Jimmy Barnes is the heart and soul of Australian rock & roll. After 40 years on stages of all kinds, Jimmy is an icon – his nickname “Barnesy” conjures up thoughts of rock music at an ear-splitting volume, and of soul standards given a unique reading. Jimmy has been through it all and lived to tell the tale and that has earned him a place in Australia’s heart and heartland. Along the way, he has sold more records in Australia than any other domestic rock & roll artist. Jimmy’s live shows are legendary for their intensity.
In 2016, Jimmy finally told his tale in an autobiography (Working Class Boy) that has sat doggedly at the top of the literary charts.
James Dixon Barnes of Glasgow via Adelaide was just 16 when he joined the band Cold Chisel in 1973. Raised on tough soul music and gutsy rock, Jim brought his monumental passion and a versatile vocal style to Chisel. The five-piece band quickly established themselves as a raw, bare-bones rock & roll outfit. By the time they signed with Warner Brothers in 1977 they were the most powerful live act in the heydey of Australian pub rock.
A big part of Chisel’s appeal was the fury, wit and danger that Jimmy brought to the stage every night. Fuelled by drugs and vodka, Jimmy was capable of anything on stage. As they say, at the end of the night he had left nothing on the table.
Cold Chisel released a series of classic albums including, East, Circus Animals and Twentieth Century. Many of their songs – “Khe Sanh”, “Choir Girl”, “Cheap Wine”, “You Got Nothing I Want”, “Flame Trees” – are virtually national anthems.
When Jimmy went solo in 1984 his debut album Bodyswerve topped the charts, as did all his albums for a decade. His 1986 album, For the Working Class Man, gave him a signature sound and it cemented Jimmy’s place right at the centre of this generation of Australians. They heard in his records their hopes, dreams, loves and triumphs. He spoke directly to and for them.
The hits, as they say, kept coming with Freight Train Heart, Barnestorming, Two Fires, Flesh and Wood, (all #1 debuts) and of course Soul Deep – an album of R&B classics that sold almost a million copies.
The rewards were great but the cost was phenomenal, paid in booze, drugs and an out of control lifestyle. The wildness that Jimmy brought on stage was nothing compared to what was in his head in those years.
At the top of his game, by 1993 Jimmy was burned out. He and the family moved to Europe where he concentrated on writing, playing and regrouping. These were difficult years, struggling with his career and raising a family.
The Barnes’ came back to Australia in 1996 and went back into the charts with the Best-Of set (Hits Anthology) that featured the hit single “Lover Lover” written with wife Jane. A brief Cold Chisel reunion tour and album (The Last Wave of Summer) followed in 1998.
There was a second soul album (Soul Deeper) in 2000 that marked a new beginning. But it was Jimmy’s 2005 #1 album Double Happiness which featured duets with family and friends that put him back on top and earned him his second induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
Since then he has gone from strength to strength with critically acclaimed solo albums and his take on the classic songbook. Then in 2009 Cold Chisel reformed and found the magic for 2 more albums.
Jimmy’s 2014 album 30:30 Hindsight celebrated 30 years as a solo artist and featured international artists including ‘Miami’ Steve Van Zandt, Keith Urban, and Journey alongside local chart-toppers such as Bernard Fanning, The Living End, Tina Arena, Troy Cassar-Daley and many others. The following year Jimmy road tripped through the South, down to Memphis, Tennessee where he recorded the album Soul Searchin’, the fourth in a series of soul tribute albums recorded and released over a 25-year period.
Soul Searchin’, Jimmy’s 16th studio album was yet another #1 album. No musician anywhere in the world has had a run of chart success as strong or as enduring as Jimmy Barnes has had in Australia.
Then in October 2016, Jimmy launched his first book – Working Class Boy. If a book could be rawer than Jimmy Barnes in full flight, well, this is it. It’s the harrowing story of Jimmy’s childhood in Glasgow and then in Adelaide. It’s a tale of bad love, booze, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Jimmy writes with an unfettered emotional honesty. He tells what is often a dark story with as much light and shade, humour and honesty as possible. In these vivid stories of growing up, we get a glimpse of some of the forces that turned Jimmy into such an incredible performer.
Jimmy has never been afraid to put his hand up for causes he believes in and works with a number of charities. Given his own experiences of domestic abuse and alcoholism, he has been very vocal on this subject when appropriate.
Through it all, there has been touring – across Australia with his rock band and again with a soul band, acoustic shows and dates through Europe keep him playing for months every year. It’s the wildness of it all that keeps Jimmy Barnes grounded.
“My job,” he says, “is to turn every night of the week into Saturday night for people. It’s the best job there is.”