Music

Death in Vegas: FabricLive 23

Andrew MacLachlan

Death in Vegas' first work since those aborted sessions with Oasis is a valuable contribution to the prolific FabricLive catalogue.


Death in Vegas

FabricLive 23

Label: Fabric
US Release Date: 2005-08-23
UK Release Date: 2005-08-15
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Compilations are difficult to perfect. Once you have identified what it is you want it to do, you must decide how to go about it. In short, your choice of track has to match your purpose; otherwise, you have failed. If you succeed at this, longevity awaits. A fine example of this is the Now That's What I Call Music series. While many may disagree and say that incredible longevity is instead due to an awareness of the sales yield from the series (America's 19th installment in the series sold 436,000 copies in its first week. Europe has seen some 50-odd editions since its introduction there) but the only reason the longevity is possible is because it meets its objective. Whether this is worthwhile objective is open for debate. Death in Vegas' work for the FabricLive label is similar to this.

Because the success of a compilation is determined by evidence of "something far more deeply interfused", Death in Vegas' agenda is to create the appearance of some cogency between the tracks. In other words, the intention is to match your purpose with your chosen tracks. FabricLive, like Now That's What I Call Music!, is more than aware of how to get this to work. After all, this record is the 23rd in the series. So, what does all this mean? The answer is simply that any compilation must seek to achieve something and must use the resources at its disposal to facilitate its success. On this record, the object is to convey to the listener the working influence of his heroes on Richard Fearless' work. He has put his own tracks alongside those of such legends as Alex Smoke to try to convey the effect of the latter upon the former. It's a wonderful idea and it makes for a great record.

The opening track, Solvent's' "Science with Synthesisers", is like a knock on the door. There is no bombast about its entry, instead it creeps up politely, asking to be noticed. Such is the nature of electronica that we are greeted with a single sound. It sounds like electric bongos but it's probably a keyboard. The arrival of the supporting keyboard some time after the introduction is pivotal to the arrival of the first Death in Vegas track, "Zugaga".

"Zugaga" sounds like a track that could have been done by Air. Indeed, it sounds like it belongs on Talkie Walkie. With its gossamer vocals and its synth loops it sounds like "Surfing on a Rocket". This is a great track and, now that we know that Death in Vegas' records sound like other people's records, he can try something else. He has our confidence that what he is trying to do with this record is to show us that he deserves his place in the pantheon of electronic musicians. Via the mixing that links the opening two tracks, Fearless has theoretically created a single track. The effect of which is our first association of Death in Vegas with the records that have served as influences.

The inclusion of electronica legend Alex Smoke pushes FabricLive 23 on from being a snippet of Death in Vegas' record collection to a record you could put on at a party. Smoke's "Lost in Sound" is characteristic of the whole record. It is episodic in the way that R.E.M.'s "Imitation of Life" video was. In that video, we watch a few seconds' footage looped for the duration of four and a half minutes. By definition, episodic is also repetitive but the genuis of "Lost in Sound" is that it doesn't allow itself to inhabit repetition's traditional territory of dullity. There are so many sounds that, though they are looped, there is no point at which we are left to contemplate just one sound. Because of this, it defies derision by being anything but dull.

This record, then, is a design by Death in Vegas. It is intended to show that he has forged and shaped his sound from the raw elements that have embodied the sounds emanating from his stereo over the years. Fearless intends to show that he is no innovator because the Death In Vegas tracks on this record automatically lead to comparisons with the tracks that bookend them. This is a brave move. Effectively, Fearless tells us he is no thief since his records sound nothing like those that line the walls of his studios. We are allowed into the Death in Vegas workshop to prove that any accusations that Death in Vegas' music is derivative are utterly unfounded. The mixes are further evidence of this. We could have had a 2 Many Djs mixing exhibition here, where Richard Fearless tries to prove that he's an excellent disc jockey. He is an excellent disc jockey, but on this record he wants us to hear something different. The short mixes and the smattering of Death in Vegas tracks make this a record for Death in Vegas fans but also for electronica fans. As such, the record is less about Death in Vegas than about Death in Vegas' influences. Thus, the compilation form moves into new territory: it's both a collation of Fearless' electronica faves and an invitation to compare his work to that of his heroes.

6

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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