Music

Various Artists: Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox

Jeff Mangum, Yo La Tengo, Will Oldham, Stephin Merritt, the Mountain Goats, the late Jay Reatard, and dozens more pay tribute to one of the best songwriters no one has ever heard of -- and what a joy it is to listen to.


Various Artists

Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2010-02-23
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Artist Website
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Chris Knox -- this is John Darnielle, out here in North Carolina, sending you all the power, any reserves of power I might have that'll help you up the hill, but I know you can go there because I used to watch you every night, in 1995, when we were in the back of a van together, and I'd think 'That guy's got some power', so I know you have it, and I know that you will climb up ... on your two magnificent feet.

-- John Darnielle, intro to the Mountain Goats' "Brave"

There's something genuinely wonderful about listening to Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox, and part of that is knowing that by the end of it, a hell of a lot more people are going to know who Chris Knox is.

This boldly-named Stroke lets you know right off the bat what this double-disc compilation is all about: raising money to help singer-songwriter Chris Knox with the medical expenses that have stemmed from the crippling stroke that he suffered in 2009. Having been a staple of the New Zealand rock scene for decades -- first with the more polished rock sounds of Toy Love (and to some extent that group's previous incarnation The Enemy) and later as part of the delightfully unhinged duo Tall Dwarfs (with Alec Bathgate) -- Knox has been known for placing radio-ready rock melodies in the center of gritty DIY-styled recordings, with his remarkably vulnerable lyrics often belying the lo-fi surroundings that they emerged from. His mixture of the playful and the poignant resonated deeply with the '90s indie-rock boom in America, greatly influencing the likes of the Elephant 6 collective and the Merge Records stable, just to name a few (the fact that Stroke was released on Merge should surprise no one).

Of course, much of the pre-release buzz about this album centered around the fact that the ever-reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel mastermind Jeff Mangum had come out of hiding to record a track for the album (a simple, to-the-point cover of "Sign the Dotted Line"), which, along with contributions by everyone from Yo La Tengo to Will Oldham, made this one of the biggest underground rock events since last year's Dark Was the Night compilation. Things took on a bit of a bittersweet tone, however, following the passing of Jay Reatard, whose cover of Toy Love's furious "Pull Down the Shades" (the album opener) was one of the last recordings he ever made, making Stroke become a monument to more than just the songwriter at the center of it all.

Yet as easy as it would be for Stroke to rely on sheer star-power to drive its point home, the compilation producers instead give about half of the tracks to lesser-known New Zealand bands like the Checks, the Chills, and the Bats, many of whom outshine their more-famous peers to turn in some of Stroke's biggest highlights. Take Boh Runga, for example, the powerhouse vocalist behind NZ's long-running pop-rock outfit Stellar*, who transforms Knox's 1989 lo-fi ballad "Not Given Lightly" into a fully-blown "Earth Angel"-styled prom number, something that Knox's original very much wanted to be but couldn't quite reach. Runga's sweet, forceful vocals give the song a new perspective without trampling the spirit of the original -- the way a cover song should be done. The very unknown Peter Gutteridge, meanwhile, takes the early guitar strut of Toy Love's "Don't Catch Fire" and transforms it into an absolutely haunting piano ballad that battles Bill Callahan's gorgeous re-do of "Lapse" for the album's Best in Show title. Even with the big names attached, it's the smaller gems that prove to have the most staying power.

That's not to say that Yo La Tengo's drastic acoustic reworking of "Coloured" or Will Oldham's utterly heartbreaking rendition of "My Best Friend" aren't worthy of inclusion here (quite the opposite, actually); it's just that for every big-name artist that stumbles (A.C. Newman's take on "Dunno Much About Life But I Know How to Breathe" doesn't really add much to either the original or Newman's own catalog for that matter), one of Knox's own peers delivers a deceptively simple cover that manages to wisely expand upon the original to create something altogether new and exciting (like the Mutton Bird's Don McGlashan doing a wonderful Casio-keyboard driven take on "Inside Story", a minimalist pop moment of sheer joy). Knox fans can take solace in the fact that all of Knox's well-known songs are covered (the Finn Family do a great take on "It's Love"), and even some lesser-known tracks wind up getting the full cover treatment (Knox's Tall Dwarfs songwriting partner Alec Bathgate does a very straightforward version of "Glide" that sounds as lived in as it does unbelievably sweet). Although there still remain numerous Knox originals that are dying for proper cover treatment, this is as solid an overview of Knox's body of work as you're likely to find anywhere.

Furthermore, for those curious about Knox's past recordings, this album is best experienced in conjunction with Knox's official website, wherein just about every single song off of Stroke (with a few notable exceptions) is streaming in their entirety, right next to the original Knox version, so listener's can compare and contrast exactly what each artist decided to do with their rendition (a bold move by the label's producers that pays off in droves).

Each of Stroke's two discs end with some unheard Knox recordings: the first disc with the Hamish Gilgour's meandering/frustrating mash-up of unreleased Knox tracks called "Knoxed Out", the second with a pair of brand-new Knox recordings: the Nothing's noisy/surprising piece of pop art "Napping in Lapland" and a wordless (but vocal-filled) Tall Dwarfs number called "Sunday Song", which sounds as warm and friendly as just about any song Knox has ever done (reports indicate that this is the direction he's going to be taking his recordings in once he's recovered). And as good as these new tracks are, they only serve to be the icing on the cake for Stroke, which is as smart, funny, and memorable a tribute album as you're likely to find all year. Get better Chris -- we can't wait for your return ...

8

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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