EXCLUSIVE: Rod Willis Shares 'Cold Chisel' Excerpt From 'Ringside' Memoir

1 November 2023 | 2:24 pm | Rod Willis

To celebrate the release of his new book, 'Ringside', former Cold Chisel manager Rod Willis has exclusively shared an excerpt of the memoir with The Music.

'Ringside' book cover

'Ringside' book cover (Source: Supplied)

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In early January 1978, Cold Chisel entered Trafalgar to record their debut album. I was a studio novice—my experience to date amounted to loading gear into the room, then sitting around waiting for food and drink orders. I’d done some live sound mixing in my Savoy/UFO days but had no idea how to do that in a studio.

Peter Walker, who’d been the guitarist with prog-rockers Bakery, was chosen to produce their debut. I had no real knowledge of Peter’s credentials—or of Bakery, for that matter, who’d broken up a couple of years before I returned to Australia, after recording two albums. The band’s—and Warner’s—take on Peter was that he was an excellent musician who understood studio technology. I wasn’t sure if these were the optimum qualifications for a great producer, although in fairness most good producers have been down a similar road. This was Peter’s production debut, but David Sinclair was confident that he understood what everyone was looking for in feel, sound and style.

Without any other viable option, and with the band and record company keen, I concurred and the band got to work.

To his credit, David Sinclair negotiated a flat studio rate instead of the standard hourly fee. This turned out to be a wise move; sometimes the band would play a gig then party into the morning, which left them exhausted and not in the best shape to deal with the rigours of recording during daylight hours. The band were used to playing live and dictating how they sounded, and they found it hard to deal with Peter’s direction. Being used to the spontaneity of live performance, they felt frustrated by the endless repetition required in the studio. They wanted to recreate their live sound—intense, passionate and dynamic—but Peter’s approach was methodical, clinical and conservative.

While the band struggled inside Trafalgar, I received a call in February 1978 from Peter Ikin at Warners.

‘Do you think the band would be interested in supporting Foreigner?’

The US band was touring Australia in April, and Peter was confident that he could get the four-city run for Cold Chisel. While I could see what an ideal opportunity it was to promote their album, I had to sell it to the band. Easier said than done. In Adelaide, Cold Chisel had been the go-to band for touring acts. But those spots could be frustrating; the audience was rarely interested in the support act. I appreciated that now, with a record deal, they felt they didn’t need to put themselves in that position anymore—and Foreigner definitely wasn’t high on their favourites list.

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I met with the band in the studio to talk it through and they gave me their rating of Foreigner.

‘Fookin’ wankers,’ said Steve. ‘“Cold as Ice”—piece of crap.’ Jim also expressed strong doubts that the two bands would be compatible.

Ian and Phil opted to sit back and watch the internal debate unfold. Four pair of eyes then turned in the direction of Don, who’d been silently chewing over the pros and cons.

‘Well,’ he finally said, ‘I agree with Jim, but this is a good opportunity.’

He went on to say that they really needed to be onside with the record company and that this was one way to achieve that. It looked like we had a breakthrough; the only real dissenter was Steve, who continued arguing his point of view as we exited the studio and walked out into the night. With the decision made, the heat was now on the band to complete the album in time for the tour.

There was a consensus at the time that the sound quality of Australian recordings was compromised when locally mastered. From the outset it had been agreed that the Chisel album was to be mastered in the US. As the recording sessions dragged on, the reality of getting that done started to fade. It was decided that in order to have albums ready for the tour, we’d organise a locally mastered version, to be replaced later by the US master. David Sinclair, however, was told that the local mastering would be delayed by ten days. For reasons best known to David, he left the tapes in the boot of his car. Ten days of heat exposure in a metal coffin meant that when the mastering finally did happen, the sound had been audibly undermined. The band was furious. I pleaded with Warners to do a remix from the multi-tracks, but they refused. Chisel, clearly, was a low priority. As a consequence of all of this the album wouldn’t be ready for the Foreigner shows.

The Foreigner tour kicked off at Brisbane’s Festival Hall, a venue better equipped acoustically for its original use as a boxing arena. This didn’t seem to matter, because the next day The Courier-Mail described Chisel’s performance as ‘burnt red hot’. The Sydney show was equally good, but problems arose in Melbourne when the production truck arrived late and the promoter scaled Chisel’s set down from 30 minutes to a miserly fifteen.

When I told the band, their faces basically said, ‘I told you this tour was a bad idea.’

But totally unexpectedly Foreigner’s main man, Mick Jones, caught wind of it and presented the promoter with a blunt ultimatum: ‘Cold Chisel get 30 minutes, or we don’t play.’

We got our 30 minutes.

Exactly one week after the completion of the Foreigner tour in April 1978, Cold Chisel’s self-titled debut was released. The album launch, at Melbourne’s Bombay Rock, was a sell-out, further indication that the hard slog on the road was paying off. Even though the band was somewhat disappointed with the studio results, music journalists and long-time supporters Anthony O’Grady, Andrew McMillan and Christie Eliezer finally had something tangible to crow about in the press—and crow they did.

Many of the songs on the album had been road-tested for a few years and were familiar to the faithful punters who now filled venues whenever the band played. The cover artwork, conceptualised by Don and Abby Beaumont, featured Micki Braithwaite, Daryl Braithwaite’s first wife, superimposed over an Asian street scene.

Despite the support of the music press, mainstream radio was still immersed in the pop of Sherbet, John Paul Young, Marcia Hines, Ted Mulry Gang and Dragon. That old Chisel curse—‘No commercial potential here!’—remained intact.

The band had no concrete plans about singles, but Warners pressed their case. They thought ‘Khe Sanh’ fit the bill. The problem was Don’s lyrics, with lines like ‘their legs were often open’ and references to speed and hitting ‘some Hong Kong mattress all night long’. The mention of drugs or sex was a big problem, especially as many of the largest radio stations were owned by church organisations.

‘If Warners are so keen for it as a single, why don’t they tell radio just to bleep it out?’ suggested one band member.

‘Maybe if you’re The Beatles,’ I shot back.

Don wrote alternative lyrics that were recorded but just as quickly erased. Everyone realised that the integrity of the song was far more important. Trouble was clearly on the horizon, but Warners felt strongly enough to let ‘Khe Sanh’ fly in early May—and fly it did, straight into controversy. Commercial radio refused to play it, apart from Adelaide’s 5KA, which, ironically enough, was owned by the Methodist Church. Due to the unwavering support of David ‘Daisy’ Day and his fellow 5KA DJs, the song reached number 4 in Adelaide. In Sydney, the Catholic Church–owned 2SM banned the song. The only support came from 2JJ (Double J).

Warners believed that a number of radio stations were thinking about adding the song, but they needed convincing. Melbourne’s promo man Steve Hands felt that if they could get Countdown behind the song, it might help break the impasse at radio. Steve was good mates with Molly Meldrum, the host of Countdown and the most influential figure in Australian music. Countdown had a huge national reach of more than three million homes every Sunday night.

When we talked it through, the band felt that Countdown wasn’t their thing and they were fundamentally right. But while living in the UK I’d seen the effect Top of the Pops had had on the careers of everyone from the Sex Pistols to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix who didn’t fit the teenpop mould: in a word, huge. Countdown could reach areas that were starved of the motherlode: rock and roll. I explained this to the guys and then looked around the room.

‘Okay. Agreed?’

Five heads nodded in unison.

The band had been at the studio in Ripponlea for barely ten minutes when Michael Shrimpton, head of ABC’s light entertainment department, marched into the dressing room.

‘Sorry, guys,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have to modify the lyrics.’

Shocked, we were left to ponder our dilemma.

‘I told you, Rod,’ said Jim, clearly disgruntled. ‘It was a bad idea.’

We shut the dressing-room door and had a show of hands. The decision was unanimous: Cold Chisel did not compromise. Meldrum and Shrimpton were taken aback by our decision; it was unheard of for a band to take Chisel’s position, particularly given the impact and reach of Countdown. But the band’s integrity was crucial. I was confident that the momentum from street level would keep growing and Countdown could wait.

Yet it wouldn’t be until August that ‘Khe Sanh’ officially received an A-classification, which meant ‘not suitable for airplay’. The record label may have fretted but I rubbed my hands together—a bit of controversy never went astray. The song would peak nationally at number 41, while the album reached number 38 and would remain on the national charts for almost six months, earning it a gold album in sales.

‘Ringside’ is out now. You can purchase the book here.