Electric Desert Refugees

Nate Seltenrich

Melding aboriginal rhythms of the Sahara with raw electric blues, Tinariwen spreads the rallying cry of the oppressed Tuareg people.

You are dancing barefoot on warm desert sand at dusk. The seven members of Tinariwen surround you in a broad circle, dressed in long, flowing robes in burnt shades of red and orange and brown. They grasp their glistening electric guitars so casually that of their own will the instruments point to the sky, seeking the North Star amongst millions, or tip toward the ground, detecting a water source far below the surface. Little gig amps sit on the sand, plugged into the earth itself, black audio cables slithering across the surface. Joining you in the circle are Tuareg dancers and singers, men and women, adults and children. As one you offer your voices and hearts and limbs to the heavy night air. A crimson disc creeps below the horizon; a dry breeze addresses the skin. Music distills into the energy of the atmosphere.

"Amassakoul 'n' Ténéré" from Amassakoul
"Chatma" from Amassakoul
"Chet Boghassa" from Amassakoul

Tinariwen are Tuareg tribesmen from the edge of the Sahara who play deep, spiritual desert blues -- the rhythm of African aboriginal music, the emotional current of Chicago blues, the raw power of early rock 'n' roll. In the early 1980s, severe drought drove the nomadic Tuareg into Libyan refugee camps, where they took up arms against the country's tyrannical military regime. It was here that Tinariwen formed. But local governments banned the rebel group's political lyrics, and they remained underground until moving to the Malian capital of Bamako in 1999. Today they travel the globe, playing arenas as diverse as England's massive Glastonbury Festival and the intimate theatres of downtown San Francisco. As one Tinariwen song expresses in Tamashek, the native Tuareg tongue, "If I could sing so that those in London could hear, then the whole world would hear my song".

Back in northwestern Africa, the Tuareg people remain a displaced ethnic nation of indefinite numbers, residing in a region that includes parts of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Their given name means "abandoned by God". In Tuareg terms, the Sahara is many deserts, not one, and Tinariwen is literally "the deserts". The group's full name is Taghreft Tinariwen, understood to mean "building up of countries". The hardships faced by the Tuareg -- disease, drought, famine, war, exile, ethnic cleansing, public execution -- and their pride of surviving them in solidarity course through Tinariwen's music.

The style of music Tinariwen play is called Tishoumaren, or "guitar", because the instrument is so central to the music and the image. It carriers both western and Middle Eastern influences, including Tuareg folk music and the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. It sounds timeless and new at once -- something never heard before, yet from the earth. When they formed, Tinariwen were at the forefront of the Tishoumaren movement, the first group to adapt traditional Tuareg music onto electric guitar. Since emerging from asylum they have released two full-length albums, 2001's The Radio Tisdas Sessions and 2004's Amassakoul, which features more complex arrangements and a more astute production while sacrificing nothing of the grit and grain of Tinariwen's identity. Both records are out on the World Village label, from Burbank, California.

Tinariwen's songs echo across time, resonate in a desert landscape without boundaries. Guitar riffs snake across rhythms of sandy dunes. There are no flashy solos; instead, two or three lead guitars will weave a basket-tight rhythm. Thus the rare freestyle excess, as in the closing to "Chert Boghassa", echoes with spiritual significance. A steady drone belies the more intricate workings of each song, just as a tight weave appears solid. Vocals take the form of call-and-response chanting or simple lead and chorus interaction. Even unaccompanied, the voices are highly tuneful and perform an integral role in the music. They gallop along to the hypnotic rhythm of the guitars and background percussion.

Some songs are slow and meditative, others rousing. Emotional, rowdy, and dangerous, Amassakoul's "Oualahila Ar Tesninam" is rock 'n' roll as good as any being made today. The opening of Radio Tisdas's "Zin Es Gourmeden" evokes Jimi Hendrix's playing, hammering on and off, bending strings and sustaining notes, toying with the instrument to see what kinds of sounds it can make. While Hendrix would progress into something more furious, Tinariwen linger at that level throughout the five-minute song. A tension pervades as other licks dart about, a fireworks show with no finale. Later in the record, rhythmic finger picking carriers "Bismillah," bringing to the forefront an underlying folk influence on the group's music.

Anyone with an ear to the ground of the modern music must hear Tinariwen's resistance rumbling across continents. On one wavelength, transcendent blues rock; on another, a rallying cry for oppressed Tuareg youth. The truest sign of Tinariwen's power is their ability to speak many languages at once -- to transmit universal meaning through an artifact of a specific time and place, to transform hardship into pleasure without cheapening either. This is the real building up of countries.

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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