Jimmy Barnes has been there and back. And, he says, “I’m glad to be back.”
He’s tasted glory as Australia’s favourite rock & roll singer for more than three decades. In the ‘70s and ‘80s he was the wildest, loudest and most popular rock & roll star in the country. In the 1990’s Jimmy reached mega-stardom with back to back #1 albums in both soul and rock genres. Then everything went out of control and he came close to losing everything, including his sanity and his life. In the 21st century, after rehab and open heart surgery, he has climbed back to the top of the charts and the top of his form.
Ironically, staring at death in the operating room in 2007 was the catalyst for Jimmy Barnes to make one of the best albums of his life, ‘Out In The Blue’. But let’s look back before we look forward…
At age 16, Jimmy played his second gig as lead singer on the back of a truck one hot Saturday at Gawler Raceway in Adelaide, South Australia. The band would become Cold Chisel. A couple of years later they had a residency at the Larg’s Pier Hotel that was so packed, fans drove a ute through the back wall to get in.
By 1978, Cold Chisel was a nasty rock & roll band tearing up the pubs of Sydney and Melbourne. Living in flophouses on $100 a month, the five Chisel members didn’t care a rat’s for anything but music. Only after they had honed their stage craft did they score a record deal although the label had no expectation of major sales. The first single, “Khe Sanh” was banned
from commercial radio. However, Cold Chisel had something more valuable than radio play – Chisel had genuine fans. Chisel fans knew that when they bought a ticket at the door, all bets were off. With Jimmy Barnes out front, slugging spirits and using his voice to duel with the soaring guitar lines from Ian Moss, Chisel kicked arse like rock & roll is supposed to, and rarely does.
Within three short years of their first album’s release, Cold Chisel was the most successful band in the land. The second album ‘Breakfast At Sweethearts’ broke the radio drought. The 1980 album ‘East’, surpassed
all expectations selling a quarter of a million copies straight out of the box and debuting at #1 on the charts. Every ticket on their now-legendary tours was sold out.
People still talk of the ‘Circus Animals’ tour where Jimmy sang on a trapeze underneath a motorcycle delicately balanced on a tightrope.
Chisel’s records were instant classics – “Khe Sanh”, “Flame Trees” “Saturday Night”, “Rising Sun”, “Cheap Wine”, “Breakfast At Sweethearts”, “You Got Nothing I Want” … most have become national anthems.
In December 1983 Chisel came to an end with the largest concert tour ever undertaken by an Australian band – a record that still stands over twenty years later.
Within a month of Cold Chisel finishing, Jimmy Barnes was on the road with a new band and within 10 months of that, in October 1984 to be specific, Jimmy released his first solo album, ‘Bodyswerve’.
It entered the charts at #1.
The following year he signed to Geffen Records in the US and cut five new tracks which were added to remixed versions of key ‘Bodyswerve’ tracks to make the album ‘For The Working Class Man’ – another #1 debut. The title track was also used by Ron Howard for his film Gung Ho and charted in the U.S Billboard Top 40. Artistic differences ended Jimmy’s relationship with Geffen and he recorded 1987’s ‘Freight Train Heart’ (another #1 debut) on his own terms. The national tour in support of that album featured a young Perth guitarist Mark Lizotte (aka Diesel) who would soon become Jimmy’s closest musical collaborator.
Around this time, Jimmy also teamed up with INXS and Divinyls, Models, The Saints and Triffids for the massive national tour, ‘Australian Made’. To celebrate ‘Australian Made’, Jimmy and INXS recorded an Easybeats song “Good Times”. The single topped the Australian charts and was included
on the soundtrack to the film The Lost Boys and subsequently became a Top 40 hit in the U.S and a Top 10 hit in the U.K.
Jimmy began working with American producer Don Gehman on the album ‘Two Fires’. Released in 1990 and yet another #1 album, it was Jimmy’s most sophisticated set yet. His songwriting had matured and he had learned how to control the power in his voice.
In 1991 and on little more than a whim, Jimmy and Don Gehman cut an album of R&B classics over a fairly intense fortnight. The continuing success of ‘Two Fires’ kept the ‘Soul Deep’ album in the bottom drawer for almost a year, however when it did hit the stores it was a massive success with sales to this day of close to one million copies.
Jimmy’s next album, ‘Heat’, was his toughest yet. Straight up, hard rock with a nod to funk. The album was also a success, despite being swamped in the grunge craze that broke in that summer of 1993.
That same year Jimmy put together the ‘Flesh and Wood’ project that featured acoustic duets and collaborations with a number of artists all recorded at Jimmy’s studio in Bowral.
For twenty straight years, Jimmy Barnes had been going full bore – writing, recording, and touring – without a break. In the meantime he and wife Jane had also raised a family of three daughters and one son. People stopped him in the street everywhere he went. Jimmy was involved in a number of major charities – mostly related to youth issues. After twenty years it was time to take stock. The pressure of maintaining a large organisation as well as a home and family was exhausting. He found himself playing tours just to cover the overhead. There are only so many Australian tours any artist can do. Jimmy sold his house and cleared the decks. He moved to France.
For three years Jimmy toured through Europe and the U.K from a base in France. During this time he made the critically acclaimed ‘Psyclone’ album. Then, towards the end of the decade, Jimmy returned to Australia and started looking for a new direction.
Jimmy took part in the 1998 reformation of Cold Chisel. Despite all the disagreements and the feuds, there was still a deep friendship between the five members. Getting together wasn’t just a matter of recording some tunes and playing some shows, it was also a reconciliation. Cold Chisel is, like most great bands, a family. There have been other tours and shows and the possibility of further adventures remains. The ‘Ringside’ tour resulted in a great live album and DVD.
He then recorded an album ‘Love and Fear’ which purged a lot of demons that had been plaguing him for many years. He confronted issues that he had avoided by being on tour and by drinking and takingdrugs. He cut another album of southern music, ‘Soul Deeper’, that had a bluesier feel than its predecessor.
‘Love and Fear’ was an album of confronting and edgy rock & roll in which Jimmy laid his soul bare. It contains some of his best songs. However, neither Jimmy nor the record company was in good shape at the time and it was overlooked. “When I made Psyclone and Love and Fear I was at the height of my alcoholism and addiction,” he recalls. “I was literally staring into the abyss.”
In 2002, Jimmy began the hard road to sobriety.
A side project with friends from different corners of the world resulted in the heavy metal combo Living Loud and a self-titled album in 2004.
Also in 2004, Jimmy started assembling the duets he had recorded over the years. He was also itching to put some new songs out and so the idea of ‘Double Happiness’ began.
Double Happiness was released in July 2005 and debuted at #1 in the ARIA charts. His 15th number one album, but the first in almost a decade. With a string of radio hits across different formats, ‘Double Happiness’ sold double platinum. It even led to a karaoke DVD featuring songs from the albums plus Jimmy’s hits accompanied by some hysterical videos.
It was the beginning of a new era. “Double Happiness was a labour of love. The duets were with people I really admired. I was really focussed and the record company was really focussed,” he said. “The record company was happy to have me back. I was glad to be back and sober and that’s why the record worked. That’s why it was the first number one we’ve had for a few years.”
In October 2005, Jimmy Barnes was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in his own right (Cold Chisel had already been inducted in 1993) Jimmy passed his half-century in 2006. “By my mid 40s I thought I was going to die so I was pretty happy getting to 50” he recalls. “I really honestly feel at this point that I’m singing better than I’ve ever sung in my life. I feel more focussed than I’ve been since I was 16. I feel that I’m communicating with people that I love and I feel like I’m present in my own life. And that’s a gift. So for me, 50 is a breeze.”
To celebrate his 50th birthday, his label, Liberation Music compiled a boxed set of Jimmy Barnes’ solo work plus studio and live rarities in a lavish package, entitled ‘50’. Limited to just 5000 copies, it was the most extensive set ever undertaken for an Australian artist, containing not only each studio album from ‘Bodyswerve’ to ‘Double Happiness’ but also a recently unearthed blistering live recording from 1987. The box also included never-before-seen photos, a disc of rare tracks and an in-depth interview. The entire run was sold out within a matter of weeks.
In 2006, Jonathon Welch, a former principal tenor with Opera Australia, devised the Choir of Hard Knocks. The choir allows homeless and disabled people to express themselves through music. Jimmy became a patron of the Choir and conducted classes with them. He took the Choir to Ballarat where they sang “Flame Trees” on stage. The ABC screened a documentary on the series in May ’07 and it was a massive hit. So much so that the Choir did sell-out shows at the Melbourne Town Hall and the Sydney Opera House, joined by Jimmy.
Around this same time music TV channel MAX recruited Jimmy to co-present their weekly show ‘The Know’. MAX also recorded a one-off intimate concert at the Sydney Opera House in which Jimmy’s band was assisted by an orchestra and a choir. The songs, many of them unexpected choices, were drawn from all stages of Jimmy’s career.
Early in 2007, Jimmy underwent open-heart surgery to repair a congenital heart defect. The recovery from the surgery necessitated several months of bed rest. It was during this time that Jimmy began writing for the album ‘Out In the Blue’. “Basically I had to spend time on my own being sober and straight six months in bed,” he said. “Suddenly a floodgate opened. I was writing two or three songs a day. I guess the process of being close to death brought a whole creative urge back.”
Those songs formed the basis of Jimmy’s 14th solo album and his first complete new project since 1999’s ‘Love And Fear’. The recording of the album was done in eight days with Nash Chambers (Kasey Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley, Paul Kelly) producing. A small band (Midnight Oil’s guitarist Jim Moginie, session veteran Mark Punch, bassist Chris Haigh and son Jackie Barnes on drums and piano) created a tough but intimate sound.
“The title track of the album is ‘Out In The Blue” he explains. “I felt for a long time after the operation that I was out in the blue… I was on my own. I wasn’t coming back from out in the blue so I started thinking about that when I was lying in bed one night and I wrote this set of lyrics. Basically that’s the story of my life …I’ve been out in the blue and my only lifeline has been Jane my wife so I wrote a song about it. I’ve been out there and she helped pull me back in and I like being back in.
I think being sober and writing most of the songs myself has been a really great experience for me. It’s not flash, but it’s pure, it’s honest and it’s organic,” he says of the sound on the new album. “What we’re aiming for is a record that you can put on in five, ten, twenty years time.”