It is still in parts powerful, in parts tender, in parts rocking, in parts moody. 36 years old, it has not dated as many albums of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s have. Calling it “bogan rock” or “pub rock” only further undersells it and underestimates it. “It”, of course, is Cold Chisel’s 1980 masterpiece East; and it is one of the greatest albums in all of Australian music.
When it comes to Chisel, whose star burnt brightly in their initial phase for only five years, there has been a certain amount of revisionism regarding their work and legacy; this has been prompted in no small part by Circus Animals being ranked at #4 in the 2010 book “100 Best Australian Albums”. John O’Donnell, Craig Mathieson and Toby Cresswell only saw fit to place East at #53. (A cursory glance at the 52 albums above it is enough to make one question their authority). Yes, Circus Animals is an excellent album, containing classic Chisel tracks such as “Bow River” and “When the war is over”, but I have always felt it lacks the cohesion and seamlessness of the earlier album. Barnes’ voice reached its peak in clarity, versatility and strength on East; by Circus Animals his vocals were tending toward being a little “shouty”, as the touring and hard-living took their toll.
Kicking the album off is one of the great album openers, the rollicking “Standing on the outside”. The song speaks of the common man’s despair: that no matter how hard he works and how honest he is, he will most likely never get ahead, destined to be “on the outside”. Driven by Ian Moss’s powerful riffs, Don Walker’s understated yet essentially distinct keyboards and that A-grade rhythm section of Phil Small and Steve Prestwich (oh, that snare drum!), Jimmy Barnes’ voice is at it’s purest. The track is wonderful both in its own right and as a preamble to all that follows.
And what follows is Australia’s pre-eminent live band putting it all together on record. After the promise of the bluesy self-titled debut, followed by the slightly disappointing Breakfast at Sweethearts, Cold Chisel needed to deliver – and they did so, in spades.
Although the masterful Walker (at the time well on his way to establishing himself as one of Australia’s greatest song-writers) penned seven of the twelve tracks, the other four members also contributed. Moss was also coming into his own as a vocalist, taking the lead on the soulful “Never before” and “Best kept lies” and Small’s “My baby”. That contrast provided by the various songwriters and two distinct vocalists never tends toward the disjointed – it merely invigorates proceedings. One can only listen to the rockers “My turn to cry” and “Rising sun” and then the doleful prisoner’s lament “Four walls” and marvel at the light and shade the Chisels could wring out with ease. Encapsulating political musing (“Star Hotel”), social commentary (“Choir girl”), humour (“Ita” When I think about the places I’ve been, I’d probably hold my fork all wrong), story-telling (“Tomorrow” There’s an $80 hooker, she’s asleep on the bed, the tv weather’s on, but the sound is dead) as well as old-fashioned love songs (“My baby”, “My turn to cry”), East is a multi-faceted beast. And what makes it all the more the enjoyable and ultimately satisfying is that each track is strong enough to stand on its own.
I have found that no matter what mood I am in, East can comfortably cater to that mood.
There was also the mega hit “Cheap wine”…and therein lies another criticism of East: that it is “too popular”. When it comes to music, I have never been one to dismiss something because it is enjoyed by the masses. Often, it is quite the contrary…does a song’s worth diminish because it still gets played on Gold104? And sure, the odds are that you, or someone you know, have it in your collection. So if you have not listened to it for a while, do it. And appreciate its greatness. As I have been doing of late.
In fact, one recent afternoon whilst playing East at volume, my 21-year-old son – singing along with gusto to “Never Before” – casually remarked on what a ‘great’ album it is. “How good is this album?” he asked rhetorically. I had not previously considered East to be so enduring, so appealing in a multi-generational sense; but at that moment it all crystallized before my eyes and ears. Great music transcends generations. “Yes”, I answered, “it certainly is.”