Swamp Dogg: It's All Good: Singles Collection 1963 - 1989

Swamp Dogg has some good ideas, but he's inconsistent. He is best when trying to be his own odd self rather than somebody else’s idea of a crooner.

Swamp Dogg

It's All Good: Singles Collection 1963 - 1989

Label: Kent
US Release Date: 2011-01-31
UK Release Date: 2011-02-15

The current interest in compiling the work of lesser-known R&B singers from the '60s and '70s has reached the man NPR once called "one of America’s most eccentric musicians". R&B renaissance man Swamp Dogg, born Jerry Williams, purportedly made his first record in 1954 when he was 11. As Little Jerry, he had a Midwest regional number one record in 1959 with the driving doo-wop of "I’ll Always Remember (Chapel on the Hill)". Williams was involved in production, singing, and songwriting in the 1960s; in 1970, he dropped his Jerry Williams persona in favor of Swamp Dogg. He released several albums in the '70s with spectacular cover artwork -- including one of Mr. Dogg riding a giant rat -- and an oddball fusion of funk and soul, political frustration and lewd sexual humor. He also wrote a song that was covered by country singer Johnny Paycheck, eventually earning a country music award for its writer. Today, Swamp Dogg’s eclecticism, relative obscurity, and early 70s albums have earned him a cult following -- prominent supporters include NPR and novelist/New Yorker editor Ben Greenman. This interest has culminated in a release of a singles collection by the Kent label. It’s All Good: Singles Collection 1963 - 1989, shows Swamp Dogg’s output to be inconsistent. He can play many different strands of R&B, but many singles fail to stand out.

Swamp Dogg has a distinctive voice -- slightly unnatural, a little hoarse, existing somewhere between a wail and a croak. It’s not something you usually hear in soul, and its lack of polish seems honest. Swamp Dogg works best when the instrumentation is loose and funky to match the off-kilter vocals. "Creeping Away" has the free playful feel of the Band. The guitar lead, a waterfalling flurry of notes, transitions into concise funk riffs, and horns blurt their support. Swamp Dogg sings “I got a faraway girl, in a faraway land / She’s my faraway woman, I’m her faraway man,” and he plans to be drunk on gin by the time his bus gets him from one of his gals to the other. It makes relationships seem light and carefree, long distance easily conquered with plenty of alcohol. That light attitude also comes through on the blues of "Mama’s Baby -- Daddy’s Maybe", where Swamp is doubting the paternity of his child, not only because her eyes and skin are different, but also because she appears far smarter than Swamp himself, winning bingo and attending PTA meetings at a young age. "Maybe the doctor made a mistake/ and gave the wrong child away?" In the end he throws up his hands and decides (with a hell of a scream) that he doesn’t want to know. Amusingly unconcerned with the fact that his wife may have slept with another man, Swamp Dogg turns blues into comedy.

But much of the time, even Swamp Dogg’s humor and unique voice don’t elevate uninteresting material. Songs hailing from Mr. Dogg’s earlier days -- songs like "Baby Bunny (Sugar Honey)," the swinging "The 1965 King Size Nicotine Blues", the schmaltzy, string-laden "Baby You’re My Everything", and "Let’s Do The Wobble (Before Chubby Gets It)" -- are relatively uninteresting attempts to ride popular trends in 60s R&B. He can’t be blamed for trying to write some hits, but when he tries to come off as a sentimental crooner and downplay his wheeling and dealing, cuckolded and cuckolding side, he doesn’t have much to offer. On "Did I Come Back Home Too Soon (Or Did I Stay Away Too Long)", our protagonist returns home to find his wife cheating on him with another woman. He again tries to play up the humor of a classic blues situation, but here he sounds genuinely mournful. His performance doesn’t possess the cheekiness that would elevate it above a set piece. The song is mainly of note because his wife cheating on him with another woman, which you don’t often hear about in soul. In addition, the tinny '80s production on "Happy Dog Day" doesn’t do Swamp Dogg any favors.

Swamp Dogg has some good ideas, and he is an R&B chameleon. But as compilations of little known soul artists go, It’s All Good isn’t actually all good. It’s better to seek out his early '70s albums, where he tried more to be his own odd self rather than somebody else’s idea of a crooner. In that situation, any inconsistency is at least more likely to be funny than boring.


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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