Music

Graham Nash: Songs for Survivors

Kael Moffat

Graham Nash

Songs for Survivors

Label: Artemis
US Release Date: 2002-07-30
UK Release Date: Available as import
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In this gigahertz world of ABS, DVD, CIA, GNP, RBI, CDR, BIA, ISP, RAM, and PLO, it's a beautiful thing to be reminded of what it means to be human, which is just what Nash's disc aims to do. And, this is just what he has been doing for almost four decades now, during his tenure with three of the most notable bands in rock's inchworm history -- the Hollies; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. In all this time, Nash's human-friendly song writing has become that old pair of shoes back in your closet you don when you need something that fits "just right", which is not to say that Nash is a formulaic songwriter. Rather, he is a songwriter who has always written with observation, compassion, and wisdom, qualities tempered by experiences that have run the whole emotional gamut.

Songs for Survivors is a smart, clear-eyed response to his first solo offering, Songs for Beginners, released in 1971. This time around, Nash approaches his task rather like a kindly village elder rising to quell a petty communal tiff. Yea, I know that's a pretty cheesy comparison, but what else can you say about a man who participated in the British Invasion, '60s counterculture, Woodstock, the hedonistic '70s, the me-me-me '80s (thanks a lot, Ronnie), the tempestuous '90s, and the turning of the millennium? The ultimate message Nash brings us, is one that he's tried to teach us over and over and over again, that we are more complicated, more fragile, and in possession of more beauty than our politics and institutions can admit to. The most ambitious and rewarding song of the disc, "Liar's Nightmare" contains this succinct summation of his calling as a songwriter, photographer, and activist: "I can honestly tell you that I really care / I gotta tell you the truth about the sadness I find / I have opened my heart to you, and hope you don't mind". Coming from the pen or lips of any other singer/songwriter, these lines might come off pretty schmaltzy and insincere, but Nash has earned the right to be so blunt and . . . well, sentimental.

What makes Nash's compassionate stance so authentic is the complexity of his vision; he not only testifies of the sadness that he finds, but also of the joy and the tormenting emotions in between. The second and third tracks may serve as an example here. "Blizzard of Lies" works hard to come to terms with those seasons when our lives are little more than a "maze of madness". The cosmic vision of the song is ultimately positive, since in the midst of our stumbling, someone inevitably approaches us with "a sign" or "something clear", yet the song is also a lament for those who do not follow these signs, these opportunities for temporary reprieve, if not salvation. Such people, unfortunately, walk "back into a blizzard of lies", whether that blizzard is something as mundane as growing up or midlife, or as dramatic as drug addiction. The next song, "Lost Another One", carries a fairly positive, upbeat melody, but lyrically mourns the passing of those who touch our lives, who carry those signs, or herald moments of clarity: "I turn my radio on / And in between the static and the headlines / I heard that you were gone / We lost another one". The mournful tone here seems all the more poignant in light of the recent passings of John Entwistle and George Harrison.

Balancing these sentiments are songs such as "I'll Be There for You", "Nothing in the World", and "Where Love Lies Tonight". These songs are deeply personal evocations of different shades of love, from love for friends, to the love for a child, to that of a spouse/significant other. Paradoxically, these songs, in being so personal and apparently directed towards specific persons, invite us into the songwriter's heart as well. When Nash utters lines like "I'll be there for you, wherever, whenever, whatever for you", "But there's nothing in the world I won't do for you", and "When you walked into my heart my life just opened wide", we are not only touched with the sane humanity of the man, but we begin to believe that we too can practice what he preaches.

Other songs on the disc remind us that our emotional lives are tangled in historical, political, and cultural webs that we must grapple with as we struggle to survive or possibly even rise above the gigahertz life. The discs opening song "Dirty Little Secret" throws a spotlight on the persistent, sometimes latent, sometimes overt, and often (unsuccessfully) suppressed racism in our culture. "Pavanne" presents the story of a woman who can finally no longer abide by the codes and practices of a culture that values the mistreatment of women, while "Liar's Nightmare" is an eerie and timely rant about the violence and corruption that contemporary economic culture foists upon us.

The disc ends, however, on an affirmative note with "Come with Me", an invitation to seek a life that is at once more in tune with others and with nature: "Old tree reaching upward, closer to the sky / Touch your face, saving grace, come with me". What emerges from this disc is the mentality of an artist who recognizes the trouble in the world, but who has found a few keys to alleviating some of the suffering. This is a confident statement by a sane and humane artist, one of those albums that talks back to its historical moment with a voice of wisdom, subtlety, assurance, and hope. I dare assert, that this disc belongs on the same shelf as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? and Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto's Getz/Gilberto which introduced the US to bossa nova and featured Astrude Gilberto' inimitable rendition of "Girl from Ipanema". Yea, it's that good and that right.

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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