Reviews

Two Guys on the World's Greatest Road Trip: 'Route 66: The Complete Series'

The genre-bending television series, Route 66, captured a view of America at a time when it seemed that anything was possible.


Route 66: The Complete Series

Director: Philip Leacock, Arthur Hiller, Alvin Ganzer
Cast: Martin Milner, George Maharis, Glenn Corbett
Distributor: Acorn
Studio: CBS TV
Release date: 2012-05-12

Eight years before Simon and Garfunkel sang about going to look for America, two young men set off in a Corvette on much the same mission. One, Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) was a Yalie whose father had recently died and left him the car; the other, Buz Murdock (George Maharis), was a tough city kid who had worked for Tod's dad. Both were looking for something, although they couldn't have told you exactly what—just that they were sure that there was more to life than staying on the assembly line that led from school to work to marriage to grave.

Tod and Buz weren't hippies—they were much too clean-cut to ever blend into the cast of Hair--but they were the spiritual cousins of everyone who's ever questioned the straight and narrow path to middle-class (or working-class) respectability, and Buz in particular had more than a bit of the beat generation about him.

Tod and Buz, of course, are the central characters of Route 66, the groundbreaking CBS television series that aired from 1960 to 1964. The series was the brainchild of producer Herbert Leonard and writer Stirling Silliphant, and it's so different from the usual fare (variety shows, westerns, cop shows, anthologies) offered on American television during those years that it's astonishing not only that it was made at all, but that it lasted for four full seasons.

Route 66 didn't fit into any existing genre—it wasn't an anthology program of independent episodes, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone, nor was it a conventional drama with a large ongoing cast, like Gunsmoke or Perry Mason. Instead, each week Route 66 offered a new story, but it was centered around the two recurring characters of Tod and Buz as they traveled across America (often far from the real Route 66, but who's counting?).

It's an absolutely brilliant setup that allowed the writers extreme flexibility in terms of story and location, while also maintaining continuity of interest through the two central characters. Rather notably, the series was able to replace Maharis in season 3, after he became ill, with Glen Corbett (as "Linc Case"), without doing any damage to its narrative structure.

There's so much to enjoy in this series, but first and foremost is the fact that all the episodes were shot on location, which was quite unusual for television at the time. This means that the Route 66 episodes present a time capsule of America when local customs were far more distinctive than they are today, and it's great fun just to see what Grand Isle, Louisiana, or Philadelphia, or the Glen Canyon Dam looked like 50 years ago.

Another great pleasure is the quality of acting from the supporting characters, both from veterans like Peter Lorre, Lew Ayres, and Everett Sloane and from young up-and-comers including Ed Asner, Robert Redford, and Suzanne Pleshette. A third is the quality of the scripts and the number of serious issues they tackled, from racism to drug abuse to juvenile delinquency. Silliphant, who wrote many of the episodes, is justly famous for infusing a poetic quality into the dialogue, and many episodes include a monologue which, while perhaps a bit too plummy for the character and the context, bring a heightened sensibility not often seen on broadcast television.

Route 66 captures the feeling of a particularly optimistic time in American life, when anything seemed possible (at least if you were white and male and had a few bucks to spare) and a young person that could afford to put off adult responsibilities for a few years and be confident they'd have no problem picking up with a conventional life when the time was right. The road trip is part of America's cultural DNA, and Tod and Buz are on the greatest road trip of all time—they get to go wherever they want, defer to no one (to the point of being "ugly Americans" to their fellow countrymen from time to time), and always have enough money to maintain their freedom (although the show made a point of having them pick up work as they traveled). Besides, they win every fight and charm all the pretty girls, so who wouldn't want to trade places with them?

Acorn Media has released all the episodes of Route 66 in a single box set, and it is one big collection: 24 discs, 116 episodes, 6000 minutes. The episodes look and sound great, and if you're so inclined, you can use the set to disappear into early '60s America and not come up for air for four days. If you're more given to moderation, you can treat the set like a collection of chapters from a modern-day serial novel, dipping into them when you have an hour or two free.

The DVD extras are OK, if nothing spectacular: a documentary on the Corvette, vintage commercials for Chevrolet and Bayer aspirin, and clips from a Q & A session featuring George Maharis, directors Arthur Hiller and Elliot Silverstein, casting director Marion Dougherty, and writer/producer Herbert B. Leonard.

8

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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