Music

Groove Armada: Black Light

The dance boffins have done the fashionable thing and plugged into the dance-pop revival, proving in the process that they can write catchy pop songs.


Groove Armada

Black Light

Label: Om
US Release Date: 2010-03-02
UK Release Date: 2010-02-22
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How long ago it now seems since Groove Armada first struck gold with their curiously brassy and bass-driven musak, smartly backed by the occasional tech-house hit for anyone who would rather shake their ass than drift into horizontal bliss.

Since chill duly evaporated around the Millennium, we have seen Groove Armada fading in and out of dancefloor relevance, first with their gentle forays into blues, grime, and raga, secured always by a handsome helping of house. Then came the dog’s dinner that was 2002’s Lovebox, which was simply tepid and MOR. Still, even when they reached their nadir, it was hard to ignore the fact that Groove Armada’s Andy Cato and Tom Findley remained undeniable production maestros, with an enviable power to net A-list collaborators (for good and ill). And snobbish they never were: when fresh ideas ran aground, the pair openly absorbed the currents of the time to regain vitality. 2007’s Soundboy Rock, for instance, was Groove Armada’s digest of the sound du jour, namely dirty French electro and Prince-inspired '80s funk. Alas, the album’s generally upbeat fabric was set to unravel no thanks to Groove Armada’s bolshie attempts at straddling dance and chill-out like the good old days. It was not only misguided of them to inject Zero 7-type moments into strobe-lit soundscapes, but it smacked of desperation in their effort to sound unique. If Cato, a trained jazz trombonist, had only stuck with his brass, Groove Armada would have had an easy unique selling point. As for the album’s uptempo tracks, like the chart-topping “Song 4 Mutya”, Groove Armada came off as faceless producers hired to make guest singers like the ex-Sugarbabe Mutya Buena sound good rather than the other way round.

Yet for all their dithering over product, Groove Armada have remained stoutly business and media savvy. Not only have they spent the previous years curating London dance festival Lovebox, but they supposedly launched their own alternative music-sharing platform. Moreover, they premiered their latest album, Black Light, on PlayStation 3's virtual world Home.

So here we are now with an album that marks the pair’s most decisive and daring shift in direction, a development spurred on by their recent signing to San Franciscan dance label Om. What more daring thing is there to do than to strut out a long-held but largely closeted fetish for glam-rocking dance-pop? Groove Armada have even employed their '80s idol Bryan Ferry along with the young synth-pop enthusiast Nick Littlemore (of Aussie outfit Empire of the Sun) to help them fashion a glossy sound that could slide anywhere between the Blitz and the Hacienda. But before you can say “outlandishly retro”, Black Light is filled with instants in which the album's sheen is pockmarked with the kind of reconstituted dance-punk that would elicit nods from LCD Soundsystem.

Groove Armada may be late bloomers in the current scheme of dance-pop, Black Light will probably be one of the year’s best dance albums if only because dance-pop refuses to die. Pegging a brand like “Groove Armada” to the revival would only enhance its vitality. Also, given that the group has on many occasions mentioned their dislike of being defined by their past work, Black Light provides a sure sign that the duo are living in the moment just like their party-going audience.

Even if it is dubiously fashionable, it’s impossible to deny that Black Light is Groove Armada’s tightest, most unified and filler-free album since Vertigo. It also makes palpable the pop songsmith in these sample-hard dance boffins. On the single “Paper Romance”, the listener is reminded of MGMT with its pounding static bass, disco beat, and twinkling keys; and yet it boasts a singalong chorus worthy of the B-52’s. On “Time & Space”, another hit in the wings, the New Order-esque sparseness of its verses powerfully builds and releases into the kind of synth pyrotechnics typical of Giorgio Moroder. What’s more, one is unlikely to come up with a better pairing of vocalists here than the Enya-sounding Jess Larrabee, who takes the verses, and Londoner SaintSaviour, who bellows with the capacious diaphragm of Aretha Franklin on the ebullient chorus.

Such brazen catchiness is nicely, even logically, counterbalanced by the more industrial and eerie ends of synth-pop. On “Warsaw”, Littlemore’s gruff shout-to-the-heavens glam romp is cloaked in a gauzy Numan-like menace that hangs over the rest of Black Light like a phantom. “Cards to Your Heart”, meanwhile, is an anthem on the scale of U2 with all its lead singer’s bleeding urgency oozing out of Littlemore. The Aussie musician, in fact, is the album’s greatest asset -- even more so than Ferry, who appears on just one song, the Bowie-meets-Roxy Music “Shameless”. Instead of Littlemore’s standard nasal register, he lends a dramatic range that’s as grandiose as his costumes.

SaintSaviour, also a remarkably versatile vocalist, is another delightful choice. Her performance on “I Won’t Kneel” starkly contrasts with that on “Time & Space” as she alternates between ethereal and shrill, not unlike Cocteau Twins frontwoman Elizabeth Frazer.

If progress is that you can’t tell that the makers of “Superstylin’” are identical to the writers of “Time & Space”, then Groove Armada can’t be doing too badly. However, there are still doubts that the duo, being so in vogue these days, have yet to settle on a sound that anchors them in listeners’ minds the way the balmy trip of “At the River” and the jazzy dub of “Dusk You & Me” did. It will take the next Groove Armada album to reveal whether they are capable of doing so again.

7

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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