The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends: An Interview with Widespread Panic

Becoming CNN's house band? Giving away all their touring profits while garnering their best chart position ever? Having a safeword for the band? Widespread Panic's John Bell talks about the fantastic, non-stop, and sometimes downright surreal life that the Panic has lived the past 25 years.

Widespread Panic

Dirty Side Down

Label: Widespread Records
US Release Date: 2010-05-25

For John Bell, the idea of celebrating Widespread Panic's 25th Anniversary in high fashion comes as an afterthought, as everyday on the road is a party, and surprises are popping up in the strangest of places.

The founder and frontman of the Athens, GA rock collective is a bit sleepy when I get him on the phone on a Wednesday morning, his smoky, Southern drawl just as soothing over the phone as it is on record. The day before, Panic performed as the first-ever house band for CNN, a feat that seems strange considering the band is known more for massive, booze-soaked concert extravaganzas and their legion of bong-addled fans who devotedly follow the band from town to town, waving the freak flag proudly in the Grateful Dead tradition. Apparently, there are a lot more groovy people behind the scenes at CNN than many realized. However, that's superficial. Widespread Panic is a rock band with smarts and integrity that happens to have a massive following of fans who like to party. John Bell is a politically conscious philanthropist who travels green, donates many concert proceeds to various charities, and organized Hannah's Buddies, a yearly charity event that raises money for Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The Foundation is a combination golf tournament, silent auction and concert (this year's performers included Bell, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, and Jimmy Herring). To date, Bell estimates that they've raised nearly $2.5 million for SMA research.

Although the Panic spirit champions the feel-good summertime vibes of freedom and community, the band has encountered its share of tragedy. Founding guitarist and Bell's brother-in-arms Michael Houser succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2002 at the age of 40. Acclaimed singer/songwriter and frequent Panic collaborator Vic Chesnutt lost his life last Christmas, following an overdose of muscle relaxants that put him into a coma. In 25 years, there has never been a thought to slowing down, evidenced by Panic hitting the road this summer in support of their 11th studio album Dirty Side Down, which recently debuted with their highest chart position to date. We talk to Bell about this, what record labels wanted to "peg" him as early on, and what the band's collective safe word is ...


It's strange to see Panic appearing as CNN's house band and then being animated on Adult Swim's Squidbillies. Is there anything that can seem surreal at this point in your career?

I wouldn't say surreal, but I think we appreciate and really have fun with the variety of different settings we've appeared in. Being on the other side of the television, which has been such a lifelong companion of everybody in the band, being on the other side of the TV is always fun and interesting.

When you first started out as a band, did you always have grand ambitions to take things as far as they could go, in terms of festival headlining and worldwide exposure?

You know, pretty much everything we were doing starting out, from living together in a house to scratching up enough money to stay in the house and play music together, that seemed like an ambitious dream to be fulfilling. Everything along the way has just been something else that adds to the adventure. It's not like we go, "Hey, if we play the Letterman show than we're successful" or anything like that. Everything that's come along has just been like, "Hey, this is cool. This is different."

What does success equate to you? Is it crafting the best albums you can and going as hard as you can on the road and playing your heart out on stage?

If you accomplish the task at hand, which is exploring your own musical conversation between yourself and the guys, and continuing to write songs that excite you, that's success. It's a feeling of looking at a song and saying, "Wow, that's great. Where'd that come from?" Well, we wrote it and it's almost like enjoying the song as an audience member, from taking a step back and hearing it from a distance. That goes for when we're playing on stage as well. When you're listening at a level when everybody's cooking on all cylinders, than that surprise is where I feel successful. Everything else is by-product.

That's a good way to look at it. Let's talk about the new album Dirty Side Down. At this stage in your career, has the creative process changed as you've aged as a band? Do you still find yourself writing in the same way.

Yeah, I guess I do. This is our second album with {guitarist} Jimmy Herring, and he brings his Jimmy-ness to the table, so in that sense it's the same but it's different. He's a unique talent, and we hadn't worked with him directly before the last couple albums. Beyond that, you hit a lot of familiar territory with the creative process. I've learned to work together and by myself in ways that seem to produce positive results, and if some new ideas or tricks come up, heck, there's new innovations every day. Just going from tape to digital was a huge leap ten years ago or whenever it was that we made that transition. So I'd say yes, but there are obvious tweaks along the way.

As a songwriter, do you work in big spurts of creativity, or is the process piecemeal?

Inspiration comes from different directions. Something could happen spontaneously onstage, or something can hit you when you're doing normal activities like grocery shopping, and you stop and write the idea down. A lot of times, you wake up out of a dream and remember stuff. There are also times when nothing's really prying at me, but I'll sit down and kind of get receptive to what my subconscious might want to spew forth. A lot of times I'll put myself in an environment where I'm trying to write a song, but it's more like I'll sit down, open the door, and see if anything is in there. It's a little bit of all of those things, and you take it as it comes. Sometimes I sit down to purposefully write. When we're getting together and know that we have an album coming up, then I tend to accelerate the process a bit.

At any point in your career, have you ever tried to craft the perfect, three-minute, radio-friendly pop single? Is that completely against your nature as a songwriter and as a band?

We always thought that was a really silly way to create music. But, it makes the record companies' job easier to get a tune on the radio. Especially earlier on when we were starting, that just wasn't really our nature. Our songs took five to eight minutes for the story to be told and the song to play itself out. Our first recording was a 45, and about three or three-and-a-half minutes was the limit for a 45, before you started losing quality. With fadeouts and maybe some arrangement changes, we had to get those early songs into a three-and-a-half minute format. That was due to mechanical limitations, and it wasn't our personal choice. Nowadays, we don't try and go there, but luckily now a song will come along and we don't need more than three and a half minutes to bring the song to fruition. Radio has come off that limitation a little bit, so we've kinda met each other in the middle a little bit [laughs].

Along those lines, were you ever pushed or prodded to have a Dave Matthews Band-sized hit by the label, or have they pretty much let you guys do your own thing?

You know, I think in the early days, and especially with our first major label Capricorn ... they're defunct so I kinda feel OK talking about this ... I think they wanted to engage in the formula and plug us into the pop machine. We used to call it "the smoke and mirrors formula," and we were very resistant to that. We had to fight to be ourselves. I think that they never really knew what to do with us. Some of them got it, but not all of them. None of them knew what to do with what they had in us. So, we never really went that route. We wouldn't have had a problem with it per se, but we just felt like telling them, "Do your job!" If you don't believe in the song, then let's get some people on the lines who do believe in it so we can get some movement. Now, we engage in relationships with record companies with our eyes wide open and an understanding of how each other works and what each is willing to do in the relationship. In other words, we establish a safe word [laughs].



Next Page

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.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.