Music

Archers of Loaf: Vee Vee

Photo: Sandlin Gaither

Eric Bachmann’s strangled vocals owe as much to punk as the more classic rock traditions mined by Pavement, and the results on this follow-up to Icky Mettle foreshadow the band’s attempt to leave behind their snarlier, harder edge for experimental textures.

Archers of Loaf

Vee Vee

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2012-02-21
UK Release Date: 2012-02-21
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This expanded re-issue of the band’s second full-length opens more space in its compressed production. Comparisons to Pavement fade. The Archers’ gnarled guitars atop a thicket of bass and a churn of drums always reminded me of Mission of Burma. Vee Vee signals a shift towards the sonic exactitude and undergrad smarts of the latter band. Producer Bob Weston, who had played bass in the Volcano Suns with the drummer of MoB, later worked with Steve Albini and Shellac, and eventually the reformed Burma. Weston’s drier, unfussy direction underlies the Archers’ 1995 album.

“Step Into the Light” resembles that Boston ensemble, with a more hushed entrance as the record opens. It swells and hovers as if somewhat alien. What follows is one of the best songs from the decade. “Harnessed in Slums,” for a band from a basketball-obsessed campus, tells the tale of those harnessed wanting to break free. It’s a memorable subject for a three-minute tune, and its rousing chorus and insistent tempos celebrate as they comment upon the cheerleading, ra-ra rants of such schools as their own University of North Carolina.

While the lo-fi tag hung around this Chapel Hill quartet, Eric Bachmann’s strangled vocals owe as much to punk as the more classic rock traditions mined by Pavement, and the results on this follow-up to Icky Mettle foreshadow the band’s attempt to leave behind their snarlier, harder edge for experimental textures, as on the start of “Fabricoh.” This hisses and crackles like the analog and vinyl formats technology was discarding, the lo-fi aesthetic giving way to shiny discs and ordered sound files. It also sounds – given that song’s telling title – as if the Archers fought off compromise which had lured their peers (Sebadoh?) and predecessors into pop after postpunk. This combination of anger and melody shows the band’s ability to appeal to what was still labelled as a “college rock” crowd. A dozen years after R.E.M.’s rise, adventurous listeners sought not the increasingly cheery direction of the Athens band, so much as an edgier (by then) Southern college town rooted in slamming menace as well as pop-directed swagger.

Bachmann’s vocals confront the listener, freed from the band’s backing as well as fettered to it. Music lurches in. Guitars wander up and down the scale, anchored by an assertive rhythm section. This heavy, formidable, and unsmiling approach demands attention from the listener. The band’s records never were easy listening. Yet, this progressed from the raw, shredded, full-throat shrieks of the often fearsome Icky Mettle through the Vs. The Greatest of All Time EP into more eclectic, precise music. The Archers knew to keep songs brief, as they distilled potent bile into a few minutes. While some of these songs do not stand out as dramatically as those on the first release, they remain consistent and intelligent. “Underachievers Academy and Fight Song” recalls in its title a song by Mission of Burma. It awkwardly hops along with a whistling melody in a ramshackle mood, but I like it better than its grating inspiration, “Academy Fight Song.” It heaps a wobbly skiffle tune on top of a folkish delivery. It sounds like its title. It’s also one of those CD surprise songs that stops after a few minutes, only to burst into a few seconds of final sound three minutes late after as much silence. That college prank wears thin.

Superchunk, the band’s Tar Heel neighbors, was mining similar terrain early in its long career, so the second bonus track out of many unreleased and new ones on this expanded version recalls that other quartet’s feistier side, with a pop-punk sheen meets post-punk thud. “Telepathic Traffic” opens with a long stretch of instrumental unease. Then Bachmann erupts: “There’s no breath, there’s no ventilation.” The band, later in the ‘90s, would leave a thrashing volume behind for a no less sullen but keyboard-driven, experimental or electronic soundscapes. Hints of this evolution beyond punkish rock appear in this song’s side-winding, slippery, meandering progression.

Bachmann and Eric Johnson’s loud guitars, Matt Gentling’s amplified bass and Mark Price’s drums may have been played as loud as Zep but their melodies, like those of many Southern college rockers, reminded audiences of The Who or British rock from the late ‘60s. The Archers sidle up to pop, but shrink back into angry tirades enriched by post-punk, approaching MoB’s art-rock even more than on their debut. This mix of precision and demolition typifies the sprawling approach of such B-side forays as the anti-Christmas “Don’t Believe the Good News”, and shows that, far from an album, the band sustained innovation. Its woozy, morning-after or after-midnight warble resembles a Salvation Army band’s hangover.

The re-issue features on a second disc full of demo tapes, some labelled “boombox”, and out-of-print singles from the Alias and Esther record labels. These prove rewarding, surprisingly, for more variety than the bonus tracks on Icky, which blurred their harsher, unrelenting attitude. Some sound almost unrecognizable, as in “Don’t Believe”, with its lazy bottleneck guitar and metronomic backing, compared to even the one-off B-side! Other B-sides echo ‘60s film soundtracks (“Mark Price, P.I.”) or cover (?) John Coltrane (he’s credited even if “Equinox” proves a previously unreleased if underwhelming take on a trucker’s shaggy-dog ghost story), as well as more of their trademarked loud-soft put-downs of romantic foils (“Bacteria”). The boombox tracks are as Spartan as you might suppose, guitar or drum machine in a dorm, perhaps? The songs are barely there, but you can hear Bachmann building them up, as if he woke from a dream to record them. This ambiance heightens the sense of the band’s college-town roots, and shows their talent at constructing such ambitious and aggressive songs, with penetrating lyrics, out of such humble beginnings. “Don’t have words for this part yet”, Bachmann comments over one guitar section.

Archers of Loaf, in its earlier recorded stages, may best be taken in small doses, for they can pummel your eardrums with a steady roar, angry vocals, and tragicomic lyrics, but for rousing, grumbling tunes, this album offers a more accessible entry. The band’s maturity comes on this more diverse, if more modest, second record. The bonus tracks may appeal “for fans only”, but they may find these obscurities and rarities entertaining, as well as the original record, long out of print on the defunct Alias label. Not as soft a record as the third, the overlooked All the Nation’s Airports, or the sad, keyboard based final CD White Trash Heroes, this sophomore record proves the most accessible Archers album for its scope and range. Remastered by Weston as fuzzy or sharp, this generous re-release (the second in a series by Merge Records, founded by Superchunk) should win Vee Vee another devoted following.

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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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