[7 June 2011]
During AC/DC’s promotional tour for their 1986 album Who Made Who, an interviewer snarkily asks: “Some people have accused AC/DC of making the same album 13 times. What do you say to that?” Lead singer Brian Johnson interjects: “Well, I take issue with that. We have now made the same album actually 14 times.”
This statement distills AC/DC’s working-class sensibility that music should be raucous, enjoyable, and made often. Concerns about originality are at best secondary and academic. This ethic particularly defines the Bon Scott Years—1974-1979, before the band wrote movie soundtracks, made music videos, and became ubiquitous over commercial airwaves.
Let There Be Rock pays testimony to this period by filming the band’s 1979 Highway to Hell tour, Bon Scott’s last one before he died. Shot by two relative obscure French filmmakers, the film’s austere style translates the AC/DC aesthetic and attitude well. It doesn’t even begin with the band, but shows roadies breaking-down and building the stage. We watch them eating dinner and toasting one another, as well as playing soccer on a litter-strewn concert floor.
Labor, interestingly, opens and weaves itself throughout the film. The normally effaced work by roadies must be highlighted since it only marginally differs from that of the band. Positions can easily be reversed, as is suggested by Bon Scott’s recollection of becoming the band’s singer: “I was the band’s chauffer in Australia. And I would drive them around from hotel to hotel and to the gig and to the hotel. These guys were looking for a singer, and I said I could sing, give me a tryout, and I got the job. So I went from being chauffer to singer.”
Far from an escape from work to some idealized world of art and music, the band continuously emphasizes how music provides less alienating working conditions but work nonetheless. Cliff Williams succinctly summarizes the band’s attitude: “The best job I ever had.”
The band’s sound reflects a working-class ethic of making more with less. Simple power chords repetitively churned out define their signature style. It’s the sound of the conveyor belt, the assembly line, the time clock, the factory whistle, the endless mechanical rhythms that mold blue-collar existence into sweat, exhaustion, and profanity turned against itself. AC/DC revitalizes these rhythms and noises through their music, unleashing and claiming the vitality that capitalism normally disciplines and harnesses for the benefits of the bosses at the expense of the workers.
As Phil Rudd notes, “There’s lots of strength between Malcolm, Cliff, and I on stage. And that’s the most important thing.”
This strength of simplicity is best seen in Angus Young’s solo for “Bad Boy Boogie”. In a fury of sweat and head-banging, he attacks the guitar, playing one note—the rhythm steady yet extracting different harmonics with each swipe. The band accents the rhythm while Angus’ manic playing standouts. This is the strange self-effacement of Young.
Although Young plays lead guitar, his solos remain firmly embedded within the songs. Even with his spastic outbursts, they remain momentary. The band quickly kicks in after its slight disruption. This is quite miraculous during the time of ‘70s arena rock’s masturbatory, bloated solos from bands like Deep Purple, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and, the worst habitual offender, Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same serves as an interesting contrast to Let There Be Rock. Nearly twice as long as AC/DC’s film, The Song Remains the Same indulges in endless camera tricks of double exposure and negatives, of bizarre narrative sequences that have Robert Plant climbing a tower as a knight and Jimmy Page practicing suspect demonic rituals. Solos run no less than ten minutes.
Let There Be Rock, on the other hand, simply shows AC/DC playing their music with an occasional patches of drunken interviews as each band member semi-coherently speaks from his bunk on the tour bus. With the last song, the film freeze frames with Bon on stage and ends. Tellingly, at the film’s opening we see a roadie in a Kiss t-shirt. We can’t tell if he belongs to the Kiss entourage or AC/DC’s, but the very mention of Kiss suggests elaborate stage shows, mass commercial appeal, and a shower of ancillary merchandise like lunch boxers, dolls, and stickers that remain far beyond the orbit of AC/DC’s world.
Finally, the lyrics further suggest the release of repressed blue collar desires. Bon sings in “Sin City”: “Poor man last, rich man first/ Lamborghinis, caviar/ Dry martinis, Shangra-la/ I’ve got a burning feeling/ Deep inside of me/ It’s a yearning/ But, I’m gonna’ set it free.” Of course, this is what rock ‘n’ roll is about: releasing the repressed anger, sexuality, and desire.
Elvis unleashed this with his hips and Jimi Hendrix did the same by burning his guitar under a hail of feedback. But as AC/DC would be the first to claim, their act isn’t about originality, after all. It’s about fun and temporarily turning over the drudgery of everyday life to reclaim the passion and desires that are all-too-commonly extinguished in the process.
Yet this release comes at a price: namely, that of misogyny. The objectification and attempted mastery over women remains a common theme throughout the band’s music. “The Girl’s Got Rhythm” celebrates a woman’s sexual ability: “Wearing dresses so tight/ And looking dynamite/ I like to pull me out/ No doubt I can’t live without it.” “The Jack” serves as a not so subtle metaphor for the clap: “All the cards were comin’/from the bottom of the pack/ And if I knew what she was dealin’ out/ I’d have dealt it back.”
Yet the song also suggests a threatening power that this woman possesses beyond venereal disease: “She’d play them fast/ And she’d play them hard/ She could close her eyes/ And feel every card.” Her mastery over the cards becomes conflated with disease, the one obscured by the other. So even within the attempted framework of sexual control and prowess within the lyrics, there remains a lurking sense of fear and anxiety that is displaced upon women to obscure the speaker’s vulnerabilities.
I hear that there are loads of bonus features on the collector’s edition of the DVD, but since Warner Bros. only sent me the regular edition, I can’t comment on them. This somehow feels appropriate: receiving the barebones DVD that doesn’t even have chapter breaks but divisions by songs. Bonus features strike me as beside the point. Who cares to hear endless talking heads recount the influence and importance of the band?
The movie begs to simply be played and enjoyed. We can assess quality later on when speaking with co-workers as we fall back into the monotony of waiting tables, scanning items, facing shelves, keystroking data, answering phones, changing tires, emptying garbage, folding sheets, splicing wire. But for the moment: Let There Be Rock.