Music

Morrissey: Bona Drag (20th Anniversary Edition)

Morrissey -- is there any greater, more consistent talent to be found in the last 30 years? Bona Drag, remastered and reissued with bonus material, reminds us why Moz is still so beloved and so worthy of attention.


Morrissey

Bona Drag (20th Anniversary Edition)

Label: EMI
US Release Date: 2010-10-05
UK Release Date: 2010-10-04
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You’d be hard pressed to find a more revered figure in all of post-punk (talking the timeline here, not the genre) indie-dom than Steven Patrick Morrissey. Ian Curtis would give him a run, but then Curtis cut tragically short his own brilliant creative streak. Bowie comes to mind, of course, but you’d be equally hard pressed to find many people willing to rally around his more recent material, and anyway his best years came before the punk explosion. Brian Eno could do it, but he seems so remote and flawlessly crystalline that he hasn’t inspired the cult of personality that Morrissey has both enjoyed and bemoaned throughout his career. Wherever you’re placing your bets, it’s difficult not to stand back in amazement at Morrissey’s discography and his legions of obsessively devoted fans.

This reissue of Bona Drag, a highpoint of his early solo career, comes as something of a victory lap, a thumb in the eye to those who doubted him around the time of the album’s original recording. Born out of the dissolution of his relationship with longtime collaborator and Smiths producer Stephen Street, as well as Moz’s struggles to produce enough solid material for the follow-up to 1988’s Viva Hate, Bona Drag saw him shaking off all of these pressures and further cementing his status as a one of the premier talents of his—and, all right, any—generation.

His devotees know the story well: Bona Drag was originally supposed to be the proper second album under Morrissey’s own name, but the singer ended up releasing a string of non-album singles instead, keeping his name on the charts while he waded through the personal and professional turmoil of the post-Viva Hate years. Rather than using the title for an album of all new material, Morrissey released Bona Drag in 1990 as a collection of those singles and assorted b-sides. It’s become a fan favorite and a critical darling in the years since.

The highpoints of the album are all here in punchy, remastered glory. “Everyday Is Like Sunday", perhaps Morrissey’s finest song (period), blends Moz’s classically hyperbolic lyrics -- “come Armageddon, come!” -- with Vini Reilly’s beautifully mournful guitars to transport its listeners to the desolate seaside towns of England while also giving them one of the best pop songs the UK has ever produced. Stephen Street, still showing his mark, laces the composition with subtle washes of synths and swells of strings, judiciously allowing these flourishes to supplement the overall arrangements, leaving Morrissey’s voice and lyrics at center stage. The song is famously inspired by Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel, On the Beach, and Morrissey’s lyrics describe such a nuclear winter in restrained detail (“a strange dust lands on your hands...”). However, the song gets its real emotional power in his ability to let his lyrics function as both a dystopian character sketch and an entirely realistic depiction of the gentle melancholia experienced by two lovers sharing “some greased tea” in a nearly empty out-of-season resort town. It’s the type of song to wear out your record needle, or barring that, to dominate play counts in your digital music library. It’s a gift.

“Suedehead", Morrissey’s first solo single, sounds like a natural transition from his place in the Smiths. The guitars jangle, the bass bounces in lockstep with the kick drum, the snare sits right at the front of the mix. Here, Morrissey’s lyrics take the open diary approach that injected allegiance into the hearts of millions of teenagers worldwide. He croons, “Why do you come here / when you know it makes things hard for me? / …I’m so very sickened, / oh, I am so sickened now.” These lyrics, plain enough to be completely flat in another artist’s hands, gain their resonance from Morrissey’s fantastic vocal performance. He imbues each note with longing, confidently exploring the higher realms of his register. And, in a habit that his detractors love to ignore, he refuses to let “Suedehead” become merely a sad sack anthem. In the song’s final moments, he adds another refrain: “Oh, it was a good lay, good lay,” he repeats until the track fades out. Morrissey could blend humor with personal tragedy in such a way as to give primacy to neither, instead allowing one to play off the other in a way that ingeniously mirrors the ambivalence of our own experiences.

And the hits continue. “Piccadilly Palare” tells the tale of a young male prostitute fresh to the streets of London, another bold choice for a pop songwriter always unafraid of controversy. “Interesting Drug” skitters along on an irresistible interlocking guitar and bass hook. “Will Never Marry” is an all-too-brief, understated ballad that begs to be repeated once it ends. “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” features several Smiths and discusses the mythologizing of fallible celebrity figures in a tongue-in-cheek exploration of Morrissey’s own fame. “Such things I do / Just to make myself / More attractive to you / Have I failed?” he asks. No, clearly, no again and again.

The original Bona Drag is an end-to-end classic. The bonus material included here in the reissue accomplishes a rare feat in form. These six outtakes properly supplement the other material, and none of the songs seem half-baked or unnecessary. “Happy Lovers” sees Morrissey in clenched-jawed misery, cast away by a former friend and a lover as an unneeded third wheel. “Lifeguard on Duty” glides by on waves of reverb and bright hooks. “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness” is titled “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness” -- need anymore be said? Morrissey, perhaps against all odds, is still releasing class A material into his 50s. While we wait for a new album, revisiting Bona Drag proves just as fruitful as ever. It’s a masterwork by a master performer, and it’s enough to inspire another generation of heart-on-sleeve love letters from new and old fans alike to their hero.

10

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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