Music

What It Was Like

The Marvelettes in 1966

In the early '80s Detroit, Motown was as unquestionable as air. Who didn't like air?

I was born in Detroit and lived there until I was 17 years old.

It was like this:

We weren't a city with much to be proud of. Then, as now, we had a corrupt mayor. Then, as now, the auto industry was failing and taking the city's denizens with it. Most of us -- my family included -- had a great deal to worry about. But Motown was something everybody could be proud of. In a city divided by race and religion, Motown was a source of near universal agreement. Nobody ever yelled "turn that shit down!" when the Supremes or Little Stevie Wonder (as late as the 1980s, DJs were still calling him "Little") or the Temptations were on the radio. And they often were.

Motown was as unquestionable as air. Who didn't like air?

It was like this.

One of the Four Tops lived in my neighborhood. I'm not sure which one, only that he drove a black Cadillac sedan with a vanity plate reading "FOUR TOPS". Whenever my mother saw him, she honked and waved. He would nod back gravely.

I attended school with one of the Spinners' daughters. In fifth grade she was a sullen, angry child whose demeanor rebuffed any questioning about her famous father.

I also attended school with Smokey Robinson's goddaughter. I was good friends with this girl, who was beautiful, smart, and a talented dancer. Her family moved among Detroit's black elite. Our friendship ended when she transferred to Cass, Detroit's version of the High School for Performing Arts.

My friends down the street attended Mercy High School with Gladys Knight's niece.

It was like this.

One day -- July 13th, 1984, to be exact -- I skipped out on my summer job to see Martha and the Vandellas play a free concert at the Universal Mall. My mother went with me. The Universal Mall was far out on the east side of the city, not a place where Jews or blacks were welcomed. Normally we shopped at Northland, literally ducking bullets. As the economy worsened, robberies and gang warfare escalated, and these dramas often played out in Northland's enormous parking lot. We used to park as close as we could and stride purposefully toward the mall, looking as tough as possible to avoid potential muggers. Though arguably the inside of the mall was no better than the parking lot. But Martha and the Vandellas were playing the Universal Mall (probably because it was much safer), and we went.

I was 16-years-old. I carried my Minolta SLR, which I took everywhere in those days, and shot dozens of photos. Martha and the Vandellas were got up in gold lamé, backed by a horn section, drummer, guitarist, and bassist. I was so close to Ms. Reeves that she smiled into my camera. Several times. In between songs she introduced the Vandellas. One was a social worker; I forget what the other did, something equally useful. They were wonderful: Martha Reeves has a terrific voice. Martha is now on Detroit's embattled City Council, and I hope she did no wrong.

It was like this.

I remember the night Marvin Gaye, Sr. shot his son, Marvin, Jr. It happened only miles from my family home, a stupid argument over insurance, and the media interviewed Martha Reeves, who was obviously in shock. Her lips were trembling. "I just can't believe it," she repeated. Neither could the rest of us.

It was like this.

One day we were driving down the John Lodge Expressway when my mother pointed out three tall towers. See those? That's the Brewster Projects. That's where Diana Ross is from. Berry Gordy had to teach her to eat with a fork.

I don't know whether Diana Ross could use a fork or not before Berry Gordy made her a star, but I do know about Motown's "Charm School" and house choreographer Cholly Atkins. Everyone did. It was like knowing about the air, or the big, beautiful, archaic cars we manufactured, driving through that air.

Stevie Wonder

It was like this.

My mother loved Motown. In 1971, stuck at home without a car and three kids under five, she played an endless loop of eight track tapes. The Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips (she loathed the Pips, and pitied poor Gladys, who was stuck with them), the Four Tops, the Temptations. When I began school, I had never heard of Mother Goose and knew no nursery rhymes. I could, however, sing all of "Baby Love", "Where Did Our Love Go", and "Stop! In the Name of Love".

Anybody questioning my rosy view need only consult the J. Geils Band's 1976 recording Blow Your Face Out. It was recorded live in Boston and Detroit. In Detroit, the band played a cover of "Where Did Our Love Go" to a drunken, stoned, sellout show full of blue-collar rock 'n' roll diehards. They went batshit. One might also consult the countless covers of Motown songs: Peter Frampton singing "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours", Mick Jagger and David Bowie doing "Dancing in the Streets", Vanilla Fudge's "You Keep Me Hanging On", Creedence Clearwater Revival's long, long interpretation of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", Soft Cell's (remember them?) whiny version of "Where Did Our Love Go", Phil Collins' "You Can't Hurry Love". Ad infinitum.

It was like this.

In 1985 my family moved to California. Nobody was buying those big beautiful American cars any more, giving rise to region-wide unemployment and early fodder for a young idealist named Michael Moore.

I did not understand that living in a place possessing its own brand of music was unusual until we arrived in Los Angeles, where people made movies instead. Making movies, for Californians, involved much of same feeling Motown did for Detroiters: a sense of ownership, pride, glamour, perhaps even enjoyment. But California movie glamour was a whole other thing, because it involved more money. Lots more money. This is not to say that Berry Gordy didn't want to make money: he did. He left Detroit early on.

But Motown was more homespun: Martha and the Vandellas, free at the mall. It's difficult to imagine Chevy Chase doing stand-up in a San Fernando Valley Galleria just for kicks, and if a movie star lives in your neighborhood, chances are your neighborhood is much nicer than the one I grew up in. And movie star offspring do not attend public schools.

I say it was like this, past tense, because it's all gone now. The original Motown Records has morphed and folded and is no longer Gordy's baby. Diana Ross seems to spend more time getting into trouble than performing, and Michael Jackson has also folded and morphed into something warped and barely recognizable. Florence Ballard is dead. Only one of the original Temptations, Otis Williams, is still alive. Gladys Knight has battled compulsive gambling.

Their hometown, our hometown, has collapsed. The music still plays, perhaps, but not on the radio. Certainly not on eight-track tapes.

There is something wrenchingly anachronistic about downloading "My Girl" or "My Cherie Amor". It's music for riding in the Buick, taking Greenfield down to Eight Mile Road (yes, that Eight Mile), the radio tuned to WLBS. We're going to Northland, where we'll scope out deals in Hudson's basement. We'll try on the hats, shoes for you, a sweater for me. The store speakers will not pump Muzak, but "Ain't Too Proud to Beg". Only we won't really notice, because who notices air?

Only people who aren't getting enough of it.

That's what it was like.

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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