Music

Daniel Johnston and BEAM: Beam Me Up!!

Photo: Steve Gullick

Daniel Johnston has decided to dust off some of his classic-period material through Beam Me Up!! in an effort to make these songs seem more palatable to a general audience.


Daniel Johnston and BEAM

Beam Me Up!!

Label: Hazelwood
US Release Date: 2010-05-04
UK Release Date: 2010-03-26
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One thing is pretty much for certain when it comes to the music of Daniel Johnston: you generally don’t sit on the fence with him; you either love him or hate him. (Or, in the case of the mainstream, you have no clue as to who he is, though that might change due to a rumored biopic in the works that could star Johnny Depp, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly.) For those not in the know, Daniel Johnston is something out of an outsider musician whose biggest claim to fame in the indie world is for releasing a series of albums on cassette tape throughout the ‘80s that were Spartan and lo-fi. For some, Johnston’s early output is something of a revelation: plainly sung, earnest songs backed up with a cheap organ or guitar recorded on a $59 boom box. For others, Johnston’s mewly vocals are akin to fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard. It seems that the majority of people probably fall into the latter camp, considering that Johnston’s sole major label record, 1994’s Fun, only sold a few thousand copies. Johnston is indeed an acquired taste.

So it’s strange that I find myself on the fence with Daniel Johnston. As someone who struggles with mental illness personally, I find Johnston to be a heroic figure as he notably has grappled with a bipolar disorder, and very seriously, as the illuminating documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston points out. The fact that he has had such a long and varied recording career in the face of that is something to behold. And lyrically, Johnston’s songwriting is so heart-on-his-sleeve, and his delivery so non-ironic that at its best, it is very often poignant and heartbreaking in a child-like way. (Sample: “And all my friends were vampires / didn’t know they were vampires / turns out I was a vampire myself / in the Devil Town”.) However, I’ve decided to hold Johnston’s music at a distance, not really able to get past his high-pitched, kid-like voice, and his early field recordings, which sometimes don’t hit all of the right notes. I always found songs like “Premarital Sex” or “Walking the Cow” interesting in concept, even though it was often hard to derive real pleasure or entertainment from them. Basically, you don’t crank up a Daniel Johnston song in your car with the windows rolled down, unless, of course, you really want to get stared at by pedestrians.

Perhaps seeking to reach any potential fence-sitters like me, Johnston has decided to dust off some of his classic-period material through Beam Me Up!! in an effort to make these songs seem more palatable. The album does offer a new completely a cappella song as an opener, “Sarah Drove Around In Her Car”, but what follows are mostly jazzed-up or baroque versions of songs culled from Johnston’s classic ‘80s and ‘90s period (as well as three from 2003’s Fear Yourself) backed up by the 11-piece Dutch BEAM Orchestra. There are also a couple of other new songs which feature just Johnston and an electric guitar, one named “Mask”, and the other -- “Last Song" -- which is actually the penultimate track on the disc.

As a document, Beam Me Up!! is a bit baffling. Johnston has already been lionized in various compilation and tribute albums, so there should be a great deal of familiarity with much of the work presented here among his fans. You probably only need it if you’re really serious about collecting those three previously unheard songs, which go against the grain of Johnston’s Steely Dan compulsion on this record. You may also want to take a listen if you’re curious to hear what “Walking The Cow” would sound like if its tempo was sped up greatly with a groovy beat and saxophones squonking in the background. For the newcomer, though, this disc is certainly more accessible than his basement recordings. Still, I’d recommend delving into Johnston’s past work first to get a sense of his peculiar temperament and whether or not it jives with you.

In other words, Beam Me Up!! is a bit of a curio record in the way that Todd Rundgren’s album of his greatest hits done in boss nova style, 1997’s With a Twist ..., was essentially unessential. Johnston seemingly wanted to collaborate with people who were on his wavelength, but, by jumping headlong into the past, the album has the feel of a cash-grab: just another way to get the old fans and the curious to shell out for some of the old favorites once again. And while the old songs in their original form were sometimes tough to penetrate due to the high-pitched vocals, this album proves that time hasn’t been kind to the voice of Daniel Johnston. At certain points, Johnston reaches for high notes only to warble off-key, which is really incongruous with the professional backing of BEAM, which is really spot on and always on target. At other times, his voice now sounds gravelly, a little like hearing Herschel Krustofski trying to do his take on the songs of Daniel Johnston. It’s not only off-putting, it’s embarrassing. You have to give Johnston points for trying, but this is a case where his ambition more often than not produces an untenable result.

Also, in trying to dress up the songs, Johnston moves away from one of his core strengths: intimacy. It’s too easy to get carried away with the lite-jazz noodling, which takes all of the emphasis away from the lyrics and depersonalizes the songs in a way -- particularly on “Devil Town”, which once was sung without any instrumentation, now backed by careering fiddles and horns into something much more melodramatic. BEAM does do an outstanding job -- with perhaps the only exception being the too-jumpy “Walking The Cow" -- of adding a professional sheen to the songs, and despite the lack of personalization, the jazzy and disco-like touches on songs are helpful for Johnston neophytes to more fully embrace Johnston’s idiosyncrasies. At the same time, these songs do nothing to make you forget the originals, even though the older songs had their patchiness.

All in all, Beam Me Up!! is a bit of a puzzle. It is such a musical mixed bag -- with the a cappella song blending in with the jazz updates and two other new songs that are just sparse voice and guitar -- that it’s hard to make heads or tails of it. Is this another greatest hits album? Not exactly. Is this a reinvention of Johnston’s signature sound? Not quite, thanks to the presence of the guitar-based songs. It just seems so thrown together, and has no general coherence to it, that this is a disc that is all too, unfortunately, easy to dismiss. It’s probably a one-off, a holding pattern, until Johnston comes up with his next batch of all original material. One thing’s for sure: thanks to the general mish-mash that is Beam Me Up!!, this reviewer, alas, won’t be getting off that fence anytime in the near future, and is even perilously closer to swinging a leg over to the punter’s side.

4

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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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