Music

The Sound of Venezuela's Restlessness

As protests continue to rage in Venezuela, a traditional Venezuelan spirit is on display. It is thoughtful and reflective, yet opaque. It might be best understood through the music.

Above: Fist painted in colors of Venezuela flag image from Image from Shutterstock.com.

While much of the world has been either basking in cold war nostalgia while catching up on events in Crimea or indulging in conspiracy theories while dreaming up explanations for exactly what happen to that Malaysian Airlines plane, a political struggle has gripped one of the most powerful nations in the Western Hemisphere.

For over a month, Venezuelans have been taking to the streets with a variety of complaints—a corrupt government, a broken economy, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.The participants in the protests are as varied as their complaints, from students who demand reforms to longtime supporters of the state who see the protests as just another plot concocted by outside agitators, chiefly the United States, to discredit and overthrow the Venezuelan government.

While the causes and objectives of the protests are elusive, the results are very real: 25 Venezuelans are known to have died in the last month, with countless others injured or imprisoned. Flaming roadblocks have blocked the streets, and protesters have taken to using the app, Zello, to circumvent the authorities attack on social media. Recent events can be seen as the continuation of a restless intellectual culture that has helped define Venezuelan culture since Simon Bolivar led the country to independence in 1811. This spirit of roiling reflection can be heard in Venezuelan music, as well.

Central to Venezuelans’ sense of national musical identity is El Sistema, a publicly funded classical music education program that incorporates more than 100 youth orchestras throughout the country. Founded in 1975, the goal of El Sistema is to enrich the lives of children in the poorest neighborhoods through the discipline and humanizing effect of studying music. In addition to providing a musical education to countless Venezuelans, El Sistema has given the world the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, a world famous youth orchestra that routinely performs in the most hallowed European and American music halls.The orchestra’s repertoire is hot, featuring music from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story or Mexican composer Arturo Marquez’s orchestra settings of “salon music”.

A number of internationally known classical musicians are products of El Sistema, including Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The program has survived numerous political regimes due to its success and purposeful apolitical posture— a stance which drew great criticism when El Sistema’s prize product, Dudamel, who had been criticized in the past for his close relationship with Hugo Chavez, was publicly mum on the current, protests and even conducted a program in Venezuela’s capital Caracas during the unrest.

This is not to say that all of Venezuela's classical musicians have been reticent to speak up. Pianist Gabriela Montero (also La Sistema alumn) recently posted a musical protest video "Hasta Cuando?" (roughly translated "how long") on her YouTube channel.


It is not only in the world of classical music that the spirit of Venezuela can be seen and heard. The country has a wealth of traditional and popular music. One of the most interesting musicians to come out of Venezuela is Aldemaro Romero. Originally the product of the '50s rhumba-craze, Romero worked in Cuba and then New York, before returning to Venezuela. He would spend the better part of 50 years creating unique and varied music, working with everyone from pop musicians ranging from Dean Martin to Jerry Lee Lewis, to renowned orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra. Romero is credited with the creation of Onda Nueva or New Wave, a genre that not unlike Brazilian bossa nova, combined local and popular musics with a heavy dose of psychedelica. The results are otherworldly.


There are also great folk songwriting traditions in Venezuela. Originating in the northwestern Venezuelan state of Zalia, Gaita is an improvised popular music form traditionally heard in social settings during holidays. As with many South American musics, in Gaita listeners can hear the the cultural history of the people through the blending of native, Iberian, and African influences. In traditional Gaita the verses are improvised, with subject matter ranging from romantic love, local stories, or social commentary, regardless of the pre-composed choruses.

In addition to producing the Gaita, the state of Zalia is one of the world’s largest oil producers, and tied into the lyrics of the songs is the idea that the people of Zalia have not profited from the abundant natural resources endemic to the land. In the '50s and '60s, as the music of the villages began being recorded, Gaitas became more formalized and became the popular music of Venezuela, with none more popular than Ricardo Aguirre’s “La Grey Zulliana”, a song which gave voice to the peoples’ sense of economic injustice.


Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, in large part due to his conviction that all Venezuelans should profit from the country’s resources. Evoking the name of Latin American hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez’s Bolivarianism sought to bring independence, prosperity, and equality to the country. But poverty is still a very real fact of life for many. Economic pressures became overbearing after Chavez’s passing on 3 March 2013, and the past year has been one of trepidation. Despite Venezuela’s role as one of the worlds largest oil producers, in the last year inflation has skyrocketed and the economic deprivations felt by the poorest Venezuelans have begun to spread.

Clearly, the future of the country’s economy is of growing concern, but what initially prompted protesters to take to the streets was something far more palpable—terror. In Venezuela crime is rampant and corruption endemic, putting the country 99 out of 99 countries in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. On 6 January 2014, Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and her husband were killed in front of her five year old daughter. A month later, the rape of a university student prompted the first in what would become a series of student protests.

This pervasive sense of terror can be heard in the music of La Vida Boheme. Inspired by The Clash, which made timeless music out of the hopes and hopelessness of working-class youth in economically depressed England, La Vida Bohemme create sometimes delicate, sometimes brutal music that has become the soundtrack to the protests for many young people. Here, in “Radio Capital”, the band gives listeners a glimpse into the daily fear experienced by Venezuelans.


Just as the protests were beginning, the Venezuelan people lost one of their most cherished musicians—Simon Diaz. While Diaz is sometimes compared to Bob Dylan for beginning his career writing songs of social commentary, before turning to more abstract and introspective themes in his later work, his impact on Venezuelan music is arguably greater than that of Dylan on American music. In addition to being a singer-songwriter, Diaz was a television and radio host who presented folk music to the entire country throughout the '70s and '80s. On its surface Diaz’s most famous song, “Caballo Viejo”, is about the tenacity of love, but it can just as easily be seen as encapsulating the spirit in the streets of the cities and villages of Venezuela today. It is a restless spirit. A spirit that is thoughtful and reflective but at the same time opaque. And as the unrest continues, it is anyone's guess where this spirit will take the people of Venezuela.

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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