Music

The Boxer Rebellion: Exits

Jon Garrett

The Boxer Rebellion defies the 'rock 'n' roll paradigm' to great effect on this ambitious, if spotty, debut.


The Boxer Rebellion

Exits

Label: Mercury UK
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2005-05-02
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"Pay attention because the Icarus Line's story is quite possibly the best rock 'n' roll story in the making, because rock 'n' roll is mainly about beginnings, about youth and uncertainty and growing through and out of them… By the time they had even become the Icarus Line, they had already spent their high school years in shitty vans to play shitty shitholes. They fired their manager, booking agent, lawyer, and rhythm section all at once, and when record labels showed interest in the band, they replied with their latest demo, which consisted of a 12-minute long song. The suits concluded that these guys were too weird to make any money off of… Meltdowns (always commonly on the road) include being chased out of town (literally) by angry promoters, fistfights with soundmen and crew members, arrests, being sued, entire back-lines and stages destroyed, and guitar cases containing Stevie Ray Vaughn's guitar being smashed open (it seemed inappropriate for such a pretty guitar not to be used). The consequences of the last instance included multiple death threats… Have you been longing for a band to come along that encompasses everything that rock 'n' roll was originally about? All that cool shit you read about in Mojo… you know… danger, excitement, tour, tour, tour, sex, drugs, & rock 'n' roll? In closing, the Icarus Line are the best rock 'n' roll band in the entire world right now…" --excerpts from the press sheet for the Icarus Line's Penance Soiree, by Travis Keller

As a music reviewer, you'd like to hope you eventually become immune to press junkets and bios, and I thought I had until the above was penned in early 2004, announcing the imminent arrival of the Icarus Line's first major label offering, Penance Soiree. This one struck a nerve, and not for the reasons its writer intended -- unless it was written as a parody. I didn't realize why I was having such a visceral reaction at first, but subsequent readings and further reflection revealed the source of my ire.

The Icarus Line bio is perhaps the most cynical and twisted interpretation of rock 'n' roll I have ever come across. If its author is to be believed, your worth as a rock band rests on your credentials. Traveled to shitty venues in shitty vans? Check. Been deemed "weird" by label "suits"? Check. Logged a few arrests? Fights? Smashed your instruments? Check, check, and check again. And apparently, that's enough to qualify as the "best rock 'n' roll band in the world right now." Note also that the writer suggests these experiences are also what rock 'n' roll was "originally about."

The Icarus Line's press sheet is just the most obvious and calculated example of what has become quite commonplace: defining rock 'n' roll as conveyor belt role playing, or more precisely, cliché. Boyhood friends start band, make unholy racket in parents' basement, play dive bars, do drugs, weather in-fighting, earn their stripes, cut a record, and go on to fill stadiums. However, in adhering to such a rigid and tired script, the artists themselves must lose much of what rock 'n' roll was, in truth, "originally about." Contrary to what Mr. Icarus Line Press Sheet Writer may think, rock 'n' roll was never about rubbing your chest in broken glass or punching concert promoters -- to say so would be to reduce rock 'n' roll to a sad game of gimmickry and mimicry. These shitty venues, the arrests, the instrument smashing are meant to make our would-be heroes appear unlikely or triumphant despite their fuck-ups, and to convey some conceptual form of human struggle. Instead, their actions come across as mere prerequisite, press sheet fodder for the inevitable major label debut. This is what passes for "original" rock n' roll?

If rock 'n' roll credentials are measured by press-sheet appeal, the Boxer Rebellion are perhaps the most un-rock 'n' roll band on the planet right now. Aside from having a vocalist that frequently sings upper-register falsetto a la Thom Yorke (or JJ72's Mark Greaney if we're being totally honest), the rest of the Boxer Rebellion appears more concerned with keeping warm than demonstrating any sort of fashion sense. (Their press photos feature the band clad in woolen overcoats and scarves.) But perhaps their greatest affront to the accepted rock 'n' roll paradigm is how they formed: via an Internet message board. Guitarist Todd Howe, an Australian who had moved to England, placed an ad on an unnamed board for a songwriting partner and potential bandmate. After three weeks, the one reply he had received was from an American named Nathan Nicholson. By October 2001, the final line-up with drummer Piers Hewitt and bassist Adam Harrison had finally been set. The band christened themselves the Boxer Rebellion in late 2002, after consulting, yes, a history encyclopedia.

Ironically, depending on how you look at it, all these facts may make the Boxer Rebellion the most rock 'n' roll band of 2005. They don't exactly trumpet the aforementioned details (they offer no bio via their web site), but they're not exactly swept under the rug either. The Boxer Rebellion make no apologies for their genesis. If anything, they flaunt their outsider status with Exits, a debut album that snubs the rock 'n' roll of the modern age in favor of grand, sprawling mini-suites. The Boxer Rebellion are more than a little reminiscent of the golden era of the multi-tracked guitar -- seemingly beamed directly from England circa 1991, when shoe-gazers ruled the land. For sure, not the definition of rock in 2005.

Still, to deny the band's gifts on the basis of poor timing would be grossly unfair. The stunning attention to their craft is rare and notable -- especially at a time when the music itself is more often designed to sound tossed off between cigarette breaks. The patience and care are evident in songs like "Never Knowing How or Why", "We Have This Place Surrounded", and the eulogistic lament of "Lay Me Down". Each unfurl with deliberate and assured confidence that can only come from a band that knows just how damn good their songs are.

Sadly, if the band are aware of their own gifts, they occasionally seem embarrassed by them. For every wondrous Verve-like flirtation with bursting guitars, there is an incongruous attempt at menace, which hardly suits or sounds convincing when paired with Nicholson's honeyed larynx. His growl on opener "Flight" is near comical in its earnest commitment to threaten. Even "Watermelon", which I initially enjoyed when it was released as the band's first single in late 2003, sounds hopelessly out of place when compared with far more ambitious material. The Boxers' evolution has rendered it little more than antiquated curiosity, a quaint tribute to BRMC perhaps. ("You say you want cigarettes / well I want guuuuuuuuurls").

Exits is not what it could have been, but even so there's ample promise. Assuming they ever fully indulge their wild-eyed shoe-gazer tendencies, the Boxer Rebellion will almost certainly realize a great album. All of the essential elements are there. However, in the interim, Exits still manages to explore vast expanses of terrain that have been left lying fallow for years. Its unusualness is reason enough to celebrate -- and needs no biographical aid to make its impression.

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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