King of Woolworths: Ming Star

Adrien Begrand

King of Woolworths

Ming Star

Label: Beggars Banquet
US Release Date: 2002-06-18
UK Release Date: 2001-09-10

Manchester artist Jon Brooks, AKA King of Woolworths, can easily be construed as Just Another Underground Techno Geek, another in what's rapidly becoming a long line of new electronic artists. For yours truly, anyway, it's getting harder and harder to sift through the mediocre and the ordinary, in search of electronic music that's of any quality. What I always look for is some semblance of humanity, of soul, lurking underneath the artificial sounds. After all, what's the point of all the knob-twiddling and turntabling if there's no feeling? Well, in Brooks's case, his new album, Ming Star, is one of those diamond-in-a-haystack discoveries, one that resounds with emotion.

The last techno album that really blew me away was Air's leisurely, languid score for the film The Virgin Suicides, and Ming Star bears many similarities to the French duo. However, what Brooks does is take Air's sleepy, walk-in-the-park sound a few steps further, adding some really dark clouds, and a few creepy strangers hiding behind the bushes. The result is an album that alternates between the pastoral and the phantasmagoric with surprising ease.

Ming Star, in fact, has a cinematic feel to it, as if Brooks is scoring a yet-to-be-made movie of his own, a look back at the innocence and wide-eyed wonder of childhood, with a side journey into some completely opposite territory. "Kentish Town" serves as a bit of a prelude, as layers of synths fade in, evolving into a simple, two-note, bassline. A simple, innocent synth melody then comes in, sounding as nonchalant as someone idly whistling on the street. Three minutes in, the song shifts into a more threatening feel, as those clouds swoop in, and the skies burst, as layers of distorted drums thunder in, their cacophony trying to drown out the synth melody. But like an isolated thundershower, the noise goes away, and the simple tune carries on as if nothing happened. Which leads us to "Bakerloo (Main Titles)", in which Brooks combines a sample from the High Llamas' "Cut the Dummy Loose" with that smooth, Air-like bass and drum machine I alluded to.

The short segue piece "Where Fleas Hide" signals the album's turn toward the more menacing, and the mesmerizing "Stalker Song" begins with a vocoder-enhanced sample of a police interrogation regarding an assault in a woman's home that sounds lifted from Cops: "Has he been stalking you? / Yeah". A monstrous, heavy synth beat then explodes, evoking feelings of impending doom and horror. One of the most disturbing tracks I've heard in a long time, it's also one of the most compelling, as it closes with the rest of the police conversation: "You've got to be careful, this isn't over with yet. You've got to start documenting this or you're going to end up dead." "Colcannon" sounds like a continuation of the Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation, with a very danceable, yet sinister melody. The comically-titled "To the Devil a Donut" is as dark, but lighter in tone, Brooks's own tribute to the old Hammer horror films. Brooks composes his own horror movie score, while interweaving excerpts from the Hammer film To the Devil a Daughter; over an infectious, funky beat, you hear Christopher Lee and Richard Widmark recite some funny B-Movie, Rosemary's Baby rip-off dialogue, while a young Nastassja Kinski moans in the background.

But like emerging from out of the woods after taking a dreadfully wrong turn, you're led back into the sunlight, rubbing your eyes, as "Kite Hill" plays. Combining Angelo Badalamenti-styled string orchestration with the same easy-going rhythm section that backed up the first two tracks, you hear Brooks at his best as a composer. Think Air meets Mulholland Drive meets Goldfrapp. It's wondrous stuff, and Ming Star's best track. The delicate "The Watchmaker's Hands", with its simple music box melody (which brings to mind fellow Mancunian Badly Drawn Boy), and the ambient, reflective feel of "Theydon" continue the lighter theme. The aptly-titled album closer "Bakerloo (End Credits)", reprises the wonderful melody from earlier on, giving you the feeling of leaving a neighborhood you've spent some both pleasant and harrowing time in. It looks cheerful enough, but now you're more aware of the real nastiness lying beneath.

It's got to be extremely difficult to break through the narrow opening between obscurity and commercial success that plagues electronic artists, and while we're currently hearing "Moby" this and "DJ Shadow" that, King of Woolworths deserves to garner similar attention. His music is accessible, catchy, and completely original, made all the more extraordinary by the fact that Ming Star is his debut album. Ming Star has been out for almost a year in the UK and Canada, and Brooks has already released an excellent follow-up UK single (the gorgeous "This Is Radio Theydon"), so this is a chance for American audience to get to know the King, and hopefully give him more of the attention he deserves. Let's just hope he doesn't have to resort to TV commercials to break through; the music found on Ming Star has a visual quality all its own, and works very well for listeners. We might not know the specifics of the big, freaky movie in Jon Brooks's mind, but we have a really good idea with Ming Star, and frankly, I can't wait for the sequel.

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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