Reviews

New Dominion Tank Police (1995)

Chris Elliot

Who has the right to enforce social control, the Tank Police or the Dai Nippon Gaiken Corporation?"


New Dominion Tank Police

Director: Noboru Furuse
Cast: Toni Barry, Adam Henderson, Sean Barret, Jesse Vogel, William Duffires, Colin Bruce
MPAA rating: Not rated; suggested 17+
Studio: Bandai Visual
First date: 1995
US DVD Release Date: 2003-11-25

Before Ghost in the Shell, Masamune Shirow's edgy cyberpunk fable about the dawning of an independent artificial consciousness on the Internet, there was Shirow's less edgy Dominion Tank Police (1989). Set in post-apocalyptic 2010 Newport City, Japan (lots of social deterioration, lots of chemical and biological pollution), the original video animation's (or OVA) blend of over-the-top violence and slapstick humor was a welcome break from all that post-Akira (1988) seriousness. In many respects, it was the anti-Akira, the anime that poked fun at the whole "world on the brink of extinction" trope.

While Akira's Kineda desperately tried to stop the crazed Tetsuo from destroying Neo-Tokyo, DTP's Leona and the rest of her crime-fighting crew gleefully plowed their police tanks through countless buildings (a signature visual in the series), causing mayhem in the pursuit of a rudimentary "justice." The main reason to watch DTP was visceral, to see Leona roll her tank through buildings, lose yourself in risk-free destruction with a comedic spin. If Akira used metaphysics to negotiate society's fears, DTP employed parody to create some sense of control over anxieties about nuclear-chemical-biological war, environmental mismanagement, and terrorism.

It was simple but effective stuff. New Dominion Tank Police, the six-part sequel to DTP, is now released on DVD by Manga Entertainment. The second series turns the original strategy on its head. There's still plenty of violence and tanks careening willy-nilly through Newport. And virtually all the old characters are back, including Leona (Toni Barry), Al (Adam Henderson), Lieutenant Britain (Sean Barrett), and the cybernetic cat-girl hoodlums, Ana and Uni Puma (both voiced by Alison Dowling). Now, however, the series features a seriousness and intrigue that add little in the way of social or political commentary. The result fails to achieve either over-the-top parody or profound drama; in short, it's neither DTP nor Akira, but a run-of-the-mill adventure story. Which begs the hard question: why watch this one rather than the 100+ other stories similar to it?

The series' six episodes are basically riffs on the conspiracy theory narrative model. A shadowy entity, the Dai Nippon Gaiken Corporation, seemingly beyond governmental control, is conniving to do something sinister to the Newport City community. In the first two episodes, this mostly revolves around destabilizing Leona and the Tank Police's authority, by promoting a less destructive type of police assault vehicle (a small, six-legged variant that apparently manages to do its job without having to run through buildings). Episodes three through six follow various attempts by Dai Nippon Gaiken to secure their primary revenue streams (derived from arms sales) against the Mayor of Newport's efforts to ban weapons. This involves, at one moment, a plot to destroy the inner city, and at another, a plot to murder the Mayor.

The connections between plot arcs are oblique at best. But the series' surface problematic is nonetheless readily apparent: it's about legitimacy. Who has the right to enforce social control, the Tank Police or the Dai Nippon Gaiken Corporation? It's a question at the center of science fiction texts since the 1980s. Blade Runner (1982), RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and William Gibson's novels all imagine a social field in which corporations hold varying degrees of authority in relation to weakened governmental institutions.

New Dominion Tank Police doesn't make this story new, and in some instances, makes it confusing (it's a mystery how, in the third episode, destroying the center of Newport City helps Dai Nippon Gaiken). Nor is the contested social field represented with sophistication: the series relies too heavily on a simple binary between the good (Tank Police) and the bad (Dai Nippon Gaiken).

This last point indicates a shift between the politics of the original series and that of New Dominion. Whereas DTP displayed an inconsistent governmental authority (the Tank Police's actions often undermined the Mayor's intentions), the new series reaffirms the link between Tank Police and government by the end of the series, as the Tank Police not only save the Mayor's life but are instrumental in supporting her. The corporate plot serves not to expose a rift in the articulation of power, so much as to reinvest the established order with renewed authority. What was once a playful representation of a justice system gone anarchic becomes, in New Dominion, more reactionary and less fun.

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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