Books

The End is Always Near in 'Snowpiercer Volume 1: The Escape'

Imagining the world ending is a safe kind of fantasy because, deep down inside, we don’t think it can actually happen.


Snowpiercer Volume 1: The Escape

Publisher: Titan
Length: 110 pages
Authors: Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette
Price: $19.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-01
Amazon

Once humanity reached the very human designated year of 2000, it seemed that our current pop culture pages and screens filled up with all manner of gloom and doom. What caused all this pessimism? Days End is nothing new, of course, but could the mainstream pop culture's resurgence in the apocalypse be the result of the real life terror of the September 11th attacks (for those in the US, that is -- terror is, of course, everywhere in many forms), or the increasing alarm in the wake of climate change, or humankind's endless war and strife and suffering, or the confirmation that Big Brother is not only watching us, as George Orwell foretold, but he’s playing World of Warcraft with us with one hand as he pilots a drone with the other?

People have been babbling about the end of time since the beginning of time. Our species is incapable of just sitting back and relaxing, comfortable knowing, for those who have it good, just how good we actually have it. Imagining the world ending is a safe kind of fantasy because, deep down inside, many of us don’t think it can actually happen. Still, the reasons dystopias like those in The Hunger Games or The Walking Dead work is because they not only tap into that end times mentality, they also tweak the part of our brains that can’t fathom living without the comforts of the modern world. Food, medicine, space to move around... take those things away and see where we end up. Well, we end up like many people actually really live.

But for those of us who do live relatively well, Snowpiercer takes the end of the world and puts it on a train. It’s a hell of an elevator pitch, akin to the famous “Die Hard on a bus” line that got people to line up to see Speed 20 years ago. Originally published in that not-inconsequential year of 1984, this French series (Le Transperceneige) by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, is seeing its first English translation thanks in part to the success of The Host director Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film.

Though a success in South Korea, the US release date of the film is mired in controversy ,thanks to the Weinstein Company’s insistence on cutting footage and adding expository narration for the presumed "less sophisticated" American audience. It may be a while before American audiences can see the film, but thankfully, in this and in every instance, there are always comics.

Everything you need to know about the story is in the opening line: “Across the white immensity of an eternal winter, from one end of the frozen planet to the other there travels a train that never stops.” It’s the kind of opening that not only hooks the reader, it impales them. This is a ride you’ll want to take. Right up front we’re presented with the facts of the train: it is 1001 carriages long, and those carriages represent a strict social hierarchy, and there are armed guards everywhere.

We meet Proloff, a man from the tail of the train, where people live huddled together in cramped, cold cars intended for livestock. Proloff braves the outside to make his way up to the more comfortable parts of the train. After he’s captured by guards, he meets Adeline, a member of an aid group whose goal is to help integrate those living in the tail into the more civilized parts of the train. Together they make their way to the very front of the train where they uncover a plot that will benefit the upper class at the expense of the tail section.

Lob and Rochette quickly put us on the train, giving a sense not just of its enormity of but the close quarters, as well. Each scene is either in a corridor or a cabin with characters pushed up against one another for comfort, or to be threatened, or merely out of necessity.

Because the outside world has been ravaged by an environmental catastrophe, we never leave the confines of the train. To venture into “the White Death” is unthinkable. This makes the logistics of the journey problematic. Access to water is no problem, but the job of feeding the population on a never-ending train ride falls to rabbits and mice, all specially bred for the job. Greenhouse cars provide some fresh vegetables. Food is also provided, and made all the more horrifying, by the presence of Mama, “an enormous slab of vat-grown meat, suspended in a nourishing fluid.”

Proloff and Adeline’s journey to the front of the train provides essential exposition for the story, further fleshing out the world of Snowpiercer as they pass through each car. The particulars of class stratification, military organization, and even the sex trade differ from car to car. There’s such a richness to the world that we feel cheated not lingering in one car or another. This makes the end of Proloff’s journey feel sudden and anti-climactic.

The engine, an object of religious devotion among the passengers called Saint Loco, isn’t merely the front of the train or the concentration of its power, it’s also the end. The conditions are different from where Proloff started, but the facts are the same. Like the train itself, Proloff is a survivor, and he learns too late that’s something entirely different from living.

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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