Music

The Long Winters: The Worst You Can Do Is Harm

Jeremy Schneyer

You need only flip through the booklet to The Long Winters' debut, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, to realize that this is far from your normal pop release.


The Long Winters

The Worst You Can Do Is Harm

Label: Barsuk
US Release Date: 2002-02-19
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You need only flip through the booklet to The Long Winters' debut, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, to realize that this is far from your normal pop release. Apart from the sumptuous design of the thick booklet, which is printed on very high quality paper and includes your usual lyrics, baby pictures, and photos of scenery, bandleader John Roderick opted to include several letters addressed to him, presumably from ex-lovers and friends. One of them begins "John: You are a world-class bullshitter. You say you've quit lying to your friends, so I'm left to wonder if I'm not your friend." Another includes the vicious lines "What could I possibly feel for you when you made me choose between my survival or being affected by you. You pull me close, to dance with me or whisper in my ear -- but have you noticed, John, that I haven't danced with you for an eternity?" Ouch! Although one may question the motivation of anyone who chooses to air such personal missives in the booklet of their CD, there's no question that these letters are a preparation for the harrowing emotional rollercoaster that is this disc.

As mentioned above, The Long Winters is the latest project of a guy called John Roderick, whose resume includes previous membership in smartypants one-hit-wonders Harvey Danger, as well as his own band of several years ago, Western State Hurricanes. After dropping out of music altogether and walking across Europe, Roderick is back, and has assembled the Long Winters out of the ashes of several Seattle bands. However, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm was recorded before a live band had actually been assembled, and thus is purely a studio creation, bearing little relation to the live band that Roderick is currently fronting. This is noteworthy, because live, the Winters come across as a power-pop funhouse somewhere between Squeeze at their most buoyant and Elvis Costello at his most acidic, with some hints of such latter-day power pop acts as the Posies thrown in there for good measure.

The Worst You Can Do Is Harm, however, is a much more subdued affair. Although a few tracks kick up a storm of squalling guitars and strange noises, much more typical of the album is the contemplative "Mimi" or the opening "Give Me a Moment", an extremely downcast number with the chorus "Give me a moment, I've been away / And I've been out of my head." The two unifying threads on Harm are Roderick's strong, almost midwestern voice, (which bears a slight resemblance to Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, minus the flagrant melodrama, thank god) which is equally effective as a full-throated yell or a quiet croon; and Chris Walla's inventive production. Anyone familiar with Death Cab for Cutie's second record, We Have the Facts and We're Votin' Yes will immediately recognize Walla's fingerprints all over this record. Although the warm analog nature of the production sometimes lends a slightly claustrophobic feel to the proceedings, it only serves to add to the emotional heft of Roderick's songs.

And what songs! Although it took a few listens to adjust to the record's extreme melancholy (mainly because I was expecting a buoyant power-pop headnodder), it didn't take long to appreciate this new direction. The aforementioned "Give Me a Moment" opens the record on an extremely downcast note, with some backwards guitar and a lo-fi drum loop that could have been lifted directly off a Death Cab B-side. Roderick's creaky, worn-out voice enters the picture with the words "Living my summers out in a hotel / Finally found a moment to set a spell / Heard things at home were going astray / Won't you give me a moment, I've been away." The chorus only adds to the melancholy, and a two-minute long outro, which begins with a Crazy Horse-like guitar solo, and ends with the aforementioned drum loop and a tinkling piano, proves a deliciously disorienting way to end the song. "Carparts", the record's second song, shows us the much more accessible, power-pop side to Roderick's muse. "I'm leaving you all of my carparts / I didn't have the money or I would have gotten roses," begins the song in a wonderfully confused fashion, with Roderick's voice in full flower. "You put all your hope in my slim chance / I didn't know I had," sings Roderick in the chorus, and it's one of the many times throughout the record that he seems to be apologizing for his own existence.

In fact, this disc seems very much like Roderick's way of wiping his personal slate clean. Although not all of these songs are necessarily autobiographical, it's more than obvious that a good percentage of them are. When songwriters take pages of their diary and turn them into song, the results are usually more than a little bit queasy –- however, Roderick is a skilled enough songwriter to turn his personal traumas and heartbreaks into universally appealing subject matter. Whether it's the subtle tale of drug abuse related in "Medicine Cabinet Pirate" ("There's a chance that no one would know / There's a chance that it wouldn't show . . . You were waiting for my luck to run out") to the paranoia of "Samaritan ("I need to get the hell out of here / I'm sure the cops are on their way / Please forget my face"), Roderick is never too obvious nor too melodramatic. Although his lyrics are, more often than not, relatively vague, like the best songwriters, he uses his vocal delivery to imply additional meaning that his words merely hint at. Musically, the songs range in tone from the folky shuffle of "Samaritan" to the intense emoting of "Scent of Lime" ("It never rains enough to cool my fever / All it does is rain" to the atmospheric indie-pop of Mimi, which once again could be compared to the mellower moments of a Death Cab For Cutie record. Elsewhere, Jim Roth's pedal steel snakes a path through "Government Loans", providing one of the more elegiac atmospheres on the record.

In the end, The Worst You Can Do Is Harm resolves itself as being quite comfortable with its identity as a difficult pop record. Roderick never comes across as too smart for his own good, and his lyrics, while quite witty at times, are also very plainspoken. Walla's production can seem distracting at first, but this is only because the record truly takes multiple listens to appreciate and digest. While one's first few listens might not provide too much headway into these complex gems,The Worst You Can Do Is Harm is one of those records that reveals a new twist every time you listen to it. Whether it's the strong vocal hook of "Medicine Cabinet Pirate" ("I wanna be with you all the time") to the beautiful delivery of the line "I had to get into you" on "Mimi", there are dozens of perfect moments on this record that take awhile to uncover. They combine to make this one of the best pop records released thus far this year.

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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