Music

Ani DiFranco: Which Side Are You On?

Photo: Patti Perret

At this point in her career, audiences will know what they think of Ani DiFranco. Which Side Are You On? is unlikely to change this sentiment.


Ani DiFranco

Which Side Are You On?

Label: Righteous Babe
US Release Date: 2012-01-17
UK Release Date: 2012-01-17
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iTunes

It would be easy to suggest that the usually prolific Ani DiFranco’s newest album, Which Side Are You On?, her first in nearly four years, is a direct response to the Occupy Wall Street movement that took hold last year. However, this would be a slight to her previous work, which has always been strongly political and often angry. DiFranco has been producing the same type of music for the last 20 years -- strongly lyrically focused with an activist bent. To pigeonhole her into a movement that has only recently gained steam in the last year would not give her nearly enough credit.

Moreover, even though Which Side Are You On? is built around the union song that Pete Seeger made famous, the album is much more autobiographical than political. The songs about social and political issues are still present -- “Amendment”, “J”, and the title track all feature poignant lyrics with DiFranco’s trademark guitar style, but they aren’t the focus. “Amendment” and the reworked “Which Side Are You On?”, the two longest tracks on the record, however, do warrant extra attention. “Amendment” is the typical DiFranco song in that it features striking lyrics about abortion and privacy, sparsely framed by her guitar. The “Which Side Are You On?” cover strikes a similar vein, albeit with a more urgent tone. The tune rollicks through over six minutes of liberal thought. Especially damning are the lyrics “30 years of diggin' / Got us in this hole / The curse of Reaganomics / Has finally taken it's toll”, which show the essence of DiFranco’s politics.

Yet, what's different here from the bulk of her discography are the autobiographical tendencies that DiFranco continues from her last record, 2008's Red Letter Year. Especially notable are the tender “Hearse” and the sad “Life Boat”. “Life Boat”, the strongest track on the album, tells the story about the loneliness of living on the streets. DiFranco’s lyrics have often been hit or miss, but they are perfectly on point here, writing, “This park bench is a lifeboat / And the rest a big, dark sea / And I’ll just lie here ‘til something comes and finds me." The starkness of the lyrics makes up for the missteps that Ani sometimes makes with her words. In earlier works, DiFranco often felt obliged to include a political message in her songs -- not so on this record, where she often writes just for her own autobiographical purposes. In this regard, she has grown as a writer who no longer needs to be controversial to create her music.

As a total package, Which Side Are You On? is just another addition to DiFranco’s discography. It’s a typical performance from Ani DiFranco, but she has also gradually branched out and grown with her lyric writing. For an artist that’s usually as prolific as DiFranco, the first new record in four years is quite welcome. There is no one in music quite like DiFranco -- from her rejection to major labels to her direct and forthright lyrics about social and political issues, she occupies a certain niche. Her influences from Seeger to Dylan have always shown up and the tribute to Seeger in this record makes this clear. In this manner, DiFranco’s political activism has always seemed rooted in the ‘60s and ‘70s when rock and folk were intertwined in the liberal movements of the day. The current political and economic unrest, although unfortunate, are the perfect new environment for DiFranco. In this case, after 20 years, she may finally see a larger audience from the dissatisfied masses. Which Side Are You On? shows all of DiFranco’s strengths and weaknesses and it displays her increasing maturity where she is finally at peace with herself, but hasn't lost her biting wit. At this point, audiences will know what they think of Ani DiFranco and Which Side Are You On? is unlikely to change this sentiment. Ani DiFranco hasn’t changed, but the political and economic unrest around her has, strengthening her music and message.

6

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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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