Don Walker - “The thrill of hearing a song you’ve written being played on the radio for the first time, well that’s unforgettable.”By Kimberley Price
Everyone knows his songs.
Most of us can belt out the lyrics at the top of our lungs.
His words have become as fair dinkum as the Akubra; or the weekend barbie.
But even if you heard his name chances are you would still have no idea who he was.
Don Walker, amongst other remarkable achievements, wrote hits such as Flame Trees and Khe Sanh.
On stage he was one fifth of Cold Chisel.
In many ways he was, by and large, the brains behind the hard playing, hard living pub rock band – and unlike Jimmy Barnes, he was a foundation member.
Since its off, on, off, on and so on disbandment, Walker has forged his own path as a brilliant songwriter – penning songs by your favourite artists; as an author and in his spare time recorded three solo albums and six collaboratives.
But for Walker the fame that came with the success of the rock group and his solo work was never his raison d’être.
It was only ever about the music, always the music.
“Like most people, I was pretty confused,” he said of his early years.
“The clear path was to get myself some hard qualifications and get myself a job.
“I was passionate about maths and physics as well as music.
“As my undergraduate went past, the music kind of took over my brain time more and more.”
After earning a degree in physics, Walker continued to follow music. Soon, Cold Chisel began to take off and we all know of the great success the band found here and internationally.
“Right at the beginning, I don’t know what we expected as far as fame goes, it had just never really come into it.
“Going back to being a bloke in your early 20s, your passions are more about the music and being good at it. There were bands around where clearly their aim was to be famous and they’d go around wearing matching pink suits and doing whatever people do when that is their focus.
“That thrill fades pretty quickly – but the thrill of hearing a song you’ve written being played on the radio for the first time, well that’s unforgettable.
“And then to go on further a year or two later and to hear a song played again and again on the radio, that’s just huge when you’re young.
“But then, after a while, you do start to take it all for granted.
“The band got big and it became such that if we made a release it would be played on the radio.
“But nobody would’ve expected around the time Cold Chisel broke up, they’d still be playing the stuff on the radio five years later.
“So that’s the gratification that remains.
“Who would have thought songs I wrote or songs I tooled around with my mates in a backroom somewhere decades ago when we were young and broke, young people could be listening to those songs now or young people could be subjected to those songs now,” he laughed.
In 1983, after 10 years together, Cold Chisel disbanded and went their separate ways.
“There wasn’t much mourning in my personal experience because the conditions in the band were pretty toxic in the year or two leading up to the break up.
“But worse, there was a vacuum of purpose.
“By the time we put the icing on the final shows and the final album, everybody was past wanting to leave it behind.”
Walker said he did a lot of travel, here and overseas, and was also caught up in a protracted custody battle and then devoting years to raising her.
“After about six or seven years I had written these songs and they weren’t the kind of songs you could give to other bands.
“I started to feel my way towards making records myself.
“So I made a couple of records under the name Catfish and I formed a song writing partnership with Ian Moss (another Chisel foundation member) who at the time was making his first solo albums.
“He was writing a lot and we were writing together and I was also writing some songs for his projects.
“And very occasionally people would come looking for songs and I would write for them too.”
Celebrated as one of Australia’s greatest lyricists, Walker’s words have been used by Missy Higgins, Kate Ceberano, Wendy Matthews, Sarah Blasko, Troy Cassar-Daley and Busby Marou, just to name a few.
While his story of post-traumatic stress disorder after the Vietnam War may be his most recognised work, his sweeping portfolio embraces everything from country and ballads to pop and, of course, very loud rock.
“It was the ’80s and it was the real butt-end of disco and music was incredibly bad in every direction,” Walker said.
“This is a world where Footloose was the pinnacle and I was writing 13 minute songs about the slums of Manila – nobody wanted to do that kind of thing in that environment so I had to do it myself.
“I was writing about things that meant something to me, they didn’t mean too much to other people.
“None of the albums I’ve done since have ever sold widely, but it’s important to do that end of things.”
“If I’ve got a song I think is a good song and I can hear it in my head, sometimes a long period of time goes by and I can’t get it down right in a convincing way – try as I might. It can take quite a long time for me to take what I can hear all in my head and get it down on paper for other people to eventually hear.”
Walker even has a for-example.
It was a song he wrote called The Way You Are Tonight, something he finally got down at the turn of the century.
He described it as a torch-ballad and was convinced it would make him millions.
“I tried to demo it but I couldn’t ever get it to sound as good as it did in my head, even though I was working with great singers.
“Then finally, a couple of years ago, Missy Higgins recorded it and revealed herself to me, at least, as a great torch-ballad singer, because she nailed it.”
In a career spanning almost 50 years, Walker has seen a massive shift in the music industry.
His work is still in demand, sought after by up and coming performers as well as industry veterans.
And it means he can continue touring as well, delivering a mix of his golden oldies and newer material.
“The range of music younger generations are producing today is a lot broader than when I was younger.
“There was no such word as genre when I was young. You just played the music which reflected the environment.
“There was sort of a vague understanding that if you go to the African-American areas of Chicago, the music you hear there is going to be different to LA and it’s going to be different to Sydney and it’s going to be different to what you hear in Nairobi – it’s the culture music comes out of.
“From the Easybeats to INXS, there was a period where the music was born out of playing in bars – and that music was very, very broad in taste and style.
“That basket is a lot narrower in what you hear now.
“Electronic music was in its infancy. Everybody realised there was a whole other thing going on over there. It wasn’t disco and it wasn’t rock n roll, it was computer music and it was enormously attractive.
“As a pub rock band we used to drive from city to city listening to this sequenced electronic music for hundreds of miles on end.
“Now, electronic has branched into multi-genres of music.”
For Walker, his success has allowed him to reach a point where he can dictate what he will and won’t do.
But that has never dimmed that fire from his nascent days. It is, he admitted, what keeps him going.
“I get a lot of joy out of all of it. Any way you look at it, I’ve managed to make a living out of an enviable enterprise where you can just sit on your bum and look out at the landscape and dream up a song. Most people have a tougher time earning a dollar.
“There’s a certain series of lucky breaks that got me through – it’s not all deserved.
“I feel fortunate and I enjoy all aspects of it and I’m in a position where if there’s something I don’t enjoy I don’t do it.”
But at Riverboats on the Sunday afternoon he will be doing it, and going full throttle. It’s the only way he knows.
“I’ll be appearing with my band and we have been together with this lineup for 12 years now. Occasionally I’ll be sitting at the piano but mostly I don’t.
“But we do play music I write.
“By and large it’s music that comes from my three solo albums and some new songs.”
Cold Chisel - Khe Sahn [Official Lyric Video]
CATFISH - DON WALKER - RUBY
Missy Higgins - The Way You Are Tonight (Acoustic Sessions from OZ)
Cold Chisel - Flame Trees (Official Video)
Interviewed by: Kimberley Price.
Voice: Vivienne Duck.
Produced by: Kimberley Price and Vivienne Duck.
A Riverine Herald production.