Music

The Murder City Devils: Thelema

Margaret Schwartz

The Murder City Devils

Thelema

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2001-09-04
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There's no accounting for taste. So why do people write and read reviews? One answer may be an implicit belief in the commonality of human experience: if we can agree (or at best agree to disagree) about taste, then there must be something binding us all together. Arguments about the so-called canon of course call in to question not only a tradition, therefore, but also certain received notions about what constitutes humanity.

As a producer and consumer of such judgements, I try my best to arbitrate not from a universal standard (thumbs up, thumbs down) but from the standards set up by the work itself. In this case, The Murder City Devils are serving up a particular post-punk neo-gothic fare -- whether or not this particular strategy suits my own personal tastes, I have to consider first whether these Devils are up to the task they've set themselves.

Said task isn't easy, not least of all because it's a rather rigid genre they're working in. I've never seen The Murder City Devils, but when I imagine them, I see a lot of black leather and velvet and lacy sleeves. Their abrasiveness could more accurately be described as salubriousness -- a stumbling drunk kind of rancor, heavily laced with self-loathing. You know the type, a sort of combination Lizard King / Baudelaire, all dark eyeliner and heavy jewlery. The album cover features a nineteenth century ceramic hand, marked like a phrenological head with the locations of the "life line" and the "heart line". Such charming imagery evokes a time when science and soothsaying had not entirely parted ways. Just as Jim Morrison used Native American imagery and ritual to color his music with a kind of intuitive, pre-cultural authenticity, the MCDs seem to be using this outdated augery to suggest a kind of murky spirituality. So what is their augury? Whose entrails are they reading?

I think the answer here would have to be Nick Cave -- a comparison both facile and accurate. The presskit's reassures me that such influences have "crumbled away" leaving the MCDs with a sharply honed "vitality and style all their own". Well, in the spirit of judging things by their own standards, I'd have to say that they protest too much -- as a famous dead white guy once said.

In other words, I don't find anything on this album that would surprise or shock the expectations of even the most committed neo-gothic Lizard Prince. There's rage aplenty, but nothing on this, the six-piece's fourth recording, sounds like full-on assault. On the other hand, even when vocalist Spencer Moody (um, is that a stage name?) croons, it's more like a cigarette stained growl. The beats are propulsive, heavy on the downbeat, and the two guitars rip into each other with all the delicacy of a chainsaw "Turkey in the Straw". With such a hidebound image, any of the newfound "depth" and "melody" advertised in the presskit is bound to be cosmetic at best. If you go for that stuff, you won't mind another monolithic helping. The rest of us may prefer more subtle fare.

Thelema is less an album than an EP, with only six short cuts. However, if the MCDs are in fact trying to wean themselves off the withered teat of their aging aesthetic, only one track shows any promise. "364 Days" is a rolicking, dark Christmas carol, an "open letter to Saint Nicolas". With its weepy violin, waltz time, and gut-wrenching keening, it is the perfect carol for all you Scrooges out there. Moody sets the scene, with the kids all asleep, waiting for St. Nick -- and "while they wait we can drink." The chorus exhorts the Jolly Old Elf to "take off your boots / pour a drink / try not to cry / try not to think" -- after lamenting the 364 days spent all alone -- "and a thousand more tears". The feel is both doo-wop and Moulin Rouge, all tawdry waltz and descending bassline, with a refreshingly acoustic guitar line providing the swing. As the choruses build, Moody's wail gets rougher, his diction sloppier.

If there was ever a man to cry into the eggnog, it's Moody. Trouble is, if you do that every year, pretty soon no one invites you anymore.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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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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