There is something quintessentially Australian about rock pioneers Cold Chisel. In the early 1990s I had a University friend who was obsessed with their early recording legacy (1978-1983), so much so that there was not a week that went by that he didn’t sing their praises. I thought he was mad because at the time music had shifted and my attention was firmly fixated on bands like Pearl Jam and U2. But after a while I too realised that their influence was something that had sipped into my subconscious, only I had chosen to ignore it.
Cold Chisel was born in Adelaide in 1973, but it wasn’t until 1975 that they settled into the line-up who would carve out a rock career only second to AC/DC in Australia. Not bad for five blokes, who originally started out by playing hard rock with a flair for Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Free covers.
It’s been said that those who falter beneath the weight of words of the Australian national anthem, never falter with recalling the lyrics of our unofficial anthem Khe Sanh, a song of praise about a returned Vietnam vet. It is arguably Cold Chisel’s most beloved song, in which most of Cold Chisel’s catalogue still today lives under its shadow? But just maybe I’m being a little too harsh on Cold Chisel because if you dig deep enough its easy to see a swag of incredible songs that followed Khe Sanh that deserve its fair share of love and recognition. (A Cold Chisel top ten list is being planned as I write.)
There are many readers here whom I bet have never heard of the pub rock band, Cold Chisel. That’s fair enough because although Cold Chisel had phenomenal success in Australia, they never really made it overseas, something that keyboardist and chief songwriter, Don Walker regrets to this day. Walker once said that he wanted Chisel to be the preeminent rock band of Australasia and that Europe and the United States to him at least at the height of their fame was irrelevant. It goes without saying that Cold Chisel’s songs were uniquely Australian and no more so than Flame Trees which was written by Walker (along with Cold Chisel drummer, Steve Prestwich), who seemed to have knack of writing hit after hit.
Fun fact: The song title of Flame Trees refers to Illawarra flame trees which are found on the east coast of Australia.
Across many interviews over recent years, Walker has describes Flame Trees as an ode to Grafton where he grew up and of a girl who is seemingly long gone. Interestingly, Walker wrote the lyrics of Flame Trees at a time when the band was breaking up. According to Walker, Cold Chisel’s drummer, Steve Prestwich, would often sit around backstage with a bass guitar working on song ideas. When he presented Walker with the basis of what would become Flame Trees, Walker set about writing the lyrics, but it would be more than a year before it all came together.
“Flame Trees is an example of a song that has musicality. When I received it with no words”, Walker remembers, “I could tell it had a really emotional profile – it gathers up the threads; there’s a big key change, if you can fire a cannon ball through the park on the key change you have a winner.”
To this day Walker is generous in his praise for then-Chisel drummer, Steve Prestwich. He credits the late Prestwich with not only writing the music but also for his clear ideas during the recording sessions, which included some of the piano parts.
Lyrically, there are a number of outstanding lines. Personally, I’ve always liked the line “But oh who needs that sentimental bullshit, anyway”, where Jimmy Barnes croons for a change resting his razor wire vocals. But for others the best lyric of the song is “And there’s nothing else could set fire to this town”. For those who love music trivia, the words ‘set fire to this town’ pops up in an early Cold Chisel song. It was deliberately recycled here in the chorus of Flame Trees as a way of reflecting Cold Chisel’s rise and fall.
“As Cold Chisel was just starting to take off, after we’d been together for a few years, I wrote a song called Merry-go-round and it’s got this phrase in it ‘I’m going to set fire to the town’,” Walker said in 2019. He added, ”We played that every night as we went from clubs to stadiums and every town around the place both here and overseas. Flame Trees was a song that was written at the end of our career, pretty much as we were breaking up. Because that phrase had been such a fixture of our live shows I just decided to revisit that phase in a later song. It only appears in two songs, once at the beginning of our ascent and once when the band was in a death dive.”
Flame Trees was released as a single in 1984 from the album Twentieth Century which would turn out to be Cold Chisel’s swansong. Today it still holds a sentimental place among fans and Australian artists as a quintessential Cold Chisel song. A handful of Australian musicians have recorded cover versions of Flame Trees, but none is better than Sarah Blasko’s indie pop, soft rock version of it.