Don Walker could be a character in one of his own songs. Walker is at home
eating dinner at the same time at the same Kings Cross cafe, every night,
surrounded by the sort of faces that populate his songs: A Vietnam veteran
haunted by the memories. Ex-cons, hookers, junkies. A once-legendary
surfer who the times had washed ashore. Circus acrobats, showgirls. The
wide-eyed farmboy who'd been jilted at the altar.
Don Walker could be a Tin Pan Alley songsmith, if we lived in another
age, or maybe merely a gentleman of leisure. As it is, even though he
sometimes might even seem like a man out of time, with his slicked-back
hair and expensive tastes in suits, cigars and single-malt whiskies, Don
Walker is an enigmatic rock songwriter and perfumer who has just
released a second album with his band Catfish, called Ruby. But for all the
quality of this album, and its predecessor Unlimited Address, they stand in
the shadow of Walker's achievements in the early Eighties, as the driving
creative force behind the legendary Cold Chisel.
Cold Chisel are the most profusely eulogised rock music phenomenon
this country has ever produced, the band that gave us not only present-day
working class hero number one Jimmy Barnes, but also Ian Moss, whose
1989 debut solo album Matchbook caused him to sweep the prized
ARIA Awards. But the Cold Chisel legacy only begins here, as it also
includes a catalogue of classic songs, largely from the pen of Don Walker,
which have become virtually part of our vocabulary: Songs like “Choirgirl,”
“Saturday Night,” “Khe Sanh,” “Flame Trees,” “Forever Now,” “Cheap Wine,”
“My Baby” and “You Got Nothing l Want” are radio staples still.
The taciturn Walker has always been touchy about talking about Cold
Chisel - after all, he doesn't want to trade solely off his past - but he
begged off when asked if he felt it had become an albatross around his
"No, no, l have nothing but gratitude to Cold Chisel," he said, “I’d have
to sit here for half an hour to list the ways." Walker draws on his
panatela and ponders the question; it's a characteristic of the man that he
measures his conversation so deliberately that sometimes it's almost
"To be honest, l thought that when Cold Chisel broke-up - it's the
standard thing for Australian bands - 18 months later, you're forgotten.
And so that would mean that ten years of your life, of single-minded
dedication, that we all put into it, is just completely down the plughole.
Here we are eight years down the track, and it's not, so that's great."
Formed in Adelaide in 1974, Cold Chisel broke-up in 1983, the biggest band
In the land, and since then, they've consistently sold around 100,00
albums per year (a figure many contemporary bands would envy).
East/West, nee Warmers Records, in fact, late last year celebrated the sale
of the two millionth Cold Chisel album by re-signing the band, and
releasing a 'Best Of' CD, called simply Chisel, which is still sitting near
the top of the charts. A commemorative box-set containing all the band's
six albums is set for release shortly.
Cold Chisel paved the way for the 'Australian Invasion', the success
overseas by Australian bands like lNXS and Midnight Oil. They hastened
the rise of professionalism in an industry which in the late Seventies was
very ad hoc. At the same time, they established a tradition of
strong-willed independence without which Midnight oil, for one, would be
Chisel were characterised by a veritable wild streak - this
was the band, after all, that trashed 5ydney's Regent Theatre stage,
after it had cleaned-up in Countdown's annual Awards show, in 1981.
But perhaps most importantly, Cold Chisel initiated, and legitimised,
thanks to Don Walker, the idea of Australian rock music actually
addressing Australian life. Walker was one of the first Australian rock
songwriters - thus, songwriters generally - to draw, unashamedly, on his
immediate environment, and as such he can only be compared, say, to a
David Williamson, as a barometer of his time and place.
Without ever descending to the level of kitsch Australiana like a John
Williamson, Walker, with an almost journalistic eye, simply documents
the world around him - the people, the lives and places he knows. He is
seldom a character in his own songs because for an individual as
personally guarded as he is, that would be giving too much away. Walker
likes his songs to tell a story, to have 'a beginning, middle and end', and
Australians have responded to them because they can relate to them.
"With this kind of music, popular music, you find yourself getting into
dangerous territory when you write anything the average person can't
readily identify with," says Walker, betraying none of the pretensions of
most rock songwriters, who prefer to consider themselves sages, and
Walker may perhaps never recapture quite the same magic that Cold
Chisel had, but Catfish is a band for now which is giving vent to songs by
him which still touch on Australian nerves, our recent history.
Even despite a cautiousness Walker's conversation belies, and an
analytical mind befitting one who gave up a career in science to follow
music, as an artist he trusts only his instincts. If he is celebrated as an
Australian innovator, he disclaims the achievement, as one born almost of
"The reasons for it were a lot more pragmatic than some theoretical
desire to do it. l mean, l was trying to write songs, as an excercise, as a
teenager... but in the first year or two of Cold Chisel, we were a covers
band, as everybody was in those days. l mean, there were a few bands
around in Australia who were doing original music, and they were
applauded for it, but it wasn't generally the thing to do. But l sort of
figured it was the thing to do, for Cold Chisel. Now, that was by no means
a unanimous view, because the reality of it was, in a place like Adelaide,
if you tried to do your own music, you just had a lot of trouble getting
work. So there was a bit of difficulty within the band as well, they were
pretty much into just doing what would work in the Adelaide scene, the
covers that would please the crowds.
"So to write original stuff and make it palatable, to the guys in the
band who were skeptical about it, l had to write stuff that they could
relate to very immediately. Which means l had to write about the life we
were leading offstage, at that time. And then they could see it. So they did
me a favour in a way - if l was writing about politics in China, then, no.
But if we were playing for our crowd, and l was putting lyrics in Jim's
mouth about what so-and-so did at a party last week, or about our trip to
Port Lincoln the week before, then Jim felt comfortable with it, we could
do it, and the songs were like an on-going diary.
"But then" - Walker allows himself a wry chuckle - "l was always
helped a lot by the fact that those people, the places they lived, the lives
they led, were pretty colourful, there was no shortage of material..."
On the end of a Commonwealth Cadetship, Walker had wound-up in
Adelaide in the early Seventies, to work at the Weapons Research Centre in
the migrant satellite suburb of Elizabeth. He had grown-up, however, on a
farm near Grafton, in northern NSW, after being born in north Queensland,
in 1952. His father was an accomplished harmonica player, and the young
Walker stuck at piano lessons because "part of the attraction was that we
could play songs that dad had played to us, and sometimes he would play
along." Those songs were the popular pre-war standards, “Sentimental
Journey,” Fats Waller; Walker remembers hearing Elvis early in the piece,
and naturally being hit for six. But even then, he hungered for more.
"You pick things up along the way," he explained. "By the time l was
about 14 or 15, l thought l pretty much had musical theory nailed, Western
musical theory. And then, you start to learn, the real stuff. For instance,
seeing Duke Ellington in Sydney - he had this young drummer, and I was
listening to him, and he was playing a rhythm that could not be written, it
was between two things. One time was here" - he signals with his hands -
"another time was there, and he was playing somewhere in between, and it
was swinging like a paling fence. And l was just sitting there learning this
Although Walker could never consider music as a serious career
option, he was drifting inevitably towards it, caught-up in the excitement
of the Sixties.
"When l got to uni l decided to give up the music and get serious, so l
didn’t play in my first year. By the second year, l drifted back into it - my
examination results were sort of inversely proportional to my involvement
Still, Walker got through the B.Sc. (Physics) course at Armadale, and
then headed for Adelaide, and Elizabeth, where he fell-in with the future
Cold Chisel. Was he encouraged at all by the mood of optomism of those
times, in the Whitlam era, when it seemed like things were possible?
"No," he replies matter-of-factly. "Where l was in those days, a
working class community, things weren't possible. That question would
have a lot more application to someone like Greg Macainish, of the
Skyhooks, who really was part of all that.
"l just felt, if you're one of the gun songwriters, one of the gun
Australian songwriters around, and you want to do it as well as you
possibly can - l took it as a responsibility, because nobody else was going
to do it, to reflect this place, and the kind of language - l mean, there's a
lot of things l love about this place, in particular the language, and the
"If l have these skills, and l just used them to write hits, and l don't
set myself goals beyond that, l'm not only selling myself short, l'm selling
everybody else short. That's not to say you shouldn't try to write hits - if
you're not trying to write hits, then you're not trying to reach people - hits
just mean you're writing stuff everybody can relate to - but writing hits
should not be the only goal.”
Walker has never been a writer with any interest in begging the
so-called big questions, perhaps because, as a physicist, he would be
aware of the macrocosmic implications of the microcosm.
He could write a song like “Khe Sanh,” for instance - a sympathetic
piece about a Vietnam veteran, long before such sentiments were
fashionable - because whilst he'd witnessed the social revolution first
hand at university, he was also aware how his old friends back in the bush
felt about the war. And he could see both sides.
He had an ability to get inside his subjects, even if he was merely an
observer of them. Prisoners, for instance, adopted his “Four Walls” as an
anthem. Kids in Newcastle, even if they hadn't been involved themselves in
riots that Walker documented in “Star Hotel” similarly adopted that song
as a rally-call. Most Australians who grew-up listening to rock'n'roll in
the Seventies have at least one Cold Chisel song they consider their own.
The volatile personal chemistry which was part of what made Cold
Chisel great, however, also eventually precipitated its demise. The band
failed to crack it in America for similarly temperamental reasons, and in
many ways Cold Chisel made all the mistakes, so that a band like INXS
wouldn't repeat them. Chisel broke-up amid bitter in-fighting. Jimmy
Barnes, the most visible member of the band and its most obviously
ambitious, immediately bounced back as a solo artist. Don Walker,
however, took an extended sabbatical just so as to get in touch again with
the real world. Ian Moss took even longer to re-emerge.
Something of a recluse, Walker reserves a bitter contempt for the
phoniness and excesses of the rock industry. And certainly, he sees no
songs in it. Walker leads a quiet life as a single parent with his ten-year
old daughter; he would be much more comfortable at the football than
propping up the bar at a gig, let alone putting himself on the hustings.
“I tried to figure out, What do l do from here?" he recalled. "Because l
was in a situation where I was 31, very successful and retired. People
normally get to that stage when they're 65.
"The big trap is just to go and do what you've already been doing for
the past ten years. So l wanted to get a bit of distance from that, to see if
l really wanted to get back into it. Take a bit of time. Look at a few things,
a few places. Do a bit of thinking. And not do any thinking at all, just float
around, see a bit of the world.
"Much to my surprise, songwriting didn't stop. I always thought I was
writing songs just because there was a band there that needed them for
the next album. I didn't realise until that band broke up, my head kept
producing songs. That's when I realised this is something I do not because
there's a need for it out there, I do it for my own sanity more than
Amazingly, Walker writes songs not at the piano - and he has a
beautiful white grand in the front room of his large inner-Sydney terrace -
but in his head. "There's a band playing in my head," he explains, "I close my
eyes and this band is playing a song, songs occur to me in the most
ridiculous situations. Of course, in that situtation they always sound
great. It's like a dream, and the task is to get it down. Usually, you get a
few fragments, and from there, that's where you call on craftsmanship.
The inspiration is the magical part, but there's also a great pride in
Don Walker is by no means prolific, but he can still toss songs Ian Moss's
way. When Cold Chisel broke-up, the schism was largely between
Jimmy Barnes and the rest of the band, and Walker and Moss remained friends.
Walker wrote the lion's share of the material for Matchbook -
although the Number One single “Tucker's Daughter” was a joint effort,
written over the phone between Los Angeles and Sydney - and he has
contributed songs to Moss's forthcoming, second album. But even though
Jimmy Barnes is by now at least on talking terms with Walker and Moss,
and even with a large fortune in the offing, a Cold Chisel reunion seems
While some critics have suggested that Catfish is merely an
indulgence Don Walker can afford - and certainly the band isn't setting the
charts on fire - the man himself is affronted by the suggestion. Walker
initially described Catfish as 'a blues band', if only to establish the idea
that it was anything but a conventional rock band. And indeed, even while
Catfish boasts a rumbustiously appealing, rootsy sound, it allows Walker to
explore possibilities denied in rock, like extended narratives, as he does
in songs on Ruby like the title-track, and “The Year That He Was Cool.” Then
there's cuts on the album like “El Alamein Blues” (based around the fountain
in Kings Cross, a sort of variation on John Brack's famous painting, “Collins
St 5pm”), the laugh-in-your-beer country lament “Charleville” and “Johnny's
Gone,”which may be nothing more than an excuse for a rockabilly rave-up.
Walker is unperturbed by the uphill battle he's aware he faces with
Catfish, shrugging, "l've been through it before, and l'll go through it again.
“I have this unshakable faith, which has always been borne out," he
says, "that with the public in this country at least, if you do good stuff,
eventually, it might take time, and a few scams, but eventually you'll win
"You can't sit back and expect it will happen. You have to make it
happen. Sure, there's always some good things that get lost, but sooner
or later, with this album or the next one, there's going to be a big
breakthrough. And then" - Walker grins hopefully - "you've got a back
catalogue as well..."