Anarchy Is Not Dead: "A Mask of Anarchy"

Nora Robertson

The story has a truly human heart, both valves pumping furiously. In its bivalve core, it’s about all of us, our quality of life, our ability to stand up to power and what helps us to get there.

A Mask of Anarchy

Publisher: Verso
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Michael Demson, Summer McClinton
Price: $16.95
Publication Date: 2013-08

When paging through A Mask of Anarchy, I found myself feeling torn. This book makes it clear that something as compelling as anarchy and revolution is not dead, but the reading sure goes down a little bitterly at times. There’s a clumsiness to the images, which at times slump into illustration, and the text of “The Mask of Anarchy” (or sometimes “The Masque of Anarchy”) is not as electrifying to a modern reader as it once was. On the other hand, I was sucked into the quick pacing of two interlocked lives, the radical poet Percy Shelley and a twentieth century labor organizer from the Lower Eastside garment district, Pauline Newman. Both instigators, neither compliant. One a poor Jewish immigrant who went to work in a hat factory when she was ten, the other the dispossessed son of a very rich man. English scholar Michael Demson is an expert on Shelley’s effect on Newman, and he intertwines their two stories together here. The faster I swiped through the pages, the more these two were inextricably bound together by the ripple effects of Shelley’s work.

Shelley is a little known revolutionary. He’s more commonly taught in universities as a Romantic poet, nothing too anarchist to look at there. But the truth is Shelly’s writings were deeply subversive and had him on the run from the police all the time. Sometimes from his father, who wanted to know how fast Shelley was borrowing on his inheritance. One of the naughtier impulses in this book is to show us the real Shelley, almost like an expose of a well-known literary statesman, and Demson is exactly the man to show us this. An abandoned wife, bigamy, seducing a teenage girl, Shelley’s cemetery shenanigans—Demson does not hold back as he lays out the sordidness of a poet made in the classic iconoclastic model, a true visionary, a man who lived to defy everything including conventional morality. Demson’s Shelley would have been right at home with Kerouac or Neil Cassady.

This sense of living outside the limits became almost unsympathetic to me, much as I am excited by a provocateur, when viewing it alongside Newman’s early life. She fled progroms in Lithuania in steerage and spent the rest of her childhood mostly in dingy sweatshops—but she learned to read in English anyway and soon encounters Shelley’s work at a local socialist’s club. It’s a story that has the peculiarly American pleasure of watching a woman lift herself up through her own grit. Her early radicalism started with organizing rent strikes, and there’s a nice historicism Demson adds in the New York Times article naming Newman a new Joan of Arc, the scene all gritty drawings of the protest. The women around her stand rows deep in the streets, rallying to Newman, to some deep intuition she possessed to speak out.

Where the ping-pong between Shelley and Newman really picks up force is when Shelley steals his second wife Mary and her sister Claire away in the middle of the night from their father, the noted political writer William Godwin. The three are soon holed up in Lord Byron’s house by a Swiss lake, Claire getting knocked up by Bryon. The Shelleys then move to Italy where Shelley writes “The Mask of Anarchy” in response to unprovoked police brutality at the Peterloo demonstration. Newman, meanwhile, is giving speeches against the famous Triangle Factory fire—a protest that sparked massive workplace reforms—and rising to union organizer for the International League of Women Garment Workers.

Mary Shelley is also of course the author of Frankenstein and grew up discussing politics. She was Shelley’s intellectual equal, and it is to her Demson gives the role of narrator. This choice felt bittersweet to me because despite her intellect, Mary Shelley is blown around by Shelley’s peripathetic life, fully consumed by the insurgent fire of his poetry, which he believed to be “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” This certainly proved true for Newman, who used his words as a battering ram against the factory owners.

Given the urgency of what this book takes on, it’s disappointing how crude the drawings become at time. I was surprised because I really loved Harvey Pekar's The Beats: A Graphic History, and apparently Summer McClinton worked with Pekar on that project. None of that fine photographic focus can be seen here. Thick, heavy crosshatching seems to allude to lithographic technique without its delicacy. Similarly, the quasi-gothic typography used for Shelley’s poems, two of which are included in their full glory, seems to be meant to evoke an eighteenth century handbill but instead comes across like a cheap children’s fairytale book. Something else that adds to that children’s book feel is that often the images add little if anything to the storytelling.

However, there is some value to this impulse towards illustration when it comes to the text of the two Shelley poems they take on, “The Devil’s Walk” and “Masks of Anarchy.” The illustration does provide access to the poems. A lot of the debate in Shelley’s text between Christianity and rationality is hard to keep interested in because of the religious language, though this argument continues to rage in American politics. Even Shelley’s take on anarchy requires some context. Anarchy is not much addressed in American society today, except as a fringe movement, separatist, teen punks with an A in a circle in white-out on their hoodies. Anarchy most purely means the rule of people by themselves without any oversight by business or government. It works most obviously in small communities where people are part of a cycle of generosity and accountability with each other.

The story has a truly human heart, both valves pumping furiously. In its bivalve core, it’s about all of us, our quality of life, our ability to stand up to power and what helps us to get there. Whatever you may think of the recent Occupy movement, issues of corporate responsibility and the proper limitations and responsibilities of government are very much still with us. What anarchy can mean for a huge globalized nation is up for debate, but what this book does accomplish is to raise the question, through Newman’s example, of how those ideas can be applied to the concept of labor struggle in a corporate context we are all too familiar with today. A gripping look at two people’s struggle to overturn the abuse of working people by the wealthiest among us, A Mask of Anarchy appeals to the revolutionary spirit in all of us.


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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