Rod Willis is the man who helped steer rock icons Cold Chisel on their upward trajectory and stayed with them for 32 years, making them the biggest band in Australia. With a background as a roadie and tour manager in the UK and USA working with bands such as Savoy Brown and UFO, he knew a thing or two about the music industry and when he first laid eyes and ears on Chisel in the late seventies, he sensed that he was onto something special. His instincts proved correct.
‘Ringside’ is Rod’s new self-penned book detailing an extraordinary career in music, not only with Cold Chisel but also with Dirty Pool, the management/touring agency he set up with pals John Woodruff and Ray Hearn, which today stands as a benchmark model for an agency doing business in the entertainment world. Ringside is full of engaging anecdotes, not only from his music life but also from his larrikin childhood.
Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips had the pleasure of chatting with Rod Willis about his remarkable career and new book ‘Ringside’.
MORE ABOUT ROD WILLIS AND ‘RINGSIDE’
Rod Willis grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney, the son of a TV/film business executive, and his early days were spent on the beach surfing at Collaroy with buddies like future world champ Nat Young.
When high school came around for a reason that escapes him now, maybe watching the 1956 Aussie film ‘Smiley’ about a boy growing up in the country, he was inspired to want to work on the land. With this in mind he managed to gain access to the highly sought-after James Ruse Agricultural School which, unfortunately, was located in Sydney’s western suburbs, a long way from the beaches.
It has been claimed that his admission to this prestigious school had more to do with his father’s friend, an infamous future NSW Premier, than his scholastic ability. The new school meant he needed to move further west, eventually ending up in the leafy north shore suburb of Roseville. Here he encountered the Hamilton family who lived across the road and who, from an early age, had followed a similar path as The Bee Gees, appearing on 60’s TV kids shows like the Cabbage Quiz.
Parallel to this, and hanging over him, was a very strange home life. His mother and father had split but still maintained the facade of a married couple. The problem with this was his mother’s lover was still omnipresent, disguised as an uncle. This meant the family’s world was one of constant walking on eggshells. To add to life’s trauma, a close family acquaintance entered surreptitiously bringing sexual molestation into their family lives.
Through all of this Rod found solace in the Hamilton family across the road. Tony, the oldest boy and proficient with the guitar at 16, formed a surf band with mates from his high school and started performing at local surf dances. This all happened in a period where the phenomenon known as the Stomp was in full swing.
Attracted to the music and its by-product (read: girls), Rod tagged along helping carry their primitive musical gear which began what would turn out to being a lifelong career in the music world.
As surf music waned and the British music tsunami arrived, Rod found himself in row seven of the Sydney Stadium mesmerised by the four musicians on stage, The Beatles. This was a life changing moment that would provide a dream; a vision of something more exciting than life in the outback. The Beatles amplified a new culture and Rod emulated and followed blindly. New bands and venues were springing up and he was drawn to these sometime dangerous places as society was less tolerant of the cultural change, the long hair and strange attire.
By 1965, Rod had become frustrated – he could hear the music, read the out-of-date music magazines, see visiting bands like the Rolling Stones, but this wasn’t immersing himself in the real thing. Taking a job in remote Darwin, he managed to save enough money for either a new car or a boat passage to London which at the time was the home of fashion, music and everything that was happening in the world.
On the 28 September 1966 at 18 years of age he left his safe Sydney life and boarded an Italian liner heading for the UK. Yes, he was heading to the most exciting place in the world, but also maybe he was also fleeing his sometimes-difficult home life.
Serendipitously, his journey up the ship’s gangplank brought him face to face with one of Australia’s top bands, The Twilights, who were also travelling to London. In Rod’s mind this affirmed he had made the right decision and after six weeks of hi jinks at sea he was delivered at the white cliffs of Dover. A couple of weeks at a youth hostel in London, and a change in apparel, left him with a decision as to what to do now. A phone call to a fellow Australian passenger who now resided in a town somewhere between Liverpool and Manchester saw a bus ride to an environment straight out of Coronation Street, Preston in Lancashire. What was planned to be a stop for a month or two developed into a two year stay witnessing first-hand the changing music world. The beat groups morphed into blues, to soul, to psychedelic, to heavy rock, all in a short passage of time.
He witnessed live the Cream, an infant Rod Stewart and the emergence of Pink Floyd. Music was exploding and it was hard to keep up with its accelerated changes. For a time, he followed the mod life in Manchester and Liverpool in the emergence of what was to be known as Northern Soul.
1968 brought the summer of love to the world and things would never be the same. A journey to find his “castles in the sand” ended not in the intended Morocco, but the mystical island of Formentera in the Balearic sea off Spain along with 7000 hippies. The island’s connection to Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd’s 1969 album “More” and King Crimsons 1971’ “Island” have become legendary folklore ever since. But it was time to move, hitching a ride with a three-piece hard rock trio by the name of Little Free Rock to arrive in London in 1969, just days before Brian Jones’s death, to witness 500,000 people invade Hyde Park to see The Rolling Stones. Little were they to know that the stream of African drummers that joined The Stones for their encore of “Sympathy for the Devil’ would cross their paths shortly.
Little Free Rock had signed a deal with a record label and a power trio rock album praised by famous music journalists like John Peel was released. This led to constant touring from one end of the UK to the other and forays strangely into the Flemish country of Belgium. In between his tenure with Little Free Rock Rod would work with future supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. In October 1971, a UK tour with Fleetwood Mac arose. Filling the gaps between working with Little Free Rock would entail work with the likes of Roxy Music, King Crimson, The Byrds and even Grand Funk Railroad. Rod would stay with Little Free Rock until late 1971 witnessing the band delving into the early infancy of Afro rock.
As things with LFR faltered, four wild 20-year-old guys from Bounds Green on the outskirts of London were starting to build a name for themselves as a full tilt hard rock band. Their name was UFO and they offered Rod a job on their crew. What followed was a crazy couple of years of touring the UK and Europe, no more exemplified than by two tours to rock starved Italy in a Bentley which saw riots and mafia implications. UFO would become an icon in the heavy rock world influencing and exalted by bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard.
Exhausted Rod would take a period off the road to work on the streets of London’s high end as an illegal street trader selling bags and belts, a practice that saw him appear in Marylebone Magistrates Court on over twenty occasions.
Lured back on the road, Rod landed his dream position with legendary British blues band Savoy Brown touring the US and working his way up over 3 years to the position of Tour manager. In Canada he met a girl forming a relationship which led to marriage.
Around this time with now a wife and a child on the way, it was time for Rod to take stock of his future. In his mind he believed that he had spent enough time “shovelling the elephant shit, it was now time to be the Ringmaster”. Arriving back in Australia in early 1977, he set up an office in North Sydney and went about finding a band that could achieve his dreams.
Trolling the clubs and pubs led to frustration until his younger brother suggested he look at a young band out of Adelaide who were trying to get some traction in the big city of Sydney. In a sparse dark dingy room in Sydney’s Chinatown, in front of a few seemingly uninterested punters, he found what he was looking for. Raw, uncompromising and running against the pop culture which prevailed. His enthusiasm was soon dampened when he found that the reality was no one but him seemed to share his vision.
Finding work as an assistant in the biggest booking agency in Sydney allowed him a wage and a position whereby he could assist the band in getting gigs with bigger bands on the agencies roster. Gradually as their gigs increased a small band of ardent followers began to emerge. An astute music publisher, John Brommell, was witnessing their slow build and offered the songwriter of the group, Don Walker, a publishing contact. Rod stepped in and explained that they were after a record contract first and foremost. In a clever ruse that will go down in history, Brommell managed to convince major label Warner Music to take a chance on this band, a band once dismissed by another major as having ‘no commercial potential’.
While Rod’s employment at the agency provided a regular income and work for his band, he had major concerns on how the power of agencies nationally was troubling. They shared almost absolute control over bands and venues in an unhealthy way. Both band and their management had very little say over their live work. This unfortunately led to unethical and even illegal practices.
In frustration Rod would find two allies in John Woodruff and Ray Hearn, similar novice managers from Adelaide. Woodruff managed The Angels and Hearn managed the fledgling Flowers, soon to become ICEHOUSE. As they discussed similar concerns, they looked at the possible benefit of teaming up their management entities together. This had promise, but the realisation that without control of the live work the problem still existed. The answer was a management and agency collective; they called the company Dirty Pool.
Their introduction of venue contracts and fairer and more equitable fee arrangements changed the live landscape. The move saw their acts, in particular The Angels and Cold Chisel, suddenly become major draw cards across the country as a new wave of bands like Jo Jo Zep + The Falcons, Australian Crawl, Stars and the like added to the surge. Venues began to open across the capital cities to accommodate the demand for live music creating more opportunities for new bands to follow.
In September 1977 Cold Chisel would sign a three-album record contract with the major, Warner Music. Entering Trafalgar Studios in early 1978, Cold Chisel commenced recording their debut album produced by Peter Walker. As a prelude to the album release, the band embarked on a national tour supporting US band Foreigner. A week after the conclusion of the tour, the self-titled album hit the market.
The first single off the album, Khe Sanh, ran into immediate problems due to its lyrics and saw it banned by many stations across the country, eventually gaining a A Classification (not suitable for airplay) from the Censor. All the while the album would remain on the national charts for over 23 weeks earning the band their first Gold Album in sales. Within six months of the first album release, plans were afoot to record their second album.
‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’ was scheduled for release in February 1979. Prior to the release a support spot became available on the Rod Stewart tour of both Australia and New Zealand. ‘Breakfast’ was released to great anticipation in February 1979 with Gold sales and sitting at number 4 nationally by March. Finally, radio switched on to the fact that Cold Chisel, and a plethora of new acts like the Angels, Australian Crawl and Jo Jo Zep were now seriously threatening the mainstream. Constant touring and radio support saw crowds grow as new fans packed venues across the country.
With plans well underway for what would be ‘East’, Chisel’s third album, Rod jumped on a plane for LA to investigate interest in the US. June 1980 exploded with the release of ‘East’ and the album would spend over a year on the charts amassing sales of over 250,000, turning a pub band into a household name.
Cold Chisel owned the airwaves in Australia, but Rod’s sights were set on what was the holy grail – a US record deal. After negotiations with a number of prospective labels Elektra Records the home of The Doors, won through and a deal was signed in late 1980.
The band’s massive success had brought with it great rewards but had also changed their perception in the eyes of the industry. They still saw themselves as the hardarsed rock n roll band from Adelaide, not the latest pop sensation. This became clearly apparent when they were asked if they would appear on the annual mainstream awards, the Countdown Rock Awards in March 1981. Their appearance on the show live would leave a nation wide-eyed and incredulous as they lambasted the awards, the industry and the event sponsor in the throes of smashing up their equipment live. Fallout was immense condemnation from the industry and media alike, accolades from fans and fellow bands. Whatever, the band’s five minutes of prime real estate allowed them to put up their own billboard for free.
The following day, their double live album ‘Swingshift’ shipped Gold and debuted at #1, proving a little bit of controversy goes a long way.
Simultaneously on the other side of the Pacific, Elektra Records released ‘East’. Leading off with the single ‘My Baby’ a strange choice for a loud rock band it quickly floundered. In a rescue attempt the band arrived in LA in June for a two-month tour comprising a mixture of small club dates and major supports with Joe Walsh and Ted Nugent. Radio support was not strong, although there were pockets of genuine encouragement.
Returning to Australia, the band and management were left with a number of questions: was there a serious commitment from Elektra and did the choice of singles play a factor in confusion at radio, were they a pop act or a rock band leading to a sense of major disappointment within band ranks.
Returning to the studio in September, the band began work on their fourth studio album ‘Circus Animals’. Once again, Mark Opitz as he had done with ‘East’ took control at the desk as a more harder rock album evolved. Although this was great and a move back to a tougher edge, two songs from drummer Steve provided pop gems in ‘Forever Now’ and ‘When the War is Over’ guaranteeing all bases were covered. ‘Circus Animals’ was released in March 1982 debuting at 56 quickly soaring to number 3 in the charts.
In the meanwhile, Rod had shifted his international vision to another market – Germany the third largest record buying country in the world. Solid interest from Polydor Records evolved into a contract for Europe and the USA would have to wait.
In November 1982 Cold Chisel’s European tour opened with two sell-out shows at the famous Marquee Club in London. Paris, Holland, Denmark and Germany followed, with a major television appearance on the show ‘Rockpalast’ which was capable of beaming out over most parts of Europe. From Germany it was back to the UK and a sell-out at the prestigious London Venue in front of 1,300 punters. A curious eight shows followed supporting 70’s glam Brit rockers Slade, culminating in two sold out shows at London’s
Hammersmith Odeon. Returning home, the band headlined the Narara Festival on the NSW Central Coast with a three and a half hour set in front of over 35,000.
In early April 1983 Cold Chisel returned to Germany for 25 shows supporting Roger Chapman who had been the lead singer of 70’s UK progressive band, Family and had become a big star in his own right. The tour was a full of highs and lows – generally the crowd response was great, but things were starting to personally unravel within the band. It fell on the drummer Steve Prestwich, who was singled out fairly or unfairly. On the band’s return to Australia in June, Steve was sacked. Another drummer was drafted in but the writing was on the wall. As an antidote to the malaise that permeated, they entered the recording studio in the hope that a new studio album would be the panacea.
Personal issues continued to surface and by the 22 August 1983, Cold Chisel announced that on their 10th anniversary in October 1983 they would disband after a final tour. Steve Prestwich was reinstated on the drum stool and when tickets for the tour went on sale on 5 September, four shows were sold out in Sydney and over 20,000 tickets were sold in Melbourne. A similar pattern in sales continued across the nation. On 12 December 1983, Cold Chisel took to the stage for the last time, or was it?
With the demise of Cold Chisel as a live touring act, Rod would continue looking after their affairs and marketing their final studio album ‘Twentieth Century’ which would reach #1 in its 2nd week of release.
In 1984 Rod helped produce the ‘Last Stand’ full movie which gave cinema goers across the country a taste of the visual and sonic experience of those final Sydney shows.
By 1985 Dirty Pool had started up a Touring Company run by Rod bringing in international acts like the Stranglers, Tears For Fears, Paul Young, The Cult, Howard Jones and Alison Moyet. Also, in that year Rod would put together Cold Chisel’s first Greatest Hits package entitled ‘Radio Songs’ which ended up at #3 on the Christmas charts alongside with Jimmy Barnes’ ‘Working Class Man’ at #1 making it a Chisel / Barnes Christmas.
By January 1986 Cold Chisel sales had clicked over the milestone of 1 million sales in Australia. To coincide with their 10th anniversary in 1988, Dirty Pool made the decision that they would close its doors, it was time for everyone to go their own way and follow their own paths.
Rod continued to look after Cold Chisel and Don Walker’s interests and would assume the management of ICEHOUSE who had recently achieved a top ten single US single ‘Electric Blue’, and album sales in Australia and the US collectively over 1 million.
October 1990 saw the release of a new ICEHOUE album entitled ‘Code Blue’ in Australia and the US. There were issues from the start with the record label as expectations were for a ‘Man of Colours’ mark 2. Sales were poor in the US but it still managed credible sales in Australia and New Zealand
In 1991 Rod updated the Cold Chisel Greatest Hits package with a CD entitled ‘CHISEL’. It was an enormous success debuting at #3 and maintaining a national presence in the charts for over 50 weeks.
In 1993 Rod and ICEHOUSE parted ways and Rod went on to work on an exciting new project with Don Walker. The idea consisted of Don, Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen working together on an album project. Rod negotiated a favourable deal with PolyGram Records in Australia for the release of stunning album entitled ‘Sad But True’.
It had been over ten years since Cold Chisel has called time on their career. Due to astute marketing of their back catalogue Rod had managed to keep the Cold Chisel brand alive and well and selling, with the band remaining a staple diet of FM radio. By 1993 the back catalogue had been exhausted and the coffers were empty. Or were they. Rod was aware that maybe hidden in dusty boxes in storage there was a remote possibility that some hidden gems might have been lurking. Methodically and without the band’s knowledge, Rod unearthed a number of songs that had not previously seen daylight. He had the songs transferred to cassettes and mailed to the band members unsure of what reaction he would get. Surprisingly they loved it and in October 1994 ‘Teenage Love’ would reach #6 on the charts.
In late 1995 Rod approached Don Walker on a plane trip with the crazy suggestion of getting Cold Chisel back together. Don initially balked at the idea of a reunion but eventually came around to the idea.
In February 1996 things stated to move in a positive direction as potential songs begun to be passed amongst band members. For the next two years things would start and stop due to contractual issues as time dragged on. Eventually on the 16 October 1998 the album ‘The Last Wave of Summer’ was released, debuting at #1 and a national concert tour went on sale.
The Last Wave of Summer tour was the biggest and most successful tour in 1998 – 19 shows to over 150,000 fans. Unfortunately, old issues had once again arisen and the tour and album concluded on a sour note. Everyone went back to their own lives as the dust as it always does, settles.
Not to be deterred Rod would once again in late 2002 raised a new concept which was a catalyst enough for Cold Chisel to begin talking again. ‘Ringside’ differed greatly from the conventional concert tour set up. Rod suggested they use Elvis’s 68’ Comeback special as a blueprint. Here the band would be plum centre of the venue, the audience seated 360 degrees surrounding them in coliseum style. Initially the tour only consisted of warm up shows in Newcastle and the main dates at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. The dates were such a resounding success that a national tour was planned for late 2003 with the shows filmed and recorded and released on DVD and CD.
In September of 2009 Rod Willis would call it a day after 32 years managing Cold Chisel, he said it was ‘time’.