The Cut-Out Bin #3: Archers of Loaf, White Trash Heroes (1998)

Zeth Lundy

This burst of fin-de-siècle exhaustion, paranoia and malaise anticipated 21st century angst with uncanny accuracy. Unfortunately for these post-grunge indie stalwarts, OK Computer did it first.

White Trash Heroes is a record buried by denial. Fans make excuses (it was, after all, Archers of Loaf's exhausted swan song), critics wield perspective (Icky Mettle is just so much more focused and immediate), and history opts not to comment on its shoddy short-term memory. Even the nauseating cover photo of a punk-rock bathroom offers preemptive advice to the prospective listener: Turn around and walk away. But really, what is this? A jaded, clinically taut kiss-off to 1990s guitar rock? A messy exhuming of cultural baggage to the tune of neurotically entwined guitar riffs? An album that opens with a martial treatise on the viral dissemination of popular culture and ends with a bleary snapshot of some rural county fair has some explaining to do.

But who will listen? The album is too abrasive, too challenging, too instigative. It wasn't an album that the Archers seemed destined to make, but it became their destiny: Noise-rock band from fertile Chapel Hill, North Carolina, scene dehumanizes itself with icy keyboards and minimalism. It's what happens when you replace a band's blood with binary code, as the Police did with Ghost in the Machine and Talking Heads did with Fear of Music. It's a manifestation of the sublime and impossible: What if Philip Glass had come of age in the geographical shadow of Fugazi? What if he was reared on the steady waft of grunge's slow death? This record answers that type of burning question. It also single-handedly removed the band from the hipster-darling phone book. With White Trash Heroes, the Archers dejectedly abandoned their seven-year career, leaving behind a flaming wreck of twisted metal and blue flame.

What a way to go out.

For those caught slumbering under the watch of post-Cobain false idols, the Archers were the bench-clearers brandishing billy clubs. If its lumbering mass didn't happen to collide with the monotony of your personal life, White Trash Heroes could be ignored. But if it happened to interrupt your path, escape was not an option. In particular, "One Slight Wrong Move", the album's clank-boom-steam centerpiece, sounded like nothing else at the time. This was their theme: the death-rattle rhythm of metal and steel, the coiling Eastern guitar riff, the squalls of feedback, the human voice replaced with the future shock of a low-octave talk-box used not for kitsch or fun but to incite paranoia. "One Slight Wrong Move" is, as a friend put it, "skull-bashing" -- a terror alert for a country not yet familiar with terror alerts, an antidote to the personal Jesuses promised by pop music. "And we work forever each and every day / And we surrender anyway, in so many different ways". Caught in the song's stranglehold, you're powerless under the sway of the cold, menacing rhetoric: "A hundred million people could be wrong / A hundred million people have been wrong before."

It's eerie, because the institutions of control the Archers were rallying against (fascism, totalitarianism, corporate dictation, household complacency) crop up in the album's very presentation. The album is alternately overpowering and hypnotic; longed-for lulls follow brutal punishments. At its heart, White Trash Heroes is a confrontation with emptiness, the emptiness embedded in consumer culture, the emptiness of a cultural landscape that was once again being stripped of its idealism, the overwhelming emptiness that accompanies the close of a century. While it would be ridiculous to suggest the Archers were ragtag Kreskins, their tone in 1998 is arguably prescient; it evokes the impending malaise of a new century ushered in by dot-com busts, Y2K scares, catastrophic acts of terrorism and a pall of never-ending aggression. Visions of innocence would be exposed as nothing but exorbitant fantasies. Perhaps this cold vision of inevitability drove listeners away, this assertion that rock 'n' roll can't always be relied on for escape and absolution.

Or maybe it was the jagged shape of the songs. When it's not busy being confrontational via the raw onslaught of instrumentation, White Trash Heroes is oblique (the garbled paranoia of Eric Bachmann's lyrics); it repeatedly tests listeners' patience with abrasion ("I.N.S.") and repetition (the seven-minute title track) -- hardly the kind of recording most people invest time in. It's easy to reject the entire affair as lacking a confident coherence. The song structures are knotty (the dueling riffs in "Fashion Bleeds" and "Perfect Time" demand concentration) and some of the conceptual elements (namely, the Glass-esque loops of "Dead Red Eyes" and the title track) can frustrate if overanalyzed. Still, navigating the uncertainties of devastated cultural terrain isn't easy: the Archers blow through screamcore ("Banging on a Dead Drum"), a Pixies-esque instrumental ("Smokers in Love Laugh"), neon-hued neo-blues ("Slick Tricks and Bright Lights") and pieces of scrapheap beauty ("Perfect Time") before the ten-song manifesto runs its course. It doesn't all work -- both "I.N.S." and "Banging on a Dead Drum" are inscrutable slices of temper heavy on shock and light on exploratory gestures -- but the Archers don't pretend that they think otherwise. In fact, they seem to readily admit to the blemishes in a less-than-utopian reality in which they themselves are implicated: "There is no perfect time / Too fast or slow," Bachmann croaks in "Perfect Time". "There is no perfect place / No picture-perfect face."

While probably no time would have been perfect to release their crowning achievement, the Archers dropped White Trash Heroes one year too late. Audiences had already embraced Radiohead's OK Computer in 1997, a record that flailed its arms with a similar flag-down-the-plane-from-the-island finality. Both albums are timely documents of fear, skepticism, and defeatism, but White Trash Heroes remains the more visceral of the two. And though not as sonically immaculate and ornate as its British counterpart, White Trash Heroes retains its relevance because it feels so explicitly irrevocable -- it's a heap of racket, piled under the archway into this new era, that we can't help but track into the house under our feet. At the end of a century, unfortunate new beginnings are chartered.

[back to section front page]

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.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.