Reviews

Blue Man Group

Vijith Assar

I'm racking my brain trying to come to some grand conclusion about the message they're sending about emotional isolation and modern technology, but it's hard to stay reflective when the guys on stage are barfing up marshmallows on some poor girl's head.

Blue Man Group

Blue Man Group

City: Charlottesville, VA
Venue: John Paul Jones Arena
Date: 2008-02-16

The "How to be a Megastar" tour opens with, of all things, an infomercial. A sleazy-looking salesman professing to be Ron Popeil's long-lost brother pops up uninvited on the giant screen above the stage and gradually cajoles the three hapless painted men below into ordering his pricey guide to superstardom by suggesting that they have no idea how to handle a crowd like us. They comply after rifling through an audience member's purse to find her credit card, and a FedEx delivery dude promptly saunters around the corner with a package allegedly containing the rest of the night's performance. The band, lurking in the shadows, launches into "Time to Start", which contains step-by-step instructions for raising just as much rock-and-roll ruckus as your average soccer mom can tolerate without getting nervous. We're going to learn how to do this properly. I quickly realize that there are a half-dozen sensory interfaces at play in a Blue Man Group performance, and that the sporadically released, audio-only records are kind of misleading. It wasn't until a late-night YouTube session, for example, that I found out that "Rods and Cones", far and away my favorite tune from their 1999 debut, is actually accompanied by a Slim Goodbody-style presentation about the mechanics of vision. Still, I may be one of the few people who got to know the group through those albums rather than through these renowned live productions, and it's interesting to watch the performers try to establish a tangible, concrete context for the music when I've had nothing of the sort for the past decade. The most successful attempts come not from the choreographers or even the blue fellas themselves, but rather from the vaguely narrativized animated sequences projected behind the band. They're surprisingly dark, and I hear Tracy Bonham's lyrics anew thanks to touring singer Adrian Hartley's ability to straddle exuberance and downright creepiness. "Persona" starts with everyone wearing gas masks, finally removing them only to reveal others beneath; "Shadows, Part 2" shows the protagonist repeatedly devolving into a generic stick figure as she wanders around the city, dwarfed by intimidating skyscrapers. All the while, I'm racking my brain trying to connect the dots and come to some grand conclusion about the message they're trying to send about emotional isolation and modern technology, but it's hard to stay reflective when the guys on stage are squirting toothpaste at one another and barfing up marshmallows on some poor girl's head. I wonder if I'm thinking too much. It's a genuinely hilarious show -- almost everything ends in a gag of some sort, and the six-year-olds to my right start laughing uncontrollably at the suggestion that the rock concert devil signs they're being asked to flash are the brainchild not of a Gene Simmons type, but rather of an unfortunate slapstick performer named Floppy the Banjo Clown. During "Up to the Roof", all the cartoons end up atop the skyscrapers, looking up and out at something -- maybe at us -- and start pulsing in perfect synchrony with rainbow-colored bars that fill them like mercury in a thermometer. The Blue Men burst out one last time to close the show, likewise throbbing with multicolored energy thanks to the show's hefty production budget, as they wave around fantastically awkward custom instruments called "Airpoles", which cater heavily to their emphasis of theatrics over audio. The grand finale is a cover of the Who’s "Baba O'Reilly". Naturally, it’s played with a sledgehammer pounded against a dismantled baby grand. Halfway through, the stage explodes for the last time with blues and greens and reds and the few things within reach that haven't already been smashed to bits. I finally put away my notepad after realizing there's just no point in trying to be analytical; after all, if you're paying attention to the trajectory of Gallagher's hammer, you're probably missing the point -- and getting covered in watermelon goo for nothing.

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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