Music

Ministry: Rio Grande Blood

Like cheap rot-gut, Al Jourgensen gets nastier with age. This is a no-holds-barred rant, both lyrically and musically, targeting the man they call Dubya.


Ministry

Rio Grande Blood

Label: Megaforce
US Release Date: 2006-05-02
UK Release Date: 2006-05-08
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Nothing invigorates, exasperates, annoys, and just plain pisses off Al Jourgensen more than having a Bush beating around the White House. The Ministry leader seems to do his best work when the Republicans are in charge -- and by work we're talking making music that scares furry animals and small children... and some adults, too. Pure paralysis by fear.

Jourgensen's career has seen its share of ups and downs. When he first started Ministry it was more of a techno-dance vibe (remember Twitch?), but somehow Jourgensen found his deep dark soul wanting to escape. So, keeping the killer beats, the music became angrier, inspiring an underground genre called "industrial" to raise its head upward. Jourgensen, with collaborator Paul Barker, released three straight Ministry albums that were heavy, moshable, and yet had the beats and tape loops of techno. From The Land of Rape and Honey to The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and climaxing with the brilliant Psalm 69 (The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs), Ministry was a band not to be fucked with. Psalm 69 was recorded at the height of George W. Bush's father's presidential run, and the bile that came out of the speakers was on target and on fire -- witness "N.W.O." as a prime example, and still one of Ministry's best tracks ever.

Now that Dubya sits upon the throne, Jourgensen has become more pissed, more animated, and just plain uglier towards the Republican machine. After some albums that weren't up to snuff (Filth Pig, Dark Side of the Spoon, and Animositisomina) and cleaning up a nasty heroin habit, Jourgensen came back with a vengeance last year with the W.-bashing Houses of the Molé, where every song (except "No W") started with the letter W. Molé signaled a return to form for Ministry -- a musical and lyrical focus that hit its intended target. Ministry's newest release, Rio Grande Blood, follows the exact same line as its predecessor, except there's less cleverness and more bile, if that's possible.

There are still industrial pieces to Blood, but there seems to be more thrash thrown into the mix, courtesy of guitars by Jourgensen, Mike Scaccia, and newest member Tommy Victor (of Prong). The solid, anchoring rhythm section features Raven (of Killing Joke) on bass and Mark Baker on drums. There are more chances for a head banger to snap his or her neck than usual here, but that's not a bad thing. There's more of an organic feel to this album -- it sounds like everyone just went into the studio and let 'er rip. Of course, Jourgensen hasn't lost his penchant for splicing bits and pieces of Bush's speeches to make it sound like self-flagellation and liberally throwing them into the mix.

Jello Biafra guests on probably the best song here, "Ass Clown". After a carnival-barker style spoken word intro by Biafra about the circus that is Washington, Jourgensen comes in screaming, "I want to go to the circus / The circus of power / The circus they call Washington / A circle of dishonor!'' The main guitar lines are Slayer-like in speed and intensity, yet catchy enough to stick to your brain while you loosen your neck head banging. Arguably, this album has more thrash elements than industrial, but the two meld together nicely. The title song has snippets of Bush's own words twisted around (and in one case, syllables mixed to make him sound like he's saying "I'm an asshole!"). First single "Lieslieslies", about the 9/11 tragedy, has a Metallica heaviness, while guest Sgt. Major gives "Gangreen" a sideways salute to the Marine mentality.

"The Great Satan" is a different mix than the one previewed on Ministry's previous album, Rantology -- there's less keyboard action on the newer version. "Palestina" is a balls-out rocker, but the song that takes the biggest detour is the proper finale, "Khyber Pass". There's major Middle Eastern influence going on as guest vocalist Liz Constantine provides a nice counterpoint to the harshness of Jourgensen's ranting about Osama Bin Laden.

What makes this album stand out is that there's nothing subliminal about Uncle Al. While recent efforts about the war from Bruce Springsteen (subtly calling for freedom by using Pete Seeger's words) and Neil Young (no hidden agenda there, either) have their moments, Springsteen prefers subtlety, while Young uses a 100-person chorus to soften the blow a tad. There's nothing soft in Rio Grande Blood, a title taken from ZZ Top's Rio Grande Mud, with Top guitarist Billy Gibbons's blessing. Jourgensen has the courage of his convictions to throw his opinions out there; those looking for sugar-coating or hidden meanings need not apply.

Funny. Remember when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks made that comment about being embarrassed to be from the same state as the president, and all the grief she and her band got for it? Seems like the lady was ahead of her time and now Jourgensen and Ministry are echoing those comments at a volume of a thousand (on a scale of 1 to 10) at a time when it's fashionably cool to knock the government. Along with Houses of the Molé, Ministry has made its best 1-2 punch since the Bush Sr. administration. Rio Grande Blood is not for the timid, nor for those whose politics still hold Dubya in high regard. But its anger is a cathartic release for everyone else.

8

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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