Ornette Coleman: At the Golden Circle, Volume One/Two

James Beaudreau

Ornette Coleman

At the Golden Circle, Volume OneAt the Golden Circle, Volume Two

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2002-01-08

To press play in a small apartment in Brooklyn in 2002 and be privy to a well-preserved 1965 concert is like activating voodoo in your house. Unseen instruments move the air in secret ways, and I can almost feel the temperature and humidity of a room that first filled with these sounds 37 years ago. The concerts were Ornette Coleman's, and they took place at Stockholm's Golden Circle, on a couple of undoubtedly cold and snowy December nights. These powerful Blue Note recordings have been recently re-issued with new alternate takes and excellent sound as part of the label's RVG Series. (Rudy Van Gelder, the celebrated audio engineer who recorded many classic jazz dates in the 1950s and '60s has undertaken, in the past couple of years, the remastering of many Blue Note sessions.) Although the Golden Circle was not a Van Gelder recording, it has a strange presence, and, especially on this reissue, its sound is haunting. And so, before any discussion of the abundant merits of the music itself, I'd like to call to attention some of the sounds waiting to be stirred from the disc.

First, there's the storytelling voice. In his hands, Coleman's saxophone is the most primal of expressive tools: a chisel -- a shard for cutting things open. That is not to say that it is not beautiful. His sound is nothing less than a window into empathy. Coleman's famous plastic horn, blown hard, has a cry, and when it's played with less force it takes you into its confidence with a warm and wooden tone.

And there's color: Golden Circle features an extraordinary cymbal sound. It has unusual depth: the stick's bead on the metal is like rain on a plastic awning, or hail on a pond, with deeply hued overtones spreading below. It's the most remarkable recorded cymbal sound I've ever heard. The dense thud of the bass drum and rap of the snare drum pop like fireworks; they're the left and right against which the sax trails careen.

No less notable is the dark spring of the bass. David Izenzon was a bass purist, and performed without amplification. On Golden Circle the bass occupies its natural level: in the particulars of its notes it is sometimes obscured by the drums and horn, but never in its presence or thrust. But when the percussion and horn wane, as they often do, we're left supported by the hyper-intelligent web of Izenzon's mahogany bass tone deep below.

These rich sounds are the dressings of a very fine music. The Golden Circle engagement occurred roughly at the midpoint in time between Coleman's famous Atlantic recordings, and the electric music of his group, Prime Time. The music is "free": in order to find expression, Ornette created his own idiom, based on the somewhat arcane umbrella of concepts that he calls Harmolodics. Roughly simplified, Harmolodics dictates that the soloist's range of invention is limited only within the scope of his muse. There are no preconceived frameworks or laws to adhere to; he or she has total freedom (hence the term) to play whatever he or she wishes. And the accompanists can do the same. Rhythm, harmony, and melody are all put on equal footing, individually, and in the group dynamic. And so the sound of the music varies from group to group because it relies on the collective chemistry of each member's approach.

On Golden Circle, Ornette, as usual, spins out a seemingly infinite stream of melody, from the simple and childlike to the angular and cerebral. And his melody is marinated through and through in the peppery tang of Texas blues and R&B. Moffett and Izenzon engage and expand the traditional roles of bass and drums. While both seem to relish forward motion, they're each unpredictable in their own way: Moffett may change tempo and meter, or stop playing completely at any moment, and Izenzon picks up the bow in mid-swing and joins the front line with Ornette at will. Together, they're unflaggingly creative in support of the leader.

As to the material, there's a wonderful abundance of different moods and settings for the trio to explore. For example, there's the off-to-the-races scamper of "Faces and Places" and the furious start to "The Riddle". There are a couple of quiet and reflective odes to daybreak: the orchestral miniature of "Dawn", and the slow blues lament of "Morning Song", a highlight of which is Moffett's xylophone reading of the melody during a bass solo. "Snowflakes and Sunshine" features Ornette's much maligned (but brilliant) trumpet and violin playing. It's got a hectic stop-start form in which alternate trumpet and violin solo passages are framed by bowed bass solos accompanied by sparse, shifting percussion. It's a cubist hoedown. And then there's the measured lope of "Antiques", and the boppish "Doughnuts".

It's exhilarating to thumb one's nose at space and time, and that's what we do when we listen to Ornette Coleman: At the Golden Circle. To have access to music like this, with such vibrant sound, is a gift. Enjoy it.

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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