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Okay, I Admit It: I Like Oprah

Nadine Anglin

Oprah and her show is one part entertainment, one part business savvy, and one part black girl who made. I like Oprah, and I don't care who knows it.

This happened during lunch at a mercifully air-conditioned sushi restaurant, where I sat with friends trying to fight off the Toronto summer heat and get my tempura fix at the same time. The conversation quickly turned to celebrity gossip, including the disputed speculation that Uma Thurman may or may not have some sort of body image disorder. Then it happened to me again. In between sips of miso soup I casually looked up and said, "You know, I think I heard about that disorder on Oprah once . . . " And, there it was; the Oprah reference.

Whenever I'm in a conversation and confess that I've been educated on some particular topic by The Oprah Winfrey Show, my companions usually snicker, "Oh, you were watching Oprah, eh?" I'm aware of the stigma attached to being an Oprah viewer. People think only middle-aged soccer moms or "you go girl!" spouting BAPs ("Black American Princesses") watch Oprah. Stereotypes aside though, what's so wrong with watching Oprah once in a while? It's not as if I'm holding the program up as a beacon of scholarly thought or journalistic excellence. If more pressing issues are the order of the day (like say, a woman requesting a paternity test to find out who fathered her 14 kids) I know The Maury Povich Show) is on the case. But, after 18 years on television Oprah has gone from gutter shock talk to secular spirituality and everything in between. Love her or hate her, she is still a big cultural figure; still very much master of her domain. And, her domain encompasses a number of successful ventures.

This year Oprah Winfrey was ranked number three on Forbes magazine's 100 top celebrities. Last year, she revived her book club, which in the past made superstars out of writers. Her monthly, O magazine now brings her parceled wisdom onto coffee tables at home and reception room tables at countless doctor waiting rooms. She also wised-up to the cocooning trend and launched her own bi-annual shelter book, O at Home. The Oprah name is behind movies, television series, and the estrogen-friendly cable network, Oxygen. With Martha Stewart on the way to the big house and Rosie O'Donnell off the air for two years, the remaining "grand dame of daytime talk" now reigns as the queen of brand extension, too. Oprah has not only built an empire on her name, but others have profited by association, as well. Her personal weight issue became yet another avenue for profit when her chefs, Rosie Dale and Art Smith, and trainer, Bob "Get With the Program" Greene, were able to turn their successful work on Oprah into a branding opportunity for their own talent, and now they're ringing in the revenue, too.

Some have actually tried to emulate Oprah's success, albeit with mixed results. Like Teen Vogue and Teen People in the publishing world, TV execs thought they could develop a younger, hipper Oprah with The Ananda Lewis Show (2001-2002). Hosted by former MTV VJ Ananda Lewis, there were big hopes put on the project, but the program never made it to season two. Same deal with Iyanla (2001-2002) with host Iyanla Vanzant, who was a regular self-help guru on Oprah's show. Even best gal pal Gayle King had her own talk show in 1997. But the half hour program was quickly yanked. Things finally stuck by breaking the mould with Dr. Phil, hosted by Phil McGraw, a white, male psychologist with a "tell it like it is" demeanour. He seems to be going strong although he, too, has gone through a few PR snafus; including the discovery that the good doctor, who espouses family values, had actually gone through a divorce in the past (but to that I say, "big deal.").

South of the border, Cuban born Cristina Saralegui, has become known as the "Latin American Oprah". Her hugely successful program, El Show de Cristina is in its 16th year with no signs of slowing down. Saralegui also moonlights as an actress (The George Lopez Show) and publishes her own magazine, Cristina, La Revista. And, then there's Canada, where unfortunately (or fortunately depending on who you talk to) no Oprah equivalent exists. The closest thing we have to Oprah, here, is the Vancouver-based Vicki Gabareau Show, with a smart and dry-witted host. The program regularly showcases Canadian talent and topical subject matter. There's also Cityline, a Toronto-based production hosted by the wisecracking Marilyn Dennis, who also does double duty as a radio personality. She rules her roost daily while a revolving panel of regular guests are delegated to themed days like "Therapy Tuesday" and "Fashion Friday". We've also had our fair share of talk shows in the past like The Dini Petty Show (1989-2000), The Shirley Show (1989-1995) and the Camilla Scott Show (1996-1999), a Ricki Lake clone.

As my lunch companions can attest, a new Canadian-ized Oprah probably wouldn't fly here anyway. To young, jaded Canadians, Oprah's earnestness probably wouldn't register. So, why not toss caution to the wind and turn convention on its ear by finding someone who has their own vibe and could attract that lucrative younger demographic, too? The first person that comes to mind is former Much Music VJ Master T (AKA Tony Young).

Young was born to Caribbean parents in England and then immigrated to Canada as a youth, eventually landing a job on Canada's music station in the '80s. He stood out from day one with his signature dreadlocks, big jewellery, and creativity in developing side kicks like Roxie (a talking synthesizer) and alter egos like the Scottish, kilt-wearing "T McGee". His connection to fans was in part due to his tireless efforts to bring urban music into the station's regular rotation in the days when hip-hop was not playing in every club, on every station and in the background of every television commercial.

He's already used to interviewing celebrity guests like Jennifer Lopez and Madonna, but he's also in tune with the issues of the day having hosted many special Much Music forums on topics like race relations and the use of sex in videos. After his Much days he went on to host his own radio show (Master T's Wall of Sound), branded a number of Dance and Reggae Mix CDs as well as developed his own production company, Fullsteed. T is smart, he's urban and if someone doesn't put him back on Canadian TV it's seriously going to be a travesty. So, let me use this forum as the first stop on the official "Master T For TV Talk" campaign.

Still, there is only one Oprah . And, although daytime TV talk in general is seen as a lowbrow form of edutainment, her appeal is less about her program and more about the woman. Her charm comes from the fact that she's relatable: she has weight issues, she goes through bad hairstyle choices, and she's had a tough life and lived to talk about it. It's inspiring to turn on the television and see a black woman who started from humble beginnings and is now a multimillion dollar global phenomenon. Oprah is one part entertainment, one part business savvy, and one part black girl who made. So, at the risk of destroying my jaded, hip, 20-something persona I'll admit it; I like Oprah. And, I don't care who knows it.

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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