De La Guarda (DJ Connection, featuring Derrick May)

John Davidson
De La Guarda (DJ Connection, featuring Derrick May)

De La Guarda (DJ Connection, featuring Derrick May)

City: New York
Venue: The Daryl Roth Theater
Date: 2003-08-21

Photo credit: Valeria Zalaquett
Strings Attached: De La Guarda 10 Years On The language is not intellectual, it goes straight to the body, to the senses, to the soul. So opens De La Guarda's elaborate website. Whether the phrase refers to a philosophical choice made at the show's conception or was later deemed necessary -- a disclaimer of sorts, having witnessed a performance -- is unclear. It certainly contains a truth, however. De La Guarda is an assault on the senses, directed towards the same youthful impulse that might once have inspired a wild spin through the air, out above a muddy embankment or over a stream, hanging from a knotty rope on the outstretched limb of an ancient oak. It doesn't bear great intellectual scrutiny, but if you haven't ever done it, it may offer a novel sense of fun. De La Guarda was originally conceived and performed in a music club in Buenos Aries in 1993. Over the past decade it has toured Europe extensively, and featured concurrent runs in Japan and Korea, as well as here in the United States. After a five-year residency Off-Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theater, it is at last winding down, a show in need of a breather, hinting at the effects of aging and rheumatic stress. The production itself remains heavily reliant on atmospherics, dependent on smoke and ropes for the kicks it provides. Set pieces are preceded by lengthy introductions; most often, tribal rhythms beat through the sound system, and dense smoke billows across a crowded darkness. The performance space resembles a blacked-out school gym, and sometimes a fine mist of water is released from sprinklers, simulating rain and bringing about a mostly joyful frenzy in the soaked patrons below. A show for the geriatric, it isn't. Perhaps for some attracted to the concept -- say, those swan-diving helplessly into their thirties -- there's likely a feeling of having already lived it. On a recent night during the DJ Connection series, hosted weekly over the past two summers, one could still sense the happy-vibe influence of rave culture (one source from which the production originally drew its energy and inspiration). The series has proven an interesting and successful collaboration, even if in a sense it now contributes to the aged essence of the show. Most of those DJs invited to play emerged from the nascent beginnings of a dance music culture that prided itself on community and earth-love. Most recently, techno pioneer Derrick May played a set in NYC, offering an intriguing study in contrasts between the ancient drum patterns of the De La Guarda soundtrack and his own mixed metallic techno beats. The two may not have provided a seamless combination, but they offered a rewarding example of cross-pollination between two distantly related cultural cousins. May worked the turntables hard, mixing and scratching and manipulating each track relentlessly, and almost twenty years on, his enthusiasm and curiosity remain undiminished. But the group positivism of the rave culture era has long since evaporated, and it renders the atmosphere of De La Guarda somewhat manufactured. Despite good intentions, at best it feels nostalgic, and at worst archaic. Those with an under-developed sense of cynicism, or a life experience amounting to less than sixteen years of age may, of course, feel inclined to disagree. Yet unquestionably, the show demands the unblinking, enthusiastic participation of its audience, and a wired, manic energy from its performers. It gets some of the former, and much of the latter. The performers spring from a variety of backgrounds, many of them neither dance nor performance-based. Unsurprisingly, several have a background in climbing, and all display a significant capacity for enthusiasm. After the show proper, the performers venture onto the floor, dancing with those who remain, inciting good times to the pulsating rhythms of the DJ; one performer I saw took his adrenaline and enthusiasm into the arms of a surprised-looking college girl who received rather more than the kiss on the cheek she'd sought. Still, the cast's presence after show's end typifies the inclusive atmosphere the production seeks to create. Such as they are, themes running throughout the show are of primitivism, of the necessity to escape from contemporary forces and constraints. The original music is distinctly tribal, and what we witness are urban warriors weighted down in their "costumes", their city suits. Over the course of the show they re-discover the power of community, and of the lifeblood found in the basic elements of air, earth and water. What the show most pointedly lacks at this point, however, is an ability to astonish or electrify. De La Guarda was imagined several years before cinema brought us The Matrix (and the endless stunt-laced films in its wake), and for a generation already complacently dismissive of Matrix: Reloaded , the thrill of witnessing people swinging from ropes thirty feet above the ground is considerably diminished. There is little in the way of artful choreography to astonish by its beauty, or delight with its invention. Once the smoke clears, it all appears fairly straightforward. The closest we come to form or grace is when two performers, suspended from different lengths of rope, zigzag in perfect symmetry across one another's paths while racing to the top of a broad, vertical wall. It is one of the few moments where for a moment, you wonder, how? Without a production on the scale of Cirque Du Soleil, the De La Guarda troupe has little hope of impacting us with the candor of its stunts. Art and mystery however, require imagination far beyond space and technological know-how, and it is here that this group must find its future.

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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