In Memoriam: Desmond Dekker

Andrew Phillips

Bob Marley? Bah. Desmond Dekker was cranking out hits when Bob Marley was wearing boy-shorts.

Desmond Dekker

In Memoriam: Desmond Dekker

City: New York, NY
Venue: Knitting Factory
Date: 2005-04-23

Editor's note: This review originally ran on PopMatters on 23 April 2005. Bob Marley? Bah. Desmond Dekker was cranking out hits when Bob Marley was still wearing boy-shorts. Well, metaphorically speaking. Suffice it to say that Dekker established himself as the reigning king of Jamaican music well before Marley's dreads attained their legendary, nappy sheen. Of course Dekker, unlike Marley, didn't die young and so he, like his music, has suffered the long decay of the unlionized legend. And it's the decay that I fear. A man with this many hits shouldn't be playing the Knitting Factory. Am I to believe that a few hundred tickets will suffice? Sure, the show sold out, but not quickly; I assumed everyone on the east coast would road trip to New York to see this, the last of Dekker's five US shows. But they didn't. Why? A progeny of the great Derrick Morgan, Dekker broke into the UK charts countless times in the late '60s and early '70s (and even managed a top ten hit in the US with his classic cut "Israelites"). A reggae superstar by any standard, his major achievement was in championing, and perfecting, that little-known reggae precursor, ska. His tunes set the standard for ska's first wave and have remained mainstays in reggae halls and in three generations of punk and ska clubs. So why isn't anyone here? As Dekker emerges, I'm afraid I see the answer. Maybe they knew something I didn't; mainly that Dekker has lost his touch. Time has melted Dekker's pretty mug. He scampers quickly onto the stage, pumping bony knees into the air. His face is worn and jowly; his body emaciated, frail. Even on stage, facing the excited cries of the crowd, he seems an unremarkable figure; like an old homeless man, battered and broken. Of course, it's not until Dekker opens his wilting lips that I know for sure: he's not. "Dis was my first number one," he cries as the band breaks into "Honour Your Father and Mother". Over mid-tempo guitar upstrokes and the sound of soft brass, Dekker delivers his immaculate upper range with every bit of the energy and precision as he did when he laid the track in 1963. Little or no rasp hinders him as he pushes his voice into the feminine realm of soulful, high-pitched song. Thank god. For a performer of such age and legacy, there are two types of gigs: ones trading on the legend and ones still trading on the music. Seeing Dylan live in 2005 is an experience, but musically pale in comparison to seeing him in, say, 1968. Ray Charles, on the other hand, stayed strong until the day of his death -- I saw both Charles and Chuck Berry separately in 2001 and each remained stunning. Like those legends, Dekker has maintained his legendary musical prowess. Classics like "007 (Shanty Town)" and "Licking Stick" are out in full force. The former sees two versions, one slow and soulful and another bouncy and rhythmic; both classic performances executed masterfully in one go. The crowd adopts Dekker's accent, hopping together as they speak each word in time. There's no quiet awe in this crowd, rather a ruckus of youthful energy fueled by Dekker's delirious, excited, though often indecipherable, stage banter. The singer throws his small frame in chaotic distress, shaking the limbs in conspicuously odd directions. His movements are clownish. Like his "sexy" '70s regalia, flowing, unbuttoned black and gold shirt and leather pants, it's odd but entertaining. But, of course, he delivers "It Mek" and "King of Ska" like a markedly younger, and more sensibly dressed, man. But let's back it up a bit. Perhaps I've exaggerated Dekker's musical stamina. He has aged, and he does get tired. Dekker can still hit all the notes, but he doesn't always. He's playing it conservative, farming many lines out to the more than willing audience. His voice isn't burnt; he's just saving it for the most transcendent moments. It's understandable, and much better than the alternative, which would leave little luster for the end of the set. Speaking of which, Dekker speeds through a medley of American soul and rock classics, hitting every awe-inspiring note. He drops in bits of his own tunes, most prominently "Pickney Gal" alongside a rather startling Louis Armstrong imitation. Croaking and crooning, he works his way through the best of '60s Motown, soul, jazz, and rock. He's the king of ska, sure, but equally adept at soul and reggae. So, again, where are the people? I'm busy with that thought and so it's not until later that I consider those that did show up: a strange mix of punks, skinheads, rudeboys, and their more aged, now straight-laced, forefathers. Oh, and everyone's pasty. The rasta and reggae presence is inexplicably missing. Batting it around in my head it dawns on me that Dekker was never really that huge in the US; the UK was really his home and he was a pop star in Jamaica. Perhaps the elitists are spurning his tuneful melodies for the more progressive orchestrations of his contemporaries. Foolishness. I've seen the rest, and Desmond remains, well, um, the best. And he closes as such. Drawing out the opening notes of "Israelites" Dekker throws a depthy soul-startling moan into the microphone: "aaaaaaAHHHHHHHHHHH" then stops and walks from the stage. Ever the showman, this bastard's going to make us work for it. Thunderous cheers fill the room as a slow chant rises, "Des-mond, Des-mond, Des-mond." Dekker eventually relents, shimmying back on to the stage to pick up where he left off. Caressing the opening notes, Dekker's eyes begin to bulge as the shoe-stringy bass kicks in, replacing his croon with boot-shaking reggae bop. The hopping reaches a frenzy and I feel the floorboards begin to warp and bend under my feet -- they're actually giving way under us. There's no solution but to go with it. Finger in the air, smile on my lips, I too mouth the words in between leaps. The band brings the song to a melodic end and Dekker does a round of hand touches before leaving the stage -- as a respectable music critic it pains me to admit that I reached for and successfully attained his grasp. And then he's gone, a short set indeed, but perhaps all Dekker could honestly deliver. He spared us the filler and the strained notes, instead giving us a concise collection of classics. So, who cares if the hordes didn't make it out? Now I've got an unmatchably intimate experience to hold over their heads. Well, sort of; most people I tell about the show respond with the same blank, apathetic expression, "I thought he was dead." Yes, the body may be waning, but even the unlionized legend lives on.

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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