Music

Massive Attack: Danny the Dog: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Robert Wheaton

Blue Lines was said to be the soundtrack for a generation of British youth. After that, the soundtrack for this Luc Besson movie is a bit of disappointment -- albeit one studded with gems.


Massive Attack

Danny the Dog: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Label: Virgin
US Release Date: 2004-11-16
UK Release Date: 2004-10-11
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There has always been an unusual feeling of space at the center of Massive Attack's sound, as if the music was somehow adjacent to its own emotional core. Even in their most brilliant work -- Shara Nelson's voice clearing a path through the ragged and magnificent string arrangements of "Unfinished Sympathy" -- the music's heart feels somehow misplaced. What remains is a hole that perfectly suggests a forlorn and radiant lovesickness. Their work isn't as much a reproduction of grief or loss or anger or rapture, as it is a series of perfect, and perfectly evocative, outlines. For all the emotional gravity that their better songs bring to bear, it is an effect that is accrued, rather than immediately impressed. The effect is as disorientating as it is unique.

During the band's mid-'90s heyday, it was this sense of detachment that many critics took to be a deliberate stance: a strutting, po-faced alienation that represented the emotionally stunted distance of their generation. This was a misreading of the sources of British 'trip-hop' -- more accurately, the 'Bristol sound' -- more than it was an acute social insight. The members of Massive Attack earned their spurs with early '80s sound systems; central to the acoustic requirements were the cavernous mid-range space of dub and the deliberately lo-fi drum programming drawn from old school hip-hop.

In any event, this aspect of their sound should work perfectly as an instrumental soundtrack. It is emotionally suggestive rather than domineering and manipulative; it lingers at the borders of attention without necessarily commanding it. It is abstract without being bland or mechanical.

Luc Besson's thriller, to be named either Danny the Dog or Unleashed, is about a man who has been imprisoned since birth, released only for combat in vicious contests or as a mob enforcer. It will not be released for a number of months yet, which means that the score can stand on its own merits, not least because there are none of the increasingly obligatory snippets of dialogue spliced into the music.

On the other hand, it is a matter of pure conjecture whether the music is a perfect match for the film, although its tenor (like that of the film's previews) is one that circles a childlike vulnerability and innocence with the capacity for unrestrained violence. Many of the tracks, in particular "Sam" and "Two Rocks and a Cup of Water", have the delicate feeling of a lullaby -- with a precise fragility that suggests a child's music-box. In contrast, "The Dog Obeys" and "I Am Home" have a fast-gunned directness that outlines, rather less evocatively, the unfettered application of force.

The material is certainly as suggestive as it should be. Much of this is down to a focus on aural textures: these pieces are mostly too short to develop much depth as songs, melodies, or themes. The opening guitar notes of "Montage" are so soaked in reverb -- and so free from any other context -- that they recall for a moment the gospel sound of 1960s southern soul. The beauty of "Two Rocks and a Cup of Water" is as much down to the sharp, accentuated pluck of the strings as it is to the gorgeous contrapuntal movement of the melodic figures. Pieces like "Right Way to Hold a Spoon" are so free of overbearing melodies that the listener's attention is never quite cast in the same way: previously unheard textures and figures come to the fore, others retreat.

Several moments will delight Massive Attack fans. Like much of 1995's Protection, "Confused Images" has the feeling of artificial, machine-generated warmth, of a source of comfort that is somehow abstract, somehow absent the qualities of touch. It is quite beautiful. There's something deeply familiar too about the introduction of "Collar Stays On". The bassline bleeds into and over itself so much that the different notes begin to acquire a softly percussive quality.

One wishes that these moments would go on, not least because in many respects this is hardly a Massive Attack album at all. To all intents and purposes, Massive Attack is now founding member Robert Del Naja in collaboration with Neil Davidge. Andrew Vowles (Mushroom) left after 1998's Mezzanine. Grant Marshall (Daddy G) did not take part in last year's 100th Window or this project, although there are rumors that he will participate in a fifth studio album. With Mushroom and Daddy G gone, so is most of the reggae, dub, R&B, soul and Lovers Rock. The loose-limbed and balmy warmth that characterized their early releases is mostly absent from this material. Listeners who found 100th Window too cold, precise, and clinical will find a similar tendency here. True, the relative brevity of the less inspired pieces keeps them from being too monotonous. But the substitute for 100th Window's bleak claustrophobia is less often a return to the soulful roots of Blue Lines, but the washy blandness of tracks like "Everybody's Got a Family".

Much of the fault of this probably lies with the restrained emotional mandate of the soundtrack genre. If the 'electronic/downtempo movie soundtrack' is not yet an established subset, it certainly has its own conventions. Moments of "Atta Boy" and "Simple Rules" recall the Dust Brothers' score for David Fincher's Fight Club. The warm organ of "Polaroid Girl" echoes some of David Holmes' work, particularly for Out of Sight, although here the effect is more symphonic and sweeping, less intimate and contingent.

The brittle and opaque beauty of some of these tracks will make you catch your breath, as will the sleek menace of others. But this release lacks the breadth of previous Massive Attack's albums. Del Naja and Davidge have also scored Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy. None of this necessarily means a final narrowing of the Massive Attack sound, not least because Massive Attack have parted company with enough guest stars, vocalists, featured artists and associate members for 10 bands. Their line-up, as much as their sound, is never less than fluid. But their music now gazes too forcefully in one direction, instead of into its own fascinating heart.

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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