Ringside, by Rod Willis

Another fascinating memoir of life backstage in the Australian rock biz, this one by the long time manager of Cold Chisel. I devoured it in a single Sunday sitting.

Actually, I think this book has been a bit mislabelled – it’s a lot more than the story of Cold Chisel.

I’d called it a rock opera in three acts, each of which is about 100 pages long.

The first act is about an Aussie kid growing up on Sydney’s northern beaches in a somewhat unusual family situation, who at the age of 18 after making some money in the Northern Territory heads off to England (at least partly to avoid the draft) and falls into roadie-ing just as the British music scene is exploding. This in itself is an amazing read, worth the price of entry alone.

The second act sees our hero return to Sydney 10 years later with no money, a pregnant wife, and a set of backstage skills, just as the Australian pubs and clubs circuit is exploding with local talent. Deciding to set a path into band management, he chances on a South Australian band playing at Chequers.

A chat with Don Walker, then the rest of the band in a dingy Kings Cross hotel room, and he becomes the manager of Cold Chisel. Legendary songs, gigs, albums, fights, frustrated attempts to crack overseas markets, and the Countdown meltdown follow until the band calls it quits six years later, leaving Rod to build up the Dirty Pool management agency he’d co-formed.

In the third act, though, Rod never quite leaves Cold Chisel. There’s a greatest hits album, solo deals, back catalogue deals, new collaborations, live concert recordings, getting the band back together after 10 years to record some new and old songs, and, finally, a full-on reunion.

All this while Rod is managing other artists, arranging overseas tours, duelling with Gudinski (the man who appears in more Oz rock bios than any other, including his own) and dealing with family, as one does.

By 1998, a tour is locked in with a secret warm-up gig at Fanny’s nightclub in Newcastle, where I’d been “artistic director” (ahem) 10 years before. The tour is the biggest and most successful in Australia that year, an album goes double platinum, and the back catalogue is selling stronger than ever.

In 2003, there’s a final intimate concert tour that produces a two-CD set and a DVD and by 2009 the 32 year long saga of Rod and Chisel comes to an end.

Now, if you think I’ve given away too much of what’s in the book, I assure you I haven’t even come close. Each of the three acts is packed so full of drama, in such well written detail and with such colour and verve, you will be gobsmacked, even if you’re not into Cold Chisel.

This is our social history, as much as anything, and Rod’s book is up there with the great accounts of the times, seen through the lens of a real player, the manager of a key band in Australia’s musical history.

I can’t wait to read it again.

Highly recommended.

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