Music

We Kept Ourselves to Ourselves: An Interview with Glasvegas

Proud of their Scottish working-class heritage, acclaimed fuzz-rockers Glasvegas contemplate recording a new album in Los Angeles, taking rock star lessons from Noel Gallagher, and throwing Beethoven into their music just because they can.


Glasvegas

Glasvegas

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2009-01-06
UK Release Date: 2008-09-08
Internet release date: 2008-10-07
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So there's this story. A story about a band that came out of one of Britain's most traditionally working-class neighborhoods and wrote a bunch of big, anthemic rock 'n' roll tracks that captured the hearts of most the nation's music journalists and gained the devotion of both angst-y teenagers and seasoned rock aficionados the world over, propelling said band to recording sessions in America and world tours with their childhood idols. Now, if one were to write down this story -- omitting all names, places and dates -- one could forgive the reader for thinking he or she was being presented with a tale from the fabled days of Britpop, that brief period in the mid-1990s when homegrown rock and roll ruled Britain's charts and airwaves as much as it did the dreams of the music press.

The reader could be forgiven, but if he or she thought this was a story about, say, a band from Manchester who became one of the biggest acts on the planet by the time of New Labor and Tony Blair's formal takeover of power, they would, in fact, be wrong. The story mentioned here is one that has taken place much more recently, and concerns a band, Glasvegas, that first formed in 2003. As their name somewhat suggests, Glasvegas is from Glasgow, the city in southern Scotland where neighborhoods full of multi-generational working class families are as common as Rangers Football Club T-Shirts and cans of Harp lager. And while they haven't quite ascended to the same lofty heights of rock stardom that their idols, Oasis, did back when these Glaswegian musicians were teenagers, they are certainly on their way.

For one, they have a hit album which has earned raves from elite UK music publications like Q and the NME (which actually puts them a little ahead of Oasis in terms of early-career press support), largely due to its structure, which combines observations about life in Glasgow's less ritzy areas with soaring (and distinctly Scottish) vocals and layers-upon-layers of fuzzy, epic guitar-playing. They have toured with superstars like U2 and Oasis, and are now taking time to record the follow-up to their impressive debut.

Soon after the band finished a long list of shows in Europe -- and shortly before they headed to the U.S. to begin work on the new album -- guitarist Rab Allan took some time to talk to PopMatters about his band's past, its future, and his thoughts on the state of British music at the moment ...

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So what's going on with the band right now? The last major news I heard about Glasvegas was the release of the "It's My Own Cheating Heart that Makes Me Cry" video. Anything else you've been up to lately that we should know about?

Let's see: we did our tour with U2 in Britain, and then we did some shows with Kings of Leon. That's kind of like the last things that we've done, so we've got some time off. And James [Allan, the band's singer and primary songwriter] is writing the next album, which we're going to record in L.A. next month. We did the first album in New York and we did the Christmas album in Transylvania. I don't know. It's funny: the first time we went to L.A. we just knew we were going to make the album there. We really liked the place.

I'm really interested in the success of Glasvegas given your distinct regional sound. There've been a lot of great Scottish bands over the years, but not many that have also found international success have been so obviously Scottish. Was singing with your accents an actual choice or something you didn't think about? Has there been a lot of attention on this aspect overseas?

As far as I can remember, when I used to hear Jim sing he always sung that way. I never really thought about it. I think people from [different places] have different accents and they sing with them. But people [in Scotland] have always seemed a little embarrassed of the accent and maybe are a little more conscious about it.

The only people who don't seem to like it are people in Scotland. It's a funny thing. We go to Europe, America and it's not a big deal because I think people there expect you to sing in your accent anyway. I would like to think that people from Scotland could be proud of us. But who knows [Laughs].

I don't really know anything about the Glasgow music landscape personally. Could you describe what the scene Glasvegas came out of was like?

We never took part in the whole Glasgow scene, we always kept ourselves to ourselves. Most of the music in Glasgow comes out of the West End, where the Art School is. It's really arty, lots of little businesses. We come from the East End which is very working class. There are generations of families that have worked here. And to be honest people don't enjoy bands. That's not what happens. You go out and get a job. So we never really bought into any scene.

I do think there are some great Scottish bands though. One of my favorite bands right now is Camera Obscura. It's a strange thing [to be] in a city where you've got a band like us and a band like them.

Getting back to the music, Glasvegas makes a lot of grand gestures in their songs. There are elements, like the children's rhymes or the use of Beethoven, that might seem silly if you read them on paper, but work incredibly well in the actual songs. Did you guys worry about how these elements would work when songwriting, or was it just sort of "This is what we want to do, this is what seems natural to us"?

It's funny, we'd almost finished the album, and James said he had an idea for the song ["Stabbed," which combines spoken word with a rendition of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata"]. He always had those lyrics, and he went away and spent a day in the studio, and came back and he had that. And I thought it was genius. Our manager thought, "You can't do this!" [Laughs]. He said "It won't work, you can't do it." And we said "Who says?" There's no rules. You can do anything you want, you know.

A lot of the songs on your album, like "Geraldine," tell stories that come from a distinctly British, working class perspective. Indeed part of your appeal, at least to me, is the way you marry these sort of mundane, unglamorous topics with epic-sounding vocals and arrangements. Are class origins important to you at all as a band, or in how you think others view you? Have you had any feedback about this at all from international audiences?

People always ask, especially in America. They hear "Geraldine" and they want to know what it's about. And I think people appreciate the honesty. But I guess when you go to a lot of places, like Europe, where they don't know the language, they pick up the melody first and then they pick up on the lyrics later. It gets people into it a little bit more.

How does songwriting work in Glasvegas? There are a lot of different elements to your sound, and I'm curious about how it comes together. Is there a point where it's just you playing an acoustic guitar figuring out a melody, before you plug in the fuzz box and all that?

When we started out I think we tried a few different ways. And the problem is none of us are very good musicians [Laughs]. Actually James would record all the stuff -- the drums, the bass, the guitars -- and then he would give it to us to practice, and if we wanted to change it we could. But from the start we had a basic structure for the song. That's the way we do it. He has all that stuff in his head, and the rest of us don't necessarily know how to put that out but he does.

It was funny, we were driving around a few years ago and he said I've got an idea for a song. He started playing a guitar part in the van, and it was "Geraldine." And he made it up right there in the van. He is a perfectionist though. Every little thing has to be right. Which drives me crazy sometimes [Laughs].

Who were your biggest influences as a guitarist and as a songwriter?

The person who made me want to play guitar was probably Noel Gallagher. I remember seeing him on Top of the Pops, and I thought "I want to do that!" And everyone laughed. I guess I worked quite hard, and I got better, and now we've done a tour and we've met them. It's funny how those things work out. He [Gallagher] is a real sweet guy, really genuine.

How do you feel about British rock right now? You and your bandmates were just about the right age to have experienced the full-force of Britpop back in the last decade. With bands like Muse, The Arctic Monkeys, etc, having all this international success, are we living in a new golden era for British rock?

I think just now, to be honest, I don't think there are a lot of good bands that are out right now. When I think back to Britpop, there was Oasis, Pulp ... there were just so many good bands. I like more stuff in other countries, stuff like Vampire Weekend. But it seems to be that every couple of years a good band comes out. So maybe we're due!

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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