Film

Pirate Braying

This is not a defense of your average Joe Sixpack sparking up his BitTorrent software and treating the family to a night at the (free) movies. Instead, we are talking about how to accommodate professionals without turning them into criminals.

Back when Napster was a big deal (when Lars Ulrich and the rest of the still rich musical biz were calling it the digital devil incarnate), an argument - among many - was made amongst 'file sharers' (read: pirates) regarding their desire to download millions upon millions of mp3s. While price fixing and 'sticking it to the man' was the veiled rallying cry, the real reason was rather obvious - availability. Way back in the days before ITunes and Rhapsody, in the zygote like stage of the transition from bricks and mortar to material rich sites, labels would frequently let albums and artists go out of print. Makes perfect sense under the old business model, especially when you consider that record stores would return product they couldn't push...or, even better, subject it to the dreaded "cut out bin."

In the eyes of the P-n-P proponent, the lack of certain titles at their local music hang-out justified the dialing up of their Internet connection and the 'borrowing' of necessary tunes from their fellow audiophile. Granted, a lot of said trading dealt directly with product still bountiful on store shelves, but if you were looking for The Right to Be Italian by Holly and the Italians or Distinguishing Marks by Fingerprintz, you were out of luck. Even worse, with no legitimate outlet for such niche artists, corporate was more than happy to ignore demand and continue to work from the supply side of the situation. In fact, those in favor of what we now call 'piracy' point to the fact that such actions reconfigured the music industry for the better and are done with any further discussion.

Now, the same could be said for cinema. Indeed, the average home theater collection is usually limited to the most recent hits and a few classic gems. Rare is the individual who has thousands of titles in the catalog and then makes sure said library is filled with films that, over the decades, have been considered essential. Now transfer this fact over to the fledgling film critic, the online blogger or unpaid staffer who is struggling to fill his weekly quota of news, reviews, and sidelines. While obviously able to gain more access than the average aficionado, location and legitimacy can severely limit one's options. Newbies need content in order to prove to the PR people they are worthy of attending those otherwise off limit press screenings, and studios don't usually offer up their latest releases to someone without a certain set of credentials.

All of this ties into the current debate raging online among film fanatics, professional journalists, social networking pundits, and the members of the working media. In a piece for Indiewire, Mike D'Angelo makes a case FOR piracy, arguing that the current set up - online retail, streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, specialized distribution - is still too restrictive, especially when it comes to a vanity label like Criterion. In his article, the writer laments the lack of availability for the recent HD edition of Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. Wanting to SEE the film and not necessarily OWN it, Mr. D'Angelo points to the lack of options, his personal need, and perhaps most importantly, his professional opinion for how technology and market continue to muck up the situation. In essence, his argument implies that occupation trumps the law, or at the very least, the legality of filesharing.

It's not a new take on the subject. Ever since torrents became the standard opening day diversion, the clash between copyright and comfort zone has been raging. Reality often steps in to quell the discourse (we are still talking about a criminal act here) but then personal opinion and that most specious of special considerations - ethics - wander over to mess things up. In essence, those against piracy make the very valid and very legitimate point that stealing is stealing. A filmmaker makes a film, releases it to the general public, and then waits to be reimbursed/compensated for his or her time. It's the way with all art. Yet in the realm of 2012 technology, you can usually bypass the middle man and make your own viewership decision. Yes, for something just out in theaters the versions are usually crappy camcorder prints, but every once in a while, a legitimate screener comes along that allows you to see a current title in determined digital glory.

Before going any further, we have to define some parameters. Few can really champion the implied concept of entitlement flowing through the basics of the argument. Audiences are not entitled to see whatever they want whenever they want, just as listeners are not entitled to hear whatever they want whenever. While the current set-up does favor such an eventuality, without the final format, one must tolerate what technology can offer. So if you can watch every episode of Family Guy but can't come across a copy of an old Kurosawa title, so be it. On the other side of the sentiment is the notion of selective promotion. It may only apply to film critics and other journalists in general, but the implications within it are far reaching to the discussion herein.

For example, yours truly lives in Tampa, Florida. Not the most booming metropolis on the map, but by many marketing standards, we are 13th in the United States. The weird thing is that Orlando is listed as 19th and Miami creeps in at 16th. This means that, among the minds of those in the business of public relations, we should rank higher than those other well known areas. Yet for some reason, we are treated like third class citizens when it comes to film. Indeed, Orlando and Miami will get many new releases (and as a result, screenings of same) before they will even consider opening it on the West Coast. Sometimes, the State is considered by these two cities only. So if a critic living in Tampa wants to see something that otherwise will not be offered to his journalistic membership, he or she has one option - travel the 75 miles to Orlando or the 270-plus to South Beach.

Or...they could look for a bootleg copy of the film online. Granted, it's not the most professional or principled option, but it is a quasi-pragmatic one. With editors screaming and deadlines looming (and performance almost always based on readership, popularity, and trends), a day long drive is probably not the answer. Similarly, every local critic has discovered the deaf ears owned by the prestigious PR firms. Some even go so far as to remind you of your unimportance when you query about an upcoming release ("You're in Tampa...too bad..."). So while it violates everything the standards state, the lure of online piracy provides a pathway out of such a situation. In fact, it is often the only way to stay competitive within a marginalized market (for the record, this is not something yours truly does or condones).

Of course, that doesn't make the act defensible. As a matter of fact, the idea that a paid professional would have to look elsewhere to procure the items he or she needs to do their job seems antithetical to the whole approach. Film festivals often employ online means of making their movies available to journalists and Oscar season has started to experiment with such a system. Disney even designed a protected process (now defunct) which tied their previews to a device installed in the critic's home. In fact, with the way in which technology is moving, the problem will be solved before the debate is truly over. Remember - this is not a defense of your average Joe Sixpack sparking up his BitTorrent software and treating the family to a night at the (free) movies. Instead, we are talking about how to accommodate professionals without turning them into criminals. Mr. D'Angelo may indeed have a point. However, to parse it out into a public mandate is beyond foolish.

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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