Music

Buck 65: This Right Here Is Buck 65

Robert Wheaton

More than bringing together backpacker beats and Woody Guthrie covers, Buck 65 is reading a whole tradition of American story-telling through the prism of hip-hop.


Buck 65

This Right Here Is Buck 65

Label: V2
US Release Date: 2005-01-25
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Warner signed Canadian hip-hop artist Buck 65 in 2002, after he had enjoyed several years of relative success on the underground hip-hop circuit -- including a run of favored albums, a consistent touring schedule, and close ties with Oakland's Anticon collective. There was also, presumably, a calculation by Warner that he might mature into a songwriter with the reach and long-term marketability of Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.

The first part of that calculation was immediately vindicated: Square and Talkin' Honky Blues, his Warner releases to date, have exhibited a fully-developed story-telling talent. Talkin' Honky Blues, in particular, picked up more new listeners than it alienated backpackers with its live instruments and folk- and country-influenced range of sounds.

This Right Here Is Buck 65 -- on the V2 label -- seems calculated to address the second part of that calculation: to break Buck 65 to the American market. It is a compilation of several tracks from Talkin' Honky Blues and Square, a handful of material available only as b-sides and online exclusives, and reworkings of older material in his current style. Although it lacks -- narrowly -- the thematic coherence that made Talkin' Honky Blues a masterpiece, this is quite certainly an essential release by an artist that seems likely, if there is any justice at all, to spend much of his career reshaping popular music. He's just that good.

Buck 65, whose real name is Richard Terfry, hails from rural Nova Scotia. His off-kilter reading of hip-hop tradition has been on display since the early '90s, and was made explicit on his first solo LP, Language Arts, released in 1997. Subsequent releases and collaborations (particularly with fellow Canadian Anticon associate Sixtoo) have always foregrounded an essential restlessness, which at least seems borne out by a handful of off-beat biographical details: a flirtation with professional baseball, an appearance on Sesame Street, and a temporary residence in Paris.

That restlessness shouldn't suggest a diffuse talent, though, or a willingness to flirt with different influences and textures without integrating any of them fully. Terfry's various story-telling influences -- including Waits, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac -- have by now been so thoroughly absorbed into a developed and individual style that it is next to impossible to pick them out. "Talking Fishing Blues" is a Guthrie cover, but it's no more than a tip of the hat: it fits seamlessly amid these tales of drunkenness, wit, escape, loss and self-assured élan.

"Wicked and Weird" openly references Cash, but its gleeful, freewheeling, associative ode to the open road recalls Waits. There is something of the same surreal stream-of-consciousness flow, the same cast of oddball characters drawn into half-chosen, half-forced situations. There's also some of David Lynch's talent for subliminally evocative imagery, but even here, at his most surreal, Terfry's eye for detail -- "Cough drops, loose change in the beverage holder"; "5 o'clock shadow, lips like mudflaps / Hands like eagle's talons, eyes like hub caps" -- is precise and accurate in a manner undeniably his own.

There's a perfect confidence to his writing, a confidence that allows a song as personal as "Roses and Bluejays" -- about his relationship with his father since his mother's death -- to be conducted entirely at the level of surface observations. The details themselves, and their juxtaposition, perfectly conjure a sense of drift and directionlessness, and, somehow, a deep-rooted belonging. The image of his father clearing snow with a flamethrower encapsulates a moment of rage, loneliness, of silent futility.

There's the humor, too: "463" opens with a rant about "the youth of today" that is both brilliant parody and an evocation of the scale and magic of childhood: "When I was a kid... The whole world was made of wood and smelled like gasoline / The days were at least twice as long and the grass was green".

The highlight is probably "Cries a Girl", which balances its soft-hearted and wistfully mournful narrative -- a girl whose life is ruined by rumors of incest -- with the hard-boiled and grandstanding frame of a tall tale.

It would be possible to pick charms endlessly from these songs -- and, indeed, from those omitted. None of Talkin' Honky Blues's "Riverbed" series is included here. The older songs are less studded with perfectly-drawn observations and precisely-framed images. But even they exhibit a startling density, from the hilarious braggadocio of "Centaur" and the melancholy "Bachelor of Science", through the wounded trust of "Pants on Fire". The changes in arrangement here suit the material: "Pants on Fire" trades the simple, dusty guitar throb of the original for a broader, washier, more diffuse treatment; different rhythmic eddies and undertows surround the lyrics, somehow making a familiar song again treacherous.

Terfry's voice is the most notable change from the originals: where it was nasal, hurried, and slightly unsure, it is now broad and gruff. The Waits influence is obvious, but it doesn't sound at all borrowed or unearned: sometimes it is dropped boxlike to hammer out rhymes; sometimes Terfry uncoils -- unfurls -- it with a great depth of control.

With the addition of guitars, pedal steel, harps, and various other live sounds to his lo-fi turntablism, Terfry has matured from a stark and original producer to a brilliantly evocative arranger. The broader palette serves his taste for kooky and transient Americana, not to mention the rustic and elegiac nostalgia that suits his more involved tales. There are some obviously commercial choices here: "463" ditches the hard-edged harpsichord riffs of the original in favor of a forceful guitar-led arrangement, presumably with an eye on American radio airplay. But the arrangement choices are always appropriate. A dreamy, hazy warmth envelops the loss and human waste of "Cries a Girl". "Craftsmanship" moves with a brisk, business-like motion through the description of a shoe-shiner's trade, but when the song's content becomes more obviously analogous -- "It ain't about the dollar or trying to go fast / Unless you take pride in what you're doin', you won't last" -- a simple electric piano figure broadens and slows the song's momentum. The plucked strings and reverb-drenched guitar that open "Roses and Bluejays" evoke a measured distance between father and son -- before organ stabs and clattering snareshots suggest an improvised and comfortable intimacy.

Then there's the bleary despair of "Out of Focus", the "Rawhide" echoes that bounce "Bandits" from verse to chorus. When the add-ons and rarities that round out this collection -- including hidden track "The Abandoned Cars of Inverness County" -- are of this quality, it seems futile to try to pick holes. Terfry shows no sign of slowing down: a sequel to Talkin' Honky Blues is due this year. His appeal isn't just in the wedding of hip-hop to the American folk tradition; other artists from Beck to Timbaland have taken respectable shots into that acoustic barrel. Buck 65 is doing something more ambitious: reading a tradition of American storytelling through hip-hop. The expansive, inclusive, digressive American voice that runs through Guthrie and Dylan (and stretches back to Whitman) doesn't sound out of place for a Canadian like Buck 65, any more than it did for Kerouac. Terfry has some of Mark Twain's frontier nostalgia (his concert tall tales about Pythagoras's fear of beanfields suggests a sure grasp of Twain's sense of humor). Where he takes this ambition next will be fascinating to hear. This release is a pretty good summary of what he's been up to so far.

9

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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