Polyphonic Spree, Desco Records Showcase, and Cody ChesnuTT

Jordan Kessler
Polyphonic Spree, Desco Records Showcase, and Cody ChesnuTT

Polyphonic Spree, Desco Records Showcase, and Cody ChesnuTT

City: New York
Date: 1969-12-31

Thinking about the annual CMJ Music Marathon, which aims to introduce college radio jocks and other musos to new music over four nights in New York, one thing comes to mind: lots of young white folks playing and listening to contemporary indie rock. Not being much of a fan of such music, I worriedly pored over the schedule, wondering what would appeal to me among the hundreds of bands appearing at dozens of local clubs. One night, I did go with the flow and check out a young, white band that has garnered critical kudos. Unlike most indie rock outfits, Polyphonic Spree is large and spiritually-oriented, a troupe of 20-plus 20-somethings dressed in flowing white church robes. The group augmented the standard indie rock instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums with a trumpet, a flugelhorn, and even a harp. Above the instrumentalists stood a choir of ten, framed by a stained-glass window. The sound: a youth choir and its backing band from a church in the suburbs of Dallas, circa 1976, drinks Sunday punch laced with acid and proceeds to take music lessons from The Beach Boys, Supertramp, The Carpenters, Up With People, and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. I had a hard time knowing whether Polyphonic Spree is a seriously spiritual response from front man Tim DeLaughter to the drug overdose of his former bandmate or just a clever postmodern pastiche of various '70s sounds. Maybe it's both. In any event, though the group's music was interesting and somewhat enjoyable, it did not particularly move me. To a lesser degree, the same could be said of what I had heard two nights earlier, at the Daptone Records showcase, though Daptone's revivalist funk is surely more my taste than the preachy rock of Polyphonic Spree. At the Daptone showcase, I saw fewer people than at the Polyphonic Spree show and nearly no CMJ badges. Considering the soulful nature of the music performed by the Daptone bands, this did not surprise me. Built by half of the two-man team behind the now-defunct Desco label, Daptone, like Desco before it, releases records influenced almost exclusively by the music of James Brown and other hard, funky soul of the late '60s. The instrumentalists in the Daptone bands, mostly young, white players, aim to sound just like the JBs and the Meters, and the vocalists, mostly aging African Americans, seem to be living out their adolescent fantasies of being James Brown or Lyn Collins. Interestingly, instead of just playing straight covers, the Daptone groups write seemingly original but overwhelmingly derivative songs that combine a variety of elements -- from lyrics to beats to horn lines -- from the old songs to which they pay homage. Though much of the Daptone music I heard sounded highly unoriginal, some of the performances struck me as genuinely inspired. The Mighty Imperials and friends turned in a brief but impressive all-instrumental set, playing jazzy soul-funk with feeling (think the JBs meet Grant Green). After filling the beginning of his set with some James Brown shtick, Lee Fields, backed by the Sugarman Three, belted out a few heartfelt, original ballads. Headliner Sharon Jones, who looks like one tough lady, worked the crowd with relish, taking her shoes off and leaping off the stage to dance. Members of Jones' band, the Dap-Kings, included a shiny-suited keyboardist who sounded like Stevie Wonder, a female trumpeter, and one super-tight drummer. Jones sang a few smoky slow burners between frantic funk numbers like the Isleys' "Its Your Thing" and James Brown's "There Was a Time". In contrast to the other, fairly entertaining shows I saw during the Music Marathon, the Cody ChestnuTT performance I witnessed on its final night was nothing short of revelatory. Despite this, the ChestnuTT crowd, like the audience at the Daptone showcase, contained few concertgoers wearing CMJ badges. Though ChestnuTT plays rock, it is not contemporary indie rock, but rather nuanced rock deeply informed by vintage blues, gospel, and soul. ChestnuTT, who bears some physical resemblence to both Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, fronts a superb band, the remaining members of which happen to be three scruffy white guys. On some songs, the band vigorously pounded away at their instruments. On others, such as the one instrumental number they performed, they simply grooved, with ChestnuTT and his lead guitarist trading licks. Yet another sound -- gentle and understated -- came across in ChestnuTT's gorgeous, three-part song cycle about romance. In particular, ChestnuTT's drummer stood out, looking and sounding like a combination of Levon Helm and Keith Moon. Speaking and singing, ChestnuTT eloquently let the crowd know about his reliance on Jesus, taking his creativity back from the Devil, and breaking free of restraints imposed by the government and the music industry. Pointing to The Headphone Masterpiece -- the 36-song CD he recorded in his bedroom -- ChestnuTT encouraged those in attendance to be creative as well, first by singing along during the show, and then by making their own music after it. Colloquial, humorous, and positive, he even managed to convince nearly everyone present to join hands at one point. Most notably, ChestnuTT told his listeners that he cares what they think about his music and what they feel while listening to it. In other words, he let us know that he knows the show is not all about him. Maybe this was just a facile line, and perhaps he uses it with every audience he plays to, but I sure believed what he said. The CMJ Music Marathon used to be called the CMJ New Music Marathon, but no longer. I guess, in a way, this makes sense, considering how retro most indie music is today. To my ears, neither Polyphonic Spree nor the bands that record for Desco Records sound all that new. Yet, in the end, the CMJ Music Marathon lived up to its old name by introducing me to Cody ChestnuTT, who, though he has roots in the past, is standing in the present and facing the future.

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Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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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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