Joeski and Onionz: Nu-York Nite: Life

Maurice Bottomley

Joeski and Onionz

Nu-York Nite: Life

Label: NRK Nite Life
US Release Date: 2002-04-23

House music that manages to stay soulful and contemporary but still remains true to its essential ingredients is not always easy to track down. Much as I love them, the likes of Blaze, MAW, and Kerri Chandler these days seem to owe their allegiances more to soul, salsa, and disco than to house. Other innovators, some of them no doubt appalled at what is being passed off in their name, have played down the house and techno elements to the point where they almost cease to exist.

For instance, pioneers like Glenn Underground and Larry Heard now make many records where the house element is retained only as a sensibility or a trace. Elsewhere, the fashionable West Coast deep house coming from Naked Music and Om is tailored to (and lapped up eagerly by) an audience that by and large had little patience with the minimalist sounds of Chicago's golden age. The result has been that the gap between soulful dance music and dancemusic in general can sometimes seem to be as wide as that between disco and heavy rock in days of old.

Enter Joeski and Onionz and a two-CD mix that is being sold on the back of the current upsurge of tribal and nu-progressive sounds that seek to straddle the divide between MAW et al and the FasterHarderLouder nonsense. And this set undoubtedly will appeal to those attuned to the darker, T enaglia-inspired sessions that offer the best alternative most big rooms ever get to trancedom. However on repeated listens, and this is something you will repeatedly play, believe me, Nu York Nite Life is much closer in spirit to the world of MAW than the blurbs would lead you to expect.

None of the selections here is devoid of that essential funkiness without which we are talking pop not house. Most are jazz-, Latin-, or soul-based to an extent that should come as a pleasant surprise to those expecting too "progressive" a set. Yes, it is relentlessly percussive but it is percussion that comes from the recognisable repository of the African diaspora. In other words this is bang up to date club music but one that draws its strength from deep waters. If deep house hadn't become so laid back of late this would bear that label. The difference is the level of energy. This has depth but also is propelled along by an engaging, take-no-prisoners pulse.

Joeski and Onionz are simply the selectors here of course. Their own productions are featured from time to time but their prime function is to give us a flavour of their well regarded sets and to ensure that the NRK standard of excellence in its Nite Life series is maintained. In fact, this is the ninth set and, for me, it ranks very highly in the series. It is also full of tunes that have not been overly aired, which is becoming harder and harder as DJ comps continue to pour out at a rapid rate. Only the inclusion of (the perfectly acceptable) Akabu/Linda Clifford "Ride the Storm" ranks as anywhere close to "done to death".

CD One goes for the more atmospheric, sustained mood approach -- courtesy of Jay Tripwire, Lithium, Metal Dogs, Gary Blade, Marino Berardi, and a number of other less than household names. Big guns Jon Cutler and Ron Carroll also feature, but Joeski's mix is all about mood. A tough angularity locked into a smooth, funky ride are the twin pillars on which the set is built. It has fewer highpoints than the more vocal and Latin influenced Onionz mix but is probably the more consistent offering. The evocative "Second Wind" by Rise Ashen and a disco-drenched "Move It" by SW stood out but nothing gets in the way of the overall flow. Think basement clubs and a just before dawn sensibility. Music to get lost inside, pumping enough to hit home hard but swirling and sensuous at the same time.

Onionz' mix tails off towards the end. This is a shame because from Taka Boom's feisty "Taka's Groove", through old school stylings like "R U Serious" (Pete Moss), to scintillating Latino work-outs from Priscilla Ordonez and Eddie Matos, the recipe is post-Vega Nu Yorican magic of the first order. A double dose of Batidos (Ron Trent and Jay Rodriguez' superior recent collaboration) alone ensured this collection a good rating with me as "Tempo Sol" is one of my tunes of the year. I was less impressed by Onionz' own work with Blakkat, etc., but I suppose they served to link the closing sections to the project's beginnings on disc one.

That is a small quibble because these two New York DJs have provided a powerful argument for the continuing viability of the supposedly restricted house format. They have retained the elements that made the music so exciting in the first place but their take is absolutely now. As an introduction to what is possible within the current buzz term "Tribal" this works efficiently. However it is as an enjoyable and adventurous outing in its own right that Nu York Nite Life truly scores. The 6400 Crew to which these guys, who have built up an enviable club rep over the past decade, are affiliated has been getting serious press praise over the past year. This will only enhance that collective's standing.

If you already like the shadowy funk of the new grooves this will be a welcome addition to your collection. However I would especially commend it to those who are tempted by the newer styles but have been dissuaded by the pace and the monotony of some recent examples. There is nothing here that is too hectic, mechanical or lacking in subtlety. What there is good, substantial dance music with a spiciness and a melodic sense that might surprise a few doubting Thomases. House music Lives.

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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