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What if I tried to listen to all my music - in order? Every song, on every album, by every artist - in chronological order. First off, I h...

Friday, June 16, 2017

AC/DC

I could talk about AC/DC all day. They aren't my favorite band in the world, maybe not even top 10, but I find them very likable, fun, and consistent. They ARE Hard rock. They virtually define that genre, and I'm not sure I'd want to categorize them otherwise as heavy metal, as some have. Perhaps they said it best themselves: high-voltage rock and roll. I enjoy listening to them greatly, if not absolutely. They might be slightly faulted for continuing to produce material with mixed results after their prime. They are not exactly in sing-along territory; I can sing along with AC/DC for about five seconds before my throat starts bleeding and I nearly pass out. Yet I never grew weary of hearing their ~300 discreet songs in a row, chronologically. And I don't think I ever will get tired of hearing them.

I'm not trying to pimp my own musical projects in every blog post, but we (Perverse Osmosis) did cover "TNT," with the words changed to be about "D&D." When the rhythm sections holds it down for Angus to play his solo in "TNT" it's nothing less than a Perfect Rock Moment. Is this the most consistent rhythm section in rock (despite the occasional line-up change)? They also deserve every bit of fame for their legendary double-guitar assault. My band also toyed with playing "Rocker," which is probably my favorite AC/DC song and would have made a lot of sense for us. Live versions seem to differ from the album version, but it's one of their catchiest and fastest. It frequently ended their shows toward the end of the earlier Bonn Scott era of AC/DC (before he dies and is replaced with Brian Johnson), so it's nice when a band recognize that your favorite song is one of their best. "Let There be Rock" is just about the only other one that fast, but it drives me crazy when he says, "Let there be drums" and the drums don't do anything, and he says, "Let there be guitar" and there is literally no guitar. Madness. Still - it's another fast one, and it is featured in the video game Rock Band 2! The only other time I heard them play that fast was on an excellent live cover of Them's "Baby, Please Don't Go" on their 74 Jalibreak EP.

The first AC/DC song I ever heard was definitely "Big Balls."


I probably heard it on Dr. Demento or some other silly radio show when I was young. It would be many years later before I even realized it was an AC/DC song. It was hilarious to met at the time, of course, but the music itself didn't make much of an impression. It's a novelty song after all, and AC/DC is not afraid of stooping to some crassness. Still, it is hardly representative of their overall sound. It sticks out a bit, actually.

The first AC/DC album I ever owned was The Razor's Edge. That only partially explains my fondness for the album, which is generally heralded as a return to form after some missteps in the mid-80s. It wasn't the first CD I ever got and it wasn't the second. However, I'm pretty sure it was my 3rd, right after The Wall and the Twin Peaks Soundtrack. I remember wanting to go see them that year (1990, so I was 14 - wow) and being disallowed because of some incidents with "festival seating." (And in defense of my parents' prohibition, there was a well-publicized incident with multiple fatalities at an AC/DC concert in 1991). At the time, I knew they'd been around for awhile, but I could hardly comprehend that it was their 11th studio album; ultimately they recorded 15. I next got the subsequent live album (1992's simply titled Live), and I was first introduced to classic stand-out tracks like "Highway to Hell," "High Voltage," and "The Jack,"

It was still some time before I acquired my beloved vinyl copy of Highway to Hell, their big breakthrough album produced by king-maker Mutt Lange, later of Shania Twain fame! Besides the incomparable title track there's a bunch of good ones, including underappreciated favorite "Shot Down in Flames" and the controversial "Night Prowler."

I may have gotten Back in Black, another powerhouse produced by Lange, for a penny via BMG. Every song on that album is good, so it well-deserves the honor of being the second-highest-selling album in history. It fits in nicely well-behind Thriller and just ahead of Dark Side of the Moon, making it THE best selling rock album of all time To put the massive success of that album in perspective: Not only did it go to No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart, as a result of the ensuing hysteria AC/DC was the first band since The Beatles to have four albums in the British Top 100 simultaneously, since three previous albums all re-entered the charts right after Back in Black was released! That includes If You Want Blood You've Got It, their first live album released in 1978, right after Powerage, in-lieu of a greatest hits package; it bucks the double-album trend of the 70s and gives just 10 straight-forward tracks. I appreciate that it's an actual concert in order, as opposed to the random collection we get on their later live albums. It's worth noting that while they put out a couple live albums and two box sets, a true hits collection has never materialized to this day. There have been multiple video collections. I'm sure a newly packaged music collection is in the works now that the band has finally wound down.   

I didn't get really get seeped in the band until some time after 1994, when I got a nicely packaged, digitally remastered version of Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap, originally released in 1981 as they start to peek. Then I was sold. EVERY song on the album is great. It's still stunning to realize that this was only their second album, at the start of a long run. (It might be the third album if we are counting from Australia; the two box sets they released later in their career do a fine job of filling in gaps that exists between American, Australian, and other versions of their albums and singles.) It's a 5-star, perfectly constructed album with a clear beginning, middle, and end - much more than the first couple collections of songs they offered the world. The rarely seen contemplation of "Ride On" seems like the album's final track, but they don't let you get away that easily; they come back for one more: "Squealer." It's not about a pig. I'm not really OK with "Squealer," but let's start over at the beginning.

They release High Voltage way back in 1975, and it's a testament to their songwriting that many of those songs end up classics that still get played live (despite originally mixed reviews). It was recorded in only 10 days - and that raw urgency is palpable. Still, that first album has a bit more of a warm 70s feel on the production. It's great. Before this they were apparently a bit of a glam band; Angus Young's ubiquitous school-girl uniform is a holdover from this earlier period when everyone was in costume. Their first international releases combines their first and second albums, leaning more on the hard-rock stuff than the earlier glammier stuff. It's also weird that there is pretty much only one AC/DC song with anything other than drums, guitar, bass, and vocals- and it is their opening salvo into the word. Their first song "It's a Long Way to the Top" has got bagpipes (the Young brothers came to Australia from Scotland). Still a great song. Singer Bonn Scott is the one playing the bagpipes and he did so live too, but begrudgingly. The song works so well as a clear opening statement - and it has aged well too.

After the mammoth success of Back in Black and it's accessible singles like "You Shook Me All Night Long," the band parts ways with their pop producer in order to regain some of the rawness of their early albums- but something goes horribly awry. The decline begins ever so slightly with 1981's For Those About To Rock We Salute You. I'm not going to argue with the awesomeness of the title track, and listening to it again for this project got my six year old daughter into it (because: cannons). However, there's not much else on the album to sink your teeth into, and 1983's self-produced Flick of the Switch is even more forgettable. There were inevitably band tensions and substance abuse problems during this era leading to some line-up changes, but they do soldier on. Again: this stellar rhythm section somehow remains one of the most steady and consistent in rock, even when the players change. And while Flick is known for it's striped-down and dry production, their next album, Fly on the Wall might be the worst, particularly because of the irritating shimmer and other bad effects on the vocals that make it hard to discern the words. The drums also sound 80s shitty. AllMusic says it "continue's AC/DC's descent into cookie-cutter mediocrity, with the leering humor of past glories seeming forced and uninspired, and the the music remaining somewhat underdeveloped and directionless." Ouch! Harsh, but not inaccurate. The album cover is awful too, but People magazine selecting it as the best album of 1985 is all you really need to know to confirm that is is a shitty album from a great band. The only two good tracks "Shake Your Foundations" and the infamous "Sink the Pink" reemerge on the weird little album Who Made Who. It's simply the soundtrack to Steven King's Maximum Override, with the notable title tracks and the addition of a couple of appreciable instrumental numbers. This was also the period when Richard Ramirez killed some people while he was wearing an AC/DC shirt and allegedly inspired by "Night Prowler." Despite the bad press and accusations of devil worshiping, the song is clearly about a guy sneaking into his girlfriend's bedroom at night for some play. 1988's Blow Up Your Video is a little better, and shows them adapting well in the music video era.

Everything got better again on  The Razor's Edge, when they regained their, um, edge, and with it international success. There might be some light effects still on drums and vocals, but the guitars sound better than ever. Are they talking about the Somerset Maugham book? It's probably a mutual reference to the same concept of imposing doom on the horizon. Then there's that live album where they seem to play to massive, enthralled crowds. For example:


Here's 60,000 people in Argentina dancing and singing "Highway to Hell" even more recently; Live at River Plate is their other official live album 20 years later.

But then things start to slow down a bit. Ballbreaker is the album on which they undeniably take their foot off the gas a bit. It's a rare misstep for super-star producer Rick Rubin, who does no favors for the band here and apparently did not get along with them. (Yes, Slayer, the Beastie Boys, Tom Pettty, and others were done wonders by Rubin, but people forget that he ruined The Dixie Chicks.) Then Stiff Upper Lift (2000) is better, but begins to teeter on the edge of self-parody. Eight years later, their largest gap ever between albums, Black Ice (2008) is not bad at all. The title track and "Rock n Roll Train" captures some of the fun of their earlier tracks, but despite effective production from alt-rock legend Brendan O'Brien, the album is inconsistent, crammed with filler, and good but just no longer impressive. And we shouldn't forget that hard copies were available exclusively at WalMart; WalMart and random trucks that drove around NYC and LA blaring AC/DC and setting up pop-up shops. It sold very well both here and abroad. After that the Iron Man 2 soundtrack comes up, and like their other soundtrack album is all previously released tracks. And then in 2014, after founder Malcolm Young's retirement and during drummer Phil Rudd's serious legal problems, they record their final album, Rock or Bust. It's the only one without Malcolm and it's their shortest album (35 mins.). As I listened to "Emission Control" I was ready to dub it their worst song ever- even as it turns out to be the last on the album and of their career. In fairness, it is again produced by Brendan O'Brien, Angus and Malcolm still did all the songwriting, and it was generally received well by critics, particularly after the unusually long wait after the previous album. However, in one interview before the album Johnson said "We're going to pick up guitars, have a plonk and see if anybody has got any tunes or ideas. If anything happens we'll record it." OK. But in another interview Angus claims it is largely constructed of previous albums' leavings. That's what it sounds like. I find it decent enough rock, but uninspired. "Play Ball" gets played by MLB, but it's not enough to save the album. The drummer just didn't make the video shoot for "Rock or Bust." Angus does this thing where, as an early innovator of the wireless guitar (and the subsequently possible stage antics), he would use the wireless device in the studio(!) because of an appreciation for that sound tone. Weird enough, but by this album they don't make that device from the 70s anymore, so some techy fan recreates him one- and he uses it on the album. They do try to tour for their 40th Anniversary, an impressive feat, but first they replaced Malcolm with his nephew, then get a new drummer, and then finally Johnson has to bow out as singer due to impending hearing loss; Axl Roses finishes the tour off as the guest vocalist. Longtime bassist Cliff Williams called the band "a changed animal" and then retired himself, leaving essentially just Angus still standing. And I bet he will continue to drag this beast around as long as he can. I never saw them live; and I never will.         

The penultimate thing I listened to was their second box set, Backtracks (still no greatest hits collection though). From a strictly chronological perspective it might have made more sense to listen to this first as a sort of foreshadowing, but it worked well as a review. And it helped clear the slightly bitter taste of the last few albums from my musical palette.

The very last thing I listened to was a semi-legitimate live album called The Very Best Of AC/DC - Hot as Hell- Broadcasting Live, Vol 1. I've never seen a hard copy, but it seems to be available via lots of different streaming services. One of the shows recorded and presented unadulterated in its entirety is Live at the local "Towson State College" - date unknown. But it is with Bonn and Towson became a university in 1976, so it is from right around then. It's a great set that captures the raw energy of their live performances, all the more so because of the lack of editing, rearranging of song orders, or any kinda of effect or filter on the recording. It's loud and trebley, but it seems to capture really being there even more aptly then their official releases. It was great to hear them rip through the same set twice, and teasing the security for hassling people. It's easy to see how the band went on to be rock legends.

A few bonus take-aways:

* The band is apparently known colloquially as "Acca Dacca" in Australia. Really? I'm going to need that confirmed by a real Australian.

* The bell heard on "Hells Bells" is the same custom job played at concerts and produced upon request by a foundry when the band couldn't get the sound they wanted from any church bells.

* When they toured with Black Sabbath in 1977 Geezer Butler (ie. the gentle hippie in the metal band) pulled a knife on Malcolm Young amidst rising tensions between the bands, although apparently Bonn and Ozzy got on just fine.

* According to the band themselves, in 1990 "Mistress for Christmas" was written about Donald Trump and his well-publicized holiday-time philandering. Hard stop.







1 comment:

  1. I was just reading a bunch about Sabbath, and Butler claims he pulled out a switchblade comb and Young thought it was a knife, leading to confrontation. Good times, undoubtedly.

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