Mark Opitz: ‘They Aren’t Mark Opitz’s Cold Chisel’
Legendary producer MARK OPITZ (The Angels, INXS, Models) shares a chapter from his new book ‘Sophisto-Punk’. In ‘The Last Stand’ he recounts the split and later reunion of Cold Chisel, whose classic albums ‘East’ and ‘Circus Animals’ he produced. Includes commentary from Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss and Don Walker.
With Cold Chisel, I was there for the breakthrough and the break-up. And let me tell you, the breakthrough album was a lot more fun!
“We got to the point where we felt that the band was starting to go downhill, so we decided to break up. This became obvious in Germany. Steve was getting really disinterested; whether he was homesick or missing his girl, I’m not sure. There was a lot of in-fighting during the German tour. Everyone knew the band was fragmenting, but we pinned the blame on Steve – he was the scapegoat – so we sacked Steve. But the thing with Cold Chisel was the band was only as good as the sum of all its members. We were all integral parts of the sound. So we decided to break up.”
On 22 August 1983, Chisel’s manager, Rod Willis, issued a statement ‘for and on behalf of Cold Chisel’: Cold Chisel have today announced that on their tenth anniversary in October 1983, they will be disbanding following a final tour. The band’s last studio album is being prepared. The tour will take in the major cities of Australia and New Zealand.
The Twentieth Century album – with new drummer, Ray Arnott – was Chisel’s swansong. Again, Don Walker didn’t want to repeat the formula that had made Circus Animals a success. I was out, Tony Cohen was in.
Don was a fan of Tony’s work with Nick Cave. I think Don could relate to ‘The Dark Lord’, the private schoolboy who became, as Stephen Cummings noted, ‘the world’s most powerful anti-rock star’, with ‘the gift of turning cliché into gold’. I think Don thought of himself as a Nick Cave-type of figure. I’m not sure who Nick Cave sees himself as. Stephen Cummings called Cave ‘the consummate showman’, but added: ‘It was Karl Marx who observed that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. The same could be said of Cave’s career.’
I was also amused when I read Harry M Miller’s account of Nick Cave’s performance at Michael Hutchence’s funeral. ‘With the live feed agreement secured with Seven, our next obstacle turned out to be Nick Cave. Now I have to be honest and admit that I had never heard of him. But I was quickly assured that he had rock credibility, whatever the hell that means.’ Nick Cave refused to allow Seven to broadcast his performance of ‘Into My Arms’ (which I have to say is a beautiful song).
‘When it came time during the service for Cave to sing,’ Harry writes in his autobiography, Confessions Of A Not-So-Secret Agent, ‘Suzanne [Hannema, Harry’s senior agent] and I were at the back of the cathedral when suddenly I heard this noise.
‘“Who on earth is that?” I asked Suzanne.
‘“It’s Nick Cave, Harry.”
‘“Jesus Christ,” I said, “with all that fuss, you’d think he could have sung in tune.”’
But, of course, image is a big part of the music business. Having a successful career is often reliant on whether you can maintain the myth.
Chisel loved the sound of the Swingshift album, so they thought it was a good idea to return to Sydney’s Capitol Theatre to record the new album. Tony Cohen is a diabetic and, unfortunately, he was having some health problems at the time, so the band reluctantly turned to me to finish the album. They asked if I could come in and ‘just record the band’, which annoyed me because, essentially, they wanted me to do the same thing I’d always done, except pay me less.
The first thing I said to Jimmy was, ‘We’ve got to get out of the fucking Capitol Theatre; you perform here, you don’t record here. Just because you did a killer show here doesn’t mean that vibe is going to come through on this album.’ So we relocated to Rhinoceros Studios.
When a band is breaking up, it’s not pretty. Chisel called their 2012 comeback No Plans; the break-up album could have been called ‘No Fun’. The band dynamic had completely changed. I was no longer working with a band, I was working with individuals. When we embarked on East, it was ‘us against the world’, now it was ‘us against us’. Band members were barely speaking.
“It was a really unpleasant period. It was like a relationship that was all over; you try to stay positive and keep it together, but at the same time it was sliding downhill. We finally decided it was time to pack it in. Looking back, the pressure is on you to burn so brightly, but you can only do that for so long.”
“I knew that a lot of fathers would be taking their sons to the reunion shows, and I wanted the dads to say, ‘Powderfinger, fuck them; Cold Chisel, now that’s a real band!’”
The cracks that had started to show with Circus Animals had become a grand canyon. I think Jimmy was beginning to lean towards my way of thinking, which was, ‘Sure, let’s keep our integrity, but let’s have some fucking hits as well!’ And I guess there was also the Yoko principle. Jimmy married Jane in 1981 and they had their first child, Mahalia, the following year. Suddenly, Jimmy had more important things in his life than Cold Chisel.
This is not an unusual occurrence in bands. They start out as a gang, keen to conquer the world. A lot of fans think a band lives in one big house, all together, making music all day. But as people grow up, they get partners and have kids. Their priorities change as they gather other influences.
And do you want to be forever stuck in the tour van with a bunch of smelly guys? James Reyne once told me that you never wanted to sit behind the person in the passenger seat in the tour van because you would grow to hate the back of their head.
By 1983, Chisel was no longer the tight little unit it once was. It had become a big business, and it was never intended to be a business.
“There are some really good songs on Twentieth Century, but I just don’t think it had the same feel as Cold Chisel in its prime. It sounds like a dying band.”
The Chisel classic on Twentieth Century is ‘Flame Trees’, a song written by Steve Prestwich and Don Walker.
“Steve wrote all the music and the melody. Don heard it and said, “I love that, can I have a crack at writing some lyrics for it?” Steve was fiercely proud of doing everything himself, but he reluctantly agreed. The next day, after having like an hour’s sleep, Don came in with this fantastic story. Don’s one of those uni student dudes who’s like, “This project’s got to be in, so I’ll get it done by hook or by crook.””
“‘Flame Trees’ could be about anywhere. Everyone’s got a hometown, a place they flee, whether it’s because of their upbringing, their parents, a scorned lover, or a traumatic incident in their life. Or they’ve left and they long to go back, and they go back and they realise it was good to leave. It’s good to spend time there, but you don’t want to linger too long. It’s about letting go.”
“We never played “Flame Trees” live before we broke up. We might have done one version at The Last Stand, where people were reading lyrics, because we didn’t know the song. We recorded it quite late and then broke up.”
I recall sitting with Jimmy, who was struggling to get his head around the piece in the middle of the song: ‘Who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway.’ He played me what he’d recorded. He kind of politely spoke the part. It sounded like the middle-eight in a country record – bad spoken-word. I simply said: ‘Jimmy, how would Aretha do it?’ Before I got to ‘it’, boom – Jimmy had nailed it in one take.
In my business, you have to have concise phrases. You can’t ramble or be ambiguous. You have to deliver concise, precise, meaningful phrases that immediately get the message across. ‘How would Aretha do it?’ was another way of saying, ‘Where’s the soul?’ I knew Jimmy would get the message.
You’ll also notice that ‘Flame Trees’ ends with a big chorus, featuring a wave of backing vocals. I got everyone to sing along in the studio (including Mossy’s then girlfriend Megan Williams, star of The Sullivans, who sadly died of breast cancer at the age of 43); the theory being that the public would sing along as well.
The other standout song on Twentieth Century is Don Walker’s ‘Saturday Night’, sung by both Mossy and Barnesy.
“‘Saturday Night’ I think is biographical. It was written at a stage when I knew the band was coming to an end, so there’s a little bit of sadness in the song. The song is actually about walking away from Saturday night. The song was pretty much built before the other guys cottoned on to what I was doing. I can remember Mark Opitz suddenly saying, “I get this, this is really good.””
To gather some atmosphere for the track, Don walked around Kings Cross with a stereo recorder, picking up street sounds. You can hear his favourite busker. And when he walked past a strip club, Dragon’s ‘Rain’ was coming out of the doorway, so in the final mix I inserted three or four bars of the song.
‘Don’t tell Todd [Hunter] or he’ll be after me for royalties.’
Ray Arnott played on most of Twentieth Century, but Steve Prestwich returned for Chisel’s final shows, ‘The Last Stand’. We recorded and filmed the shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.
“You can see the devotion in the crowd. We could have kept going and milked that for another 10 years, easily. But we felt the band was just at its peak and starting to go over, and we wanted to leave on a high note. Our audience was so staunch and so devoted, we wanted to give them our best, and I think ‘The Last Stand’ was probably some of the best shows we ever played.”
The live recordings were released the following year as The Barking Spiders Live 1983. The album was made to look like a bootleg. ‘The Barking Spiders’ was a pseudonym that Chisel would occasionally use when they were doing warm-up shows. The name was a reference to flatulence.
‘Did you just fart?’
‘No, there must be a barking spider in here.’
‘The Last Stand’ was released as a movie. One of the camera people was Alex Proyas, who later directed the movies The Crow and Dark City. Cold Chisel played their final show on 12 December 1983. I can’t say I was unhappy. For a band with the integrity of Cold Chisel, when the magic is gone, it’s time to kill the goose. As for the comeback…
On New Year’s Eve 1996, I bumped into Chisel bass player Phil Small in Adelaide. He was excited. ‘Can’t wait till we start working together again,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be fantastic.’
In 1996, Michael Gudinski approached me to join the Mushroom Group, to look after A&R. It is fair to say the glory days of Mushroom Records were over. My role was two-fold: to remove half of the 60 acts on the label to prepare the company for sale to Rupert Murdoch, and to help secure the Cold Chisel re-formation album. Of course, Michael already had the inside running, given his close friendship with Jimmy Barnes, but he thought it wouldn’t hurt having me on board as well. I was mainly kept in the background, with Michael not wanting to overplay his hand.
After some tough negotiations with Chisel, it became clear that Michael would get the record, but with strict conditions. First, the deal was a 50/50 split. Mushroom would pay 50 per cent of the costs, Chisel would pay the other half, and the profits would be split 50/50. This was a good deal for both parties. The second major clause in the contract was that Mushroom Records would have no creative input whatsoever. They may as well have said, ‘Mark Opitz has no creative input whatsoever’.
I don’t think this was a smart move, and that’s not my ego talking. An A&R person – someone with intimate knowledge of the band’s history and respect for their legacy – would have been an advantage for this project.
“I don’t remember Mark ever being considered for the production of The Last Wave Of Summer. That had nothing to do with his job at Mushroom, and it was nothing against Mark, who has a good track record. It’s just we were chasing a certain sound and recording ideas, and we had a few people in mind we thought might be able to help us with that.”
I understood that I had no input, but I requested a meeting with Don Walker. I wanted to explain how I thought they should do the record, and I’d given it a lot of thought, preparing copious notes.
A Cold Chisel comeback was not to be treated lightly. A lot of goodwill and mythology had been built up since ‘The Last Stand’ in 1983. The compilation albums had been massive sellers. I knew that a lot of fathers would be taking their sons to the reunion shows, and I wanted the dads to say, ‘Powderfinger, fuck them; Cold Chisel, now that’s a real band!’
“I think that if the band had come up with the idea, it would have happened. It’s so Cold Chisel, it’s ridiculous.”
To do this, you needed to establish a point of difference. I didn’t want Cold Chisel to come out with a conventional 12-song studio album. If they did this, they would be compared to every other band doing standard albums. Cold Chisel is Cold Chisel. They always did things their own way. We needed to do something that would set them apart. It was important to me, from an A&R perspective, to not kill the golden goose. The legend of Cold Chisel had to be preserved. The moment you uncover the legend and show something that’s actually real, it’s lost. You need to maintain the mystique. That’s how I started my presentation to Don.
I’d already communicated my ideas to Jimmy, but I knew that Don was the key person. We met at Don’s house. The first thing I asked him was how is the band going to get its chops together? Don told me they were planning to do some ‘out-of-town’ warm-up shows.
‘May I put it to you,’ I said, ‘rather than doing that, how ’bout a tour of the major jails in Australia? Start at Boggo Road, let’s do Pentridge and Long Bay. You’ll be able to get your chops together without the public seeing you. It’s publicity that you cannot buy, and it will set up the imagery that we need. ‘And you’ll have people breaking into jail to see you!’
Of course, every idea I have is the greatest idea I’ve ever had, at that time. But, for me, this was, indeed, one of the greatest ideas I’d ever had. A producer is not just a guy who sits in the studio and presses the record button. I’m a record person, an ideas man. I continued my presentation to Don: ‘If we go and release an album with 12 songs that’s just like East or Circus Animals, immediately we’re going to be compared to those records, as well as everything else that’s in the marketplace, whether it’s Powderfinger or Silverchair or whatever. We’ve built the legend and the myth. It’s important that we come out of the box with something that’s totally different.’
I suggested to Don that we would record the jail shows, as well as the band’s rehearsals and then some studio sessions. And if they also did a secret show at some pub, billed as The Beer Bottles or whatever, we’d record that as well. The album would have some shitty rehearsal sounds and then break into a pristine studio track. A mix of old and new songs. You could even have talking between the tracks, if you wanted. It would be a warts-and-all documentary. The closest comparison I could come up with was Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block and U2’s Rattle and Hum. But, really, there would be no comparison. This was Cold Chisel. They would stand alone.
I thought it was brilliant. I truly believed, ‘They’re going to love this.’ But because they hadn’t come up with the idea – I had – they didn’t like it. I think that if the band had come up with the idea, it would have happened. It’s so Cold Chisel, it’s ridiculous. Was Don worried that I was going to lead him down the path of temptation into the commercial world? No, I just think it was Don being Don. Gudinski loved the idea; everyone who I told thought it was genius. But would the band buy it? Not for one second!
“I don’t recall that pitch. We had always played in prisons, from 1974 onwards, so that wouldn’t be a new idea for us. For some reason, we didn’t do that in 1998. When Mark came in to see us, we were rehearsing in the Opera House and recording all the rehearsals anyway, though not to multi-track. My memory is that Mark wanted to be an “executive producer”, what he called an EP. That idea didn’t appeal to us.”
It’s been reported that Chisel’s manager Rod Willis felt that my appointment as Mushroom’s A&R director was Gudinski’s way of getting around the band’s stipulation that the record company would not enter the studio unless invited. I was invited to drop into the band’s rehearsals at the Opera House. While the band was playing, it was, ‘Great, love it!’ But when they took a break, I dragged Jimmy outside for a cigarette.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I said, shaking my head. ‘What is this crap? These songs are shit!’
‘I’m just one guy,’ Jimmy explained.
‘Well, if you want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, you’re well on the way.’
When Paul Dickson became the new Mushroom boss after the company was sold to Festival, he said: ‘Mark, it’s so great we’ve got Cold Chisel, and you must feel great to have them. This is going to be huge.’ ‘Paul,’ I replied, ‘I want you to know one thing – I had nothing to do with the album; it’s all the band. I just want to let you know that all the success you’re about to have with the Cold Chisel album, I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I just want to make sure that the credit goes to the right people. The ideas that I had weren’t followed through.’
I thought The Last Wave of Summer album was a mess. I hear indecision, I hear too many cooks. Take away the history of Cold Chisel and you’ve got a crap album. I could picture the sons across Australia listening to the album and saying to their dads, ‘What was so cool about that band?’
‘Well, son, it was different back then . . .’
The band said they wanted to make a ‘pure’ record. They wanted to record live in the studio. No overdubs. Brilliant – in theory. But it’s a practical world, and I didn’t think it was the right way to go.
“The Last Wave of Summer was very unorthodox; we set up a PA in the studio. Normally when you record, everyone wears headphones and everything is isolated, so if someone makes a mistake you can cut it out and re-do things. When Cold Chisel made Last Wave of Summer, we had a PA in the studio – everything bled through everything else, so if you turned up the guitar, you got more tom-toms, if you turned up the vocals, you got more bass … What it meant was we had to record virtually live. If you were doing a great performance and something was slightly out of tune or you made a mistake, you had to weigh up: is the performance worth more than the one mistake? So it’s an album that’s got lots of warts on it, little things that are technically wrong, but at the same time it has an immense amount of feel.”
The Last Wave of Summer was not the blockbuster that Mushroom had expected, though it went double platinum (140,000 copies) and spent one week at number one. What would have happened if the band had followed my vision? Who knows, the album might have sold fewer copies. But I wanted Chisel to do the right album, a record that respected their legacy and didn’t disappoint their fans. Cold Chisel is still a legendary band. But I think the legend was slightly tarnished by The Last Wave of Summer.
Of course, Cold Chisel are Cold Chisel. They aren’t Mark Opitz’s Cold Chisel. They will be remembered for all the great stuff. But with The Last Wave of Summer, I believe that if nothing had gone before, people would have gone, ‘What the fuck is this all about?’
“I thought The Last Wave of Summer was one of the best records we made. I think it’s got some of the best songs Cold Chisel have ever done. Don Walker excelled on that record. It’s one of my favourite Cold Chisel records of all time.”
In 2009, I produced an album for Jeff Lang called Chimeradour. I got Don Walker to come to Melbourne to play some piano on the record. When I drove Don to the airport, I said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘When did Cold Chisel end?’
‘Cold Chisel ended in 1983,’ Don informed me.
‘I’m glad you said that.’