Reviews

Ladytron

Anyone looking for a shimmy between fixes?

Ladytron

Ladytron

City: Austin, TX
Venue: Stubb's BBQ
Date: 2006-10-21

I love reading badly written band bios. Built with the grandiosity of Gothic churches, their weighty sentences are so often embedded with a series of unintentional critiques. Ladytron's website claims: "In pop folklore, bands were allowed three LPs to become themselves, yet the fabled third album is an increasing rarity in this low attention span epoch. So it comes as a bit of a rare treat that to find that Liverpool-based boy/girl four-piece Ladytron have reached this mythical milestone…." What next, a cure for AIDS? Though I can't say that Ladytron's third release, The Witching Hour, ranks up there with stealing fire from the Gods, I do have to admit that, for a band that was never much more than a kitschy aftertaste, three is a magic number. When I first heard "Took Her to a Movie" on a Bertrand Burgalat compilation, I loved the ennui, the candy-dish stickiness of its rhythms, the Bananarama tonelessness. It was one of the first signs that an up-and-coming art-school crowd would soon revise the history of the '80s and restore an artistic legacy left so stained by MTV and George Michael's frosted hair. I should be up front about the fact that I've never been excited about watching Ladytron as much as curious as to whether or not they're able to bring live intensity to music that often sounds cold and thin on record. Unfortunately, this event was mostly a public amplification of the band's artistic weaknesses. I just don't think Ladytron has a lot of good material to work with. For every grasp at the tea-cozied anthem ("Seventeen", "Playgirl", "Destroy Everything You Touch"), there are handfuls of other songs ("All The Way" and "Ladybird") that dissolve into vaporous whispers and the kind of thin beat that makes a heart monitor sound like a timpani. For that reason especially, the choice of venue couldn't have been less flattering. I've never liked a show at the big mini-amphitheater of Stubb's BBQ. Its uneven dirt floor and bumper-to-bumper capacity creates the sense of watching television that one gets from huge, big-budget musical productions. But, unbeknownst to me, Ladytron have become too big for the dank, cornered club spaces that would have lent their performance the generosity of scummy intimacy. Watching Ladytron perform from a critic's perspective is like drawing fruit when you have no interest in becoming a painter. It won't improve your technical abilities, nor will it interest you (unless you have time-lapse vision and can watch the apple, lifeless object that it is, rot into maggots). This is the kindest way to say that Ladytron's charisma draws flies. They did their best to convert the songs into something with an imprint, but in the end all that meant was that every number hit the same high synth crescendo -- a club-disco squeal that sounded to me like a cello played with razor wire. I know the band fancies a much more interesting pedigree -- the fashionista resurrection of the Human League -- but there's no primitive punch or power here, just cheesecloth layers of disintegrating drone. There's also the fact that, from the beginning, Ladytron have cultivated a style of "being cool" that's thoroughly detached from what you do and other people's reactions to it. Why not just play the record through the soundsystem while sitting around in a circle meticulously emory boarding one another's nails? Sure, we were treated to a few huge stage flashes and a wall of equidistant light bulbs that oscillated as if someone were simply testing different sections of a high school's football scoreboard, but that did nothing to distract me from the band's performative torpor. Even the pictures of ponies and various abstracted images stood in accusatory contrast to the band. Mira Aroyo does have a lovely phone voice, but that's all it is. Every single song gets drawn down in the sort of depressed "sexiness" one expects to get from red-light district women forced to shimmy between fixes in the fuck-store window. I don't mean for this review to sound like target practice; it's just that the older I get, the more I'm inclined to say, "Don't waste your time or mine." My greatest regret is that I missed the feisty free-for-all of Cansei Der Sexy, a band that could not be more energetically opposite or stylistically unpreened from Ladytron. It dawned on me, seeing Ladytron live, that they don't do much, and I'm a little too jaded to be sucked in by a band that looks like they were invented by DWELL magazine. But, then, I've never been cool enough to be the retro-futuristic mod version of the perfect, undulating mannequins in "Simply Irresistible," so to those who had a good time, I salute you.

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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