Music

Psycho Country: Your Favorite Singer is Out to Kill Me

'Cowboy Silhouette' (partial) used with permission by © Kimberly Kay Spies. See more of Kimberly's work at KimberlyKFoto.com.

The perfect smile of your favorite country star might be hiding something sinister. Country songs can get kinda crazy.

Among all the recent country songs about slipping off into the backwoods to party or fool around, none creeps me out like Dierks Bentley’s “The Woods”. It’s a sweet song, both a come-on to a lover and fond reminiscing on youthful freedom, but his “what happens in the woods stays in the woods” chorus sparks something else in my brain, perhaps put there in the Friday the 13th ‘80s.

It sets off an image reel of scary bad things happening in the woods, bringing back so many televised images of teenagers running for their lives in a place where no one can hear them scream. When Bentley sings, “our little secret’s safe in these trees”, I can’t help but think of dead bodies wrapped in plastic, buried under the leaves, and Bentley singing the line with an evil grin. Then I think back through the song, remember him telling her to leave her iPhone at home, and all of his “c’mon baby”s, and I shiver. I start to think of the song as a portrait of a psychopath.

Of course you may listen to the same song and hear nothing but a tender, nostalgic ode. But let your imagination run and it’ll spook you – and then let that feeling influence how you hear the rest of the album, and you’ll keep getting spooked. You’ll start hearing more frightening things between the lines – like when he sings, “I wanna be so close / you can wear my skin like a new set of clothes” (“Breathe You In”); his death fixation during the lusty “Gonna Die Young”, where a hearse is following him around; or the song “5-1-5-0”, where he gets so obsessed with a woman that he goes insane. “This little bit of you I got / it ain’t good enough!”, he sings, and you wonder both what he wants and what he has.

Popular music is in part one big story of romantic obsession, and the singers are often telling stories through song that walk that thin line that wobbles between passion and crazy. The sentiment behind most of the love songs that you think of as sweet would drive you quickly away if someone was actually saying those things to you. Country music’s history of intense men makes it especially easy to listen to the music this way, to imagine the essential story of country music as a horror tale. That’s even if you set aside songs that are purposely scary, where the singer is taking the role of a murderer; like Johnny Cash singing “Delia’s Gone”, for example. Also set aside songs where revenge or violence is used as a political metaphor or evocation of the old West (say, Toby Keith and Willie Nelson’s “Beer for My Horses”). I’m more interested in inadvertent crazy, the ways we can hear hidden stories within a song, hear connotations and suggestions that the singer and songwriters perhaps didn’t intend and might not even be aware of.

For example, Keith Urban’s degree of romantic obsession freaks me out, especially the songs where he’s declaring his love for a woman he sees walking down the street, who doesn’t know him at all, like in “Standing Right in Front of You”, where he watches her walk by and gets mad that she won’t stop and proclaim her love for him. In songs like that, Urban can go quickly from seeming like a beefcake loverman to an unhinged stalker. Take that perspective – that of a man who builds whole fantasy worlds around a stranger – and transfer it into his other songs, and something like “I Want to Put You in a Song” sounds like a threat. The woman in his bed in the background of the cover of Get Closer, is she alive?

It’s not the brutish macho cowboys who I know could beat me up that scare me most in country music. It’s what’s hiding behind the perfectly coiffed hair and big smiles of the modern country-pop star that makes me nervous. Like, for example, the toothy grin of Jake Owen on the cover of his Barefoot Blue Jean Night album. There’s something I don’t trust in that smile. When he beckons a girl to take a car ride to “Heaven” with him or calls a woman in the middle of the night and tells her his heart is bursting with love that he needs to give her, his creep side comes out into the open.

Sometimes, it’s more a sleazy vibe than a violent one that I get from these singers, like Luke Bryan in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, essentially breaking up with a girl and then asking her to give him something he’ll remember her by. “Girl rest your head / one more time in my bed”, he sings. I say, Girl, run, and fast! Elsewhere on his LP Tailgates and Tanlines, he keeps ordering women to dance – on his tailgate, on the roof of his car – to the point that it feels like a pathology, or at least a fetish. His “I Knew You That Way” covers a one-night-stand, but one where they might not both be completely willing participants: “I held you closer than I had a right to hold”.

Like “The Woods” and other backwoods songs, Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water” is mostly about escape, but there’s still something amiss. The menacing hard-rock guitars tell me he’s not idling away on a lazy Sunday, but running away from someone. He leaves his truck and phone behind, hides his face behind the brim of his hat and gets in a boat he had hidden sometime earlier. He remembers fondly when his dad taught him to kill crawdads, then kills squirrels, then kill rabbits. And then…what, or who, else might he kill?

A longing for peaceful isolation, far from city life, is what drives songs like that one. Perhaps I'm too much of a city boy to keep my imagination from running wild about life in the country. Then again, I’ve visited the beach a lot, and I still don’t fully trust Kenny Chesney’s version of escape, either. He jokes about going “coastal” on us, not “postal” (on the Hemmingway’s Whiskey track “Coastal”), but is there a real difference? “You got to watch that man / he’ll go coastal on you”, is a punchline, but it also sounds like a real warning to me. Instead of pulling out a gun, he’s going to pull out sunglasses, sunscreen and a handful of sun. And he's gonna be insane.

On Chesney’s albums, he “goes coastal” so often that I find it hard to believe him. Everything in his beachside anecdotes sounds so perfectly manicured, from the beach itself to the wise fisherman dispensing life advice to him at the bar, that it has to be fiction. Combine those beach vacations with the other dreams that run through every Chesney album – mainly, nostalgia for high school – and I start to imagine him not as the stud on the beach but as a daydreaming, middle-aged employee at a travel agency, staring at photos of exotic locales and creating his own stories around them.

No doubt Kenny Chesney would take offense to that, just as Bentley wouldn’t like to know that it’s possible to hear his songs as narratives of a psychopath. But imaging their meaning my have a darker edge is possible, and that possibility is what makes music exciting. There's a balance of power between the singer and the listener, and it can shift either way. There's a prominent fallacy when it comes to songwriting that says someone writes a song with one message in mind, someone sings it, and that message is delivered to the listener intact. The truth is, there are plenty of points where that message changes, if ever it were solid in the fast place, and a key one – the most important one – is in the listener’s brain. There are many ways to listen to a song. Listen from every possible direction, every possible perspective, and see what you can find.

A warning, though: Those characters coming out of your car radio, following you on the hidden speakers as you walk through Walgreens, just might start get weirder on you. Those tunes that you thought innocuous might haunt you as you sleep, might terrify you once and for all.

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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