Reviews

Anti-Flag: 27 January 2010 - Austin, TX

Greg M. Schwartz

After the show, the band shakes hands, bumps fists and exchanges high-fives with numerous fans, demonstrating once again that Anti-Flag is most definitely a band for and of the people.

Anti-Flag

Anti-Flag

City: Austin, TX
Venue: Red 7
Date: 2010-01-27

January is not generally known as a big month on the music touring calendar. But Pittsburgh punk rockers Anti-Flag are known for their idealism, so it's no surprise to see them hitting the road for a timely tour under the banner of “The Economy Sucks, Let's Party!” With the country mired in the worst financial turmoil since the Great Depression, there's plenty of angst to tap into and a good sized crowd has turned out on this Wednesday evening. Red 7, just off of Red River Road in Austin's downtown music district, is carving out a name as the premier punk/hardcore venue in town, so it's a perfect match. The weather is nice too, bringing the outdoor stage into effect.

Anti-Flag often bring along an altruistic organization or two for tabling at their shows and here it's Peta2, the animal rights group that takes on anyone who abuses animals, who are taking names on a petition against animal abuse. Some people think of punk rock as a genre based around anarchistic nihilism, but Anti-Flag flip that formula with some of the most socially conscious and politically savvy lyrics in modern music, making them arguably the most compelling punk band on the planet right now.

But as soon as the band hits the stage, just after 10 p.m., it becomes clear they that they face an extra challenge this evening. Bassist/vocalist Chris #2 is center stage instead of his usual stage left position, where he acknowledges that guitarist/vocalist Justin Sane is absent due to a tragic death of a nephew. Playing without a key member is a task many bands would be unable to rise to. But Anti-Flag's guitar tech has been enlisted on the six-string and Chris #2 assumes full vocal duties (whereas he usually sings only half of the tunes).

The “Press Corpse” opener from the band's superb 2006 album For Blood and Empire demonstrates that little energy will be lost, what with Chris #2 bringing his usually intense rage against the “corporatocracy” to the proceedings. Sporting what seems an unusually normal haircut, he looks a bit like comedian Jimmy Fallon but he still rages with reckless abandon on the tune about how toothless the lapdog American media has become in the 21st century. Guitarist Chris Head and drummer Pat Thetic are ready to rock as well and the set kicks off with a bang.

After the song, Chris #2 says “Positive change never comes from presidents or a CIA head's son.” He notes how the band had been watching Obama's State of the Union Address earlier in the evening, where the President said the US would start bringing troops out of Afghanistan by the summer of 2011.

“We'll be holding him to that... but whether we support Obama or not, we support peace,” says Chris #2. The band launches into “Turncoat”, a tune originally aimed at George W. Bush, but one which remains highly relevant at a time when many are beginning to question the way the Obama administration seems to be continuing right along with the Bush regime's warring ways. “Turncoat! Killer! Liar! Thief! Criminal with protection of the law,” sings the crowd right along with the bassist, as a mosh pit begins to form up front. The tune mixes the punk ethic with a hooky power pop vibe for one of the band's catchiest songs.

Ever the keen follower of current events, Chris #2 also laments the recent passing of historian Howard Zinn, saying that the band had reached out to him to write some liner notes for them, to which he complied. The band launches into “Underground Network”, beginning with a “1-2-3-4 fuck you” to the corporate media and a “Stand up and fight” call for alternative media, which Zinn's classic book A People's History of America epitomizes.

Chris #2 is at his most intense during “Fuck Police Brutality”, where sledgehammer rhythms drive the mosh pit into a frenzy as the band delivers one of their heaviest classics. The set's energy is peaking now as the band steams into “This is the End (For You My Friend)”. With its catchy riffs and anthemic vocals that decry society's superficial paradigm of war and greed, it's one of the band's most infectious songs. The hardcore punk fans actually back off a little as the mosh pit dissolves, but those who appreciate the rock sensibilities that set Anti-Flag apart from standard three-chord punk move up and pump fists in the air as the energy continues to flow for one of the set's top highlights.

“Smartest Bomb” from 2008's vastly underrated Bright Lights of America is another highlight, with more rock riffage blended with punk intensity and some of the band's cleverest anti-war lyrics. Two audience members are even brought up on stage to rock out on cowbell, furthering the festive vibe that's been building throughout the show. The set comes to a scintillating conclusion with “Die for Your Government”, which brings the entire crowd alive for yet another peak moment. Chris #2's heavy low-end gets the crowd bumping, while the big chords rock with arena-level power. The crowd sings out each chorus with a cathartic intensity – “You're gonna die, gonna die, gonna die for your government!” Even the most cynical members of the audience can't help but smile in appreciation during this anti-war classic.

The encore is a triple-shot of punk classics, beginning with a hard-hitting take on The Clash's “Guns of Brixton”, moving into a high-energy “I Fought the Law” and then going back to The Clash for a rousing rendition of “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. The latter features drummer Pat Thetic and his kit set up down in the pit in front of the stage, with the crowd gathered around him for the ever-classic lamentation over fickle lovers. It seems clear that many in the crowd can relate. Afterward, Mr. Thetic shakes hands, bumps fists and exchanges high-fives with numerous fans, demonstrating once again that Anti-Flag is most definitely a band for and of the people.

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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