Music

The Black Keys: El Camino

It’s been a steady rise to the top, but the release of El Camino may finally put The Black Keys in the plush and padded golden throne they’ve been deserving of for the better part of the last decade.


The Black Keys

El Camino

Label: Nonesuch
Release Date: 2011-12-06
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It’s been a steady rise to the top, but the release of El Camino may finally put the Black Keys in the plush and padded golden throne they’ve been deserving of for the better part of the last decade. As they’ve grown they’ve barely let go of even one fan, and at this point they’ve captured so many ears it’s impossible to ignore them. But why would you want to? Their sound still holds the purity, the grunge, and the heartfelt decadent pounding it did on their first albums, but it’s evolved into a blistering machine that destroys foundations with nearly every note. If they weren’t already, they’re now surely at the forefront of modern rock and roll right alongside Jack White and Wilco.

Capitalizing on the success of 2010’s soulful and grooving Brothers with a monstrous rock album is nearly the perfect formula, and it’s plain to see that their collaborations with producer Danger Mouse are, too. It worked on 2008’s Attack & Release and it works again now. The barebones guitar and drums provided by the Keys is what drives the album, but Mouse’s additional production is what gives the machine its power. Every track from the opening “Lonely Boy” to the final, hanging note of “Mind Eraser” roars nonstop. Even the sole acoustic track on the disc, “Little Black Submarines” --- which begins quietly, an acoustic guitar accompanying Dan Auerbach’s unfiltered voice --- ends in thunderous electricity.

The louder, more punchy song structure is a good fit as the Black Keys start their first tour of major U.S. arenas in March, beginning in their home state of Ohio and ending in North Carolina with stops in Chicago and at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Not that they’d have trouble filling the space with their old material as the Keys have attracted huge numbers at major festivals and have been bursting eardrums for a few years now. It’s more likely that they’ll settle nicely into the larger rooms and find a way to make the notes that need to be held resonate to even the seats in the nosebleed sections.

The opening track on El Camino is the already familiar “Lonely Boy”, which was released via viral video in November. The truth is that any song on the album could have served the same purpose as “Lonely Boy”: they are all at the similar caliber of punching and anthemic. It’s not unlikely that the single was chosen by just hitting play on the finished album and saying, “Yeah, that one,” but it fits the bill because it’s a bit more memorable than some of the others. The only thing the song is missing is a shattering guitar solo, but it’s not absolutely necessary thanks to the biting rhythm part and the thumping drums of Patrick Carney.

The feeling of familiarity that “Lonely Boy” brings is not new to the Keys though. They’ve always had a knack for making you think they’ve been around the block a few times. Even on their first few albums around the turn of the century, their '70s-era musical reminiscence set them apart from the flashy pop music on the radio. Here, they’ve found a touchy balance between the modern century and that roots rock and roll. They’ve got one foot in each era but just a slight shift of weight and the Keys might decide to jump head first in either direction. “Money Maker” stands just about in 1995 but parts of “Nova Baby” could have been written in 1965, and others just last week. The lyrics of “Little Black Submarines” speak a line so true it’s as if it’s been part of our collective unconscious for years, but it just took Dan Auerbach to bring it out. The line is simple but crushingly true, sung over a “Stairway to Heaven”-esque progression: “I should have seen it glow, but everybody knows that a broken heart is blind.” That line rings in your head for hours after the album even finishes, even as it’s crushed into furious oblivion just as Jimmy Page would have asked.

But the brilliance of El Camino lies in the fact that it is still perfectly modern, a step in the direction of legitimizing the use of vocal effects, multi-tracking and ultimately catchy choruses -- practices that have previously and quite often been shunned by the indie rock community, but that will undoubtedly have to become more accepted now. Meanwhile, the Black Keys continue to stand directly on the border dividing that indie rock community and the big hit radio listeners. Playing this album and last year’s Brothers in succession will show you a band capable and striving not only to reach in different directions, but also surefooted enough to take risks of all sorts, confident that those decisions will pay off in the end. It’s pretty much impossible not to find something you like about this band, and whether this is their best album or not, or even if it’s not your favorite album of theirs is not necessarily the point. The point is that the Black Keys are only gaining steam, and the engine is getting more powerful with each turn.

9

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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9

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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