Various Artists: Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue

Two compilations revive traditional bachata music; the older endorses knife fights and public drunkenness.

Various Artists

Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue

Label: iASO
US Release Date: 2011-11-08
UK Release Date: 2011-11-08

Various Artists

The Bachata Legends

Label: iASO
UK Release Date: 2011-11-08
US Release Date: 2011-11-08
Label Website

Bachata music has lately threatened to take over Latin pop radio. Turn on your local station for a half-hour and you’ll hear the romantic fibs and bereft longings of some bachata singer, like Prince Royce or Romeo Santos, handing you his still-beating heart over guitar arpeggios and ticky-ticky percussion. (Women sing this stuff, too, though most conspicuously in duets with men.) Back in the ‘90s, Santos and his band Aventura innovated traditional bachata by mixing it with R&B chord changes and vocal mannerisms. This proved a winning combination, since R&B singers also truck in romantic fibs and bereft longings, and Aventura achieved crossover success and began printing money.

Integral to bachata’s sound are its guitars. If you count modern bachata as an R&B subgenre -- and you really should -- it’s the most guitar-centric of any R&B that currently charts. When contemporary R&B highlights a guitar, it strums a ballad or throws in a novelty solo. (Think Lil’ Wayne’s “How To Love” or Beyoncé’s “1+1”.) The sound of bachata, though, is unimaginable without the guitars: bright rhythm and lead lines interlocking with the percussion, creating clockwork structures whose regularity and precision provide secure frames of reference for all the vocal emoting. The guitar solos can be pretty impressive, too; bachata still prizes virtuosity.

It’s always done so, on the evidence of these two recent albums of traditional bachata. Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue compiles Dominican recordings from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, and The Bachata Legends gathers many of the same players, Buena Vista Social Club-style, to recreate old songs live in a modern studio. This traditional music resembles Aventura and friends in its abundant guitars, steady 8th-note rhythms, and bittersweet vocalizing. But Bachata Roja also betrays unexpected variety, both in beats and lyrics. It showcases a genre still in the process of being codified, and therefore looser and wider-ranging than its modern incarnation lets on. Listening to Roja is sort of like hearing about the wild early lives of your grandparents, before they settled into the predictable grandparentness you know and love.

The wildest guy on Roja is Eladio Romero Santos, who celebrates girls and knife fights in “Las tres muchachas” and wanders through a drunken haze in “A los 15 o 20 tragos” (“At 15 or 20 drinks”), which Eric Church should totally cover. Santos’s music is irresistible and closer to merengue; his guitar work is less intricate but more danceable than most bachata, and his percussion parts have more space and variety. For straight up bachata heartache, there’s Augusto Santos (no relation), who implores “Con el amor no se juega” (“Do not play with love”) and claims “Yo soy puro amor” (“I am pure love”). His voice floats like a feather while his guitar picking and background singers elaborate his anguish. “What springs from my chest is pure love”, he sobs. Eek.

Most of Roja’s songs fall somewhere between those two extremes. Indeed, most tracks are in major keys, and while very few evoke the most disgusting scene from the movie Alien, they do get their love and their pain all tangled together. The music gets tangled, too. Like lots of genres in the process of being formed, this early bachata borrowed songs and styles from other places: Ramón Cordero adapted Mexican rancheros; Ramón Isidro Cabrera drew from Spanish décima poetry, and so on. Cordero sings with a wonderful smoky tenor, a bit like Harry Belafonte. Cabrera, meanwhile, uses his braying timbre to appropriate a Spanish persona called “El Chivo sin ley” (aka “the lawless Goat”); he’d run with it the rest of his career. The hard-living Marino Perez laments never taking his mother’s advice over adventurous chord changes that try to escape their own song. (He’s rumored to have vomited up his own liver, but that can’t be true, can it?) And along with Augusto Santos, the great guitarist Edilio Paredes livens up many of these tunes with virtuosic lines that astonish and delight.

I have a theory, rejected by Science, that tone color is the strongest musical memory trigger -- stronger than melody, harmony, or rhythm, and comparable to smell in its power to conjure forgotten places and feelings. Roja bursts with memorable tone colors in guitars and voices, the odd saxophone, and instrumental variety from song to song. It’s an expert compilation. Less successful is the newly recorded Legends, which features our friends Paredes, Cordero, El Chivo, and Augusto Santos, among others. Paredes remains a guitar hero -- the warring rhythms of “Calzoncillo largo” dropped my jaw -- but the men’s voices have lost some distinction and the overall sound is too homogeneous to maintain excitement. Still, when the Lawless Goat honks out the quick “Tirale bajito” with accordion and merengue rhythms, he proves that traditional bachata has some surprises left in it.


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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