Music

No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones

Michael Patrick Brady

When the baby boomers finally relinquish control of pop culture, who will replace their sacred cows on the perennial 'best bands ever' lists?

This past Christmas season, American Express Financial Services unleashed a commercial aimed to tug at the well-plucked heartstrings of our nation's most self-indulgent and self-centered generation. "You're the generation that gave new meaning to the meaningful relationship," intones the narrator, as we watch faux 8mm footage of youthful baby boomers cavorting around a VW minibus. To boomers, it's a pleasant warm feeling as they gear up to engorge themselves on holiday gifts from the Sharper Image and Brookstone; to the rest of us, it's yet another reminder that in spite of all the illusory inroads youth culture makes every year, they're still on the top of the cultural totem pole.

The American Express advertisement is just one of the many navel-gazing pat-on-the-back love letters that baby boomers send to themselves to remind themselves that everything was better when they were young: the relationships, the culture, and most certainly the music. It'd be far more infuriating for me if I wasn't secretly consoled by the fact that someday every single member of that demographic will be dead. It's going to be far more of a shock than I think a lot of us realize. We live in the world the boomers built (or more accurately, that the World War II generation built and the boomers re-branded). We all know the saying "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" -- but what do you do when all the Romans are gone? The answer: You wander around like aimless Visigoths, marveling at the improbable structures they left behind, trying to figure them out for yourself, and ultimately demolishing them out of frustration.

Boomers will leave us plenty of confusing artifacts to ponder and smash. One of the most prominent artifacts of the fallen Boomer Empire will be the many "greatest of all time" lists that have littered the glossier magazines of their epoch. These features appear almost randomly, without any discernible pattern, to remind the populace that yes, the Beatles are still the greatest band of all time and have been since they shook their mops for the reporters at JFK airport in February 1964. The driving factor behind all of these "Greatest of All Time" lists is validation, not of the artists in question but of those who produce the lists and those who consume them. These lists are almost always accompanied by breathless prologues describing the arduous task of judging and ranking each entry, the meticulous formulas derived to accurately weigh the artists against one another. "There was a horse race," Rolling Stone editor Joe Levy told USA Today in 2003 when Sgt. Peppers took the top spot. "Early on, any numbers of albums in the top 10 were in the lead," Levy continues, "The final result is no shock, but there's a reason for that. The Beatles, after all, were the most important and innovative rock group in the world." Well, it's a good thing we made it official with all these numbers! If you think Levy is speaking off the cuff, USA Today is quick to note that the accounting firm of Ernst & Young devised a point system to weight votes for 1,600 submitted titles. Votes were provided by musicians, critics, historians and key industry figures. This is hard work, people! It's all very scientific and mathematical, you wouldn't understand!

All of this gives the whole process the air of authority necessary to perpetuate the symbiotic relationship between the critics who produce these lists and the needy audience who consumes them. The aging audience for these lists is growing insecure about their own status in society, fearful that when they're finally gone that the kids won't appreciate what they left behind. Most of all, they're hungry for someone to come along and remind them that they are, in fact, wicked cool. Look upon their favorite albums, ye children, and despair! The boomers treat the lists with reverence, as they affirm the generational self-image, which in turn strengthens the perceived authority of the list makers who can then congratulate one another on a job well done. The boomers keep their subscriptions to Rolling Stone current, ignoring the fact that it became corporate and irrelevant right along with them.

The lists are made by baby boomers for baby boomers and almost inevitably feature baby boomer bands in their upper ranks. "Let the children have their year-end lists!" you can almost hear them saying. "Their number one isn't even in the top 500 of all time!" They'll toss one or two contemporary bands in to show they're hip, but for most of the readers and writers of these things, music crystallized in the late 1960s, and we'll be chewing the rubbery fruits of classic rock radio for the rest of eternity.

The thing is, we won't. Perennially the Beatles are first and the Rolling Stones are second on all these lists (which must really piss Mick off as he carts his skeleton up on stage for his millionth live show), and for just about everyone alive today, it's hard to imagine a world where this is not the case, where these two talented, important bands are not always recognized as such. And were the "greatest of all time" lists based on something other than the collective insecurities of an aging and doomed generation, they just might have been. But someday the Roman Empire will fall, taking the Beatles and the Rolling Stones with them. When the boomers are no longer the economically and culturally dominant generation, they won't be running the magazines nor will they be buying them. And the new list readers aren't going to spend their inheritances on magazines that tell them how great their grandfather's favorite band was; they're going to want to feel the warm, reassuring validation for themselves. The new list makers will want it as well, as they need to create that feeling for the new generation so they themselves don't look like out-of-touch old fogies.

The real tragedy is that the generation that takes over won't do the right thing. Presented with a tabula rasa made up of smooth boomer gravestones, the first thing they'll do is inscribe a big number one on it and set about discussing who should take the spot. The idea of list-making has been engrained in the business of music criticism, and all the new media ventures have already fallen in line. With the advent of the Internet and, more recently, blogs, it seemed as if there might be a movement toward more personal and less market-driven forms of music writing. Instead, many have done just the opposite, clinging to the accepted forms and styles in an attempt to appear credible. PopMatters had its own foray into this genre, the 2003 feature "100 From 1977-2003," which chronicles the best songs everyone already knows about. Pitchfork has had two best-of-the-'90s lists; the second one came about not because some wayward time traveler decisively altered the musical landscape of the 1990s, but because the staff had decided the artists on their first list weren't "cool" enough.

With no hope of banishing these greatest of all time lists to the past, we must look forward at the soul-numbing options for the next generation's new number one. By 2025, I predict the Beatles will sag slightly, perhaps never out of the top 10, but far enough to cause a commotion. Magazines will clamor to be the first to address the new power demographic that grew up listening to bands of the 1980s and 1990s. Someone has to take the spot -- so who are the top contenders? I have my thoughts, but rather than present them as a list, I'll use a far more egalitarian method: odds making.

Any "Indie" Band (1000 to 1):
If you started reading this paragraph expecting to see names like the Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, please seek out a licensed psychologist to deal with your problems. Don't get all upset that someone is questioning the quality of your favorite bands -- you should realize by now that it's not about that. As good as these bands may or may not be, and no matter how many mall-boutique soundtracks they appear on, they are not "consensus builders." For every person who adores bands like these, four others will be completely perplexed by them. If you doubt me, go look up the WB network's Pepsi Smash! Concert that featured Interpol along side such pop darlings as Chingy and Michelle Branch. They may as well have performed a cover of "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other."

Radiohead (30 to 1):
The band certainly has the career trajectory down to follow the Beatles: a group of English rockers who started off making mainstream pop music and then digressed into bouts of ludicrous experimentation. The thing is, the Beatles never made a whole album of "Revolution #9," while Radiohead has been indulging their electro-fantasy for the last few LPs. Pleasant memories of OK Computer will get them high on the list, but they're probably not number one material.

Jay-Z (20 to 1):
Though you might expect Tupac and B.I.G. to rank highly, the two are so inexorably linked that they practically cancel each other out. To choose one and not the other would be a problem, so they'll sit unassumingly near the middle of the future list, no more than three spots apart. Of all the big, current rap artists, Jay-Z should have the best shot at number one but will still be ranked lower than a bunch of rock acts and Eminem. Em is no Pat Boone, but he's not Jay-Z either.

Nirvana (15 to 1):
Somewhere between the adolescent fumbling of Bleach and the adolescent temper tantrum of In Utero, Nirvana added distortion to a song Black Francis wrote three years earlier and became famous. That's oversimplifying things a bit, but a myriad of factors from Kurt's less than idyllic death to the ever-diminishing reputation of the grunge era, will prevent them from grabbing the top spot. The parallels are there (Kurt as the Lennon-martyr, Courtney as Yoko, Foo Fighters as Wings), but it's not in the cards. Pearl Jam would make a better case, but who cares about Pearl Jam anymore?

Dave Matthews Band (10 to 1): Dave Matthews is the man that made it okay for teenagers to listen to Adult Contemporary, and he will be rewarded for it. For a long time, kids wouldn't be caught dead listening to willowy, lilting acoustic Lillith Fair for men stuff. Dave changed all that and has a legion of pooka-shell wearing fans ready to inflate his actual importance and relevance. And you can bet these Dave-slaves are going to be in the high-income bracket that makes magazine ad-salesmen wet themselves. This is a complicated entry however, as I'm also giving 10 to 1 odds that he rechristens himself "The Dave Matthews Orchestra" and finally embraces his instrumental smooth jazz impulses. Only time will tell.

U2 (2 to 1):
Without a doubt the odds on favorite. Spanning two decades, U2 is the easy populist choice, satisfying those who grew up with War as well as those who grew up with All That You Can't Leave Behind. John Lennon sure sang a lot about how great the world would be, but the best he could offer was a "bed-in." He looks like a lazy punter next to Bono, who is jetting all over the world with heads of state and impoverished children. U2 is the only band with their own iPod, a marketing coup that will endear them to an even younger generation of music fans. They'll almost certainly take the number one spot by 2025, at which point Casey Kasem will be remembered as a tin-eared xenophobe for his less than prescient summation that nobody would give a shit about "these guys" -- the final nail in the boomer coffin.

That's where we're headed, people. It's a long, bleak future ahead of us. All we can do is hope that we teach our children better so when we die, they appropriately desecrate everything we stood for and believed in, not just the content but the very forms that hold it. It's the only way the cycle will be broken and some modicum of meaningful discourse in what defines great music can begin.

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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