Music

Mercury Rev: All Is Dream

Rob McLaughlin

Mercury Rev

All Is Dream

Label: V2
US Release Date: 2001-09-11
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It's a shame the term "trailblazer" has been so woefully overused in the world of music, because it's surely the best way to describe the wholly individualistic path Buffalo, New York's Mercury Rev have cut for themselves during their 10-year career. Sure, you can spot a lot of the obvious and overused influences along the way -- Sonic Youth, The Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd, to name a few. However, no one's ever pushed them through the dense thicket of alternative rock in such an innovative and perverse fashion.

Their first album, 1991's Yerself is Steam, was a sprawling psychedelic affair; perfect for trips if it weren't for singer David Baker's chilling vocals (he sounds like he's being strangled on a number of tunes, most alarmingly on "Blue and Black"). The work made quite a splash with critics, and it became clearly evident with just one release that the band was special-how many groups can create slow, epic, guitar-driven songs that don't sound indulgent in the least?

The follow-up, 1993's Boces, traversed similar grounds to an equally compelling degree, adding French horns, trombones, and violins to the stormy mix. But around this time Baker's relationship with other band members began to sorrow, and the group found it's gleefully anarchic spirit putting them in hot water on more than a few occasions. They were literally booted off Lollapalooza's second stage for excessive feedback, then porno superstar Ron Jeremy starred in the über-suggestive video for their single "Something for Joey". MTV didn't come knocking.

When Baker departed, the band found themselves at a crossroads in their career. Guitarist Jonathan Donahue took over lead vocal duties, and upon resurfacing two years later in 1995 with See You on the Other Side, their sound had undergone a radical transformation. A lot of the darkness that cloaked the first two records vanished and the guitar work, an ever present staple in the forefront of their music, took a back seat to a soulful, richly developed, and occasionally warbled orchestral sweepiness. The newly buoyant Mercury Rev suddenly sounded like they were making tunes to accompany old MGM musicals (heavily informed by ingestion of opiates), and they alienated a lot of their fans. They also picked up a lot of new ones.

Anyone could see the band was living outside our solar system by the time they delivered Deserter's Songs in 1998. Vast, dreamy, and majestic, it took The Other Side's cinematic inclinations and ran with them in every direction imaginable. Defying easy categorization, it sounds at first like a nice new addition to the prog-rock canon, but on closer inspection the whole thing takes on a weird life of its own. Each track seems to exist in its own separate, anachronistic universe, and Donahue's vocals echo with a mix of wonderment and innocence that suggested he's discovering the world for the first time.

All Is Dream is Mercury Rev's fifth full-length release, and the sense of awe that informed Songs continues to snowball and expand. And once again, nothing is as it seems in their music. At first it sounds like their tightest and most compact work -- a lot of the songs have a conventional pop verse-chorus-verse structure that I found bland initially. On second listen though, you realize they've repeated their distinct brand of magic-the tracks balloon in vision and scope, suggesting infinite possibilities and interpretations. Opening number "The Dark Is Rising" sounds like something you'd hear on your way to heaven. "A Drop in Time" is perfect for a romp through Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Closing song "Hercules" ends on a note that suggests the band doesn't want you to ever wake from the spell they've put you under. Also worth noting is the vulnerability at work that's never surfaced before -- Donahue's voice takes on the pinched, high sound of Neil Young's on more than few songs, and it perfectly suits the sense of enchantment inherent in the album as a whole. Mercury Rev are quite a band, without a doubt one of the most distinct talents working today. How they've managed to grow younger and fresher in an increasingly cynical and recycled world is beyond me. We can only hope they'll let us continue to tag along on their upwards drift to a gentler, kinder new world.

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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