Le Tigre: This Island

Katie Zerwas

Smart and sexy, political and provocative, Le Tigre is the best and brightest of feminist rock.

Le Tigre

This Island

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2004-10-19
UK Release Date: 2004-10-11

Finally, it's here. No, not the long awaited follow up to Le Tigre's Feminist Sweepstakes. Nor the first sounds of the predictable whining of long-time fans eager to label their beloved Le Tigre as "sell-outs". Rather, the most longed for moment of all, the moment we have been promised since "Free to Be You and Me", has arrived. With the debut of This Island, Le Tigre has made it possible for queer and straight folk to come together, lift up their hands in unison, and shake their booties on the dance floor. Reprising their past work with raw fuzz guitars, hot beats, punked out melodies, and fierce feminist lyrics, their latest release adds a professional gloss and a disco flavor to righteous riot grrrl rock. Some will call it mainstream, others sold out, but I dare anyone to call it sexless, heartless or apolitical. With this repertoire of dance-floor seductions, Le Tigre may finally break into the hearts and minds of mass culture mavens, bringing closet queers into the spotlight and feminist politics to mass media. Even for the doggedly apolitical, the album is a musical feast, treating ravers and rockers to even doses of heavy techno hooks and raucous punk swagger.

Divorcing Le Tigre's music from their politics would be antithetical to the very liberationist concept for which the band has made themselves the poster child, but music reviews being what they are, I will try to tuck my politics away for a bit and focus on form over content. All caveats aside, Le Tigre's latest release is pure, unadulterated aural pleasure. This Island is a delectable buffet of new wave dance pop synthesized atom smashing vamped up rock and roll. Like the floral corsages they sport on the album's cover, they wear their musical influences with pride, adding just a dash of class. On "Tell You Now" Ric Ocasek's cameo appearance taps a bit of the classic Cars sound, with catchy pop melodies, romantic lyrics, and raw ultramodern synths. On the more pepped up full throttle songs, Le Tigre blends a little of the Go-Gos' shout out vocal style and party girl attitude with the poetry of queer identity politics, as on "TKO" and an unforgettable cover of the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited". Elsewhere on the album the vocals recall the emotive growl of Patti Smith's deadpan poet-songstress persona, not to mention the screamo style of Kathleen Hanna's own Bikini Kill.

The many musical faces of Le Tigre draw out their focus on identity politics by defying essentialist constructs of genre and gender. They successfully mitigate a minefield of pop music clichés, cleverly weaving together hip-hop beats and samples, sparkling electronica timbres, slick new wave synths, and the great triumvirate of the personal, the political and the power chord. Keenly rejecting both the sweet innocent female singer songwriter stereotype and the trope of the bad-girl misanthrope, the women of Le Tigre exhibit a chameleon-like ability to morph their voices from a feminine whisper to a snarling wail, exploiting every vocal nuance in between. The anthemic rocker "Nanny Nanny Boo Boo" quips and quakes with humor and energy, while the trip hop track "Sixteen" crafts a seductive ballad with a slowed down and sweetened up flavor. With "New Kicks" the band kicks it old school with a nod to political and musical influence Public Enemy. This song is a masterful use of sampling with sound clips taken from the 2003 anti-war protest in New York City carefully looped over hot beats and hardcore guitars to turn the voices of the People into a lyrical song of protest. More than an innovative work of art, the song is an important anthem of solidarity and a poetic call for peace. These complex and spirited songs clearly reflect the honest, authentic and democratic spirit of the band and the creativity of each of its members.

Given Le Tigre's emphasis on positing authentic private identities in the public realm, the label of "sell out" tends to chafe more than usual. Although more often than not a major label release from an indie band does signifying a stultifying cooptation by the world of corporate entertainment, for once it appears this accusation is totally unfounded. Le Tigre found a home on Strummer/Universal only after the collapse of the feminist label Mr. Lady, and they are in the process of organizing their own Le Tigre label. The elitism of the new glossy sound, grace a ProTools, is not so much "selling out" as buying into better technology, an overtly democratic attempt at widening their listenership. After all, isn't it about time radical feminists allowed themselves to quit preaching to the choir by confining their message to opaque and unapproachable art? These anthems to feminine, butch, queer, everybody liberation simultaneously critique dominant heteropatriarcal discourse and offer the possibility of escaping it through the bacchanalian disco, and perhaps even the everyday carnival of mainstream radio and music television. Perhaps "sell out" is better understood as a means of articulating a sense of aesthetic disappointment with Le Tigre's cleaned up sound, but apolitical and inauthentic are two adjectives that simply do not apply to This Island. Smart and sexy, political and provocative, Le Tigre is the best and brightest of feminist rock.

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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