Music

Neneh Cherry & The Thing: The Cherry Thing

Neneh comes full circle by returning, and embracing, her roots on this vital album.


Neneh Cherry & The Thing

The Cherry Thing

Label: Smalltown Supersound
US Release Date: 2012-06-19
UK Release Date: 2012-06-18
Artist Website
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Neneh Cherry is a rare thing in popular music.

A woman who has appeared, from the outside at least, to control her own destiny and ploughed her own path whilst coming from a wildly eclectic and creative family. Mother Moki is a painter and textile artist, younger brother Eagle-Eye is a musician (Save Tomorrow is a brilliant record), stepsister Jan is a violinist, and stepbrother David Ornette Cherry is (and if you can't guess what, with a name like that, there is no hope for you!) a jazz musician. Add in daughter Naima, a photographer, and stepson Marlon, from her marriage to music producer Cameron McVey, who fronts Mattafix, and here is a family seriously engaged with artistic endeavour.

But above all this looms the presence of Neneh's own stepfather, the legendary jazz musician Don Cherry from whom Neneh took her name. Born in Sweden, the family moved to England, then New York before Neneh, at the age of 14, moved back to London. During this peripatetic period, Neneh would be exposed to a whole slew of incredible jazz musicians who would come by and jam with her stepdad; Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Hamid Drake were just a few she met. Now back in London, Neneh fell into the company of Tessa Pollitt of the Slits. This friendship would eventually lead to Neneh joining the post-punk free-jazz group Rip Rig + Panic which provides a clue to how her musical journey would eventually lead to the collaboration with the Thing.

First though, Neneh would become recognised as one of the foremost female artists of her generation, namely through the release of "Buffalo Stance" and then her trip-hop work with Massive Attack and the monster "7 Seconds" a collaboration with Youssou N’Dour.

After a period with CirKus, a family affair featuring Neneh, Cameron and daughter Tyson, she moved back to her homeland of Sweden and it is here that Neneh has completed her circle with the release of The Cherry Thing.

The Thing (one Swede and two Norwegians) formed in Sweden and are a free jazz trio, named after a Don Cherry track, and who openly state the influence of the great man on their music. Made up of Mats Gustafsson (sax), Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (double bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums), the Thing have attracted rave reviews not only for their skill and improvisation with jazz songs, but for their interpretations of popular music from the likes of the White Strips, PJ Harvey and collaborations with musicians like Thurston Moore. Such is the dovetailing and connections of both Neneh and the Thing, it is hard to believe that this collaboration isn't some sort of contrived marriage of convenience engineered by a scheming music exec.

The fact is, it is simply one of life's great comings together. You can feel the connection between the singer and the musicians in the music -- a selection of covers by bands as diverse as Suicide, the Stooges, MF Doom, Ornette Coleman and of course Don Cherry himself -- each discordant sound (and I include the vocals here), sometimes crashing off each other as in the Stooges "Dirt" other times in such glorious harmony it takes your breath away as with MF Doom's "Accordian".

The album opens with Flaten's thumping double bass (a definite sample in waiting) on the Cherry written "Cashback" in which her vocal delivery is stunning, a controlled anger which owes more to punk than jazz, over which come the thrashing drums and the wailing sax. I'm completely thrown, my musical reference points all over the place. This is followed by an eight-minute reworking of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream", which replaces the synths with sax and is rendered as a smoky Billie Holiday jazz number. Cherry's vocals brings such a warmth when compared to Vega's almost clinical reading of the original. This is an inspired song choice and I can imagine it being played in clubs and bars of all musical persuasions. Simply awesome.

"Too Tough to Die" is arguably the albums most straightforward song inso much as it sounds like a collaboration between a trip-hop artist (it's written by Martina Topley-Bird) and a jazz band. With the drums and double bass holding a steady rhythm against a trip-hop vocal delivery, albeit with some sort of amazing flutter type singing thing going on, against the off kilter, aggressive sax of Gustafsson.

Gustafsson's own composition, "Sudden Moment" clearly belongs in contemporary jazz circles, the playing, free form but cohesive is supported by Cherry's vocals which sit on top of, rather than within, the music as he cuts loose with a sax solo.

MF Doom’s "Accordion" is a threatening brooding, creepy film nourish interpretation, with Cherry's vocals leaving the listener hoping he or she doesn't meet her in a dark alley, there is no doubt who would come off worse.

Neneh's reading of Don Cherry's "Golden Heart" is flecked with middle eastern sounds and a hidden, almost distorted vocal performance before the refrain "Golden heart / Golden heart / Golden heart" is repeated at the end of the song and her voice sounds happy, like Minnie Ripperton. Is this some sort of catharsis for her?

The Stooges "Dirt" brings the ambience right back low and dirty. From the vocal delivery to the dirty dirty sound of the sax, this is sex, not sax, jazz and you can imagine Iggy being very happy with this scenario.

The Cherry Thing is a marvellous album. This is not some sort of vanity project or nostalgia trip. Neneh Cherry remains a vital presence in popular music judging by this release. Going back to those early days of Rip Rig + Panic and the years of living with, and listening to, her step dad and his mates (what a collection of mates!) is now paying dividends with this collaboration with the majestic, innovative and forward thinking The Thing who it is hoped many more people will now go and seek out.

Some things are meant to be. This is one of them. This is vital. This ain't no Buffalo Stance!

9

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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