Reviews

Electric Zoo Festival: 5-6 September 2009-Randall's Island, NY

Sachyn Mital

Beautiful weather and exciting dance music made the two-day Electric Zoo Festival on Randall’s Island an undeniably wild and compelling event.

DeadMau5, Kaskade, Armin van Buuren

Electric Zoo Festival

City: Randall's Island, NYC
Venue: Randall's Island
Date: 2009-09-05

I was surprised when I heard New York was getting a large electronic music festival. Outside of Ultra Music Festival in Florida and the Detroit Electronic Event, electronic music culture is largely unobservable in the USA, unlike Europe where it is more common. But Made Event decided to stage a two-day production over Labor Day weekend on Randall’s Island in New York City called the Electric Zoo Festival (EZ Fest) with some of the top electronic music producers and DJs from around the world and I hoped to check it out.

For a long time, the New York City area was not so lucky with music festivals. In 2003, the organizers of the Field Day Festival had the plug pulled on their multi-day event but put together a one-day show at Giants Stadium, last minute, with half of the artists. Before that, it may be tough to recall other festivals for New York. But since then, New Yorkers have been given a hip-hop festival with the Rock the Bells events and a possibly annual, genre-blending festival with the All Points West Festival and its successful runs the past two years in a row.

I applaud the EZ Fest organizers for putting together a great event on the grounds of Randall’s Island. Fortunately, amazingly nice weather turned out to listen to the music on both days. Walking long distances to sets was never a problem as the grounds had three tents and a main stage, areas for shade and water, vendors lining up on the edges, free samples from companies, many porta-potties situated in the back and tons of space for dancing. The large stacks of speakers sounded amazing and made it possible to hear music over every square inch of the space. As a perk for the more affluent attendees, organizers offered upgraded tickets which allowed access to a VIP tent with some premium vendors, loungers, tables, bleachers and the Sirius XM Radio broadcast area, as well as a separate side space of the main stage for dancing.

A few minor complaints I can think of would be one that most festivals hear regarding the price of concessions. Beer was $9, flavored water $6, t-shirts $26 and pizza slices $5, but other people noted there were cheaper drinks at some food stalls that I just never got around to exploring. Also, as the day turned into night, the over capacity tents grew hot and stuffy despite the cool, pleasant weather. Lastly, it seemed insanely risky to let the photographers stand on the small tent stages directly behind the DJs and so close to the equipment and action. But most people did not concern themselves with that.

While running around Saturday to catch all the action, I took a few moments to ask attendees thoughts on the day and lineup. People came for the main sets from Kaskade, Deadmau5 and Armin van Buuren for the most part, but others were eager to see Chus & Ceballos, Danny Tenaglia, Benny Benassi and Roger Sanchez in the tents. With all those amazing artists and more in the line-up, I could have stayed at the main stage for most of the day, but curiosity kept me between sets from the smallest tent “Respect Grove” near the gates to the “Sunday School Hilltop” dotted with school buses that glowed an eerie blue at night to the largest tent “Riverside Arena” and the “Main Stage”. In between, I avoided festival mainstays, the hula-hoopers, hacky-sackers and glow-stick dancers doing their thing.

Ben Watt had an early set, starting before 5pm, which was the one I most wanted to see. He came on after Francois K to a dismally small audience; perhaps the crowd’s aversion to daylight kept them in the overfilled tents. Watt is now the head honcho of the Buzzin Fly and Strange Feelings labels, where he puts out very forward-thinking house music mixes on the former. Watt gained fame for his work in 90’s alt-rock group Everything but the Girl and afterwards as half of deep house duo Lazy Dog. As the crowds gathered for the latter half of his set, Watt pulled a remix of St. Germain’s “Rose Rouge”, his own reworking of Björk’s “All is Full of Love”, label-mate Darkmountaingroups’s minimalist house piece “Lose Control” and then climaxed with the awesome rework of EBTG called “Tracey in my Room” to the audiences delight.

Watt’s set transitioned into Kaskade’s, a US house DJ, and it involved a slow dubbed version of Roykopp’s “49 Percent” while they set up. But it wasn’t long before Kaskade spun one of summer 2008’s hottest tracks, his Deadmau5 collaboration, the slow-burning “Move for Me” then followed it up with a blissful remix of Roger Sanchez’s “Another Chance” in tribute to his earlier set in the Riverside tent. His set contained a bit of MGMT’s “Kids”, a track that surfaced in other setlists if I am not mistaken, a remix of Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here Right Now” and then brought the dreamy mood back into his set with his songs “4am” and “Steppin’ Out”.

Deadmau5 came on after Kaskade, though I am unfamiliar with him aside from “Move for Me”, he has been rising to the top of the DJ charts incredibly fast over the past year. He came on stage with his trademark mouse head on to a pulsating backdrop that featured the same grinning ear-to-ear face. Perhaps a bit untraditional as a DJ, he spun a bit of Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger” followed by bits (8 of them) of the NES Zelda theme and then Funkagenda’s “What the Fuck”. Later on he dropped, “I Remember”, the first song of his I actually did know, with its smooth vocals and mellow beat that fit well as a comedown at the end of his set.

That brought us to Armin van Buuren, the headliner for Saturday. A renowned trance DJ, often #1 on the DJ Mag polls, he is an equally talented producer with four albums under his name. But I did not stay at the packed stage and went to check out Benny Benassi’s set where the crowd was chanting his name repeatedly while the laser lights flashed. When he spun his massive hit, the pulsating-electro “Satisfaction” the crowd cheered loudly.

I caught bits of other sets including the tribal rhythm sounds of Chus & Ceballos, the legendary NYC DJ Roger Sanchez where Underworld’s “Born Slippy” could be heard from underneath the overflowing tent. I also caught a bit of Steven Aoki whose set seemed very off the wall but the rabid crowd ate it up. Finally, Tiga entertained in the smallest tent before I made my escape from Randall’s Island.

Unfortunately, I did not make it out Sunday when the line-up consisted of Ferry Corsten, Richie Hawtin, ATB, a DJ set by LCD Soundsystem, Josh Gabriel and David Guetta. Sunday’s headliner, Guetta is a huge cross-over producer, collaborating with artists like Akon, will.i.am and Kelly Rowland on his newest release One Love. I don’t have a firm opinion on him and as I was not there, it would be unfair to pass judgment, so any electronic music fans can do so; if you search for Guetta’s setlist online, he played a song by Zombie Nation (hint: search that name and “worst songs”). But otherwise, I am sure Sunday was an equally fun and positive experience as the amazingly nice weather held up and a great crowd returned. LCD Soundsystem and Corsten would have been my top choices in hopes of hearing tracks from the Sound of Silver or the Right of Way and L.E.F. albums respectively.

On both days, the main festival had an 11pm curfew, so NYC super-club Pacha took the responsibility of keeping the party going late. It hosted a few familiar faces on each festival night including Danny Tenaglia on Saturday and Ferry Corsten on Sunday.

Though the Electric Zoo Festival is over and summer fades, New Yorkers are fortunate to get electronic music year round. Tiësto is coming for three nights, Ben Watt for another two and Paul van Dyk will return for a second show before the year is out. Before those shows though, cross your fingers and hope that Electric Zoo will be held again next summer.

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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