Beta Band

Steve Lichtenstein
Beta Band

Beta Band

City: Washington, DC
Venue: 9:30 Club
Date: 2002-04-08
The guy in the yellow shirt ("Reconstruction Continues . . .," his shoulder blades informed) didn't seem to notice how close the crowd was packed, how smoky the air was, or how generally unpopulated and accommodating the 9:30 Club's main bar looked. Groovy 20-somethings crammed into the center of the floor (close enough to tell if the adjacent bodies belonged to nose- or mouse-breathers) but the bar remained unclaimed. A nice omen for the Beta Band to see that the attention was squarely on them, not the overpriced alcohol. Guy in the Yellow Shirt (heretofore GIYL), and everyone, really, was pretty happy to somewhat ignore the booze, let their brain shut down and their body spaz for the hour plus that the four boys from Scotland played. Spaz, spaz they did, in between gawking at the intermittently used video screen and sputtering through fits of motionlessness -- utterly content immobility, sound tracked by appropriately entrancing folk-hop. The crowd ebbed and flowed as the Betas bounced through a set heavy with songs from their Three Eps and the more recent, fully realized and rewarding, Hot Shots II. Ignoring the occasionally brilliant tunes from the self-titled debut they famously despise was a regrettably wise choice, as they opted instead for the catchy, sporadic redundancy of the EP songs, and the tight-knit spastic smoothness of the Hot Shot cuts. It was either this or the ADHD free-for-all of the debut's hodgepodge songs, and that might've been too much too handle. But fanciful, hypnotic slices of "Inner Meet Me" (with somewhat freakish picture footage of our fair four friends gallivanting across the ostensibly Scottish country-side, giddily amateur and Python-like in their carefree absurdity) and the haunting "Squares" had just enough reckless continuity to eat. Eat them, you could. GIYL seemed willing, yellow shirt a flutter with the idea of ingesting songs. And lead Beta Steve Mason's antics made him and the music all the more tasty. Bouncing around from bongos to a second drum kit (on several occasions, but wait…) to the top of an amp, he was thoroughly excited and excitable, childlike in his urgency. At one point, he tried to spread the buzz and cheer up "the sad people" of the audience, as he saw them. He might've misinterpreted the stilted awe as a sign of boredom, but he would've been wrong. Still, feeling a lack of communal response from a moody crowd that did appear to be alternately disinterested and militantly mesmerized, Mason strummed into "Dry the Rain", the uplifting epic from EP land, nee High Fidelity. His somewhat stretched, fuzzy roar reached its boiling point while breathing the song's powerfully euphoric footnote, "If there's something inside that you wanna say / Say it out loud it'll be okay / I will be your light." It would be all right. And who's to argue -- a voice so passionate couldn't fake words that unremarkable and still make them bone chilling. But it was a collective high that carried the night, despite the crowd's sometime stunned malaise. The seething bass of "Life" could disrupt the flow of blood through veins, and the fiery images on the screen behind the band were equally pulsating: helicopters bursting into balls of fire and the like, throbbing and mad. Nauseating if you're the wrong person, and purely, thoroughly invigorating if you're the right one. GIYL, shoulder bones akimbo and slithering, was all right. The set ended with a glitzy version of "Broke" (one of the better singles of 2001), and the throbbing finale left the capacity crowd eager and unsatisfied. So, after a thunderous session of clapping, the Betas emerged from the side of the stage to pound out three more tunes. "Al Sharp" and "She's the One" kicked off the encore with a great punch, but it was the closing version of "The House Song" which will remain one of the better live spectacles. From the incessant sample ("Put it your pocket for a rainy day, sing a song, and you know you're wrong . . .") to Mason's bawdy French rapping, the song evolved into a vibrant four person beat factory, each man banging away on his own drums, or drum likeness. The epitome of climax. And the entire performance felt indeed like a group orgasm. The images on the semi-frequently used fourth grade class pull down screen -- sporadic, hallucinogenic, silly. The exchanging of instruments between band members and their subsequent hijinks, drum-offs, and off-kilter noodling. The lyrics, the beats, the whole attack, relentless like a coddling stampede. Exhilarating and calming, all at the same time, enrapturing like a car accident involving unicorns. GIYL was smiling, and the whole room smiled along, smoking a collective, cliched cigarette.

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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