'Pearl Jam Twenty' World Premiere: 10 September 2011 - Toronto

Though not a comprehensive documentary of Pearl Jam's 20 years, Pearl Jam Twenty will be sure to please their fans.

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam Twenty

City: Toronto
Venue: Princess of Wales Theatre
Date: 2011-09-10

Countless people are woefully unaware that '90’s grunge luminaries Pearl Jam are still generating music today. Yet that would have been hard to tell while waiting outside the Princess of Wales Theater on September 10th as the sidewalks on both sides of the street clogged up with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the band as they arrived for the premiere of Cameron Crowe’s music documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty. PJ20, as it is more a casually referred to, is a retrospective about the band’s first two decades (since their debut release, Ten) and is a large part of this year’s Pearl Jam anniversary celebration (also including a two-day festival for fans, a 300-plus-page book and the film’s soundtrack). The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the lucky host of this premiere, also screened movies about U2 and Neil Young.

Grunge history is one area where this film excels -- it delves deep into the formative years of Pearl Jam. Crowe looks into the entire scenario beginning with the Seattle music scene, described as like no other at least in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where various musicians and bands held a shared camaraderie with each other. The film covers the precursor bands, notably Mother Love Bone, which lost its lead singer Andy Wood to an overdose. Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden) plays a supportive part to Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard as he gets their new band together to back him up for the Temple of the Dog release. Eddie Vedder is recruited after he records vocals to a demo tape he received.

Crowe even plumbs the changes in Eddie Vedder’s personality, shifting from inexperienced lead singer to the prominent frontman he is today on screen, and the development of band’s “no” attitude. Seeing Vedder grow more ferocious during a show where the security is being a bit heavy handed is impressive. Another clip Crowe dug up shows Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain dancing with Vedder under the stage of an MTV awards show. The media had over exaggerated a feud between Cobain and Vedder but they come off a bit closer. Pearl Jam’s anti-music video stance and their accusations against the Ticketmaster monopoly are aired. The outrageous drunken performance for a folks in the music business is an early testament to the band's lack of concern for other people's opinions.

As a service for the fans, the movie succeeds. Musically, the film is not a greatest hits package, but it exemplifies the connection the band makes with its fans when they play a unique setlist every night on tour. There is no doubt about it. Pearl Jam have made some great rock songs. Interspersed with the interviews, Crowe mined the archives to find great live versions, unique instrumentals and the odd demo or two that fans will be clamoring for.

Yet the film is lacking in several areas, which detracts from its value as a documentary. A great deal of the band’s history following 1999 and especially after the Roskilde festival incident in 2000, where tragically nine fans were killed in a stampede, has been abbreviated. There is no mention of newer albums Riot Act, Pearl Jam or Backspacer or their switch to a new record label.

Little mention is given to the band's more recent politics, including the Vote for Change tour or Ament’s support for US Senator Jon Tester. Of Pearl Jam’s political inclinations that are shown, their efforts to get release for the West Memphis Three (who have only recently been freed from prison) receives mention as does a moment from the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998 -- events predating this millennium. The most explicit recent moment is a performance clip of the presidential critique “Bu$hleaguer”, for which the band incurred a harsh response from a crowd in Uniondale, New York post 9/11.

Even more egregiously, Crowe does little service to some other important figures in the band. Organist Boom Gaspar, the unofficial sixth member of the band, gets shafted other than a small comparison to some of the ultra loyal fans where his PJ show attendance tally is tacked up (I believe it said 292 at the time). The complicated drummer situation is handled briefly as well, with a informal recap of the drummers, from David Krusen to Matt Chamberlin to Dave Abbruzzese to Jack Irons and then to, finally, Matt Cameron. The film did little to untangle the mess and never included interviews or voices of previous drummers.

Before the screening, when Crowe introduced the band to the stage, he somehow forgot about Mike McCready (!). The rest of the band gently nudged Crowe as a reminder and the audience laughed at the slight oversight (Cornell, in the audience, probably chuckled as well). Unfortunately, there was no Q&A session however for the fans, the band took off for a press junket. But the die-hard fans, who saw the premiere of the movie about their favorite band with their favorite band, were probably okay with this. They can proudly boast they fortunate enough to be present at the start of a new decade in Pearl Jam's history.

* * *

If you were unaware Pearl Jam was still around before this week, shame on you. You’ll be able to catch up on their history when the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary screens around the world this weekend and you can pick up the Pearl Jam Twenty book now at Amazon.

Chris Cornell on his way to the movie.

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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