Editor's Choice

Class consumers

Yves Smith noted a WSJ article reporting diminishing retail sales and heralding the new austerity in American consumers. This tidbit didn't quite fit the frame: "A cashier at Target in Los Angeles checks the authenticity of $100 bills." Counterfeiting is not exactly the act of an austere, frugal consumer, though it may be the act of debt-starved one.

Zero Hedge unleashed a long analysis of "the stratified American consumer" last weekend, making the useful point that the way the designation "American consumer" is thrown around tends to conceal the fact that it is not a homogeneous group. Statements like "Major retailers reported that American consumers are continuing to hunker down" from the WSJ article are not especially useful, because it is extrapolating a universal mental framework from aggregate macro data. (The same problem arises when a negative savings rate is extrapolated into "all Americans are spendthrifts," a rhetorically tempting logical leap I've certainly been guilty of.) Zero Hedge:

A drill down of disposable net income (after tax) and net worth, demonstrates why any discussion of "generic" consumers should be much more properly phrased as an observation of the "Wealthy" and "Everyone else". The disposable income difference between the richest 10% and even the next richest decile is staggering: a 3x order of magnitude....

While 10% of the population collects 40% of disposable income, it represents 57% of net worth! This is an impressive conclusion: on a lowest common denominator, the Net Worth variance between the 10% of the population that make up the wealthy and the 50% that comprise the middle class is over 8x! No wonder the aspirational consumer was the most vibrant retail category at the peak of the bubble: if the middle class can not accumulate 8x the net worth it needs to migrate into the top decile, it can at least dress like it. Unfortunately, it did these purchases on credit and is now paying for it (or not).

The upshot of this analysis is not surprising, but worth reiterating: that the data trends tracked regarding consumption reveal consumerism as a middle-class phenomenon driven probably by status envy of the upper-middle class for the upper-upper class. That the gap is widening means that the consumers now discovering austerity aren't liking it very much and that there is no paradigm shift to a culture of maximum utility extraction. Also worth noting: The lower classes (the bottom 40% who consume 12% of what's consumed in America) are statistically and economically irrelevant. I wonder if there is a social corollary to that -- beneath a certain income point, one's subsistence-style consumption becomes anonymous. The thought inspires in me a classic middle-class fantasy of the escape into squalor, a la the George Orwell of Down and Out in London and Paris: the dream that subsistence living is automatically authentic, and this authenticity compensates for the misery of relative deprivation.

The conclusions drawn in the Zero Hedge post seem ominous: The recession has hurt the lower and middle classes more than the wealthy, and has merely increased the wealthy's advantage. Calls for a consumer-led recovery will draw on their increased spending power, and when that spending shows up in the data it will mask the fact that more people in America are making do with less -- suffering the new frugality at the conspicuous spenders' expense.

Is it safe to say that the wealthy have managed to game the system yet again and avoided a significant loss of wealth, while maintaining sufficient access to credit? If in fact that is the case, a case could be made for a consumer lead-recovery, granted one that is massively skewed to the 10% of the population which consumes 42% in the US.

At that point, all the talk of the era of frugality will be over, even though more of us will be living it. What the Zero Hedge scenario means, as some others have remarked (now I can't find the links, grr), the U.S. will become more like Brazil -- a wealthy elite, with a monopoly on the social power that comes from the power to spend in a consumer society, living in gated communities with elaborate collections of luxury goods, with bodyguards for their children and so on, while the rest of the population is increasingly impoverished.

It reminds me of Baudelaire's The Eyes of the Poor, the poor family staring in at the lovers in their leisure at a "dazzling" cafe, whose decorations depicted "all history and all mythology pandering to gluttony." Increasingly, we are becoming that poor family, spectators of the heroic consumption of the upper classes. Thanks to the inexpensiveness of media entertainment, we consume the cheap images of their class status and derive what gratification we can.

The eyes of the father said: "How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! All the gold of the poor world must have found its way onto those walls." The eyes of the little boy: "How beautiful it is! How beautiful it is! But it is a house where only people who are not like us can go." As for the baby, he was much too fascinated to express anything but joy -- utterly stupid and profound.

Meanwhile economic forces cement the boundary between us and those in the cafe enjoying the splendor, continue the redistribution upward, making sure we can do nothing but marvel at wealth.

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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