I used to work for Rolling Stone, but rarely wrote about music or bands. Never, in fact. So this was an interesting exercise.
The past is a different country. They rock out differently there. Caught up in music so familiar to us it feels as though it’s been coded into our meat, it can be hard to remember just how foreign was the past out of which Swingshift comes to us. MTV hadn’t launched when Cold Chisel’s epic double live album first dropped. Nor had compact discs. FM radio was the newest of new audio technology. These 17 tracks mostly reached us in the form of black vinyl platters, played at a scratchy 33 rpm, and as cassette tapes which were hugely convenient, until the thin brown ribbon of hard rockin’ goodness unspooled in your cheap Casio tape deck, or melted on the dashboard of your unairconditioned EH Holden.
In 1981, while Chisel were touring the album, kicking nine kinds of hell out of the charts, doctors at the Centre for Disease Control in America were scratching their heads over five patients, diagnosed with a strange and deadly form of ‘pneumonia’ that appeared to attack the immune system of gay men. The wedding of Charles and Diana in July was still a fairytale. And nobody anywhere had yet bought an IBM as their first personal computer. Computers were for moon launches. And they didn’t talk to each other. Phones were heavy lumps of plastic and wiring that sat in one place forever, usually on a small special table. The Stones could tour without a sense of irony. Nobody worried about Michael Jackson’s nose, or his skin or mental health. He was young and at the parties I went to the woman smiled when his music came on and admitted that thinking about him made them warm and a little… gooey.
Chisel didn’t make anyone warm. There was nothing soft about them or their music. There was heat, but it was the hard, brutal, machine heat that came from stomping the pedal to the metal and driving thousands of punters in their audience out past the redline. Music that came compressed between dense of layers of aesthetic aggression was nothing new. Punk had been with us for a while by then, horrifying the same sort of professional panic merchant nowadays liable to go into a smoking tailspin at the latest first person shooter release or Lady Ga Ga costume change.
But while Chisel’s sweaty, two-fisted and aggressively uncompromising energy might have owed something to the tear down efforts of the punk backlash, it had something extra; credibility rooted firmly in artistic merit, rather than calculation and marketing, and an authentic basis in a culture not often thought of in cultural terms – the tough minded working class world of Australia’s outer suburbs.
In Swingswift we get the trials, small horrors and rare dizzying triumphs of that world laid out for us in some of the strongest performances and finest writing that Australian popular culture has ever delivered. That they come to us ‘live’ is not just a bonus, it’s a pre-emptive repudiation of what was about to happen to popular music when the first, anarchic assault of punk was absorbed by the music industry and the overarching commercial culture, and assimilated for their profits. The studio engineering of the performances Swingshift was nuanced and brilliant, but noticeable largely for the way the producers just got the hell out of the way and let the boys kick it out of the fucking stadium.
The band smashed these tracks down almost perfectly when they played the tight, hard hitting sets in 1980 at Sydney's Capitol Theatre and Melbourne's Festival Hall, from which the album was drawn. And then mostly from Sydney, as befits a work that details the lives of its fans there so well.
Because in tracks like Breakfast at Sweethearts and Star Hotel we get social history and geography with our music. For a long time it was impossible to walk through Kings Cross and not hear a backing track performed by Chisel, either inside your head, or out, punching down on you from the speakers of a strip club or bar within spitting distance, actual spitting distance, of Sweethearts café. While the shout-outs might have been geo-tagged to the harbour city, however, the appeal was universal. Any one of their listeners could find themselves, or have a mate, trapped the same hell as the narrator of Four Walls, and at least half the audience would, at some point in their lives understand exactly the accelerating rage of freedom that drives that poor bastard out the door, faster and faster in “Goodbye”.
Because the band’s five core members hailed from all over the continent, and all the way back to the UK in the case of working class migrant kids Barnes and Prestwich, they enjoyed a deep understanding of life as it was lived wherever their music was popular. The tungsten hard alloy of Chisel was forged from those base metals, but tempered by the artisan skills they all brought to stage and studio. A deep love of the blues roots of rock pounds out of these tracks on One Long Day, while a mastery of the classics is here parlayed into some very old school titles borrowed from Dylan and Jerry Lee.
In the end though, no amount of cultural deconstruction or unpacking the layers of meaning beneath one of our great bands can get beyond the irreducible truth that they were just really fucking great when the crowd roar spooled up, and Jimmy howled out the first notes of whatever ballad, or primal shriek or simple hard rocking tribute sat at the top of that night’s set list.