionally for fun, but not a terrible lot and I didn’t in those days either.

It was something that I was fanatical about but at the same time I can see that it’s not the only thing in the world and there’s people out there doing stuff from climbing mountains to running guns or merchant banking or whatever. These people aren’t fools. They aren’t doing it just because they didn’t think they could write a song.

Cold Chisel in the late Seventies (l-r) Ian Moss, Phil Small, Jimmy Barnes, Steve Prestwich, Don Walker

Did you want to write a novel or anything?

I sat down and listed all the things I wanted to do with the rest of my life, leaving space at the bottom for things I hadn’t thought of yet. Write a novel, paint a masterpiece, do a blinding piece of scientific research.

Were you conscious of the bands in the late Seventies, like the Angels, the Oils and yourselves, really fashioning something new in Australian music?

It seemed like that at the time but I can never tell. There was a strong identification between the audience at large and the bands. There was a feeling among the bands that there wasn’t that much difference between us and the people we were playing to, and I think the perception ran the other way as well.

Cold Chisel always seemed to me to be a very meat & potatoes rock band, but I gather you didn’t see it like that? How would you have described Cold Chisel?

Our motivations and our influences were always black American music and maybe later on American Country & Western. I would relate us more to the Rolling Stones than the E Street Band - the difference being that the Rolling Stones are white people attempting to play black music, as Cold Chisel was.

There was a strong political theme running through Cold Chisel’s songs. Particularly on the ‘Circus Animals’ LP.

We always hung back from being as overtly political as Midnight Oil. I think we always regarded rock & roll or that kind of music as being a sufficient end in itself. If you mix it with politics it’s a very powerful thing. It exists in a vacuum of its own. It’s a thing that is completely new. Some people make the mistake of seeing it as a sociological phenomenon or an art form or a political force. It’s none of those things, and if you start mixing it up and making it an art form or make it political then you dilute it, whereas in its most powerful and political form it’s nothing more than "You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog".

Once we got to East, we had perfected this way of writing, arranging and playing songs, and unless we broke the mould we would’ve done another album of the same kind of formulas. If we’d taken those same set of lessons and applied them to the same sort of record it would’ve got more slick and lost the spontaneity. The only way to remain fresh is to smash all those rules, go back and start something else. Maybe bring that to fruition or maybe you’ll fail.

We were also trying to give the music a lot more power. East was a very good album, but on the pop end of what we had been doing, and we thought, ‘how can we go back and get some more of the live power back into the records and try and make something our audience from 1978 would recognise’.

You wanted to give music away and now you’re back in it again? Why the change of plan?

Personal reasons. After a couple of years I found I had to live in Australia for awhile - for reasons unrelated to career - and to largely he anchored here. By that stage I had a lot of songs and this idea was starting to form so I thought I’d give it a bash. This side of things; promotion. . .1 didn’t really sort of see that. Stupid of me. I guess I was in love with the songs and the idea of getting them on tape.

I thought I could come up with some way of being really clever and sliding out of this side of things.

Have you been talked out of staying in the shadows?

Not so much talked out of it. It’s just not sense. Nobody’s going to buy a record unless you package it and talk about it. I want people to buy it because I think it’s good.

You don’t seem really comfortable about doing the promo routine, doing interviews?

It’s a real invasion of privacy to do an interview. It’s a wank all round talking about yourself. Somebody who can professionally do what you do and listen to people talking about themselves especially since most of them are boring your ears off....

You grew up in Queensland?

No. I left Queensland when I was five years old and we moved down to outside Grafton. My father was a farmer, my mother was a school teacher.

So how did you end up in music?

My father’s always been a harmonica player, his hero is Larry Adler who played chromatica with swing bands and classical music, stuff like that.

Where did you go after Grafton?

I stayed in Grafton until I went off to attend urn in Armidale. I started playing in bands while I was in high school, in the church fellowship. There was a lot of music in that and I used to occasionally go along to the church and play the organ which must have been one of the first electric organs ever made. A couple of mates of mine and I formed a band.

You studied science at university?

Physics and mathematics until a certain late stage where I opted for the physics instead of the maths...

And then you end up playing dives with a band?

I was playing the whole time I was studying. To the growing detriment of the study. Then I worked for a couple of years before resigning and going full-time with the band.

Did you used to go to church?

Yeah.

Do you still?

No. But that says more about churches than my belief.

Do you believe in God?

In the Christian sense, yes.

So when did the idea of Catfish start?

I knew after a while that I was continuing to write songs and after I figured out there were going to be songs keeping on coming. I thought for a time that’s okay, I knew Ian was keen on doing something and whatever I write I can put at Ian’s disposal and whatever he didn’t want I could farm out to other singers. I made a little deal that if he would help me demo the stuff, playing guitar and singing, he could have first pick. Under that kind of arrangement a repetoire of songs built up for Ian. However there also started to appear that songs weren’t the kinds of songs I could give to somebody because they weren’t universal songs, they were personal and they’re really more me than anybody else.

Songs like "Unlimited Address" were really more related to the way that I view things rather than the way anybody else could be expected to view the world.

You and Ian are still quite close. Had you thought of doing a record together?

Yes, but I think we saw it as being a disservice to each other. Ian was going through a stage a couple of years ago of looking for a keyboard player and auditioning a lot of keyboard players and he wasn’t having much luck. Over the years he and I have developed a relationship and the amount that I play complements what he plays - I play a lot less than most keyboard players and at the same time I have a lot of attack.

There was talk, if he got to the desperation stage, of me going out with him. I’d do it for his sake but I regarded it as a real disservice to him because he needs to get something together that’s his thing. The trouble with me in a band is that I tend to stray into wider areas than just being the keyboard player. I tend to stick my oar in.

I think all the guys in that band [Cold Chisel] had to go out and do their own projects rather than getting together in twos and threes.

Was there some concept behind Catfish?

For a long time it was nothing but concept. It’s just a band that I wanted to sound like a blues band. That’s a music that keeps pulling me back. It always sounds better than anything else at any time. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf - him in particular. The way they do things around those powerful voices is so simple and beautiful and so far in advance of any other kind of music I listen to.

When I was coming up with some of these songs I had on tape, so I thought I’d arrange them with some of those elements in them.

There doesn’t seem to he a quantum leap between the songs on ‘Twentieth Century’ and the songs on ‘Unlimited Address’. A lot of your songs from ‘Breakfast At Sweethearts’ were songs about the late night. A lot of Catfish material has that same sort of territory, like "The Early Hours’ There is a Damon Runyonesque quality. There seems to he a collection of characters in a lot of your songs.

There are certain sets of lyrics that are quite unurban but yeah, there’s a few like "Early Hours" which was only written this year when I had moved back into the Cross. As people have pointed out to me, it’s perhaps uncomfortably close to "Saturday Night’

"When You Dance" as well.

By the time that got done I didn’t know where I was with it and I had to rely on what other people were telling me as to whether it sounded any good or not. Both those songs have that doppler effect in the rising and falling organ. I can’t put it into words but it’s the same kind of feeling you get if you’re in the Cross at four in the morning and an ambulance goes past.

Certainly my main attraction to Kings Cross has always been the fact that all the very basic urges and emotions, the real truth is on the street there.

When did you start thinking about yourself as a lyric writer?

Very early. The first songs that I seriously wrote were coming in the first year that Cold Chisel was together and I was just trying to write lyrics that would marry the song to the scene we were in.

For our audience - and even members of the band - doing original songs wasn’t something that occurred to them as a natural idea. So if I could write lyrics that related to the environment we were in, including what happened at a party last week, or some experience we had from a trip over to Port Lincoln, and give it to the guys they’d not only think it was clever, they could get up and sing it to the crowd and the crowd would accept it. Under normal circumstances they’d be waiting to hear the next song off their record collection. But if you give them something about what they did last week then they would accept it.

I don’t know, I thought I was just doing a job until at a certain stage when we did our first record people thought I wasn’t too bad at it. When people tell you you re not too bad at something you generally keep at it.

One of the things that came through very strongly with Cold Chisel was the Australianess at a time when other groups were consciously trying to Americanise.

We knew this country very well. We knew the country better than most people who live here because by the time we came to record we had seen more of it than most people ever see. But we hadn’t seen anything else. I didn’t go overseas until early 1980.

It seemed to me that the songs on this record are very nighttime sort of songs. There are a lot of different locations hut they’re linked by an early morning feeling. Was that intentional?

No. It’s not intentional. It’s just that since I last had a day job, which was 1975,1 slept in every day unless I had to get up for something. Sometimes that meant sleeping in until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I think that’s the case with most musicians. One of the attractions of the job in the first place is that you can stay up as late as you like.

You have said that "My Backyard" was the hardest thing you’ve ever written. Why was it so difficult?

I don’t know. The final version was finished in Budapest in late 1985 and at that stage I had been going at it for two years. From that time I left it alone for twelve months and in the Christmas of the following year I spent about a month trying to edit it because the version I finished in Budapest took eighteen minutes to read. It only got out to that length because I was trying to encompass what I was trying to say in a song without really having a grasp of what I was trying to say. I sat down in Budapest and tried to tell it straight for as long as it takes. Then I had to pick out the most superficially attractive bits and compress lit into five and a half minutes.

Can you explain now what you were after?

I find it very difficult to put into words. I’d have to sit down and try and write it out in prose form. I actually described it to a friend in Adelaide but I’ve known that guy since I was ten.

What about songs like "Unlimited Address’: What was the genesis of that?

In 1984 I was travelling around the top end of Australia and although I had a tent in the back, I was staying in caravan parks a lot of the time so that was the setting. . .I was trying to deal with the reasons why someone should be nomadic, and also deal with the fact that in order maintain a certain kind of freedom you must have a treacherous personality.

Take that song for instance. Why wouldn’t I give that song to Ian? That song was written by and for a singer who basically can’t be relied on, who is facing that certain element of evil in his personality. Ian doesn’t have that, or, if he does he has to express that in his own way. Ian’s not ruthless and "Unlimited Address" is a ruthless song.

I think that everybody has a bit of evil in their personality. I would hope I wasn’t the only one.

There are a lot of narrative songs on this album. Was that an intention?

It’s a little bit intentional. When I started to write songs again in 1984, after the band broke up, I realised, listening to music as a punter, just how attractive a good old narrative song is. Narrative songs are the easiest songs to write, they’re the kind of things that you start with; "Khe Sahn" for instance. Good stories, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything rhymes, there’s nothing tricky in there, and maybe if you’re lucky there’ll be a little moral at the end. Everybody likes a story.

After you’ve been writing songs for a few years you get too clever for your own good and you forget about that and you try to get across emotions and tricky feelings. I can remember when I was writing for Ian I made sure I had a few good old straight down the line yarns.

How does it feel running your own ship rather than being in a democracy?

It was a really fun democracy most of the time. It’s easy to enter into that kind of thing when you’re twenty years old - living in each others pockets. I think I was about twenty-one when Cold Chisel started and I think Jim was sixteen. It’s very hard fur somebody my age who is not embarking on life. By my age people are far too sure of themselves to do that kind of thing.

The only way to do it is on an individual basis and hire people in. Catfish, I fully expect over the course of years, is going to settle into a regular set of people. And when that happens that of course will be democratic. You can’t get people to produce their best work for hire.

Cold Chisel had a reputation as a wild bunch of guys, you had a boozing, brawling, broads image. How true was that image of you?

Well, I don’t think I’m that much different from anybody else in that regard. Everybody gets smashed occasionally. I’ve never been much into fighting but then nobody else in the band was either.

Is there much around, on the radio for instance, that appeals to you at the moment?

There’s very little that I hear that I don’t know what they’re doing and that’s quite boring. Sometimes you hear stuff where the guy is genuinely reaching for something and not just using the old tricks and I love that.

I think the Hunters & Collectors are a great rock & roll band, without knowing a terrible lot about them. I know for a start they have a fantastic rhythm section, which is the basis of it all, and a singer with his own signature. They seem to be trying to develop something along the lines of an Australian blues. Nick Cave’s stuff is fantastic but I’m pretty sure you don’t call that rock & roll. It’s got nothing to do with radio pop.

1988 Rolling Stone

 

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