Music

The Streets: Cyberspace and Reds

Mike Skinner's precursor to Computers and Blues is confrontational, vulnerable, messy, and really kind of fascinating.


The Streets

Cyberspace and Reds

Contributors: Kano, Wiley, Rinse, Ice Kid, RoxXxan, Loudmouth, Ghost Poet, Trim, Jammer, Scru Fizzer, Envy, Elro, Frisco, Fumin, Wretch32, Joey G-Zus
Label: self-released
Online Release Date: 2011-01-24
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Artist Website
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One gets the sense that Mike Skinner is bored.

Skinner announced Cyberspace and Reds, a new freely-available mixtape that Skinner released a week or so before his new "proper album" (to, I don't know, make a point?) through a blog post that seems to drift between a legitimate existential crisis and a mischievous sort of self-deprecation. At one point in the blog post, Skinner says that "i feel negative about everything i’m doing at the moment because ive been doing the same thing for as long as i remember." He then goes on to describe his new mixtape as "painfully repetitive", and mentions that "the lyrics will make no sense" as if he is bragging. He closes this blog post by telling us that "im going to watch live and let die so that i don't think about the throbbing sensation engorging my inner soul," which reads so much like the Facebook status of a hormonal 15-year-old that it's impossible to shake the feeling that Skinner is taking the piss.

Of course, then he released Cyberspace and Reds by releasing an iPhone app (called "Mike Scanner") with which a prospective listener is supposed to scan two bar codes: one on the Streets' website, and one off a can of Heinz soup.

Because really, why not?

This weird mix of irreverence and ennui may seem ridiculous, but it fits the mood of the album it announced perfectly. It's confrontational, vulnerable, messy, and really kind of fascinating. Maybe he's just trying to keep himself interested. Maybe he's brought along so many of his friends to add some verses to these songs as a way of looking for what makes them interested. Or maybe, as he says on final track "At the Back of the Line", "This is the very end of me rapping," and he's just putting together a send-off that he can be proud of.

Most of the mix is a combination of grime, breakbeat, and straight-up hip-hop beats, with about half the raps by Skinner himself, and half by his guests -- really, Skinner sounds as though he's the guest on a few of these tracks. "Cross That Line" is mostly Fumin relating an angry breakup over a slowly-developing piano-dominated R&B backing. Skinner shows up for 30 seconds for the sake of making sure he appears on his own track, but his contribution is neither important nor memorable; this is Fumin's track. Even on the aforementioned "At the Back of the Line", he only shows up at the end to announce his exit and offer some advice ("Like Sinatra said to Bennett, just never sing a shitty song") before the track abruptly ends.

Still, most of these sorts of tracks are toward the end of the album, where Skinner seems to be running out of steam after spending ten tracks rhyming over intense beats with quick tempos. Opener "Came in Through the Door" is three minutes of breakbeats and spooky synth sounds, with lyrics relating a vaguely delirious club experience that matches the beat perfectly. Skinner follows that punch of adrenaline with the perfectly conflicted "4 O'Clock", a menacing little thing in which he announces that "At 4 O'clock today I'm gonna punch you in your face," removing the typical spontaneity from the violent act. "Backseat Barz" is filled to bursting with plenty of the "lyrics [that] make no sense" over some hilariously "epic" production work that features lots of strings and "Hoo Ha" chants, though even when the lyrics don't make sense, the imagery is evocative: "like an artist's impression of the guilty verdict I wear the watch of a pilot and fly in the black range rover hanging back 'til it's over in the back watching Boardwalk Empire," all delivered so fluidly as to sound as though it really should make perfect sense.

Interestingly, the mix centers on a track with no instrumentation at all. "Something to Hide" is a vaguely apocalyptic cautionary tale that takes on an interesting question: what if all of our internet histories were made public? More a think piece than a song with a message, it effectively turns WikiLeaks around on the public that demands it. "Everyone's got something to hide," Skinner repeats throughout the track, "If they don't, there's something wrong."

For a noted oversharer like Skinner, words like these can't possibly come easily, and the track lends weight to a mix that has a tendency toward feeling like an odds 'n sods package, albeit a surprisingly strong one.

Whether Cyberspace and Reds and Computers and Blues are the last we hear from Skinner is an open question, regardless of what Skinner himself says; it's entirely possible (and maybe even probable) that he's toying with his audience to keep himself entertained. Regardless of his motivations, this conflicted and mischievous Mike Skinner is vastly more interesting than the overly sincere and philosophical one we heard on Everything is Borrowed. Maybe it's best he goes out on a high note.

7

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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