Various Artists: ZE30: ZE Records Story 1979-2009

If only there was a second disc to extend this birthday celebration.

Various Artists

ZE30: ZE Records Story 1979-2009

Label: Strut
US Release Date: 2009-08-11
UK Release Date: 2009-08-03

How appropriate that the first letter of ZE Records is the 26th letter of the alphabet. It's about that many styles that figure into ZE30: ZE Records Story 1979-2009, a collection celebrating the 30th anniversary of the New York City-based record company founded by Michel Esteban and Michael Zilkha. Like scanning the menu of a Greek diner on Manhattan's west side, there are a multitude of delicacies available on ZE30 to sate the palette. A subtitle could read, "Adventures in record listening", for this is the definitive artifact of the vibrant downtown New York music scene of the late '70s and early '80s.

The collection kicks off with "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming", a funk-thumping house of mirrors infused with wry lyrical spirit by Was (Not Was). From the Nile Rodgers-styled guitar riff to the creative sampling of a Ronald Reagan speech, it's a bemusing time capsule of both the musical and political climate of the early '80s. The grooves are deep and hearty, and it's little wonder why the song became a club staple upon its release in 1981.

Material's "Bustin' Out" also delivers in the BMP count. Illustrating just how well rock and dance meld together in the right hands, it churns on a sizzling mixture of guitars and synths. Nona Hendryx stirs more heat into the elements with a fierce and feisty vocal, creating one of the most unforgettable odes to independence. "If I leave here alive / I leave nothing behind", she proclaims, stoking the cylinders of Material's musical machinery.

Further along the spectrum of dance-rock primogenitors, a music box melody gives way to something more wicked on "Things Fall Apart" by Cristina. The track originally appeared on ZE's A Christmas Record (1981) and brims with foreboding chord changes and dissonant fret work. The star of the track is, of course, Cristina, whose portraits of Christmases-past are the depressed twin of Hallmark cards. The liner notes by Kris Needs characterize her couplets as "damaged cartoon lyrics", which couldn't be more accurate. Sung-spoken in a caustic tone, listeners are treated to Cristina's snapshots of trimming the cactus tree with her earrings and weeping alone with her cat after a botched Christmas party. Anyone prone to rhyme "tear" with "Christmas cheer" or winces at the sound of "Jingle Bells" -- or those who just crave a hefty chunk of irreverent, guitar-driven dance -- will find a friend in "Things Fall Apart".

The collective from which Cristina's rusted star rose is also known for canny incongruity. Kid Creole & the Coconuts, led by August Darnell in full Panama Jack mode, specialized in Caribbean-Latin pastiches that had an undercurrent of deprivation. (Equally infectious but absent from this collection is "Darrio", a sunshine-dipped tale that sends-up the starlets and sycophants who clamor for entry to Studio 54.) Remixed by Larry Levan, the legendary DJ who held court at Paradise Garage, "Something Wrong in Paradise" could be mistaken for a five-minute excursion to Aruba were it not for lines like, "On the land beyond the beach / There's the smell of bloodshed in the air". Like "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming", "Something Wrong in Paradise" melds political commentary with an irresistible entreaty to the dance floor.

Unabashedly inviting, "You Know What I Like", appears, at first, to be a parody of disco conventions, circa 1976, something akin to a modern-day Brooklynite hipster wearing a three-piece polyester suit. The sweetness between the male and female vocalists, who have a rapport similar to the late '70s duets of Billy Preston and Syreeta, almost seems exaggerated. However, nobody would put this much work into a production for the sake of parody. Mysteriously billed as Sympho State, the orchestration is as masterful as anything ever released by Salsoul Records. This is real disco for real lovers of the genre. The fact that it exists on the same label as the rockabilly chug of Alan Vega or James Chance & the Contortions' "heroin-punk aggression" (thank you Kris Needs) makes its appearance here that much more significant and underscores the label's generous reflection of late '70s New York nightlife in all its shapes and sounds.

While clearly oriented in the anything-goes context of late '70s/early '80s musical fusions emanating from downtown clubs, ZE30 is also something of a crystal ball looking into the future. "Hard-Boiled Babe" by Lizzy Mercier Descloux is the template for just about anything you'd expect to hear in the 21st century world of Paris Lounge and Hotel Costes collections. A sparse electronic environment conjures the visual correlation of mushroom clouds in a lava lamp. Replete with oceanic sound effects, "Hard-Boiled Babe" is sung in English with Descloux's Mandarin-like inflections. When the sweet squeal of a harmonica suddenly surfaces, it's a charming acoustic accoutrement among the futuristic beats. It borders on whimsical, and if ever there was a label to indulge and support an artist's whimsy, ZE and its thrilling roster of music radicals was it. If only there was a second disc to extend the birthday celebration.


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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