Film

Black Like You

Mark H. Harris
The Wurgels and the Sparks, before and after.

When is trading 'races' not as entertaining -- or insightful -- as trading spaces? When it's all part of FX's highly implausible 'social experiment', an idea fated to fail from the first smudge of groan-inducing greasepaint.

While Ice Cube's contribution to cinematic discourse is dubious at best ("Do you feel that the neo-realism of the denouement undermined the narrative aesthetic of Torque?"), his recently concluded foray into television production, Black. White., no doubt triggered water cooler discussions that led to fisticuffs and hurriedly dug shallow graves.

In reality TV's never-ending quest to find a new way to force antagonists to share communal space ("Shiite. Sunni." "Cobra. Mongoose." "Robin Quivers. Dignity."), Black. White. placed two racially ignorant families — one white, one black — under the same roof and through the magic of Hollywood cosmetology, made them up to look like the other race. Wackiness ensued. Prejudice has never been so much fun!

Actually, the show played it all very straight — perhaps too much so. After a debut episode that set cable TV ratings records, viewership flew faster than a Naomi Campbell cellphone. With a concept that was at once high-minded and base, so ripe for both comedy and tragedy, with so lofty a destination yet so crude a vehicle, the opportunity for outrageous entertainment — and sobering lessons — had lain at our feet. This show could've been — dare I say it? — the next White Shadow. Instead, with a six-episode run that finished with an anticlimactic whimper, it became the next Sonny Spoon.

So, what happened? Aside from the obvious distasteful smugness of the white family's patriarch (live-in boyfriend Bruno), several aspects of the show may have proved too much for viewers to bear:

Powder, Please
The makeup, though well done for TV standards, made the black family (the Sparks) look at best sickly and at worst like denizens of some twisted Michael Jackson dream world. While the white family (the Wurgels) fared a bit better, the producers decided to outfit the naturally bald Bruno with "black hair", which, combined with the faux tan, made him look like Gus from Birth of a Nation. Only white teenager Rose looked natural, and in her case, she looked too good. Like, ten times better than she looked white.

In Search of the Talented Tenth
Holy crap, where did they get these black people? It's like the producers hand picked them as the perfect combination of impatience, inarticulacy, and ignorance to thwart any hope of a productive discussion on race. What kind of black parents raise a son who's impervious to the sting of the n-word? Sure, in theory that sounds nice, but it's sort of like someone who's not afraid of oncoming traffic.

Black mother Renee was a ball of nerves, and no matter what white mother Carmen did, she found herself on her last one. Yes, Carmen was a dunderhead, but she was a well-intentioned dunderhead. On the other hand, know-it-all Bruno — who believed that one's success in life depends solely on how hard you work and not on your race (thus, he's a substitute teacher) — deserved the scorn that black dad Brian dished out. Unfortunately, Brian lacked the reasoning and articulation to convey to Bruno exactly why he's such a dick.

'F' for Effort
It felt like the producers spent about 95% of their time trying to match skin-tone paints at Home Depot and about 5% planning what they wanted their human guinea pigs to do once they moved into the house. Even a Road Rules-styled zip line across a chasm would've shown some thought, and frankly it would've been only slightly less relevant than having Bruno go to an auto dealership or seeing if anyone would stop to help two black men jump-start a car. Since this isn't 1958 Birmingham, Alabama, of course, nothing overtly racist occurred during these "experiments" — unless you count Bruno hoping that something overtly racist would occur.

With such an obvious villain as Bruno, you'd think that the producers would go overboard trying to soften his views, but the show's half-assed outings often seemed designed to imbed his pompous self-righteousness even deeper. When Brian takes him out of the house to experience black culture, for instance, they somehow (cue producer magic) find a boozy dominoes game that's a Jheri curl away from Boyz N the Hood. Bruno already feels superior; why fuel the fire? Frankly, he should've been forced to defend his belief that racism doesn't exist — or at least, is a non-issue — to the black poetry class that Rose attended. That way, he would've felt the frustration of arguing his point as an outnumbered minority, but it would've been difficult for him to dismiss the group as ignorant, uneducated, poorly spoken buffoons (though I'm sure he could've found a way).

Under a Black Rock
Who are we kidding? Does a black person really have to disguise himself as white in order to understand white culture? American culture is, by and large, white culture; we live it every day. So when the show documented Renee's ignorance of what white people do for fun, it felt forced, as if the producers were nudging her along: "You know what might be fun? Scrapbooking!" Then again, her son enjoys the n-word, so masochism might run in the family.

Product Placement
Thanks to pervasive corporate synergy, I now have the urge to run out and buy Ice Cube's new album, Laugh Now, Cry Later (In stores June 6!).

The Real World
Basically, the show was too real to sustain a reality TV-weaned audience. Racism is a subtle, drawn-out process unfit for sensationalistic voyeurism. You can go weeks, months, or even years without the type of direct racial attack that Bruno was so disturbingly eager to encounter, and then, when you least expect it, WHAM, someone offers you a watermelon side dish for your three-piece meal.

There's inherent difficulty in trying to capture something as complex and nuanced as racism on camera within a limited time frame. The Sparks were apparently appointed the thankless task of shaking the racism tree, praying that something would fall, but the constraints of television make it all feel like knee-jerk desperation: "Taxi, follow that racism!"

The least that Black. White. could've done was use more hidden cameras; they needed to get all Primetime Live up in there. The most intriguing and palpable racial animosity was captured using hidden cameras (e.g., Rose asking for a job application from stores that conveniently were "out"), because who's gonna oppress you with a cameraman, a sound guy, and an AD with a release form standing two feet away?

So, after an episode and a half with little of shock value than Bruno contemplating wearing an African robe to church (ignorant to the fact that the only black people who wear robes to church are Africans and repentant DC mayors in the wake of a crack bust), you could practically hear TVs being turned to the interracial spit take that was Flavor of Love.

By the sixth episode, the show had run its course, as it became painfully obvious that neither side would ever relate to the other — although, to be fair, there were some lessons learned: Nick initially thought that it was OK if his white friends used the n-word; then he learned how much they loved to say the n-word. Carmen learned that "talking black" doesn't involve speaking with a Southern accent or using the word "bitch". Renee and Brian learned that an all-expenses-paid trip to LA doesn't come free. Bruno learned that he was right about there being no difference between the races; everyone hates him equally.

Meanwhile, Rose, the real star of the show, was the only one who learned anything truly meaningful and lasting: she loves black men.

Since the show ended, it's been revealed that both Rose and Bruno are actors and that Carmen is a casting scout who used her relationship with the casting director to get her family on the show. The Sparks, meanwhile, knew the cab driver who dropped them off at the audition, alongside hundreds of other black families. Ironically, this speaks louder about the racial divide than anything Black. White. ever showed on screen.

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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