Reviews

The Lone Gunmen - The Complete Series

Jesse Hassenger

Being a network TV show and therefore bound by certain attractiveness requirements, The Lone Gunmen couldn't just follow the nerds.


The Lone Gunmen - the Complete Series

Cast: Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund, Zuleikha Robinson, Stephen Snedden
Network: Fox
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2005-03-29
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Once a trivia question, now a box set. The Lone Gunmen, a short-lived spin-off of the immensely popular The X-Files, is preserved on DVD. A cult item even by X-Files standards, the show chronicles the exploits of its predecessor's quirkiest supporting characters: Langly (Dean Haglund), Byers (Bruce Harwood), and Frohike (Tom Braidwood), a trio of hackers/journalists/conspiracy theorists who occasionally assisted Mulder and Scully with their knottier cases. In other words, the Gunmen are nerds.

Being a network TV show and therefore bound by certain attractiveness requirements, The Lone Gunmen couldn't just follow the nerds. Instead, within the first two episodes, it introduced two foils: the mysterious and beautiful "information" specialist Yves (Zuleikha Robinson) and the dim, well-meaning benefactor Jimmy (Stephen Snedden). Hot girl Yves is an appropriately ambiguous ally/adversary for the boys. Poor Jimmy, however, seems doomed to provide "heart" (as noted in one of the commentaries) and stupid jokes (literally, jokes about his stupidity).

With these new characters, the show attempted to generate its own identity, independent of The X-Files (but not too independent, as its run included several crossover appearances). For a casual viewer, the show was an amusing lark. But TV economics are premised on appointment shows, delivering a dependable number of viewers every week. Watching several Gunmen episodes in succession, you see how the series could be tedious. There are too many pratfalls, double takes, and other broad comedy. Most of this can be attributed to the show's faulty pacing; it runs an hour, as most non-sitcoms do, but the conspiracies (such as a search for a water-powered car) cry out to be resolved in half the time.

If the shaggy-dog stories could use some grooming, the show does "humanize" its nerdy protagonists, elaborating on and repeating a few cartoonish traits. Langly is cranky, Byers is idealistic, Frohike is pugnacious, and cranky... well, they're all a little cranky, but that's part of the nerdy charm (in an early X-Files appearance, they invited Mulder to come over later and "nitpick the scientific inaccuracies of Earth2").

Occasionally, the Gunmen get a story worthy of that nerdy eccentricity, or even one that could pass for a full-blown X-File. In one of the best episodes, "Madam, I'm Adam," guest stars Stephen Tobolowsky as a man who comes home from work to discover another husband and wife sleeping in his bed. The result is a neat fusion of The Matrix and Memento, and if the episode aired two years after the former, it was written and produced before anyone involved (except maybe Tobolowsky, who was in Memento) would have seen the latter. Sci-fi writers, we see, can nick and anticipate good ideas in equal measure.

This anticipation sometimes turns uncomfortable. In the pilot, which aired in 2001, the Gunmen uncover a terrorist plot which, with every new detail, bears closer resemblance to the September 11 tragedy (it begins as a standard bomb on a plane, and turns out to be a plan to fly a jet from Boston into the World Trade Center; this being a Chris Carter conspiracy show, a faction of the U.S. government is behind it). Creepy as this plot may be looking back, it also taps into a sense of dread more compelling than the Gunmen's sillier outings (they babysit an infant, they babysit monkeys).

This uneven but amusing series is collected into a nice little package, with a few commentaries from the actors and creators and a standard making-of featurette. One of the most populated commentaries accompanies "Tango Del Los Pistoleros," in which Yves leads the Gunmen and Jimmy into a tango-heavy Miami underworld. The five principle actors are joined by the episode's writer, Thomas Schnauz, and the show's frequent director, Bryan Spicer. It mostly illuminates the chumminess behind the scenes of the show (which might explain some of the slack pacing), as the crew goofs about the difficulties of shooting a Miami-based episode in the show's native Vancouver. "This is one of those cold [Miami] days when the oranges freeze right up," notes Haglund.

The best extra, though, is the Season Nine X-Files episode that wrapped up some story threads from the Gunmen series, almost a year after the latter was cancelled. Unfortunately, the finale is a little too final, with the Gunmen giving their lives with moral righteousness, and without nearly the kind of conspiracy-mongering open ending that would be true to the spirit of the characters.

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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