The far right doesn’t get Cold Chisel

The far right tried to politically appropriate Cold Chisel on the weekend. It failed.

“Khe Sanh”, the band’s iconic rock anthem, was played at Brisbane’s Reclaim Australia rally. Jimmy Barnes’s “Working class man” was used in Adelaide. Barnes last night issued a statement distancing himself from the organisers and attendees:

“It has come to my attention that certain groups of people have been using my voice, my songs as their anthems at rallies”, he said.

“I only want to say the Australia I belong to and love is a tolerant Australia. A place that is open and giving. It is a place that embraces all sorts of different people, in fact it is made stronger by the diversity of its people.

“If you look at my family you can see we are a multicultural family. Australia needs to stand up for Love and Tolerance in these modern times.

“None of these people represent me and I do not support them.”

If the right wing organisers had had the sense to listen to Cold Chisel, it would have been obvious from the outset that playing it, or Barnes, wouldn’t fly.

“Khe Sanh”, for example, is usually held up as a definitively Australian tune. But it also was the cannon fodder’s lament; the returned soldier left to his devices by a government that cared little for the sacrifice:

And it’s only other vets could understand
About the long forgotten dockside guarantees
How there were no V-day heroes in 1973
How we sailed into Sydney Harbour
Saw an old friend but couldn’t kiss her
She was lined, and I was home to the lucky land

The lucky land for the vet is a shitty situation hardly worthy of nationalistic pride.

And the legal pads were yellow, hours long, paypacket lean
And the telex writers clattered where the gunships once had been
But the car parks made me jumpy
And I never stopped the dreams
Or the growing need for speed and novacaine
So I worked across the country end to end
Tried to find a place to settle down, where my mixed up life could mend

The veteran wants only to get out – out of his mind and potentially out of a country in which there is nothing on offer for a man who sacrificed his future for the nation.

And I’ve travelled round the world from year to year
And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear
And I’ve been back to South East Asia
But the answer sure ain’t there
But I’m drifting north, to check things out again …

Well the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone …
And it’s really got me worried
I’m goin’ nowhere and I’m in a hurry
And the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone

None of this is to suggest that the song is a song “of the left”. I think it defies any attempt at political appropriation. It doesn’t feel either pro- or anti-war; while there is no jingoism, equally there is no internationalism. It simply gestures toward the unbearable burden of the wounded.

This gesturing, however, is not confined to “Khe Sanh”. In part this is why the far right can’t claim Cold Chisel. The band undeniably was a wash of contradictions and characters. Yet Chisel at its best was pure empathy – for the oppressed, the marginalised and those searching for dignity.

That it took No Fixed Address, the radical Indigenous group led by Bart Willoughby, on its 1982 national tour says something of this. “When [No Fixed Address] perform 'We have survived (the white man’s world)',” wrote one reviewer, “… it’s as if a whole people are speaking out with pride and defiance”.

Empathy, something alien to the politics of the far right, stands out primarily in the band’s music. There’s the working class escapism of Ian Moss’s “Bow River”. Or Don Walker’s stunning “Four Walls”, an ode to the infamous series of riots at Bathurst Gaol, instigated by prisoners who could not put up with the inhuman conditions any longer. Walker is an incredibly honest and gritty story teller, and wrote many of the group’s best songs, including “Khe Sanh”.

“Four Walls” doesn’t seek judgement of the men inside and it doesn’t ask what they had done to be locked up in the first place. It displays unconditional empathy.

Well the Bathurst riots ended
When they clubbed The Rebels down
And in every congregation there was silence
You can hear the Angels singin’
When Christmas comes around
Four walls, wash basin, prison bed

I love to march while some Nazi calls the time
Who’d wanna go home?

I can’t see and I can’t hear
They’ve burnt out all the feelings
I’ve never been so crazy, and it’s just my second year

It is almost inconceivable that such a song could be penned today – half the left now cheers on the law and order brigade and finds little common cause with the people brutalised behind bars.

Then there’s “Star Hotel”, a telling of the riot that took place on the night of the Newcastle pub’s closure in 1979.

(Here lies a local culture
Most nights were good, some were bad
Between school and a shifting future
It was most of all we had)
Those in charge are getting crazier
Job queues grow through the land
An uncontrolled Youth in Asia
Gonna make those fools understand

The Star was not some goon club for the political right. John Huxley, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004, explained:

“As the National Times newspaper wrote at the time, the front bar ‘served sailors from around the world, RAAF men, petty criminals and pimps, parachutists and short back and sides misfits who didn’t fit into sophisticated taverns’. The middle bar catered for local gays entertained by drag acts, such as that staged by the notorious ‘Stella the Fella’. And the back bar was where the young people went, where the bands played for free almost every night of the week.

“Far from being at each others’ throats, the different groups rubbed along peacefully. ‘There was a real sense of community, of belonging to the place’, recalls Mark Tinson, of the Heroes, the band playing the last set at the Star on that memorable night … For the same reasons that patrons loved it – for its rebelliousness, its rowdiness, its unruliness – licensing authorities loathed it.”

Everyone getting along together, but not without some ugly incidents. A riot potentially borne of the frustration of seeing such a place lost – that’s hardly a struggle the far right would ever get behind.

We certainly can sense nationalism in the band. Of course we can. But it wasn’t a weapon to be deployed against “others”. It just came through in the honest narratives about life in Australia for very ordinary characters who most people can relate to.

But it is one thing to empathise with the situation of those cast to the side, quite another to endorse the politics of those who seek to turn such unenviable plights into a reactionary movement.

Barnes, as he did in 2005 against WorkChoices, has come down on the right side. That shouldn’t be so surprising.