Music

Yoko Ono / Kim Gordon / Thurston Moore: YokoKimThurston

YokoKimThurston is sometimes interesting, but mostly makes you think, "why was I so excited to hear this?"


Yoko Ono / Kim Gordon / Thurston Moore

YokoKimThurston

Label: Chimera
US Release Date: 2012-09-25
UK Release Date: Import
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The first time I visited New York City, back in the '90s, I felt like I was being followed around the city by ghosts, or rather following them around. Not dead people, mind you, but the people, living or fictional that I associate with New York City, a city that before this had mainly existed for me in my imagination. Woody Allen characters were chief among them, and Seinfeld characters, the Ramones and various hip-hop legends. But the main two entities were John & Yoko and Sonic Youth. I'd walk past streets that reminded me of Sonic Youth, by allusion or feeling. I happened upon the John Lennon memorial in Central Park, after walking past the Dakota, and the same day went to a retrospective Yoko Ono art exhibit, Yes, that blew me away. That exhibit endeared me to Ono, told the story of her artistic personality in a way that all of the stereotypes and gossip about her never did. When I first heard Onobox, the retrospective boxset of her music, I felt similarly, realizing the diversity of ideas and sounds contained within her vision.

At the start of YokoKimThurston, a collaboration among Ono and Thurston Gordon and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, she comes out shrieking, sounding more like the atonal figure that's the center of the stereotype of what her music is like. Sonic Youth come out similarly, with noisy rock guitar that's all too familiar to anyone who's listened to their discography. The album does change up from that point, but not greatly. If anyone tried to imagine what a Ono/Gordon/Moore collaboration might sound like, they would come up with something exactly like this. It's as if they're improvising together, and each relying on old tricks. That first track, "I Missed You Listening", keeps seeming like it's getting somewhere, that it will center on a real idea, but it doesn't. The album as a whole is similar to the circling storm that's on the cover; it circles, sits and gobbles you up, but it never really evolves. The 14-minute final track, "Early in the Morning", tries for a big, brutal finale, but even while they're screaming and wailing on their guitars it seems more like stasis than climax or release.

After the first track, the trio for a while gets more into poetry/music pieces. Sometimes the words they say are obvious and uninteresting – the collection of fears on "Running the Risk", which often seems like they played a word-association game and recorded it, in one take – but occasionally can captivate a bit more, like with Ono's whispered/breathed vocals on "I Never Told You Did I?". She seems really adamant about something – it's taken her breath away – but what it is, is a mystery. And she breaks down at one point, while a strange voice echoes in the back. That voice might be Gordon's, or at least, on many of the album's best moments her voice plays counterpoint to Ono's, seeming like a co-conspirator, like the devil on her shoulder, or like the sound of secrets which keep making their way into her ears.

"Mirror Mirror", the fourth track of six, might be the most bewildering. Ono starts, "I'm nervous every day / every minute / but at the same time I'm an extremely relaxed person", and continues to sing sentiments that sound like she's reading her diary aloud or answering interview questions, while Moore and Gordon crumple up paper in the background. Then Gordon starts talking about how calcium is good for the body and Ono starts heavy panting…and you start to think, "are they just doing whatever they feel like?", knowing that's the pedestrian complaint against conceptual and avant-garde art, the sort of talk you usually would discount.

But here it's hard to know what the point is, other than these giants of underground New York music coming together. It's right there in the album's name, the way it sets their names up to tell you this is a happening of important people. It's why the album seemed like it'd be exciting, because of their own legacies. Essentially, the album cannot live up to that expectation, because they don't seem to be trying hard, more in love with the fact that they're making an album together. It is sometimes interesting, but almost on accident. It mostly makes you think, “"why was I so excited to hear this?"

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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