Music

The Offspring: Days Go By

The So Cal punks' ninth album is pitched as some grand new accomplishment. Instead, it's merely commendably competent, save for one incredibly awful single.


The Offspring

Days Go By

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2012-06-26
UK Release Date: 2012-06-25
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You hear that? That’s the sound of rock radio programmers and bleached-blonde Vans Warped Tour attendees around the world breathing a collective sigh of relief. So Cal’s most successful punk band ever is back, and they’d like people to know that they don’t intend to rest on their laurels when it comes to their ninth studio album. (Jesus, has it really been nearly 20 years since “Come Out and Play” burst out of nowhere to become the first independently-released single to top the Billboard Modern Rock chart?) Let’s be frank, though: I’m sure we all learned at some point in school that trying your damnedest doesn’t necessarily correlate to turning out the best damned work you’ve ever done. Good effort, kid, but does the final result warrant the grade you’re aiming for?

That’s a polite way of saying Days Go By isn’t better than Smash, that multi-million-selling 1994 breakthrough that comfortably remains the Offspring’s most accomplished moment. Even so, there are high expectations being generated for this new CD. The party line from the Offspring is that the four-year gap between Days Go By and their last LP, 2008’s Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, was the result of diligent tweaking and polishing of the material intended to ensure that their new offering would be all killer, no filler. It sounds like a flimsy spin spiel -- but then you pop in the disc and are greeted by the bounding charge of guitars and drums given arena-sized weight courtesy of Metallica producer Bob Rock, and all that talk does seem to evidence genuine merit after all.

It’s a shame then that Days Go By doesn’t fulfill its promise, especially since the first handful of cuts leave a good impression. Though the Offspring’s songs are no longer predominately propelled by the blistering quasi-thrash riffs of yore (they make an appearance near the end on “Dividing by Zero”, but that’s it), the band compensates by performing their rockers with a steady, linear determination that makes such songs feel resolute and unconquerable. The album opener “The Future Is Now” is a potential rock radio smash in the waiting, and easily outclasses the LP’s actual lead single for the American market. That’s not to say that that single, the album’s title track, is weak. In actuality, “Days Go By” is a solid piece of inspirational hard rock that’s remarkably reminiscent of the Cult circa Love down to its Billy Duffy-aping guitar leads, but avoids the outright pastiche that always infests Offspring records due to singer Dexter Holland’s psychedelic phrasings.

Then Days Go By throws away all the goodwill it has built up so far by entering downright dire territory in its middle stretch. That segment of the album brings the cringeworthy “Cruising California (Bumping in My Trunk)”, the LP’s requisite joke single (and its lead a-side outside of the US). Here, the band pillages the sound of contemporary Top 40 dance-pop to create their own sunny summer pop anthem, authentically flavored with rapped verses, blown-out bass, and annoyingly dopey hooks including a whistling synth line and a mugging Holland’s calls to “Turn up the beat yeah!” Yeah, these smart-ass genre exercises are an Offspring trademark, and I’m sure defenders will argue that putting out a single as legitimately dumb-sounding as anything Katy Perry or LMFAO releases makes it all the more humorous. Whatever, this song is downright diabolical, a showcase of the Offspring at their most grating. The subsequent number “All I Have Left Is You” (the Offspring doing a U2 impression without being blatant about it) is a brief respite from the utterly horrendous, but then we return to familiar territory with “OC Guns”, an unholy combination of obnoxious white boy Spanish rapping, half-baked reggae riddims, and loudly mixed record scratching. Two minutes into my first listen, I couldn’t stand anymore. And then my face fell as I realized I had two more minutes left to go.

Two (incredibly) horrible songs aren’t enough to discount the entire album, no. Yet it’s unfortunate that Days Go By doesn’t provide any delirious highs to counter its abysmal lows. As I said earlier, there’s a feeling of unfulfilled promise with this record. Much of the album is commendably competent, with a few patches of blandness (“All I Have Left Is You”, the Orange County pop rock-by-numbers of “I Wanna Secret Family (With You)”) interspersed. But nothing on Days Go By is in the weight class of past Offspring classics “Come Out and Play”, “Self-Esteem”, or “Gone Away”. Instead, its best tracks simply follow on from quasi-comeback Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace and maintain that level, as if this is the most we can expect from the band in 2012. If the group did indeed approach this recording with the gusto it claims, that may very well be the case. It’d be a shame if that was so -- that if after nearly 20 years of hits, the Offspring have reached the stage that threatens all veteran acts, where the public is supposed to be content if they manage to put out an album where they don’t embarrass themselves.

Oh wait, they did. God, “Cruising California” is terrible.

5

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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