Music

Spider Bags: Shake My Head

For their third album, Spider Bags throw a massive party. But raucous sing-alongs and flowing beer doesn't mean there isn't tension underneath.


Spider Bags

Shake My Head

US Release: 2012-08-07
Label: Odessa
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One fascinating thing about dubstep is how quickly it's unified legions of fans under one flag. Faced with a lack of radio-play-ready proper guitar solos, kids promptly went elsewhere, doing what they do best: making things cool because they are young and doing drugs. The actual merits of dubstep are for another discussion entirely, because this is about the Spider Bags new album, Shake My Head, and how a band like Spider Bags became one of the last, best, invisible bands.

There are a thousand ways for a band to get discovered today, you know them all: magazines, websites, a great YouTube video, some weird viral scheme. There are people who look through these sources all day, trying to find some new sound that they can share with others (including this reviewer). The Spider Bags have, essentially, fallen through all of these cracks, multiple times. The Washington Post once started an interview with Patrick Stickles of Titus Androncius commiserating talking about how unknown Spider Bags are. This failed to make them known. As far as I can tell, their anonymity is based on a couple factors, one of them being geography: Bands from Chapel Hill don’t get as much play these days as they did in the 90’s. But another is that, like Titus Andronicus, Spider Bags don’t quite fit into current retro mindset. There’s a party going on, but it doesn’t take long to see the stresses underneath.

“Keys to the City”, which opens the album, is filled with ricocheting guitars and hooks that take you to the back of an American Legion hall that should be closed down but it’s not, where there’s a cold cooler full of beer and the people are getting drunk and know your name. Like a lot of the songs on Shake My Head, it’s not just frontman Dan McGee hollering out the chorus but a whole bunch of people. Every Spider Bag shows a whole lotta love on Shake, for each other and for you too, probably. But McGee sneaks in a couple ominous lines right at the end; sneeze and you miss them: “Can’t lock yourself outta prison, can’t learn your ass in college” and some mumbling that sounds like a diss of the Lower East Side. Manhattanites aside, there’s something troubling about ending this this type of Whiskey River rocker on such a note of predestined paranoia. It’s a feeling that’ll show itself a couple other places on the record. Never overtaking, just enough to let you know that it’s 2012 and the rich seem richer and those who aren’t that are going to become more of whatever they already are, but worse.

“All my friends are leaving town, I’m the only jerk who sticks around”, McGee mutters at the opening of lead single “Friday Night”. “And it’s tough, falling out of love, baby it’s tough, tough tough!” The guitars are full of bluster and head-nodding swagger, and McGee’s tones alternate between desperation and pride. There’s no real urgency in his voice or the lyrics, which jump from sad place to place -- it’s just how things happen to be right now.

People talk all over the fringes of Shake My Head, which befits an album made over three days. Problems about life may abound, but no one’s taking them too seriously as long as the music’s going. There’s a narrowing of focus on the cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” that comes at the album’s midpoint. McGee’s voice takes on a monotone, stating point blank, “You gotta live for yourself, for yourself and nobody else”. This is when it hits that even though there’s a country-rock line from the Spider Bags you could trace directly back to John Fogerty, you’ll never hear ever hear them reminisce about baseball. It’s travelling band music for an age of MP3s, where everyone around them seems a little colder, a little less interested in their neighbors.

That’s not to say listening to Shake My Head is a sorrowful affair, because it’s not. Even the mistakes on Shake are generally congenial affairs, more forgettable than offensive — was there a need for a psychedelic track in the middle of this barn-burner? No, but “Shape I Was In” ambles by harmlessly enough. It’s a raucous affair for confusing times, and Shake My Head works best when it realizes that a loud rocking party won’t cure all your troubles, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one anyway.

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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