Music

The Dead Weather: Horehound

With the Dead Weather's debut, Jack White, Alison Mosshart and company craft an excellent album that delves straight to the murky, clinically depressed core of blues tradition.


The Dead Weather

Horehound

Label: Third Man
US Release Date: 2009-07-14
UK Release Date: 2009-07-13
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As if the blues weren't already dark enough. For the entirety of the Dead Weather's debut album, Horehound, Jack White -- who, in a commendable show of ego control, relegates himself to the drum stool for this, a sure-to-be successful supergroup (dirty word, I know) he somehow managed to cobble together in the downtime between fronting two of the only signs of life in today's alt-rock landscape -- Alison Mosshart and company are visibly determined to imbue an art form which is already obsessed with depression, loss, and all manner of cheerful things with even inkier shades of the human condition.

And yet, for all the stuff that could go wrong with a band that labels itself with the near redundancy "gothic blues", a band that, given its pedigree, many people will be itching to peg as a one-off, indulgent vanity project (short answer: it's not)... well, let's just say that Horehound is probably a lot closer in spirit to the music the Devil had in mind the night he signed Robert Johnson than most of the rock music we've been (patiently, very patiently) dealing with for the better part of this decade.

Horehound certainly draws inspiration from White's now well-documented obsessions with blues-rock tradition -- though while his influence is felt all over this album, it must be stressed that he's far from the primary player here, sharing songwriting credits with the rest of the band and rarely taking the mic from Mosshart's capable hands. But it equally draws from the stark atmosphere of early Nick Cave and the chilly detachment of the more goth-leaning end of post-punk, with a few vague, possibly incidental nods to industrial music, in that the guitars and keys (courtesy of both Queens of the Stone Age's Dean Fertita and the Raconteurs's Jack Lawrence) on this album are so wonderfully thick and filthy that they're often less traditional musical instruments and more hulking, grinding machines. But then, self-consciously dark tone aside, this isn't exactly the sort of stuff that would sit comfortably next to, say, Bauhaus on your next Halloween mixtape. The Dead Weather have far less to do with graveyards (though yeah, we do get the lyric "I build a house / For your bones") than they do cracked, windswept wastes, a southern gothic sound more suited to a Flannery O'Connor short story than a haunted house attraction.

The Dead Weather reveal themselves to be a unique entity early in the game, making their aims known through slow-burning opener "60 Feet Tall", a song that evolves from a solitary, distant blues riff to an outright apocalypse, White's cymbals crashing into Mosshart's banshee shrieks, Fertita's unhinged guitar playing itself out into oblivion. It's this sort of juxtaposition between eerie desolation and jagged tumult that informs much of Horehound, and it's rarely less than compelling. Part of the credit for this goes to some fascinatingly subversive songwriting. The aforementioned opening track involves a false stop that, against everything you've learned from Zeppelin over the years, doesn't transition directly into a frenetic, guitar-shredding climax (though that climax inevitably comes, because, hey, the whole thing would be pretty damned boring if it didn't); lead single "Hang You from the Heavens", despite its dirty, contagious two-chord riff, is as likely to follow Mosshart's sultry, threatening chorus with a rousing guitar break as it is with a swampy drum fill; and the band's sinister cover of Bob Dylan's "New Pony" drenches uncomfortable lines like "Come over here pony / I wanna climb up one time on you" in as much sleazy guitar fuzz as they deserve (which, naturally, is a whole hell of a lot).

Despite being almost rigidly conceptual in their mission -- which, by the time you get to the chain gang chant of the Mosshart-penned "So Far from Your Weapon", is clearly to dive directly to the murky, clinically depressed core of blues tradition -- the Dead Weather turn out a surprisingly full-bodied, unpredictable album with Horehound. Anyone claiming to have been expecting a distorted White singing (and dementedly choking) over the haunted dub keyboards of standout "I Cut Like a Buffalo", or the near-rap vocals of vaguely incestuous, funk-driven second single "Treat Me Like Your Mother" are simply not being honest. And even when the album begins to regurgitate itself and skirts a bit too close to the sort of doom and gloom indigenous to death metal (late album track "No Hassle Night", despite being perfectly listenable, is guilty on both counts), the desolate, volatile sonic world it creates is always as disturbing as it is fascinating -- which, being that it can get pretty damn disturbing, is assuredly a good thing.

With all four of the musicians who comprise the Dead Weather recording Horehound in the time between their still very profitable day jobs (and quickly, at that), it's unfortunate that this band's chances of soldiering on to a sophomore effort are likely as grim as their actual songs. Which is an enormous shame, because while the Dead Weather might not necessarily surpass the accomplishments of its impressive pedigree, it's certainly more uncompromising, brutal, menacing, honest. And if those aren't the exact qualities society latched onto when they heard that first 12-bar chord progression ring out from the swamps of the deep south and branded it the Devil's music, then let the good Lord strike me down right where I stand.

The Dead Weather - Treat Me Like Your Mother

8

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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