Reviews

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

This documentary's flying by the seat of its pants style befits the subject matter greatly as we follow the band's increasingly improbable journey.


Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Director: Eddy Moretti
Cast: Acrassicauda
Distributor: Arts Alliance
MPAA rating: R
Display Artist: Suroosh Alvi, Eddy Moretti
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2008-06-10

As difficult it is for most in comparably comfortable, "first-world" countries to comprehend just what life has been like for young people who are stuck in Baghdad, Iraq's highly unstable, deadly Red Zone ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the mere idea of a group of Iraqis in their 20s playing not only Western music, but the most controversial form of Western music, is absolutely unfathomable. But that's what the seemingly indestructible, indefatigable metal band Acrassicauda has managed to do, the foursome of guitarist/vocalist Faisal Talal, guitarist Tony Aziz, bassist Firas al-Lateef, and drummer Marwan Mohammed Riyak displaying a level of stubbornness and unmitigated love of their music that puts spoiled kids on the other parts of the globe to shame.

From learning English via Metallica albums, to practicing hidden in a basement bunker that is eventually blown to smithereens by a wayward rocket, to keeping the Saddam-led government off their tails by playing a propaganda-laced original song at one of their rare public performances, to risking their lives playing one last show in a generator-powered hotel ballroom (which, again, is bombed a short while later), their resolve under such horrific circumstances is not only astonishing, but highly endearing.

Filmmakers Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi knew they were onto quite an extraordinary story when they happened upon an article about Acrassicauda several years ago, and after years of correspondence and one daring, extremely dicey trip on the part of the duo, the end result is a brave little documentary that, for all its sloppy, lo-fi charm, is an enthralling peek inside the most dangerous city on Earth, an examination of life as an Iraqi refugee, and a testament to the enormous communal appeal of heavy metal.

As Moretti and Alvi quickly find out, getting into Baghdad is no picnic, their journey rapidly becoming more and more surreal. After sneaking in from neighboring Kurdistan, their plane has to circle the airport, gradually spiraling down towards the runway. All arriving passengers are immediately given bulletproof vests. Rental cars come with guns and bulletproof glass, and the harrowing seven mile drive from the airport to the internationally controlled Green Zone is spent zig-zagging across the road in order to avoid sniper fire.

With the aid of a dozen hired bodyguards ("The best $1500 you'll ever spend," according to Alvi), the filmmakers take a guerilla-style approach to their project, meeting the band in clandestine locations, sneaking out into the Red Zone, but it's not long before the individual personalities of the musicians start to take over the film. Firas the most outgoing, spouts the word "dude" enough times to make it seem he's from Orange County; Faisal appears nervous as the nightly curfew looms, Marwan's passion often boils over into pure rage; and quiet, exceptionally talented Tony is just happy to be shredding away on his guitar.

As friendly as the band is, their being the subject of a film makes their situation even graver. Firas openly acknowledging that just being seen talking to Westerners has put his and his bandmates' life in danger, and it's not long before they make their way as refugees to Damascus, Syria. Heavy Metal in Baghdad's flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants style befits the subject matter greatly as we follow the band's increasingly improbable journey. Moretti and Alvi are smart enough to not let their gonzo method take over the story, keeping the band clearly in the focal point. Seeing Acrassicauda evolve from an admittedly ordinary band to a surprisingly tight-sounding unit would normally prove to be an uplifting ending, but as the band watches a rough cut of the film in their tiny, cold, windowless apartment in Damascus, forever removed from a city they genuinely love, with no clue as to what the future holds, the grimness of their situation hits them like a ton of bricks, as it does for us, as well.

The extras on the DVD are superb, highlighted by a 45-minute featurette that gives us an update on Acrassicauda's situation. Filmed in Istanbul, Turkey, where the band has since relocated, it delves deeper into the plight of refugees and the confusing, spirit-crushing red tape one must scratch and claw through in order to qualify for placement. So fascinating is this group of metal brethren, that even when we're through watching nearly three hours of footage on the DVD, we're immediately heading for their MySpace page to find out how they're doing.

They might not be the most talented metal band in the world, but unlike some American musicians who like to boast about how they'd "die for metal", this is one band that looks us dead in the eye and means it, and for that, they immediately earn the respect of the entire metal community, not to mention casual viewers worldwide.

8

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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