Music

400 Blows: Angel's Trumpets and Devil's Trombones

Kevin Jagernauth

Minimal punk rock trio get a surprising amount of mileage using just guitar, drums and a voice.


400 Blows

Angel's Trumpets and Devil's Trombones

Label: Gold Standard Laboratories
US Release Date: 2005-05-10
UK Release Date: 2005-05-16
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At a glance, the sophomore album by Los Angeles, California punk band 400 Blows gives off a rather sophisticated air. The group name cribs the title from François Truffaut's masterpiece of French New Wave filmmaking. The album's name is lifted from a scene in Antony Burgess' lyrical twisted glance at the future, A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex, looking to lure two young women home, promises music they've never heard before that will sound both heavenly and hellish. Yet for all the high art references, scripted fonts and pretty line drawings that leap from the virgin white background of the album cover, once you slide the disc into your player you're in for a surprise. The music is an engaging and powerfully street-level style of punk rock, blessed with kind of urgency and potency that out of which legends are made.

Consisting of no more than guitar, drums and a singer, 400 Blows distill punk rock to its most immediate and primal elements. However, within that minimal framework, the band provides a healthy amount of twists, turns and dynamics -- turning what could've been a very repetitive disc into one that brims with excitement and enthusiasm. But all that energy is tempered with a healthy dose of abrasiveness. You won't be singing along to any of these tracks anytime soon, while their raw attack is a heady mix that sounds like Black Flag covered by Rhode Island noise monsters Lightning Bolt.

The disc kicks off with its best track, "The Beauty of Internal Darkness". The song alternates between light and dark by following guitarist Christian Wabschall's sludgy power chords in the chorus and careful riffing during the verses. Wabschall's fretboard inventiveness also gives the album much more flexibility that it probably deserves. Check out his manic, nearly math-rock shredding on "Make a Wish", guitar styling that sits comfortably alongside the swampy stoner chord progressions of the monstrous "The Average Guy". Vocalist Skot Alexander thankfully knows how to temper his voice for maximum impact. Switching between in-the-red screaming and madman like ranting at speaking volume, his ability to ride a song's dynamics makes his nasal, Jello Biafra style much easier to stomach. He fronts the songs with a showman's flair -- his own distinct reading of passion, sarcasm and bitterness is mesmerizing.

But for all the band's musical dexterity, a note of recognition must be given to producer Alex Newport. Finding the right mix for this style of music can be tricky, since the songs succeed or fail based on the interaction between its players. Newport's thick production doesn't push anyone particularly up front, but instead boosts the presence of the little instrumentation that is there. The guitars are covered in filth, but are given enough clarity so they don't become a sloppy mess. Alexander's vocals are kept in the middle, never leading the charge nor getting buried beneath his bandmates' onslaught. Drummer Ferdinand Cudia, the band's secret weapon, keeps his tightly wound drumming right alongside Wabschall's riffing in the mix -- and though his technique is never flashy, it's his ability to keep the trio together that is remarkable. Yet, for all the chops on display the album runs aground in the latter third as the band runs out of creative steam, leading to a few tracks that blend into one another. Angel's Trumpets and Devil's Horns will not be everyone's cup of tea. It won't be the hooks or melodies listeners come here for, but the visceral experience 400 Blows bring to the disc, and that for the most part works exceptionally well. With two albums now of minimal guitar punk under their belts it will be interesting to see how 400 Blows expand their sound in the future. The disc's final track, "Ice Forest", an otherwise forgettable five-minute-long instrumental that relies heavily on tape loops, points to an interesting new direction from a band that seems ready and willing to defy punk rock conventions.

6

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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