CMJ Music Marathon: Day One: Travis vs. CMJ

Devon Powers

Day One of our coverage of the New York-based new music festival, including pit stops with Travis, the Killers, Menlo Park, and the Prosaics.


Tonight, luck would have it that I've landed tickets to see Travis, a band I've liked throughout their career and one of the few Britpop behemoths I have yet to see. The trouble? It's the first night of CMJ. Mistakenly thinking the band is part of the festival, I agree to attend the show; by the time I realize they aren't, it seems nearly impossible to back out.

And, really, why should I try? Aren't Travis CMJ material? Many a British act have made a pit stop at the festival as a way of translating their UK successes into American ones -- including Coldplay a couple of years ago, Clearlake and the 22-20s this year, and even Travis themselves, back in 2000. Why the snub? Perhaps the answer is that Travis had grown too big for their britches. Having officially "broken", there was no longer a need to launch the band on these shores.

But there is another way to think about their absence: CMJ is not for the fallen.

All of us who care about and are invested in music have a love/hate relationship with festivals like CMJ, so I won't bore you by launching into a hackneyed commerce vs. art diatribe. I will simply say, like it or not, CMJ has become a critical pit stop for indie and undiscovered musicians of all stripes. And, like it or not, it is a business, with all the opportunities, problems, and complications that carries.

But beyond the economic narrative, there's another one that sits beneath the surface of CMJ: that of the American Dream. Bands come to CMJ, now in its 23rd year, from all over the country and the world hoping that it will help them in "making it" (or maybe "making it more", for artists like the Mars Volta or the Shins, who are also playing this year). Being part of the festival is trumpeted as a type of success in and of itself -- an admission card to the wonderful world indie/college music in officio, including all its rabid, hungry, spending-prone fans. Of course, the companion to this is that some acts will fall short, but this specter of failure is in its own way necessary -- it's the foil that makes success meaningful and noticeable. We go to CMJ to hear the bands that someday soon will be inescapable, and forget, with a tear, a smile, or simply a blank look, the bands that fail to escape it.

But the festival story doesn't have a place -- or even a language -- for the "Travis Condition": the artists who (in America, anyway) explode, deflate, and then simply exist. These are artists with loving fanbases who no longer charm the media's eye. Not a complete wipeout, they are also not the picture that best illustrates the festival's potential. While there is a certain kitsch/sacred (take your pick) value to including artists long past the prime of their career (Echo and the Bunnymen or Joan Jett for instance, who are also both part of this year's activities), bands who are simply doing their thing have no place.

Scotland's Travis have never fully capitalized on the attention garnered by their international breakthrough album, 1999's The Man Who, a record which many point to as the gateway drug to America's re-addiction to British bands in the post-Oasis late '90s/early '00s. On their coattails, Coldplay, the Doves, Elbow, Starsailor, Haven, and many other of the pop-friendlier British acts took a stab at conquering the lucrative U.S. market in 2000 and 2001. But the tide, today at least, has surely quieted in that type of British rock, as has the presence of Travis themselves. Some of that has to do with the unfortunate pool accident suffered by drummer Neil Primrose in 2002, which stalled the band's career after the lackluster Invisible Band and threatened to break them up. But this year, Travis have re-emerged with the haunting 12 Memories, an album critics are already praising despite its being much darker than their previous, precious material.

Travis's continued draw, in spite of their pitfalls, earns them a two night stand New York's Beacon Theater, though outside the venue there are a considerable number of people trying to give tickets away. (Considering the $40 face value, this is an amazing thing to behold.) Still, once inside, the venue is respectably filled, with patrons who for the most part seem completely unaware of the bustling festival on the city's lower end. These Travis fans are single-minded and hopelessly devoted; they are college students and thirtysomethings and people who never regularly attend concerts; they are screaming girls (and a few boys) who adore lead singer Fran Healy especially, despite his scraggly appearance tonight and unfortunate ponytail. They are exactly what a band like Travis needs.

The band tonight is much like their musical catalogue: honest, forthcoming, and memorable. They play all their songs with the grandiosity of anthems, and for this crowd, they certainly are. Favorites like "Writing to Reach You" and "The Line is Fine" sound somewhat akimbo to newer material that is more serious (because of this, Healy feels the need to preface "Beautiful Occupation" about the war in Iraq, as "not wanting to offend anyone"), but they are all spiraling and watertight. Travis might not have CMJ, or the world, but they have a professionalism and obvious love for their music and their fans, making this huge theater feel instead like a big bear hug.

* * * *

The Killers

It's 10:15pm, the venue is already behind schedule with the showcase, and nobody cares. Instead, more and more bodies cram their way into downtown venue Don Hill's, to catch a glimpse of the buzz-worthy wunderkinds playing the ASCAP showcase tonight: the Killers, Menlo Park, and the Prosaics. All of these bands have yet to sign deals in the United States, and the excitement surrounding each, though different, is overt.

The Killers from Las Vegas, are the first of the three to take the stage, and they've accrued a gaggle of screaming retro girls at the stage's edge, who are snapping pictures and screaming like cheetahs at the four boys before them. And why not? They've certainly all the visual trappings of the bands that charm the downtown set. Mark Stoermer is the sallow-cheeked, uber-serious bassist, tall and Nordic-ly handsome; Dave Keuning has a nebulous oversized and somewhat effete mop/fro, the kind rendered noveau chic by members of the Rapture and Longwave; Ronnie Vannucci, on drums, is puppy dog adorable and just as yappy; and lead singer/keyboardist Brandon Flowers is a sharp dressed man, a compact lightning rod of sensual affectation. And when they play, these elements jive together to render a sound New Romantic meets funk, a supercharged, almost macho new wave that's as sleazy as the Vegas Strip. And this is a band that knows they've got it, and flaunts it. Flowers is all over the stage, posing for the howling, dancing, throbbing masses of us, barking out the often sex-charged lyrics ("you've got a real short skirt/ I wanna look up" he sings at one point). Keuning and Stoermer are not as physical but are no less intense, keeping the pace up with expertise. Vannucci is one of the few drummers I've seen who spends more time off his ass than on it; at the end of the show, he dramatically stands on top of his bass drum and hammers the shit out of the crash cymbals. As my first introduction into the official CMJ, I couldn't be more thrilled with my choice. Ladies and gents, this band will go places, and you would be smart to watch.

Menlo Park

If possible, England's Menlo Park were even more animated and equally talented, though maybe not as universally appealing. As they took the stage, it is clear that this band packed more drama than a Shakespeare company: ruffled collars, full brass section, velvety robes, strings, and practiced, maniacal looks. Lead singer Chris Taylor is Tiny Tim channeling John Lydon (or vice versa), cannonballing himself into the crowd like he's suffering seizures, belting out songs like crowd-pleaser "Porn Rodeo" as if it is an opera. Their music is a polka surf rock klezmer riot, swampy and devious, yet overwhelmingly jitterbug-able. Like the Coral (who they are not unlike, but their music is far more conniving and interpretable), it takes a certain appreciation for the eclectic to dig Menlo Park, but once you start digging, there are wealths to unearth. I fucking love it.

The Prosaics

The Prosaics take the crowd back to the postpunk with fiery exactness and cataclysmic rage, though their stage presence is considerably more tame than that of both of their predecessors. Singer/guitarist Andy Comer, bassist Josh Zucker and drummer Bill Kuehn (also of Rainer Maria) are all stylishly dressed in differing manifestations of skinny-tie chic; their uniformity and almost startling good looks emit a brooding severity with sharp edges, a good allegory for their sound. Rather than bandy about, this band stews in their juices, bottling their madness inside until it explodes in a spray of bass minefields, guitar shrapnel, drums like bombs. You want this turmoil to also erupt in Comer's vocals, but a problem with the sound monitors (maybe coupled with some timidity?) prevent this tonight. Still, having seen the band once before in their earliest days, they've progressed an unfathomable degree, and the potentialities of their obvious talent can't be clocked.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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