Wrote a Song for Everyone: Slim Dunlap's Art/Roots Marriage

Former Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap's roots run deeper than punk rock, but he's got an arty flare you might not expect from a man who loves Hank Williams and Chuck Berry.

The Replacements

Songs for Slim

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2013-04-16

Lucinda Williams, Tommy Keene

Songs for Slim: Partners In Crime / Nowheres Near

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2013-04-23

Steve Earle, Craig Finn

Songs For Slim: Times Like This / Isn't It?

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2013-04-13

Slim Dunlap

Times Like This

Label: Restless
US Release Date: 1996-10-22

Slim Dunlap has been called “one of the last old-school cool guitar players” and for good reason. His penchant for country-inflected passages and a focus on rock steady rhythms that’d make Keith Richards sit up and take notice have made him a hero in his adopted hometown, Minneapolis, Minnesota, but also to rock enthusiasts around the world. His style was markedly different than that of his predecessor, Bob Stinson, in the Replacements, something he would have been well aware of but still probably had to hear about and discuss in many a Q&A session.

His tenure in that band, 1987 to 1991, must have been strange. He came aboard just in time for 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul, one of the band’s finest later records, but one that saw the group teetering on the edge of mainstream success for the last time and having to account, at plenty of steps along the way, for its turn toward a more commercial sound. It was followed a year later by All Shook Down, not so much a swan song but a beautifully caustic death wheeze on which session musicians supported frontman Paul Westerberg.

Still, Dunlap doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d let all of that phase him. You get the sense, from everything that’s been said and written about him -- in the last 14 months especially -- that one of the reasons he got the Mats gig was that he’s a guy you really want to hang out with and that one of the reasons you’d want to hang out with him is that, in the end, he’s just a good guy. Dunlap’s name has come in conversation for a number of reasons over the last year, starting with a somewhat grim one. In early 2012 the guitarist suffered a major stroke that has left him paralyzed on one side of his body and in need of major medical care.

The silver linings that have revealed themselves amid these struggles include the remarkable support that he and his family have received from friends and colleagues. There’s also been light shed on his gifts a songwriter. Late last year, when former Replacements manager Peter Jesperson announced Songs for Slim -- a series in which artists would cover Dunlap’s tunes and issue them first for auction, then for mass release -- one of the hopes bandied about was that there would also be a critical reassessment of Dunlap’s work, namely his two solo albums, 1993’s The Old New Me and its successor, Times Like This (1996).

Dunlap was a seasoned veteran by the time he joined The Replacements after the group’s 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me. He wasn’t just older than the others -- he had several years on Westerberg and drummer Chris Mars and more than a decade on bassist Tommy Stinson -- but he’d already been part of Spooks with Minneapolis legend Curtiss A by the time the Stinson brothers, Mars, and Westerberg joined forces in 1979. Listen to 1980-1990, the wild, abrasive, and often funny six-song EP Spooks issued in early 1978 and you’ll hear some of the same attitude the Mats possessed on early and even later recordings.

Dunlap -- then still known as Bob, Slim would be a gift from Westerberg -- comes off as a well-formed player. Though the band was ostensibly aiming for a punk/new wave aesthetic, there was far more going on than what might first meet the ear. The rich Keith Richard’s-esque chords, the Stonesian sway, and the rough-and-tumble tone that betrayed an appreciation for Chuck Berry are all present on songs such as “Fun Is Everything (Science Fiction World)” and “Sinister Forces… Peculiar Points of View”. He continued to record with A. throughout the early '80s, performing on records such as The Damage is Done (1983) and Courtesy (1980). There’s country-friend playing to be heard in “Kickin’” and early rock/blues via “Jelly B. Bop”. (Dave Ahl and Chris Osgood of Minneapolis’s first strike punk band, Suicide Commandoes were also part of the Curtiss A camp.)

As interesting as that early work is, it’s with his two solo records from the ‘90s that we see the true depths of his talents. Released in the early hours of 1993, around the time he’d completed a stint in Dan (Georgia Satellites) Baird’s touring band, The Old New Me might have seemed a little underwhelming at the time. Soundgarden, Nirvana, and even the once slightly quieter but no less deranged outfit Meat Puppets were all delivering punishing blows with frequently detuned and often overdriven guitars. The Jayhawks had issued Hollywood Town Hall in the months before Bill Clinton was elected to his first term but that record was still viewed as a stylistic anomaly in the mainstream. Uncle Tupelo was issuing quiet, roots-oriented records at the time but the band was still several months away from its grandest and final statement, Anodyne when Dunlap’s debut crept into stores. Let’s not forget that the bands that’d come to be categorized as alt country -- with all due respect to Dan Baird’s former band -- were still in their infancy or just gathering enough steam to be noticed on the club circuit.

As a 1993 record -- and a record from a former Replacement -- goes The Old New Me opens like punk, alternative, and heavy metal never happened. “Rockin’ Here Tonight” might have rubbed elbows with something from the first Keith Richards album, Talk Is Cheap, but even that -- a record released in 1988 -- sounded more like something you’d have heard before Jimmy Carter took office. In this way, Dunlap’s debut was both behind the times and just a little bit ahead of them. “Isn’t It” might have passed for a darker, more groove oriented Dwight Yoakam track while “From the Git Go” should have been the honky tonk hit of the summer. The lyrics -- though filled with rock ‘n’ roll and rural sass -- were hardly filled with cool, ironic stance fashionable at the time and that song, as well as several others here, speaks to the sweetness and sincerity of their author.

The album closer “Love Lost” was the kind of breathtakingly beautiful track that would have fit perfect on a late ‘60s country record and “Busted Up” was smart and dangerous enough that you couldn’t -- and still can’t -- help dance to it. “The Ballad of the Opening Band”, a statement that needs to be made today as much as it did back then is both heartbreaking and funny, two of the qualities that make it so endearing and enduring. Dunlap’s ability to work with cliché -- using phrases such as “Taken on the Chin” and “Partners in Crime” to launch into songs that had something fresh -- and, in the case of the latter, intimate -- to say is remarkable, highlighted, in the case of “Partners” by Lucinda Williams’ recent cover of it -- as good a love song as anyone wrote in the '90s.

By the time Times Like This emerged three years later the alt-country swing was gathering steam -- or was just about to run out of it. Wilco was already shedding its country leanings for psychedelic-infused weirdness on Being There, Son Volt’s 1995 debut Trace set a template that band would follow for years to come but The Jayhawks had endured the loss of Mark Olson and, according to some reports, nearly split up.

If it had looked like alt country had a promising future a few years earlier, the shifting sands were suggesting otherwise at the tail end of 1996. Not that that mattered to Slim Dunlap. He issued what is arguably the strongest of his two solo albums with songs such as “Cozy” (another Stones-y number that could have been on Exile on Main Street), “Hate This Town”, a country/folk anthem for any kid who’s hated their small town -- or city -- since the beginning of time, and the beautiful title track. (More on that in a moment.)

It’s hard to make the case, though, that Times Like This is as straight a roots record as its predecessor. It’s the strange side of Slim -- “Little Shiva’s Song”, said to have been inspired by Shivika Asthana of the Boston band Papas Fritas, is funny and sweet in an unexpected way, “Radio Hook Word Hit” comes off as commentary about the competition, all those bands who sold their souls for a little slice of Nirvana and wound up as unemployed baristas instead. “Cooler Then” and “Jungle Out There” show signs of the artist’s more obtuse humor, all of this culminating in a kind of roots art record, an amalgamation of Dunlap’s early work with Spooks, his rural/country influences and having come of age in the era of Captain Beefheart. Once more, it’s a riskier record than you might expect but a better one too, evidence of an artist continuing to broaden his horizons.

The range of acts who have come forth to cover Dunlap’s material speaks to its range -- Westerberg and Tommy Stinson put together a new version of The Replacements for the inaugural Songs For Slim release, an EP that features “Busted Up”, John Doe recently recorded “Just for the Hell of It” and Joe Henry’s version of “Taken On the Chin” will soon see the light of day.

But it’s Steve Earle’s take on “Times Like This” that’s thus far been the best -- well, at least as good as “Busted Up” and Chris Mars’s “Radio Hook Word Hit” -- as the hardcore troubadour has found both the sweetness and sadness in the song but also -- just as in the original -- allowed resolve to triumph over resignation. It’s the new settings in which these songs appear and the voices that sing them that also remind us of their origins and the power of casual, understated observation and a good, golden heart wield over the songs one helps bring into the world.

Slim Dunlap’s songs deserve wider attention because, among other things, they speak to us all, whether we know it or not.

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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