Kings of Leon + We Are Scientists + The Whigs

Andrew Martin
Photo: James Sharkey

Kings of Leon’s southern-influenced garage rock has morphed into an arena-sized sound that translates into one hell of a performance.

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon + We Are Scientists + The Whigs

City: Boston, MA
Venue: The Orpheum
Date: 2008-11-12

This sold out show was a big night for Kings of Leon. Besides the Orpheum being full to capacity, the fans filling the seats went absolutely insane for practically every song they played. If they weren't shaking their asses to the danceable riffs, they were swooning to the epic builds or belting out the sometimes lovelorn, sometimes sexed-up lyrics. And all of that energy was reciprocated by the foursome onstage. Although it would be a stretch to say the three Followill brothers and their cousin were hams or "rockin' out" in the traditional sense, they plowed through a total of 22 songs with alternating hints of ease and bombast. The group’s live sound also displayed the musical transition made obvious by their latest release, Only by the Night. Their Southern-influenced garage rock has morphed into an arena-sized sound that translates into one hell of a performance. The evening began promptly with a quick set by Athens, Georgia's the Whigs, who played a Southern-influenced garage rock set that the headliners might have performed a few years ago. Resembling dirty rockers from the "alt-rock" days of the ‘90s, the trio’s raunchy, noisy songs were met with cheers of approval from the early birds beginning to fill the theatre. We Are Scientists hit the stage next and, unfortunately, their set failed to live up to expectations based off past concerts. With only two members of the original trio left, the band featured a new drummer -- who was timid in comparison to former skins-man Michael Tapper -- as well as a keyboard/synth player. Neither brought more than their passable skills to the table, though, which was a shame since bassist Chris Cain and guitarist/lead singer Keith Murray tried their damnedest to keep the set interesting. But the crowd was less than open to the idea of mid-song chatter anyway, so the guys focused on letting their music speak for itself. The more epic tracks off their latest album, Brain Thrust Mastery, like "Impatience" and "After Hours", two very arena-friendly cuts, had some audience members swaying. Nearly everyone remained seated, though, even for the more upbeat and danceable "Let's See It" and "Chick Lit", the latter being one of Brain Thrust Mastery's best. Luckily for the band and those of us watching, the pace picked up with the likes of "It's a Hit" and "Inaction", two catchy-as-hell cuts off With Love and Squalor. The two biggest hits were "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt", a high-energy rug-cuttin' anthem, and "The Great Escape", which closed out their performance. As enjoyable as We Are Scientists are in a more intimate venue, their sound was lost in this theatre setting with only ten or so people on their feet during the set. When Kings of Leon were about to come out, the feeling in the theater changed greatly. Everyone from teens to middle-aged couples to hipster 20-somethings all hopped to their feet and began cheering. Fans were standing on their chairs, dancing, and going crazy before a note was even hit. When the band finally appeared they eased into "Closer", a fitting opener for a set filled with highs, lows, and everything in between. Bursting lights transitioned the Followill’s into "Crawl" and "My Party", the former setting the stage for the stadium-sized tracks we would hear, such as "Molly's Chambers", which was absolutely huge. Even though the crowd was clearly into it, and that is a gigantic understatement, the mood differed from "let's swoon to some ballads" to "let's just dance." The pace slowed for "Milk", a track that my friend called "grating" due to frontman Caleb's vocals, but it sounded surprisingly great live. Outside of the studio, Caleb’s voice is much stronger than you might think. He still throws out those raspy tones for the older cuts, but he is no longer just spitting out scratchy lyrics. After this lull, the Kings then kicked out the jams for "Four Kicks" and "The Bucket", the latter of which is way too fun for its own good. "McFearless", a cut accentuated by brother Nathan's fantastic drumming, kept the blood flowing and had everyone belting out the larger-than-life chorus. No one noticed the crowd's enthusiasm more than Caleb, who commented several times throughout the night how grateful he was that all of us were dancing, singing, or at least nodding along. Although it's customary for a frontman to say those sorts of things, he made a good point. We were in a theater with assigned seating, and neither of those factors make for the most high-energy show, but after a quick scan of the audience, every fan was on their feet. They remained standing for "Use Somebody" and the clear crowd favorite "On Call". The Tennessee boys then ripped into the epic and gorgeous "Cold Desert" before "ending" the night with an ass-kicking take on "Slow Night, So Long". Like any concertgoer knows, this performance was far from over. The quartet crept back out to tear through several more songs, and the show could have easily kept going until security booted us all out. After 22 songs, and nearly two hours, the band’s dedication to their fans was evident in the mere fact that the band didn't just play their latest album and walk backstage. Instead, we were treated to what could be best described as an arena-sized Southern-rock workout -- sweat and all.

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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