Barking Mad: An Interview with Dogs

Robert Collins

The UK's Dogs have some pretty big fans, including themselves.

An earlier version of this feature originally appeared in British music magazine Playmusic. eared in British music magazine Playmusic.

"We got a call from Roger Daltrey!" beams Dogs' singer and songwriter Johnny Cooke in between sips of lager. "Well, we didn't. We got a call from Roger Daltrey's management. Roger Daltrey was in their office and said 'I love this band Dogs. I would love them to play the Teenage Cancer Trust Gig at the Albert Hall in March'. So their management rung us and said 'Would you like to play with the Who?'"

Johnny and Argentinean-born guitarist Luciano Vargas are sitting in a Camden pub grinning like a pair of cats who just snaffled the acid-infused cream. Because Dogs have just secured two of the best gigs available to a new band: a slot with the Who at the Albert Hall and the main support act for the forthcoming Paul Weller tour.

"Fucking Weller was pissed off his tits in Amsterdam singing 'Tuned To A Different Station'," explains Johnny, whose general demeanour and non-stop swearing bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Peter Cook in Derek and Clive mode. "Weller loves the album so he does the same thing. His management got in touch with our management and offered us the support slot on his tour."

"We ended up getting half the tour," adds Luciano, "The Ordinary Boys are doing the other half and they're a lot bigger than us. For us to get main support for the other half is fantastic. But then, we are wicked."

"Isn't that nice though," smiles Johnny. "To have two fans like that?"

"It's the old gents looking after the new breed," agrees Luciano. "When I was thirteen I was a huge Who fan."

"And I was an enormous Jam fan," adds Johnny. "I'm not a big Who fan, but you can't fuck with 'My Generation'. I'm trying to make proper sense out of it really. It's hard to step over that line from fan to contemporary. When I meet Weller it's going to be a bit bloody odd, because the first single I ever bought was 'Start'. I wanted to buy In the City as my first album but I couldn't pronounce 'city'. I'd say 'kitty'. I felt stupid so I bought Zenyatta Mondatta by the Police.

"Jonathon Ross wants us to come on his radio show!" continues Johnny, who's virtually impossible to stop once he's on a roll. "So do fucking Jo Whiley and Zane Lowe."

"Zane fucking loves us," clarifies Luciano. "Which is a mark above really liking us. He likes everyone but he fucking loves us."

"We get dissed," admits Johnny. "Who doesn't? Once in a while we get dissed on the Internet by some faceless, nameless wankers. But we get absolutely lauded by people that are really respected. From now on I don't give a fuck who doesn't like it. Weller likes it, so I'm fucking happy."

If Dogs are bordering on the arrogant, it's because they're finally riding the crest of a wave that's taken years of paddling to reach. Debut album Turn Against This Land is the probably the most musically advanced and eloquent punk rock record to come out of London for years, but it didn't emerge from a vacuum. This is a band with history. A long, messy history.

"We were all in bands in Cambridge when we were thirteen," explains Luciano. "But it wasn't until we came to London that we got a proper band together."

"I could see the end of the road in Cambridge and I didn't want to go down there," growls Johnny. "We split our bands up when we were fifteen, started getting into the rave thing and went totally off the rails. There were casualties left, right, and center, but thankfully we survived and found ourselves in London. Somehow I'd got myself to college but I was just fucking miserable. A girlfriend said, 'When were you happy?' I said, 'When I was in my band'. So she said, 'Start a fucking band then!'"

Which is exactly what they did. Recruiting old bass-playing Cambridge friend Duncan Timms, Luciano sang, Johnny drummed, and a band called Boca emerged searching for glory.

"We went to Rock University where you learn and make big mistakes," explains Luciano. "Good things happen. Bad things happen."

"We were fucking good," starts Johnny.

"No we weren't!" snaps Luciano. "We thought we were much better than we were. We had a stroppy kid on guitar. He was a great guitarist but he wouldn't play a chord for love nor money, and he'd throw a strop if you asked him to."

"He wouldn't fucking play our songs," laughs Johnny. "He wanted to do his songs. But his songs were fucking dreadful. Still, we thought 'We're the new Oasis. We're going all the way.'"

Recruiting guitarist Rikki Mehta was the first step towards what turned out to be Dogs, but the genuine breakthrough only happened when Luciano realized he perhaps wasn't the great frontman he had first believed.

"I was reluctant to give up the singing," he explains, "because I didn't see a future for me doing anything else."

"Because you were shit at guitar!" cackles Johnny. "I said 'Get bloody learning it! We'll just turn your amp down until you're good enough.'"

"I borrowed an amp from the rehearsal studio," recalls Luciano. "And to everyone's relief I was a lot better than I thought I was. Especially with my big sausage fingers. Then we started auditioning singers."

"Oh my fucking Christ," exhales Johnny.

"The more people we auditioned," offers the slightly more diplomatic Luciano, "the more it became obvious that they didn't get it."

"I'd have to yell from my drums to bring the mic over and go 'It's more like this,'" explains Johnny. "One day everyone went 'Johnny, you fucking sing. You're the only one who can fucking do it.' I was happy hiding behind the drums but I realised I had to bite the bullet. There was no future for the band if I didn't. I started off just shouting. You might say I still do that. We played our first gig three weeks after we got a new drummer and I was shitting myself, but we had some proper punks going mental. It was a much better vibe than any of our gigs in our previous format. You could tell instantly that we were onto something."

It was at this point that Boca turned into Dogs and things started happening. They picked up management, wowed the MD of Island Records and toured with bands of the caliber of Razorlight. At this point many bands think they've made it and take their foot off the pedal. For Dogs though, this was when the hard work really began.

"We'd rehearse about four times a week," promises Luciano. "In the evenings and at weekends."

"Girlfriends didn't like it very much," notes Johnny.

"All your friends from work would be going down the pub or going home to chill in front of the telly," continues Luciano. "They didn't understand that we'd be going to spend four hours in a sweaty rehearsal room, getting home at one in the morning and going to work the next day.

"People would say, 'Why don't you take a night off?'" remembers Johnny. "We were like, 'No we fucking can't.' We deferred our gratification. We worked fucking hard and we still do. We've come straight from rehearsal today. We go down to Bethnal Green and bang away as much as we possibly can. We only let ourselves have one day off a week."

"Every band pays its dues," agrees Luciano. "Some bands don't, but do they have any lasting power? Any band worth anything has to pay its dues at some point."

"The Beatles were playing Hamburg every fucking day," points out Johnny. "You have to put the hours in."

The result is an album that can stand alongside any British debut this decade. It's a cutting reflection of London life in 2005, proud of its raw musicianship yet full of tunes that suggest that Johnny could very well turn into a classic songwriter somewhere down the line. The album's one weakness, if you could call it that, is that it can't be lumped into any current music scene. Every band claim to be outsiders, but Dogs really set themselves apart.

"Everything's transient these days," insists Johnny. "Everything's fleeting fluxing fucking nonsense. We've really tried to position ourselves outside that. We've tried to follow the model of the old school rock and roll bands that start at the start and make the proper progression. I wanted the album to be an honest representation of an angry fucking five-piece band spitting out what they've got to spit out. You can't start with The Joshua Tree can you? You start with fucking Boy. We've got an idea about where we want to go and how we're going to grow. This is a long-term plan. We're not here to please the public or the label or anyone else but ourselves. We'll grow on our own terms. If we're lucky. That's the risk we've got to take for upholding our principles. We're glad we've stuck to our guns, but we've not made it easy on ourselves for commercial success. I fucking love the album. It should be number one all over the world. I should be on MTV fucking taking you round my mansion. But we've not compromised and we won't either."

This is why you should embrace Dogs. They're talented, angry, and funny, and they're not content to simply fill a slot in the British indie rock market. They're trying to make a difference. It was never going to be easy.

"Everyone wants to minimize the risk and make fucking money," rages Johnny, "and you end up with nothing but bland crap. And there's so much of it about. Fortunately British music is turning around. There are some great fucking bands out there now. And we're one of those. It might sound like we're jaded and a bit moany but that's because we're skint."

Money comes and goes for bands on the edge, but for Dogs the knowledge that they're out there changing lives is a far more important reward than any record company cheque.

"An old Jam fan gave me his 'Start' badge," boasts Johnny. "He said we were the first band that's done it for him since then. I said I couldn't but he insisted I had it. And I've still got it."

A slow, sad realization spreads across Johnny's face.

"I've just lost my coat so I think I might have lost it. I fucking hope not."

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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