Almanac Music: Aussie album review – Cold Chisel “East”

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.”



About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. Can’t agree more Smokey. The Chisels have been undersold over the years, guilt by association with a certain Australian stereotype. Don Walker’s song writing added class and depth, Ian Moss the polish and Jimmy the heart and soul. You must be proud to know your son also recognises a great album when he hears it. At the risk of making an old fogey statement I can’t imagine the music of today capturing the next generation’s attention the same way. Chisels, Springsteen, Bowie, Queen etc have transcended time and space because they were simply just that effing good. Even my 9 year old gets it.

  2. Quote: his vocals were tending toward being a little “shouty”
    Only a little bit shouty, Smokie?
    Maybe you’re being a little understated.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Peak Chisels Smokie because of the mix of social commentary, existential Australian angst and humour. ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘My Turn To Cry’ are great tracks that get lost in the popification process.
    Top review mate. Cheers

  4. chris elliott says

    Smokester. Couldn’t agree more. Just a Super Album. With each band member showcasing their songwriting skills. But I must say I enjoyed watching them live as they were great in the smaller venues as well as the larger venues.

  5. AS I’ve written elsewhere, I prefer Sweethearts. But the East impact was visceral. It was everywhere. I can smell cut grass when I hear the intro to Choir Girl.

    To my mind let down by a few tracks (that others love) – Ita, My Baby, Rising Sun – but it’s peaks were Everest. Superb production. Great live shows.

    We loved Circus Animals too because it was the HSC year, but it’s got a lot of gaps.

    Chisel. Awesome.

  6. Great step back to another time and place Smoke. I can remember the vinyl(!) being on constant rotation in our house. Only Chisel album that got that level of attention. Being an old softie I loved the wry irony of Ita and the gentle boogie of My Baby. But even the rockers like Star Hotel got me in.
    Don Walker’s “Hully Gully” is superb. “Young Girls” – sigh, just a memory.

  7. Great album, agree completely. Thinking the opening track very underrated but loved that the tribute album from aussie bands doing covers took its name from it.

    Rising sun possibly my favorite track they did, although happy to admit that No Sense was excellent

    Well written, well done


  8. Brill Smoke.

    1980 was my first year at uni.

    Is there any greater freedom than a boat trip on the Brisbane River with Chisel and ACDC et al pumping and a XXXX can in your hand.

    And then looking for the one who’s silly enough to love you when you hear the opening bars of Choir Girl.

  9. 1980. First year at uni. No idea what’s going on. Sex and Chisel. Just about all I remember.

  10. Thanks for your comments, one and all.
    Great to see that there are so many Chisel fans out there!!

  11. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic words Smokie. Masterpiece album, not a filler on it.

    Star Hotel is right up there with Bow River as my favourite Chisel track, could Barnsey’s peak vocals be on that song?

    Been lucky enough to see Chisel twice over the past few years, something I wasn’t sure I’d have the chance to do.
    Wonderful live experience.

  12. So good, Smokie.
    Everywhere, everyway.

    “Standing on the outside” one of the great opening tracks.
    With one of the great openings, itself.

    “Four Walls” a stand out.
    The whole thing – as you say.

    I came along too late for the cultural mood at the time.
    But can appreciate the album for the craft, for the sound, for the sentiment,

    Like PB, I love the piss-take of “Ita”.
    I tried to think of modern equivalents – but there are none.

    From the opening bars to the close, the whole thing takes me floating back to Carlton and small, packed terrace house parties.
    Full of king browns and wild eyes.
    “Well I was pretty young… she was young and pretty…”

  13. Another great review and personal account Smokie.

    I’m with E.r and reckon “Four Walls” is among their finest.

    And yes I was among those who originally heard, “Cheap wine and cheese on toast.”

  14. Smoke – Cold Chisel and this album remind me of my 1968 HK Holden Kingswood. My first car. Probably because this album was being played on 3XY as I found the excitement and freedom of a motor vehicle. And my old Kingswood had a radio! And it worked!

    Great stuff.

  15. East is like Cosmo’s Factory, you just hit play and let it rip from start to finish – no need to skip songs. The opening to ‘Standing on the Outside’ gets me everytime. Jimmy never sang better. How good is the juxtaposition of ‘Star Hotel’ followed by the quiet lament ‘Four Walls’ – is this where the rioters ended up? Don Walker is miles ahead of the rest as a songwriter, and I reiterate Peter_B re ‘Hully Gully’ – a great, great album, I think he’s actually getting better…

  16. Andrew Starkie says

    The first thing I do when I get into town
    Is buy a twenty-two and cut the whole thing down

    Superb lyrics

    Is Standing on the Outside serious social commentary of just pissed off ebcause they couldn’t get into a nightclub?

    Great work Smoke. Which other albums have you reviewed?

  17. Greta work Smoke.

    I was in year 10 when this classic album hit me. My mate’s brother played this constantly after he had all but worn out the self titled debut and then Sweethearts. Some amazing tracks and still a variety that only Chisel could produce. Agree with your view on Circus Animals – disjointed.

    As you know I saw Chisel at Hanging Rock almost exactly 12 months ago and was positioned 3-4 rows from the front in standing. One of the best live shows I’ve ever been to. Rivalled them at Albury back in 2011.

    Cheers Mate

  18. Thanks for all the comments: I really enjoy the fact that this album has resonated with so many.

    I would just like to point out that when my 21 year-old son gave East another burl yesterday, my 18 year-old son said “This is a great album”. I said to myself “My work here is done.”

    Mickey, I thought it was “Cheap wine and a female goat…”
    Luke, those brilliant introductory opening riffs on “Star Hotel”…sublime.

  19. And let’s not forget the cover art.
    Significant thought in the hatching and now fairly iconic.
    Big ideas knocking around.
    Scene inspired by the 1793 painting “The Death of Marat.”
    via wikipedia: “The Death of Marat (French: La Mort de Marat or Marat Assassiné) is a painting by Jacques-Louis David of the murdered French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. It is one of the most famous images of the French Revolution. David was the leading French painter, as well as a Montagnard and a member of the revolutionary Committee of General Security. The painting shows the radical journalist lying dead in his bath on 13 July 1793 after his murder by Charlotte Corday. Painted in the months after Marat’s murder, it has been described by T. J. Clark as the first modernist painting, for “the way it took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it”.”

  20. nice pickup E. great painting and a great cover. and a great revolution!

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