Music

Waxing Nostalgic: The Mantras of the Music Geek

Four music geeks reunite to reminisce over their college days in the late '80s. Bold mantras about what's wrong with today's music ensue.

Paul managed a record store in the early ‘90s. For those unfamiliar with the concept, music was once purchased at actual physical locations on actual physical media. Quaint, isn’t it?

Anyway, reminiscing around a table at Joe’s Crab Shack, Paul recounted his memory of the resurgence of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” courtesy of Wayne’s World. When the song first charted in 1975, it was a number one in the UK and went top ten stateside. On its second go-round in 1992, it topped the charts again on British soil and bested its original US peak, this time going all the way to #2.

Paul is a college buddy with whom I shared crab balls – insert joke here – at a mini-reunion over dinner. Also along for the trip down memory lane were Lance and Forrest. This put the four of us in the same place for the first time in 20 years. To picture our motley little crew, think of four athletic frat boys who were – and still are – always the coolest guys in the room. Now imagine exactly the opposite.

We did the requisite reminiscing about bawdiness and debauchery of days long ago, but I’ll refrain from those tales to protect the guilty. What happened in New York stays in New York.

Instead, my dear readers, you get to eavesdrop on conversations sparked by questions like “What would your theme song be when you entered a room?” and “What song that you used to love can you no longer stand?” I know. Alert the Center for Disease Control to quarantine these losers so that no one else is infected by their music sickness.

Even more annoyingly, there is a lesson to be found in all this. Hard to believe, but some people remain clueless as to how to become a music geek. Thanks to the Shack Pack, you can now be privy to the 4 Mantras of the Music Geek.

Mantra 1: Berate all generations after your own.

Our crab-eating collective were pre-teens during the first chart run of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, so upon its revival Paul was well-versed in its history. However, the new music-buying generation was not. By the time customer #402 asked him for “That new song from Wayne’s World” Paul was ready to remove someone’s spleen.

Paul similarly went into spasms confessing, “My four-year-old sings Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ to soothe his infant sister.” I withheld admitting that Selena Gomez’s cover of “Magic”, originally a top 5 US hit by Pilot in the – you guessed it – '70s, is one of my kids’ favorites. I boasted instead of their love for the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”.

Lance also convulsed at Paul’s suggestion that Bob Seger should cue up Lance’s arrival into a room. For a devotee to blues man Buddy Guy, such a suggestion was sacrilege. Besides, it is disturbing to picture Lance sliding across a wood floor in his underwear doing a Tom Cruise Risky Business impression while “Old Time Rock and Roll” blares out of the speakers.

Still, lyrics about how “today’s music ain’t got the same soul” are apropos. Lance dismissed current music as distracting him from his bid to fully digest the Bob Dylan catalog. “Are you sure you aren’t just making up the name Arctic Monkeys?” he asked when I announced what had most recently downloaded.

Forrest was already dismissing his own generation’s music at eighteen. He sounded like the grizzled old blues men already populating Lance’s music collection. Forrest was listening to Wilson Pickett in our college years, not Rick Astley. Yeah, “Never Gonna Give You Up” came on before we left the shack.

Mantra 2: If it sells, it sucks.

Joe’s Crab Shack offers indescribable ear torture for a gang of geeks whose tastes are rooted in classic rock and the blues. Every 45 minutes or so, the wait staff were tasked with hoofing to chestnuts such as Rose Royce’s “Car Wash”, Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”, and some weird remix of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” infused with a rap break.

One might assume that my Crab Crew would compare and contrast those ‘70s disco nuggets with a more acceptable contemporary – like “Bohemian Rhapsody”. That would be a gross misunderstanding of the music geek’s talent for steering conversation to the obscure. I ribbed Forrest about donning a white suit a la Saturday Night Fever with “Stayin’ Alive” soundtracking his entrance. However, he and Lance segued into a discourse on why Queen’s “March of the Black Queen” was superior to the group’s calling-card tune.

This brings us to the eponymous debut from Boston. Hating that album is almost a mantra by itself. Full disclosure: I still like it, an admission which may get my music aficionado club membership revoked. There isn’t a non-hit to embrace since the entire track listing populates classic rock playlists. This makes band mastermind Tom Scholz a natural target thanks to his proclivity to polish everything with a studio sheen in the name of amassing monstrous commercial success. Forrest relayed this story :“I bitched about that album one time to a guy who turned out to be Tom Scholz’s cousin.” Forrest is still removing bits of sneaker from his mouth.

Mantra 3: Vinyl is king; all other formats are crap.

Within five minutes into any conversation, it is mandatory that a music aficionado express undying love for vinyl and denounce all other comers. This obsession is largely focused on sound fidelity, but also nostalgia over the tried-and-true wax disc.

The Shack Pack reminisced over 45 RPM vinyl singles, the only way to get individual songs in our day. Today record companies whine about digital downloads trumping album sales, but in days of yore Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” single easily outdistanced its parent album at the cash register.

Record company greed and the arrival of the eight track reversed this trend. In the seventies, every adolescent boy with a Trans Am wanted to blow out his car speakers with Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever.” None of these Detroit City Madman worshippers were doing it with a turntable in their backseats.

About five seconds after the eight track arrived, the maddening click that interrupted the music, sometimes mid-song, sent execs back to the drawing board. The cassette arrived, offering more portability, recordability, and a slight return to the singles market. However, by the ‘80s, record companies needed to hamstring people like me who spent their middle school years taping songs off the radio. The compact disc, and a chance to sell AC/DC’s Back in Black to customers for the umpteenth time, arrived.

Mantra 4: The digital age is destroying music.

The CD reaped huge benefits for the recording industry from the mid -'80s through the whole of the ‘90s. Then Napster hit. I ranted to my Shack Pack buddies about the record companies’ short-sightedness in wrestling the digital giant to the ground and beating it to a bloody pulp. Latch on to what’s already there, I argued. Tag a reasonable subscription fee to the service. Sit back and reap the benefits of making money from an established brand name – all without reinventing the wheel.

A music geek realizes that it isn’t just that record company mismanagement has hurt music. Forrest lamented, “it no longer takes any effort to discover music.” Lance agreed, saying “I remember my cousin raving to me about this song he’d heard by Pink Floyd called ‘Another Brick in the Wall Part II.’ We waited around to hear it on the radio; sure enough, it eventually came around again.” This was 1979 when hearing a favorite song wasn’t a YouTube or iTunes click away.

***

Maybe everything really does come around again, as the saying goes. The digital age has restored the singles market. “Bohemian Rhapsody” might re-emerge again in Wayne’s World: The Next Generation where we follow Wayne and Garth’s offspring in the new era.

One thing is certain: music geeks have some maddening mantras. If you stumble across a motley group of 40-somethings at Joe’s Crab Shack, you can pull up a chair and we’ll be happy to explain them in depth. Otherwise, you might be better off heading across the parking lot to Old Chicago’s, instead.

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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