Music

Pavement: Quarantine the Past

This well-intentioned compilation gives short shrift to an important band's legacy.


Pavement

Quarantine the Past

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2010-03-09
UK Release Date: 2010-03-08
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First, some obligatory greatest-hits nitpicking. Where is "Stop Breathin"? Honestly.

As much as it pains me to hear "Summer Babe" displaced from the opening track, kicking off Quarantine the Past with "Gold Soundz" gives a good indication of why Pavement is the kind of band that deserves a best-of collection. The guitars intertwine beautifully, but with a bite and looseness that suggests some punk in their ancestry. Imagine Television, only more concise and maybe a little drunk. Stephen Malkmus' yelping, offhand vocals are similarly loose, but essentially tuneful, with an unorthodox chorus hook ("We need secrets-crets-crets-crets-crets-crets") that works better than it seems like it should. The lyrics, while oblique, seem to touch on music's intricate relationship with memory, with a side helping of self-consciously literary humor ("And they're coming to the chorus now!"). Academic but not bloodless, enigmatic but approachable, Pavement proved that you could be a punk and a bookworm.

The problem is that today, people likely to care about Pavement already know that. Pavement's situation seems not unlike the Pixies. Just as the Pixies' quiet-loud dynamics lost some potency when co-opted by Nirvana and mainstream radio grunge, so too is it hard to fully appreciate Pavement's achievements now that the lo-fi movement has come and gone and Vampire Weekend have cornered the Ivy League market. Pavement are at least as important for when they made their music as for the music itself. If you weren't there, it can be a challenge to understand what inspires such religious devotion among the band's ardent fans.

Unfortunately, Quarantine the Past presents a poor case for the band's importance. Understand that most of the tracks are excellent. If this were a stand-alone record, I would rate it more highly. As an overview of or introduction to Pavement, it is terribly flawed. Opening quibbles aside, the track list is highly suspect. The first, and most immediately apparent issue upon listening, is that they've chosen a surprisingly monochromatic selection. Sure, "Gold Soundz" is great, but all of the songs have the same general feel. Pavement's surprisingly deft hand at balladry or harder rock is under-represented. Tracks from the early lo-fi EPs help break things up a little, but not enough.

Another issue is the lack of songs from Terror Twilight. With only five albums in the band's repertoire, you'd think they'd find room for more than one song on a 23-track compilation. In addition to doing disservice to a huge portion of the band's catalogue, omitting tracks from their last album compounds the diversity problem. Many highlights from Terror Twilight -- "Major Leagues", "You Are a Light", "Cream of Gold" -- show a more restlessly creative side of the band than is on display here.

Lastly, there is "The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence". It's a compilation track that finds Malkmus paying affectionate but tongue-in-cheek deadpan tribute to R.E.M. It's appealingly goofy to converts, I guess, but it comes across as an inside joke that is egregiously out of place on an introduction or overview like this one.

Its presence makes me question the purpose of this record. It only works if you're intimately familiar with the band already, but if you were, you'd probably already have it, along with everything else here. If you're not familiar with Pavement, get Slanted and Enchanted and Terror Twilight and assume that the other records fall on a spectrum between those two bookends (or just skip right to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain). Four of Pavement's five albums have been reissued with bonus discs containing all contemporaneous tracks, and the last one is coming. These, along with the early EPs anthologized on Westing (By Musket & Sextant), represent the band's entire recorded output. They're not daunting, prohibitively expensive, or hard to find. I suppose it's to the band's credit that it's possible to put together a record of such obvious highlights ("Cut Your Hair", "Stereo", "In the Mouth a Desert", etc.) and still have it leave out essential stuff. But in the end, the best introduction to Pavement remains the original albums that people fell in love with in the first place.

Also, seriously, no "Major Leagues"? You're killing me here.

5

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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