Columns

Can't You Read the Signs?

Cars, guns, values, the US Constitution... like a yellow traffic light, their meaning and importance, relative to oneself, is open to interpretation.

In reading Bill Bryson’s marvelous book of columns, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, about the wonder and strangeness of the United States from the perspective of an ex-pat who’d returned after 20 years living in England, I came across two astonishing statistics in two separate columns (I’ve updated them here). They got me thinking a lot more about the strangeness than the wonder of this country.

Statistic #1: There were approximately 240 million cars in the United States in 2005.

Statistic #2 (2005): There were approximately 240 million guns in the United States in 2005.

Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase drive-by shooting, doesn’t it?

This near-evenness in the number of cars and guns can’t simply be a coincidence, can it? Maybe there’s some gun tie-in at car dealerships that I’m not aware of. I’m imagining that it works along the lines of the firearms giveaway at the bank Michael Moore visited in Fahrenheit 9/11 (although that is purported to have been staged for the film – but still, how do people get all those guns?).

Or maybe, without my realizing it, guns have become a standard feature of passenger vehicles, like CD players or passenger-side makeup mirrors or multiple cup holders. At this very moment, there’s probably some grandfatherly gent out there bouncing young Johnny on his knee and regaling him with stories of the ol’ days when you had to roll down the car window to get some air, and drive with a cup of steaming coffee wedged between your thighs, and your glove compartment held -- get this -- just the owner’s operating manual and maybe your car registration, not a Smith & Wesson Model 63 Revolver.

Or maybe cars and guns are simply Americans’ two worst addictions. Recent newsworthy developments highlight the never-ending hold on the American imagination that both cars and guns seem to have, despite the obvious consequences.

On 18 September, the Texas Transportation Institute released its annual study on traffic conditions in the US. The major finding? Traffic congestion continues to worsen in American cities of all sizes. The average peak period traveler spends nearly a full work week stuck in traffic each year (that average work week being 40 hours 40 hours, for those who still enjoy such a luxuriously short work-week). And he or she wastes approximately 26 gallons of fuel at a cost of $710. This amounts to 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel in total, costing the nation an astonishing $78.2 billion, annually.

Just a few days later (and at the same time as the celebration of World CarFree Day), the other American vice was being touted as a virtue at the National Rifle Association convention, held in the nation’s capital. This year’s theme was “Celebrating American Values”. Now, this strikes me as a misnomer or a typo or a grammatical error because the NRA appears to care about one, and only one, supposed American value: the alleged right to bear arms.

As a reminder, the Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Of all amendments to be written ambiguously, why, oh why, did this have to be the one?

But, naturally, there was little ambiguity to be found in the speeches delivered in person or by video by the Republican presidential candidates (and the Democratic candidate Bill Richardson).

Mitt Romney, who’d earlier in the campaign attempted to proved his great love of hunting by asserting, “I've been a hunter pretty much all my life” (but was later discovered to have made only two known trips to hunt…bunnies and quail) called the right to bear arms “a cornerstone of our personal freedom.”

John McCain, partly in reference to Romney’s transparent and continual pandering said, “The Second Amendment is not about hunting, it is about freedom.”

Mike Huckabee aimed straight at the heart of NRA members (who knew?!) by describing one of his most valued possessions: a 20-gauge shotgun that his father gave him, and which he hopes to pass along to his children someday.

Fred Thompson pulled out the big guns by claiming, "I think we're winning on the interpretation of the Second Amendment."

Only Rudy Guliani offered a more nuanced view, emphasizing the need for stricter enforcement of gun control laws. Yet, he just couldn’t resist tying 9/11 into the gun ownership issue, saying that his views have been shaped by his years as a prosecutor and a mayor, and even by 9/11, which “puts a whole different emphasis on what America has to do to protect itself.”

Huh? Is he saying people should keep a personal handgun in their night table drawer because a terrorist might break into their home and force them to renounce the gas guzzlin’, gun totin’ American way of life?

Nah, nothing could get Americans to do that.

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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