Brighter: Singles 1989-1992

Jason Korenkiewicz


Singles 1989-1992

Label: Matinee
US Release Date: 2003-12-23
UK Release Date: 2004-01-19

Brighter is a band for the Monday morning music mavens, a rarefied breed that unearths obscure gems, champions them to the underground, and ultimately discards them once they achieve mainstream acclaim. Of all the labels that released the music these mavens covet, England's Sarah Records might be one of the most revered. This boutique indie released a cache of fabulous recordings that never reached the mainstream radar but always strove for a consistent level of excellence. The Holy Grail of the Sarah catalogue is easily the works of Brighter, who released three 7" singles and one 10" single that disappeared as quickly as the band itself. This new collection, Singles 1989-1992, lovingly delivered by Matinee Recordings, gathers all of the officially released Brighter recordings for the first time to create a time capsule of British music at the turn of a decade. At first listen, this collection appears to be little more that ambient noise for the period that separated the gloomy dominance of the Smiths and the devil may care antics of Oasis, but with every additional spin this compilation shines with the type of unpolished jewels about which music mavens boast.

Although the songs provide footnotes indicating that Brighter was part of a greater musical movement, the shining jangle pop that effuses from this gathering of material rings with tender nuances that distance this band from the maudlin routine of Mozzer and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and also set it apart from the fist-pumping, drug-encrusted madness of bands like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. Make no mistake, this album will remind you of the Stone Roses' "Sally Cinnamon", Morrissey's "Everyday Is Like Monday", and the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Happy When It Rains", but this is not simply something borrowed and something blue. The marriage of Alison Cousens, Keris Howard, and Alex Sharkey delivered a bouquet of pop hits that deserve the attention of the musical mainstream.

The opening two tracks do little to dispel the notion that Brighter is a band that takes heed of their peer's efforts. Both "Inside Out" and "Tinsel Heart" employ mid-tempo, reverb-drenched guitars and protracted monotone vocals that recall the efforts of some of their Mancunian counterparts listed above. In fact, these two tracks sound so similar in melody, tempo, production, and vocal meter that the two-second break between tracks could almost be misconstrued as a measured break. The saving grace is that the melody is so pleasing, and by the end of "Tinsel Heart" light percussion enters the mix and the band seems to find their groove just in time for the world class "Around the World in Eighty Days". While this song relies on many of the conventions used on the previous tracks, there are subtle yet significant differences here. A lead guitar counters the vocal melody in the chorus and the singing seems more urgent if not more improved.

Two tracks on this collection rise to the surface and differentiate this band from countless others in the path from the Smiths to Madchester and the ultimate rise and fall of the Britpop revolution that would become a phenomena in the United Kingdom and beyond during the 1990s. The first is "Noah's Ark", a sunny number with an acoustic guitar lead that wouldn't sound out of place in the late '80s Paisley Underground. There is little question that this track could exist seamlessly on the seminal Galaxie 500 album On Fire. Leaning heavily on the same production values, Brighter shuffles along with heavily-reverbed-yet-sparse drums, an underlying keyboard melody to compensate for the vocal shortcomings, and a late-song tempo change that leads to a bit of delightful noodling during the outro. This is a classic track that is wholly original but defty fuses the influence of the American college rock movement of the late 1980s with the more dance-oriented leanings of the British pop underground.

The other key track -- and perhaps what may have been Brighter's best shot at a radio anthem -- "Does Love Last Forever" finds their huggable jangle pop reaching a fever pitch that results in a frenetic two and a half minute bounce-a-long. For once the band uses a bit of distorted guitar in conjunction with the clean and the result is a winner. This track may best illustrate the parallels between Brighter and their more successful Smiths-era peers the Housemartins. Both acts crafted fey songs about love and the loss of it, but the Housemartins were able to find greater commercial acceptance. At times this collection mirrors the Housemartins' stellar debut, London 0, Hull 4, with similar song structures, themes, and musicianship. The glaring difference, which may have resulted in the commercial success of the Housemartins, is that the sugary vocal harmonies on London 0, Hull 4 soar while Brighter's vocal deliveries sometimes fall flat.

Music mavens spend a lifetime crowing about bands that should have been superstars but were deterred for various reasons. This collection leaves little doubt about both the abilities and the shortcomings of Brighter. While this was a band that wrote wonderfully emotive songs that recall the thing we love best about music, they were never destined to rule the world. Casual music fans embrace a different set of ideals than the more rabid ones. There is no need to look back with remorse on the demise or diminished memory of this fine band, and this collection is a fitting eulogy to a fine, albeit brief, career.

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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