If you live in Australia and happen to be reading this, chances are you own a Cold Chisel album already. Their brand of music, largely stemming from no-nonsense pub rock, made them megastars in their home country; for the rest of the world, however, Cold Chisel’s work is far less known, although they retain a strong cult following throughout the world.
Their early work showcases three chord rock ‘n’ roll, played in a hard rock style. From early on, white reggae influences were a strong part of the Cold Chisel sound, but it their third album, ‘East’ – released in 1980 – which saw the band branching out even farther. This was their most commercial disc to date; the earlier influences were still there, but were more often fused with radio friendly pop/rock styles. While not as raw as Chisel could be, it was a near perfect album. With ‘East’, the band truly came of age.
As a reaction to the commercialism of that album, Cold Chisel’s follow up, ‘Circus Animals’ (released in April 1982; produced by Mark Opitz) was harder, occasionally angrier and often more adventurous. The anger and passion within its ten cuts is obvious right from the off, as lead single ‘You Got Nothing I Want’ tears from the speakers. Written in response to the lack of promotion ‘East’ received from their US record label, the number presents Chisel at their most brazenly angry.
Jimmy Barnes is captured in full-on rasp as he delivers slightly spiteful lines regarding the band’s position. The music has plenty of punch: while slightly more sophisticated than some of Chisel’s earlier work, it captures the essence of their rock ‘n’ roll ethic, with Don walker hammering out almost boogie-woogie piano lines underneath Ian Moss’s raucous chords. It’s from here on, though, that ‘Circus Animals’ becomes more interesting.
‘Taipan’ features one of the album’s most interesting arrangements. Prestwich’s pounding drums lend an almost tribal atmosphere, which when combined with Walker’s piano and an almost spooky vocal from Barnes, couldn’t be farther away from the pub rock which bought Chisel’s early popularity. Occasionally, the band breaks from this for more of a rock section, where naturally, Barnes lets rip vocally – and although that’s far more in keeping with the traditional Chisel sound, it sounds out of place here, especially when followed by gang vocals – again in a tribal-ish style (although the tune chosen has a touch of the Disney’s about it…). By the time Ian Moss adds a solo at the end, the listener gets a proper feel for the breadth of the band’s talent. His solo is vibrato-filled and full of anger and passion (with only a couple of moments stepping to far into overtly aggressive territory), which when backed by Walker’s heavily pounded piano chords, really helps bring the track to a superb climax.
‘Bow River’ – a number written by Moss, whom also steps up for lead vocals – has Chisel’s rock ‘n’ roll as a base. Moss’s vocal is a soulful one, a complete contrast to Barnes’s insistent and uncompromising approach. It’s particularly effective during a atmospheric intro, accompanied by Walker’s sparingly used piano chords, but it more than holds its own, even once the band hits full stride. Walker’s piano launches into pub-rock piano solos leading the band into a full-on, sweaty hard rock workout. As Moss and Barnes begin to harmonise, backed more than ably by Walker, Prestwich and a rock-solid, yet surprisingly busy bass line from Small, the listener gets to feel the full power behind Cold Chisel at their best – a sound almost unmatched by their peers.
‘Numbers Fall’ showcases Chisel in a moody, bluesy vein. Each member of the band contributes something of note. Moss’s guitar work doesn’t stretch his talents, but lays down a few pointed, vibrato filled notes here and there while Don Walker’s quasi-aggressive organ work gives a sense of volume. The rhythm section is hard, particularly Phil Small’s unshakable basslines overlaying Prestwich’s heavy thud. It’s during this number Jimmy Barnes really comes into his own; his raspy, ragged voice – like a hard rockin’ John Fogerty – ringing passion from almost every word.
‘Houndog’ brings anger back into Barnes’s performance, opting for a full on, full-volume delivery. The band counterbalance this with a very interesting arrangement. Moss’s guitar work leans towards a 60s twang full of reverb and Walker’s bar-room piano is high in the mix. For the mid section, there’s an about-face; a similar spaciousness to that of ‘Taipan’ creeps in and Moss and Barness share vocal duties as Small keeps things together with a decent bass line. When you first hear the track, it’s not something you ever expect. As the track builds to a close, the band reverts to the original musical arrangement, slowly getting more intense. Underneath the growing tension, Phil Small’s bass playing is very accomplished – he’s certainly someone who deserves far more credit for his musicianship.
For all of ‘Circus Animals’s adventurousness, it features two of the most commercial tracks in the Chisel back catalogue. ‘When The War Is Over’ and ‘Forever Now’ (both written by drummer Steve Prestwich and released as singles in Australia) are fantastic, unashamedly radio-friendly pop/rock tracks – the kind ‘East’ hinted at so often. During the ballad ‘When The War Is Over’, the listener experiences Barnes and Moss singing in great harmony – their contrasting voices working exceptionally well. Musically, the smooth simplicity of the number is the thing which makes it so unashamedly brilliant, with Walker’s piano providing some great moments. Moss’s guitar work, meanwhile, never steps out of line – his long flowing notes drifting to fade. ‘Forever Now’ shows the band’s fondness for pop/rock with a reggae slant, which coupled with a simple chorus made it an obvious choice for a single. Also here, Prestwich takes an opportunity to write himself a great drum part. It’s not great due to any flashiness; it’s it’s sparseness which is most striking. Throughout the verses, Prestwich concentrates on percussion and hi-hat, only using snare and toms for fills, saving them for impact on the chorus. While it’s the rhythm section moments which provide the best musical aspects (Small’s bass line also more than delivers), Moss’s lead solo coming at the tracks end is masterful albeit without diminishing the pop sensibilities of the track.
These tracks are so good, it’s almost possible to forget about the equally commercial ‘No Good For You’, which also comes with plenty of hit single potential. While a little lightweight musically, once again, Small’s bass playing is exemplary and the vocal harmonies throughout the chorus are among the album’s best. The AOR leanings here certainly have an influence upon the direction Barnes’s solo career would take by the late 80s. Don Walker’s ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ is one of the album’s weaker numbers, but even so features a top performance from Barnes and provides another Prestwich drumming highlight. Sadly, so much focus has been put upon these two factors, there’s very little else to back them up. There’s certainly no real chorus, and even a section which lends itself to the most obvious hard rock moment comes and goes without making too much of an impression.
The closing number, ‘Letter To Alan’ is a another Chisel tour-de-force, beginning with Barnes singing in a relatively restrained manner against Walker’s atmospheric piano work. Ian Moss then joins with some ringing guitars, while Prestwich (at least in places) favours a percussive style, similar to that of ‘Forever Now’. Moss’s soloing is busy and angular, lacking the bluesy vibrato so often heard from his work. Instead, he attacks his fretboard in an almost unrestrained way, pulling back slightly just before his fiery playing becomes in danger of careening completely out of control.
While ‘Circus Animals’ may not always have the all-round enjoyment of ‘East’ – and certainly isn’t a Cold Chisel album for first time listeners – it arguably captures the band at the peak of the powers. Like so many Aussie bands, though, it’s unlikely even at their best Cold Chisel will ever gain more than a cult following (albeit a large one) outside their home country.
[A remastered version of the album adds three bonus tracks]