Music

Mose Allison: The Mose Chronicles: Live in London, Volume 2

Marshall Bowden

Mose Allison

The Mose Chronicles: Live in London, Volume 2

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2002-01-08
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Mose Allison has been playing music professionally for 50 years, and not just occasionally. His first gig was six nights a week at a club in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and that's a pace he has continued to keep up. Despite that, you never get what seems like a canned performance from him. It's all there in every performance -- the wry humor, the blues and jazz-soaked piano, the history lesson packed into an enjoyable performance of songs selected from a huge bag of compositions.

Allison has never been huge here in the States, although popular musicians who recognize his talent frequently tout him. Many of these popular artists are from the British Isles -- Pete Townshend, Bill Wyman, John Mayall, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison, to name but a few. One reason for this is the famous British and Irish penchant for American blues, jazz, and R&B, but there's another reason, too, I suspect. Britain and Ireland are more literate societies, much more interested in and based on a facility with language and the ability to use it with wit and intelligence, which is certainly a trademark of Mose Allison's songwriting. That may be why Allison has been playing 40 gigs a year in the city of London alone, and is still drawing crowds today just as he always has.

Coming from Tippo, Missisippi, the heart of American roots music country, Mose doesn't really see blues and jazz as separate entities; in his mind the two should never have been separated. He demonstrates this by not only writing songs that utilize jazz structures while lyrically and emotionally mining blues territory. He can play Duke Ellington's "Lucky So and So" or "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me", then turn around and offer "Baby Please Don't Go" all with equal ease and equal authenticity.

I've been doin' some thinkin'
'bout the nature of the universe.
Found out things are gettin' better,
It's people that are getting worse.

Those are the opening lines of "Just Like Livin'" as well as of The Mose Chronicles, Live in London, Volume 2. Blue Note Records released Volume 1 last year, and it is nominated for a Grammy. Mose has been nominated twice before but has never won, so here's hoping the third time's a charm. Many may find the sentiments in Moses' songs to be somewhat cynical, but the fact is there is probably not a less cynical songwriter around. Though the lyrics may come across as dour on the page, Allison softens them with his delivery, a delivery that demonstrates much more humor than disappointment. The human condition is damn funny, he seems to be saying, so lighten up.

There aren't that many surprises with Mose, and very few on this disc, particularly if you have heard Volume 1. Like that release, this one was recorded at London's Pizza Express, where Allison plays six weeks a year, six nights a week, one of the few venues where he can still take up such a residence. When someone is as much of a craftsman as Allison, the pleasure comes not from surprises or novelty, but from the absolute relaxed swing of his singing and playing and the realization that he's created a vast body of perfectly crafted songs, songs that can be reminiscent of pop performers like Dylan or Elvis Costello as well as jazz and blues performers. While it might be nice to hear the occasional horn solo, as one does on some of Moses' studio recordings, his backup group here is sympathetic and provides some nice moments (especially guitarist Jim Mullen).

Taken together, Volumes 1 and 2 of The Mose Chronicles: Live In London provide a nice career retrospective for both long time fans and those not familiar with much of Allison's work. He performs compositions going back to 1959, including such favorites as "Molecular Structure", "Your Mind's on Vacation" and "One of These Days". The best thing is, this swinging septuagenarian is far from finished. One suspects he'll be writing his songs and performing up to six nights a week, doing what he's done for 50 years without care for fad or fashion, for some time to come. Good luck on that Grammy, Mose.

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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