Books

Genies, Viziers, and Thieves, Oh My! 'The Arabian Nights'

A Victorian illustration of The Arabian Nights

Capturing the imaginations of readers for centuries, the stories in The Arabian Nights have inspired many a writer and filmmaker, who in turn have helped to define this mysterious and colourful body of work. These tales may trade on their Old World stylings, but they still have the power to charm.


The Arabian Nights

Publisher: Canterbury Classics / Baker & Taylor
Author: Sir Richard Burton
Pages: 655 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-11
Amazon

Growing up, I always thought The Arabian Nights tales were rather silly. My only points of references for the stories were the countless picture-book versions that I found on our school library shelves and the Disney version of Aladdin, which I absolutely hated. Being a rather serious child, there wasn’t anything I could take seriously about stories that involved flying carpets, wish-granting genies and treasures buried in caves. It didn’t help that Disney had managed to reduce one of the more popular tales in the collection down to a vanilla cake of Western-world clichés and saccharine kiddie sap.

Strangely enough, there didn’t seem to be anything remotely Arabian about any of the books and films I watched that were based on the stories. I would later learn how much of an influence the West would have on The Arabian Nights, which date as far back as the 12th century and cover a geography spanning the Middle East, Africa and Central and East Asia. It probably wasn’t until I started reading some of the work by A.S. Byatt and watching the films by Ferzan Özpetek (particularly his film Harem Suare), that I began to pay attention to the source material which, of course, was The Arabian Nights.

Suddenly, things that had not been revealed to me about the tales or made clearly evident opened up; namely, the darkly disturbing sensuality inherent in many of the stories. Most of the tales I had previously read or watched in The Arabian Nights were bloodless and lightweight adaptations of stories that were originally cruel, erotic and dangerous and almost certainly not intended for children. I wouldn’t be alone in the camp that often perceived these tales as mere counterparts to the more popular stories found in the collections by Hans Christian Andersen or as inspiration for trivial Hollywood fluff.

The stories in The Arabian Nights in fact, have great depth and complexity. To some degree The Arabian Nights introduced (or at least popularized) the literary device of the story-within-a story. The tales are bookended by the narrator and heroine Scheherazade, a Persian queen sentenced to death by her jealously insane husband who has since murdered hundreds of previous wives charged with adultery on mere suspicion alone. Scheherazade, his newest wife, is suspected of such a charge and now must use all of her resources and charms to save her life. The queen’s greatest skill, it turns out, is telling a good yarn. And so begin the tales.

Every night the queen tells her husband the beginning of a story involving the fantastic; genies, sorcerers, viziers from mythical lands and heroes who acquire powers of magic that lift them from a life of mediocrity and into preternatural realms. But every night she deliberately neglects to tell the ending, saving it for the next night. The king, enraptured by the tales, is forced to spare her life for yet another night until the thousandth and one night (thus giving the stories their alternate title), upon which she is pardoned from death.

Of those tales, "Aladdin", "Ali Baba", "The Forty Thieves" and "Sinbad" are easily the most recognized (though it is often contested whether those particular stories originated from the Middle East or were, in fact, Western creations). The Arabian Nights tales are unique in that they marry the esoteric with the erotic in a way that has defied both the conventions of story-telling and the very culture that these stories depict. Many tales bravely flirt with themes of liberation through infidelity and even explore the ideas of sex entering the realms of the demonic. Not exactly the kind of material Disney was plumbing when adapting for its blockbuster hit.

I’ve just begun to rediscover many of these stories I initially wrote off as a child. I can appreciate them for what they are now: examples of just really good, old-fashioned story-telling. For those who have had a passionate love for these tales, Baker & Taylor Publishing have released a beautifully lavish edition of The Arabian Nights. Leather-bound with gilded pages and a cover embossed with gold-lettering against a sea-blue background, this edition retains the old-world charm of a sumptuously full and care-worn book from a Victorian bookshop.

There are many editions of The Arabian Nights; the most popular ones are translated by Sir Richard Burton (such as the edition featured here), the British explorer and colonialist who is often credited with discovering the tales and introducing them to the West. Burton’s translations are filled with lush and heavily perfumed prose that can at times read a little too thick, but still, it captures the mysterious air of the exotic that these stories inspire.

My only gripe is that much of this edition focuses on better known tales in the collection, including "Aladdin", "Sinbad" and "Ali Baba", and not some of the lesser known material that has appeared in other collections over the years. But there are still enough stories in this edition that may be new to the casual fan to keep them happy. Also, the illustrations that have accompanied numerous editions of the stories are strangely absent, here. These were usually Victorian-styled woodcut renderings of scenes in the stories. It doesn’t exactly rob the stories of anything in particular, but it does appear a little bare without them.

Ultimately Baker & Taylor’s edition may not be groundbreaking in its approach to presenting these classic tales, but it certainly provides a way-in for anyone who has wished to explore these stories on a much deeper and satisfying level than the Disney rendition.

7

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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