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Fashion gravitas

Part of the success of the Us Weekly and InStyle formula rested initially in their ability to merge the functions of a celebrity gossip magazine with those of beauty and fashion magazines: Service pieces about makeup and whatnot would be enlivened by the presence of a celebrity endorsing one product or another, while simultaneously promoting the celebrity's own career, her own notoriety. But that formula may be in danger of exhausting itself, as the reciprocal promotions taking place are starting to become unbalanced. According to this Wall Street Journal piece, celebrities are out and supermodels are back in for the latest slew of fashion advertisments. "The pendulum's swing back to models reflects what some fashion marketers are calling "celebrity fatigue": A-list entertainers are so overexposed that 'there is a major lack of trust,' says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York consulting firm." (The Luxury Institute? That's probably not a bad place to work.) This risible statement presupposes that (a) supermodels are not overexposed and (b) people once "trusted" celebrities who endorsed luxury products, as though they weren't doing it for the money. It's not as if people are out there thinking: "Hmm, if that Jessica Simpson likes Pizza Hut, maybe I should give it a try; her opinion on such things seems pretty trustworthy." Trust wouldn't seem to enter into this transaction; it's just that some celebrities have enough glamorous status that the brightness of their star power blinds consumers to their motives and allows their association with the advertised product go unquestioned. And overexposure doesn't compromise trust at all; it just reduces the star's luster so that one focuses on the celebrity's greed and vanity rather than dreaming about the product making one as glamorous and exalted. Once stars are "just like us" they can't serve as signals of exclusivity.

No one thinks models are just like us. In fact, they seem inseparable from the product of fashion itself. One of the article's sources attempts a defense of the models' special talents: "They're professionally trained to be photographed incredibly well," a modeling agency VP claims, "They know which camera angles work." I'm sure that's a rare gift, and I'm sure the training is rigorous and uncompromising -- "No, you must stare off into space as though you are seeing nothing, nothing. Do you see it?" -- but I have a hard time believing that has anything to do with this. A much better explanation is probably that they are cheaper to use, and carry less extracurricular baggage (amazingly, this is alleged to be true even of Kate Moss). "Style experts say that models may convey more fashion gravitas and sophistication than screen actresses. 'They're specifically related to fashion,' says Sally Singer, fashion news features director at Vogue." Fashion gravitas equates to the model's ability to be indistinguishable from the product, to be a product herself rather than a personality in her own right. Fashion gravitas is a kind of imposed amnesia: It's a matter of taking the posture being advertised with the utmost seriousness, as if no other definitions of style have ever existed, and having no agenda of one's own in promoting it. " 'We're seeing a return to the focus on the product rather than just the image,' says David Wolfe, a New York fashion consultant and creative director of the Doneger Group. 'People have decided that when they buy the image they are not really getting anything.' " Now, no one thinks that's true; if consumers were no longer content to consume images, fashion magazines and the fashion industry would be in great danger of folding altogether. The industry consists of little more than images, and the attitudes and whims they are essential to establishing. What you expect to get when you consume fashion is a moment's respite from the ever-mounting insecurity that the world is passing you by. For a moment you feel ahead of the curve. Celebrities, apparently, have fallen behind it. But the substantiality, the use value, of the product is never in question; everyone knows there is none.

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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