Reviews

Johnny Cash: Man in Black: Live in Denmark 1971 [DVD]

Tom Useted

If you're on a budget, and hankering for some vintage Cash on video, well here you go. But it's a bit stiff.


Johnny Cash

Man in Black: Live in Denmark 1971

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: Legacy
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10
US Release Date: 2006-07-11
Artist website
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iTunes

It's hard not to be a little skeptical of any "new" release from Johnny Cash. After all, it's not often that a dead man puts out as much product as Cash. Really, it's hard to get this much out of the living. Nevertheless, the last three years have brought the release of the fifth volume of American recordings (according to Rolling Stone a sixth is forthcoming); the mammoth American clearinghouse box set Unearthed, which also featured the new album My Mother's Hymn Book (which was then released on its own); the compilation Life, an accompaniment to the earlier Love, God, and Murder trilogy; the box set The Legend and the similarly titled single disc The Legend of Johnny Cash; the collection of demos, Personal File; and innumerable repackagings of the Sun recordings, some justifiable, many more embarrassing cash-ins. I can't think of a time in recent memory when an artist released this much stuff from beyond the grave. John Denver did alright, but no one tops Johnny Cash. All the more reason for Cash's former labelmate, Bob Dylan, to stick around.

Those who like their Johnny Cash audio with a video component haven't been totally shut out, either. But Man in Black: Live in Denmark 1971 is the first Cash-related DVD offering from Legacy, and it's not half bad. If you're on a budget, and hankering for some vintage Cash on video, well here you go. This disc presents an hour of Cash with the Tennessee Three, the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and a bunch of mostly blonde Danish folks lending occasional handclaps. It's shot with absolutely zero sense of adventure in front of a background consisting of some oh-so-rustic-looking boards nailed together in no particular fashion. The mood of the studio audience seems up-and-down, and the Tennessee Three stand so still you'd think they were being photographed 100 years earlier and couldn't move a muscle, lest they blur the image.

Fortunately, the camera focuses on Cash and the other singers. Cash's repertoire is representative of this phase of his career: lots of material from the Kris Kristofferson songbook, Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue", and his own recent composition, "Man in Black". Throw in a few old Sun chestnuts ("I Walk the Line", "Folsom Prison Blues", and a 45-second version of "Guess Things Happen That Way") and that's it for Cash's solo portion of this show. "A Boy Named Sue" is the opener, and Cash neuters the song just a bit, singing "I'm the son of a bleep that named you 'Sue'" and changing the final lines to "If I ever have a boy / I think I'm gonna name him... after you." Puke. But hey, this was filmed for Danish television, and Cash was considerate enough of his audience to read something to the crowd in their native tongue. Thanks to the lack of subtitles, all the English-speaking listener/viewer will pick up is "country music" and "the blues", but it was a nice gesture. Cash shines in his other solo turns, especially the title track, where he's lit by a single spotlight, which turns everything else black.

The other performers, though, are seriously hit or miss. Carl Perkins, whom Cash introduces as "the originator of rock and roll", comes on early in the proceedings and really rocks in a way no one else onstage, including the star, is capable of doing. He blazes through "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Matchbox", probably for the thousandth time, but they're so full of energy it's like he's just discovered them. He even dances, which makes the Tennessee Three look even more like mannequins. Perkins seems the most out of place in this crowd, an honor I was certain would befall the Statler Brothers. But the Statlers are so squeaky-clean and wholesome (at least on the surface--maybe they didn't read the words to "Bed of Roses") that they fit right in with Cash's less threatening side, a side that rears its family-friendly head especially during the last third of the program.

After some duets with June Carter Cash (nothing spectacular, but this is further proof that they did make a nice pair), Johnny Cash introduces the Carter Family, "the latest addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame." The Carters do some rote instrumental thing before tapping the figurative maple tree for some sap and dishing it up for the crowd as "A Song to Mama". I wonder how Mother Maybelle Carter (who sits this one out but whose floating head appears in the left-hand corner of the screen) felt to hear lyrics about her "tired old shoulders"? Well, no point in wondering because you can see her wipe away some tears (of joy?) after its conclusion.

Can you guess what's coming next? If you guessed "religion" you're right on the money. The whole troupe comes out for "No Need to Worry", an uptempo number that might've benefited from a piano. After the "thank god daddy's quit drinkin' and found Jesus" song "Rock of Ages", the whole thing wraps up with an interminable version of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee". All the principles get solo turns at the microphone (except Mother Maybelle), Carl Perkins looks bored stiff except when he sings (he gets the "six by six" verse), and nothing rhymes with "seven" or "eleven" but the big guy's home in the sky. It's a festival of repetition, but most everyone is so into it that their enthusiasm is contagious.

While Live in Denmark is a decent enough DVD, it makes me wish Legacy would just put out a really stellar deluxe DVD package dedicated to Johnny Cash, really take advantage of the medium rather than put one measly hour of footage (and no bonus features) on a disc and call it a day. In other words, give the man what he deserves.

4

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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