Music

Oasis: Dig Out Your Soul

It might not be what you'd call a 'return to form', but the Mancunians' seventh is a high point in a career all too short of them.


Oasis

Dig Out Your Soul

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2008-10-07
UK Release Date: 2008-10-06
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Anyone with a passing familiarity to the all-too-often publicised opinions of Oasis linchpin Noel Gallagher probably won't need reminding that the human Soundbite Generator's words are never going to be jostling with Immanuel Kant's for the attention of students of aesthetics. From his (admittedly overblown) remarks about Jay-Z's Glastonbury headline slot earlier this year ("it's just not right"), to the frankly baffling denigration of Kylie Minogue as a "demonic little idiot", it's easy to think that it's the guitarist's inclination to spout tabloid-friendly mild controversy, as much as the band's music, that keeps the Mancunians in the public consciousness.

And while the blustering braggadocio that accompanies every new Oasis album can be filtered out as free PR, the band's consistently held (and repeatedly stated) stance that music should be easy, rather than interesting, is harder to stomach. Nonetheless, it will have come as a relief to no small number of people that Noel and younger brother Liam -- the only two ever-presents now in the band's ranks -- have frequently suggested that their seventh offering will be a return to the energised electricity that made them their initial name. The band's following have remained remarkably loyal given the mediocre triptych that preceded Dig Out Your Soul, but you can better there's not a single fan who wouldn't love a straightforward duplicate of Definitely, Maybe or Morning Glory.

Unfortunately for them, this isn't it. Fortunately for them, it by no means expands that triptych to a foursome. Dig Out is more charismatic and better crafted than anything Oasis have done in a long while. Ironically, however, it's when the band step away from their staple sound and try something a little more interesting that they fire on all (or at least most) cylinders.

It's perhaps through sheer virtue of the fact that these tracks sound the least like Oasis that they succeed. To expand, single "The Shock of the Lightning" makes a concerted attempt to revive some of the band's youthful vigour, and ends up sounding a little like a rehash of "Rock 'n' Roll Star", serving as a reminder not just of the impossibility of Oasis fabricating the context in which their debut was such as smash, but also that even that debut had its sub-par moments. By contrast, the fuzzy blues stomp of "Get Off Your High Horse Lady", an album high-point, sounds authentic and insouciant, as if it came about from boozy full-bad jam session (though, almost certainly, it didn't). Likewise, "Falling Down" is pleasantly understated -- by the Gallaghers' standards at least -- with its hazy electronics and Noel's restrained vocals. But attempts at experimentation by way of free-flowing digression from are taken to an unfortunate destination with "To Be Where There's Life" -- Gem Archer's sole writing credit -- which sticks the completely unwarranted twang of sitar to a smoky bass line and a Liam Gallagher vocal that sounds strained and desperately devoid of inspiration. It sounds a little like Liam fronting the Stone Roses, which wouldn't have seemed like a good idea even in the '90s.

Of course, any use of the word 'experimental' should be taken in the context of Oasis's careers as a whole: Dig Out was never going to be some free-form acid-jazz concept album, and the album has many of the Mancunians' traditional hallmarks, not to mention flaws. One or two tracks, "The Turning" and "Ain't Got Nothing" the worst culprits, rekindle the stodginess of Don't Believe the Truth. Lyrically, it's all as hackneyed as ever, too, all meaningless rhymes and clumsy metaphors ("C'mon, shake your reptile baby", anyone?). The lads aren't doing themselves any favours regarding the Beatles-copyist accusations, either: "Waiting for the Rapture"'s opening riff echoes that of "Sgt. Pepper"; "I'm Outta Time" samples John Lennon's final interview; and "The Shock of the Lightning" has a chorus that sings of love as a "magical mystery".

And so it is that while Dig Out could be much, much worse -- it is, by nobody's standards, at disaster -- it is let down by the same flaws that have blighted Oasis before. Simply, it is all too often dreary, trite and unexceptional. The fact that some areas of the press will no doubt trumpet their seventh album as a triumphant return to form is example enough of just how far Oasis's standards have fallen on the previous four. For those who have happily stuck around this long already Dig Out certainly won't be the straw that breaks the camel's back -- by all means, it lightens the load quite considerably. But it does so with the dawning realisation that, 17 years and seven albums in, this is a high point in a career deficient in high points.

6

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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