Maktub: Say What You Mean

Kenneth Yu

I wanna have frontman Reggie Watts's babies.


Say What You Mean

Label: Velour
US Release Date: 2005-04-12
UK Release Date: Available as import
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When one writes about Maktub, one has particular associations to play around with. For example, most reviewers will highlight the band's Seattle roots, drawing yet another tired comparison to grunge, trying to spur its "heavy soul", its brand of funk/rock/R&B alchemy into yet another new homegrown movement. Or, if less trendsetting-inclined, they may describe its ferocious live shows in vivid Technicolor detail. However, when the reviewer remains halfway across the world, there's neither basis of juxtaposition, nor any means of physiological connectivity. Hence, with only the album as evidence of talent, the only thing I can say right now is:

I wanna have frontman Reggie Watts's babies.

Indeed, Watts's voice sends shivers down my spine. That lovely baritone invites you to where the water is warm, gently tugging you in waistband-first. It is wanton seduction without the niceties of dinner, jumping straight into the passion and wild hot lovin'. He is Chef from South Park, but double the sexiness and attracting attention far beyond that of white, buxom cartoon women.

Far, far beyond.

Reggie Watts is the Marvin Gaye of the 21st Century.

It is his multifaceted voice that drives the album along. From the oral gymnastics to loud caterwauling, Watts does it all and does it all masterfully. And how about that glorious heavenly falsetto, a coo so bad-ass that he is able to make indie-pop pansies Chris Martin and Tom Chaplin quiver and piss in their pants. He's the black potent lover's voice in the predominantly emasculated white boy world of indie rock.

Casting the enchanted groupie tendencies aside, it must be said even though Watts's vocals are the highlights, Maktub isn't just an over-glorified backing band for his charisma. In Say What You Mean, the band holds its own, creating a solid rhythm section that complements Watts's abilities instead of merely supporting them.

Maktub has a pre-washout Hootie and the Blowfish-like penchant for poppish melodies, yet possesses a musical sophistication that is demanded by the influences of the soul and R&B genres. The sweet melodies are driven by even more lip-smacking virtuosity, musicians who play so tightly that there's no idle space between them. Maktub is a musician's band, the easy listening equivalent of a Mars Volta or Fantomas.

The title track is brilliant, not just one of the best songs on the album but on my personal "Top 10 Lovemaking Songs of All Time" list as well. It is soul turbocharged with rock beats, the usually overly relaxed countenance being made over a sense of urgency. "Say What You Mean" opens with Watts sexily crooning a come-hither "oh yeah" and then smoothing his way into the jagged edges of a failing relationship. The chorus is a gorgeous plea, a tasteful intersection of two countermelodies and various arrangements stacked one upon another, making a sumptuous layer cake. We can't tell if Watts and his estranged lover had kissed and made up, but with this song delectable enough to eat, the journey is so much more alluring than any destination.

The strongest track is "Hunt You Down", which starts with a smooth jazz progression not unlike a Randy Newman number. The song then segues into the rapturous chorus of the words "And I'll hunt you down 'cause I need you so much / And I've got to let you know just how I feel", a choir of voices harmonizing in such beautiful unity that the song's underlying dark intent of stalking is elevated into one of nobility. It reduces me to a prone victim, and I fully welcome Watts to pounce on me. In the final moments, as the instruments build towards the coda, Watts spontaneously flexes his throat muscles and overpowers me, completing my complete captivation.

"Seeing Is Believing" displays the band's impeccable prowess, its System of a Down-esque ability to weave together disparate genres and influences without the seams showing. It opens with industrial swirls not unlike the Smashing Pumpkins, the songline smeared with generous hints of soulful black, elevated by the heavily distorted rock 'n' roll guitars. Sped up to a frantic speed with a Deftones-like pounding bass line, it then climaxes into an astounding Flying in a Blue Dream-era solo.

After somehow managing to shrug off Watts's dreamy grasp, the album is not entirely even. On certain tracks like "Daily Dosage", where the AOR rock elements outweigh the soul, they sound like a Nickelback or Puddle of Mudd knock-off. Maktub should not relegate itself to such a level, for it is much, much more capable than that.

Apparently, I'm not the only one enamored by Maktub. They have recently been awarded Best Soul/R&B and Best Vocalist in the 2005 Seattle Weekly Music Awards. However, with the über-sensuality that flows from every pore of its album sleeve, Say What You Mean is really too good to be shared around. One of my favorites of 2005 thus far.


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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