TV

'Unchained Reaction' Is Entertaining and Educational

The competing teams' different starting points mean that each team goes through different kinds of trials and errors in making their schemes material.

Unchained Reaction

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Discovery
Airdate: 2012-01-18
Website
Trailer
Amazon

Since Mythbusters premiered on Discovery in 2003, numerous imitators and ripoffs have tried to replicate the show's winning formula of experimentation and destruction. The Discovery Channel itself has been responsible for some of these second-rate shows. (Remember Smash Lab? If you don't, count yourself lucky.)

For Unchained Reaction, two teams compete to build complex, Rube Goldberg-style contraptions around a theme, while original Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage serve as hosts, narrators, and judges. The premise isn't exactly original, but the show combines old ideas in fun and entertaining ways.

The setup of Unchained Reaction recalls TLC's early '00s engineering competition show Junkyard Wars, itself a repurposing of the UK original Scrapheap Challenge. In Junkyard Wars, teams scavenged junkyards for materials to use in creating mechanical devices, usually racing their finished contraptions at the end of an episode. While the teams in Unchained Reaction don't have whole junkyards at their disposal, they do have a vast array of equipment from which to choose, and both teams start with the same materials. They also don't have to spend precious hours picking through a scrap heap to find what they need, so the bulk of the five-day competition is spent on planning and building.

The new show also uses elements that will be familiar to viewers of Mythbusters. Early in each episode, the teams rough out the plans for their contraptions, which must contain at least 10 steps. When each team has a basic plan ready, the audience sees little stick figure-style animations of the plans. Aside from the animations taking place against a white background instead of blueprint paper, the style is the same as the schematics that Mythbusters uses to explain experiments.

Unchained Reaction's first episode -- airing 18 March -- does a good job of choosing teams with different approaches. The Blecha Brothers are Hollywood set carpenters, so their approach tends towards a combination of practical and flashy. They know how to build on a deadline, and often think in terms of visual sleights of hand. Crash Space, by contrast, is comprised of electronics experts and general nerds prone to playing with physics and engineering.

These different starting points mean that each team goes through different kinds of trials and errors in making their schemes material. Like so many Mythbusters episodes, a good part of the fun of Unchained Reaction comes in watching failed tests and the subsequent tweaks. The first episode sets a theme of "heavy versus light," and both teams are working on how to manage gravity. One constructs a stage where furniture is supposed to descend from the ceiling, flip, and land gently on the floor right side up. The result is a montage of smashed furniture that both entertains and effectively demonstrates the time-consuming difficulty involved in getting the assignment right.

While most of Unchained Reaction is entertaining and educational, a few details can be improved. Hyneman and Savage aren't directly involved with the teams while they're building, so a surrogate host, Charles Kane, checks in with the teams periodically and gives them advice, but in the premiere episode, he's not very helpful. Similarly, when Hyneman and Savage offer their own comments on the teams' processes, they're sitting close together and watching footage on a tiny laptop screen, not an especially compelling setup for the rest of us, as it's hard even to see what they're talking about.

The episode ends with Hyneman, Savage, and another expert judge coming in to watch each team show off its finished device. The teams set the machines in motion and hope they all work as planned, and the panel declares a winner, based on how well the teams incorporate the theme, how clever their contraptions are, and of course, how smoothly they actually operate. It's wonderful to watch the complicated devices in action, and we end up rooting for both teams to be successful. Their winning or losing is secondary to our enjoyment. Accordingly, the winner each week receives no prize beyond bragging rights.

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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