TV

Right America: Feeling Wronged: Some Voices from the Campaign Trail

Right America constructs a sort of intimacy with the "other side" while also maintaining its own recognizable political sensibility.

Right America

Airtime: Monday, 8pm ET
Cast: Alexandra Pelosi, Sean Hannity, Carl Cameron
Subtitle: Feeling Wronged: Some Voices from the Campaign Trail
Network: HBO
US release date: 2009-02-16
Website
Amazon
I think he hates all people. I think he wants to destroy this earth.

-- McCain supporter, on Barack Obama

I never say I make documentaries. I say I make television.

-- Alexandra Pelosi, 25 January 2009

In "real America," the presidential campaign of 2008 constituted a battle of good and evil. The differences between the candidates were stark, if not always coherent, according to interviewees in Right America: Feeling Wronged: Some Voices from the Campaign Trail. A series of snapshots from some 28 states visited by Alexandra Pelosi, riding along with McCain's Straight Talk Express, the film shows how rhetoric and the fervor became increasingly vehement, and how, despite the many displays of commitment and numbers at rallies, the proudly self-named "right" came to feel left out of the election process.

Most often, the blame for this feeling is directed at "the media," or more emphatically, the "liberal media." This is apparently every outfit but Fox News, whose Sean Hannity is greeted enthusiastically at a Palin rally (when he points out for the crowd that Pelosi is Nancy's daughter, she blurts, "You're going to get me lynched!"). The rally attendees tend to hate the media, in part because, as McCain declares, they have written him off, and not, one insists to Pelosi, because Fox News tells him what he already believes. Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin and Chris Matthews' tingling leg and, these supporters say, illustrate the point. "We're looking at that for news," says one young man. "This guy's supposed to be, like, an expert. He's the news guy."

Such disappointment in institutions that don't deliver to needs and expectations is common among the film's subjects. "We feel like it's a culture war between the East and the West Coasts, and the flyover country," a man says. "They think of as a bunch of hicks, we're a bunch of idiots. They don't want to even hear our side or understand us." This side has a range of concerns, from pro-life and anti-gay marriage to pro-redneck and anti-East Coast elites (Hank Williams, Jr. sings at a rally, "The left wing liberal media has always been a close-knit family"). Asked to define the term "redneck," one NASCAR fan as "working America," the folks who were "sunburned on the back of the neck while they were working in the fields out on the roads." Pelosi follows up on the presumption of race in this definition,without hammering the point. She asks the NASCAR fans whether they're ready for a black president. "Personally, myself," says one, "I'm not ready for it because I'm from the old school."

He's uncomfortable with political correctness, he says. "You can't fly the confederate flag no more, you can't say nothing no more." (This even as the camera shows such flags at this North Carolina racetrack and on fans' caps.) The man is moved to tears as he reflects on what's happened. "It used to be, one time, we're top dog. Now we're nothing. All the immigrants coming here, they got all the rights, we got nothing."

Other versions of such disaffection and anxiety about "foreigners" include doubts about Obama's loyalties (a young man sells Obama-Osama buttons, explaining that even if he doesn't believe the two are linked, he is himself a good "capitalist," only "giving people what they want") and fears about invasion. A woman wearing a spangly Uncle Sam's hat describes McCain as a "strong man" who will "protect our country about the terrorist thing. That's another thing that's very scary. What if you wake up, 9/11, and you don't have a country? You're bombed? You don't know that that can't happen. It already happened."

This and other similar interviews raise questions about they might work differently in another film, one that would be recognizable to its participants as pro-McCain, for instance. That's not to say Right America is unfair or unbalanced, per se, or even that it is unself-aware. When Pelosi speaks to someone who says he believes Obama is the antichrist, she observes from off-camera that viewers are going to think she selected the craziest man she could see. "But you look like a normal guy," she asserts, not an especially convincing self-defense, but at least somewhat pre-emptive.

While the documentary notes the rising anger at some rallies (and includes those most-YouTubed moments, when the woman told McCain Obama was "an Arab" and when the man exhorted him to speak up for those who are "really mad"), it also includes a brief clip of a young man who worries about the sight of two people fighting, down in the dirt, over an anti-McCain sign. "When you come to these gatherings, it brings out the worst in people," he sighs. "There are good normal people who show up to these rallies, like me. Others give their candidate a bad name."

It's not only the rallies that have this effect. In Oxford, Mississippi, Pelosi asks a series of customers at a gas station how they feel about Obama. Frankly, the question seems to bait them, as she's warned by one fellow that the area is still full of "prejudiced people." One man walks away from her camera as he asserts straight up, "I ain't voting for no nigger." Pelosi turns the camera on two black men who've watched the exchange. One is irate: "She come all the way from New York to interview a white boy that use the word 'nigger,'" he says. "And they gonna put it in HBO and use it to paint Mississippi bad. Like they don't say 'nigger' in New York, like they don't say 'cracker' or 'honky' out in L.A. You should be ashamed of yourself, Miss Liberal." His point is well taken. The film keeps focused on the "real America" defined by Palin, the one apart from cities and coasts, the one where men wear overalls and churches advertise their faith in her as the righteous, right candidate.

Displaying the passions of McCain and Palin supporters, Right America is not revelatory or even very surprising. Neither does it pretend to be unbiased. It is, instead, a personal sort of representation, as she asks mostly useful and not always decorous questions, doesn't confront her subjects but instead engages with them, charming them with the promise of a chance to express themselves. In these encounters, the camera does most of the work, whether in interview close-ups or instructive B-roll shots, and Right America, like her other work (Journeys With George, Friends of God) constructs a sort of intimacy with the "other side" while also maintaining its own recognizable political sensibility, a view of what's at stake in these ongoing debates and a faith in communication that remains undaunted.

7

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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