Reviews

Imagine a Caution Signal in White Instead of Yellow: 'The Color Revolution'

This book takes me from thinking that I’m going to grab that dark green sweater because it’s clean or because someone told me green looks good on me to wondering why I was even able to buy a dark green sweater to begin with.


The Color Revolution

Publisher: MIT Press
Price: $34.95
Author: Regina Lee Blaszczyk
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-09
Amazon

The Color Revolution does something that many of my favorite books do: it takes an everyday thing, something that is almost always present but that I don’t think too much about, and makes me think about it. In this case, it takes me from thinking that I’m going to grab that dark green sweater because it’s clean or because someone told me green looks good on me to wondering why I was even able to buy a dark green sweater to begin with.

Blaszczyk opens the book with a similar thought—except she prefers lime green, and she understands why she could purchase an entire lime-green ensemble: “It was no accident that my dress, my handbag, and my candy matched to a T. My new lime-green ensemble had been color coordinated by design. It was a product of design practices that had been unfolding for more than a century.”

Color is all around us— and just in case we’ve missed this fact—Blaszczyk gives plenty of examples, both in the text and in the abundant number of visuals: advertisements, photographs, calendars, magazine covers, sections of fabrics, etc. But she is quick to note that most don’t know much about colorists or color management and that colorists are often overlooked despite their significant contributions: “Professional colorists are important (yet often invisible) players in the creative economy that undergirds the global fashion system. Design historians, business historians, and museum curators who focus on ‘great entrepreneurs’ and ‘great designers’ have overlooked these creative professionals and their influence on products.” Blaszczyk aims to right this wrong by examining the history of color and colorists from the 1890s to the 1960s.

Despite chapter titles like “Mauve Mania” and “Think Pink”, it’s clear that color can be serious business. For example, the chapter “Hide and Seek” discusses artists’ contributions to the war effort. As Blaszczyk relates, in 1917 the New York Times demanded “American artists, join the camouflage!” and painters “helped the Army develop camouflage techniques for hiding land targets from German spy balloons, cannons, and bombers”. Called camoufleurs, they “combined a painter’s command of optical illusion with a naturalist’s understanding of deceptive coloration”.

Blaszczyk also notes the connections between color and science. The section “Signals, Science, and Safety” discusses the creation of colored caution signals for rail traffic. Today we might automatically associate yellow with caution, but Blaszczyk tells of a time when white lights were used (albeit not very effectively) to signal caution. Later Blaszczyk discusses color and energy consumption: “Scientific tests showed that using the right paint on floors and walls could double the effects of most lighting systems without increasing the wattage”.

As one might expect, fashion—fabrics, ensemble dressing, the Textile Color Card Association, signature hues—has a strong presence in the book, but less stylish entities, such as appliances, also take up a good portion of the text. According to Blaszczyk, red, black, blue, gray, yellow, and green stoves were available in the late '40s, and she also includes a brief history of the color palette of Maytag washers. Then, of course, there is a section on cars.

Ultimately, though, this book is all about people. After all, none of this—red stoves, Pan American Blue, color systems, McDonalds’ golden arches— was accidental; people made it happen. As promised in the introduction, Blaszczyk brings the stories of these people, the “color stylists”, “color forecasters” and “color engineers”, to life. She tells the stories of people like Margaret Hayden Rorke, one of the first color forecasters and the woman responsible for balancing “American taste with French style, gaining widespread acceptance for the TCCA [the Textile Color Card Association], and establishing its position as the leading American color authority”.

Blaszczyk moves from a time when colorists labored to make colors reliable to a time when this reliability is so expected and commonplace that no one even notices:

“We are oblivious to the fact that in centuries past almost everything turned pale after brief exposure to the sun. Our sheets, towels, and shirts don’t fade after dozens of washings… Our black Kenmore refrigerators match our black Maytag dishwashers. Every single Stop sign is the same shade of red, and every British Airways Boeing 747 has the same blue nylon upholstery… We live in the chromo-utopia [colorists] worked so hard to achieve—but we are sadly unmindful of its wonders.”

But that, of course, must be part of the purpose of the book—to make us mindful, to make us wonder why we can purchase an ice blue automobile or why we can’t find a yellow sweater when three years ago all we could find were yellow sweaters. Blaszczyk makes this and much more clear in her beautifully designed book. The tone sometimes shifts from academic to conversational, but the stories Blaszczyk tells and the history she relates should make all spend some serious, but pleasurable, time rethinking color.

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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