Jimmy Barnes has been there and back. He’s tasted glory as the most successful Australian rock & roll singer. He’s also struggled with the pressures and wrestled with the demons. It’s been a wild ride. Now it’s getting interesting.
At age 16, Jimmy played his second gig as lead singer on the back of a truck 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 & soul band tearing up the pubs of Sydney and Melbourne. They signed a record deal although the label had no expectations for their success. The first single, “Khe Sahn” was banned from commercial radio; however, Cold Chisel had something more valuable than paychecks or radio jocks – Chisel had genuine fans, who 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 rocked & rolled.
Within three short years of their first album’s release, Cold Chisel was the most successful band in the land. The 1980 album, East, surpassed all expectations, selling a quarter of a million copies straight out of the box. Every ticket on their now-legendary tours was sold out.
Chisel’s records were instant classics – “Khe Sahn”, “Flame Trees”, “Saturday Night”, “Rising Sun”, “Cheap Wine”, “Breakfast at Sweethearts” and “You Got Nothing I Want”. Most have become national anthems.
In 1984, Chisel came to an end with the largest concert tour ever undertaken by an Australian band – a record that still stands.
Within a month of Cold Chisel finishing, Jimmy Barnes was on the road with a new band, and within a year of that, Jimmy released his first solo album, Bodyswerve, and it entered the charts at Number One.
The next year he signed to Geffen Records in the U.S. and cut five new tracks that became the album For the Working Class Man – another Number One debut. The title track was used by Ron Howard for his film, Gung Ho. Artistic differences ended Jimmy’s relationship with Geffen and he recorded 1987’s Freight Train Heart – another Number One 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 with INXS and the Divinyls, the Models, the Saints and the 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 was a Top 40 hit in the U.S. and a Top Ten hit in the UK.
Jimmy began working with American producer Don Gehman on the album, Two Fires. Released in 1990 and yet another Number One 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.
On little more than a whim, Jimmy and Don Gehman cut an album of soul classics that Jimmy particularly liked. The Soul Deep album was a massive success with sales of more than a million copies.
Jimmy’s next album, Heat, was his toughest yet – straight up hard rock and some of his best songs ever. The album was a success, despite the grunge craze that broke out the summer of 1993.
That same year, however, Jimmy put together the Flesh and Wood project that featured duets and collaborations with a number of artists. The emphasis was on acoustic renditions of songs, letting the voices speak for themselves.
For twenty years, Jimmy Barnes had been going full bore – writing, recording, touring – without a break. In the meantime, he and his wife, Jane, had 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 20 years it was time to take stock. He sold his house and moved to France, touring throughout Europe and the UK. He made the Psyclone album, which was largely under-valued in the changing record company structures.
After three years in Europe, Jimmy came back to Australia to rebuild his career. He continued to tour and to record, writing with a number of different people. His growing musical family and his natural curiosity led him to explore different kinds of music, especially Soul.
Jimmy also took part in the reformation of Cold Chisel. Despite all the disagreements and 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 reconciliation.
He 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 substance abuse. He cut another album of southern music, Soul Deeper, which had a bluesier feel than its predecessor.
In 2004, Jimmy started assembling the duets he had recorded over the years. He was itching to put some new songs out and so the idea of Double Happiness began. Jimmy chose to work with people who have been an inspiration to him – Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, his old mates (John Farnham, INXS), new friends (Troy Cassar-Daley, Dallas Crane, The Living End, Roachford, Rahsaan Patterson) and those people closest to his heart – his brother, Swanee, his kids and brother-in-law, Mark Lizotte.
It’s been quite a year for Jimmy Barnes, one of Australia’s most admired singers, and it’s not slowing down any time soon. For a man who thrives on being busy, an ordered bed rest after his heart operation in early 2007 meant Jimmy had a lot of time on his hands. The songwriting floodgates opened and Jimmy wrote his first album of original material since Love and Fear seven years ago. The ensuing album, Out in the Blue, is very much a rootsy, rock album with rockabilly shuffles, powerful ballads and flat chat rock & roll. It’s a change in direction for Jimmy, signaling that he’s had time to reflect on what is most important in his life. Jimmy wrote the majority of songs alone, showing just how prolific he is as a musician, and the album also includes collaborations with close friends Tex Perkins and Nick Barker and a song written for him by Neil Finn. Said to be his best album ever, Out in the Blue features musicians Jim Moginie (Midnight Oil), Mark Punch and Chris Haigh and was produced by Nash Chambers (Kasey Chambers, Troy Cassar-Daley). All of Jimmy’s children, daughters Mahalia, E.J., and Elly-May and son Jackie, feature on the album, making it a true family affair.