The classic Cold Chisel line up was now in place – Ian Moss (guitar/vocals), Don Walker (keyboards/vocals), Steve Prestwick (drums), Phil Small (bass) and after some deliberation, Jimmy Barnes (vocals), and they went in to the Trafalgar recording studio in Sydney with producer Peter Walker to cut their eponymous debut album. It would be fair to say that there were no big singles off the album, in fact the band had not intended to release a single even though radio stations were eager to play the standout track, Khe Sanh, which was widely banned two weeks after its release due to its content, and only inched its way up to #41 on the charts.Khe Sanh was named after a battle in Vietnam’s Huong Hoa district and was fought between US Marines with elements of the South Vietnamese ARVN, and the North Vietnamese Army. The only Australian personnel to be directly involved in the siege were the crews of Canberra bombers operated by 2 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, who flew close air support missions in the area. The bloody siege raged over 77 days and involved 6,000 US marines and up to 20,000 Viet Cong.Don Walker penned the song in Sweethearts Café in King’s Cross, and never really thought it would be released, surprisingly the song confronts such issues as love, loss, longing, sex, war, and addiction and all in just over four minutes. The lyrics and Barnes vocal assault are visceral; the alienation, disenfranchisement, PTSD-related depression, disenchantment, and downright rejection experienced by Vietnam veterans on their return home is captured with all the energy and machismo that Barnes could muster, he was the wildest front- man in rock at the time, a crouching, sweating, roaring, Howlin’ Wolf on stage.Balancing the raw power of Barnes vocals with a disarmingly country-tinged rhythm was the artful conceit of the song which featured Ian Moss’s slide guitar, Dave Blight’s (below) haunting harmonica, producer Peter Walker’s acoustic guitar, and Don Walker’s keyboard intro.All these elements underscored the protest that lies at the beating heart of the song, about a confused and dispossessed veteran desperate for the last plane out of Sydney so that he could whore away his haunted dreams on a Hong Kong mattress.
The song has no chorus and was famously banned from airplay by the censor because of sex and drug references – “their legs were often open, but their minds were always closed”- which limited airplay to those radio stations prepared to defy the censor. It did however boost the group’s credibility and became a much- anticipated highlight of Chisel’s live performances and a revered classic.
Khe Sanh and Redgum’s Only 19 are two of the great Vietnam War era songs, and while Khe Sanh only charted at #41 at the time, this lowly position was later confounded by APRA who voted Khe Sanh the 8th best Australian song of the period 1926-2001, a more fitting status than that conferred on it by fans when first released.The band was still touring intensively while writing and recording songs for their second album in less than 12 months, Breakfast at Sweethearts, the title track was the second single lifted from the album after Goodbye (Astrid, Goodbye) backed with Georgia On My Mind had been pre-released and charted a modest #65, the gutsy and hard-rocking Shipping Steel would be the third single released off the album, but it too failed to chart.
Sweethearts Café in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross (Syd) was where the band would wind down in the wee hours after gigging all night “Long night gone, yellow day/ Speed shivers melt away…”. Don Walker was living at the Plaza Hotel in Kings Cross at the time and identified closely with the area and Sweethearts, where he recalled an attractive middle-aged woman who worked there, and who said very little, Walker personified her thus “ Hey Anne-Maria/ It’s always good to see her/ She don’t smile or flirt/ She just wears that mini -skirt…”, and in real life was reputed to be the partner of a colorful underworld character. The other band members had moved out of the Cross three weeks after arriving in Sydney, but Walker stayed there for thirty years, and remembers this period of his life fondly. The band were recording the album in Alberts Studio 3 but had wanted to use the legendary Studio 1 which was favoured by AC/DC and the Angels because of its superior sound quality, but it was not available.The cover photo for the album was taken inside the heritage-listed Marble Bar in the Sydney Hilton Hotel
Their new producer Richard Batchens had just completed Goodbye Tiger with Richard Clapton, but he did not hit it off with the band. He was regarded as ill-tempered, hypercritical, and made unfavorable comparisons between their songs and those of Clapton. The relationship between Batchens and Barnes quickly became toxic, the band claimed that the recording lacked spontaneity and Barnes was quite dismissive of it and Batchens in later years.
Despite the band’s misgivings the title track was taut, moody, and languid, a beguiling Don Walker keyboard intro leads to an atmospheric, slow, reggae-tinged, engaging tribute to one of their favourite bohemian haunts in the Cross, but in the future Barnes would favour belting, lung-screaming rockers over reflective pieces like this one that rhymed “flirt” with “mini-skirt” and “Brandivino” with “cappuccino”. Nevertheless the album was well-received and at #4 become the group’s most successful to date. The song became their fourth chart entry at #63, and is regarded by many, as one of Barnes more nuanced recorded vocal performances, despite the fact, that he hated the album, and the song, damning it with faint praise by describing it as a typical “Countdown” song.