Music

Octet: Cash and Carry Songs

Justin Cober-Lake

Octet

Cash and Carry Songs

Label: Plain Recordings
US Release Date: 2004-10-05
UK Release Date: Available as import
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When I open the case for Octet's debut album Cash and Carry Songs, the first thing I see is the disc-image of members Francois Goujon and Benjamin Morando in suits and ties. I take the CD out and they're still looking at me from the inside of the tray card. I try to take the picture ironically; I don't want to look at people who want to me to look at them seriously on the front of their CD. I can't quite be sure that such a self-aware distancing exists, though. Cash and Carry Songs has its smart moments of formal scrutiny, but it also contains many straightforward moments of lap pop, and this type of oscillation between approaches (as well as between sounds) makes Octet a difficult act to place.

The album opens with "Hey Bonus", a song so Beatle-esque that I actually had to head to my collection to make sure that this track didn't use an uncredited sample. The melody lies somewhere between "Fixing a Hole" and "Magical Mystery Tour", but it lasts in full for just a few seconds before the glitch work begins. Just when it gets the cut-and-paste groove going with a new verbal hook, the electronic club beats come in. The duo claim their interest lies in "taking the pop format apart" and this song demonstrates that idea precisely. Hidden among the blips and chops is a traditional pop song, but it's harpsichord root plays a rhythm role, and the beats and effects drop in and out erratically, keeping the listener off balance without fully knocking her over.

While the opening track provides a great take on glitch-pop, the rest of the album decentralizes the pop influence, too often falling into the standard electronic approach of putting breathy female vocals over steady drums. These tracks are nice enough, but they occasionally lack the connection and originality that Octet can provide at moments. Suzanne Thoma (known for her work with M83) provides vocals for two of these tracks, and performs well. One of the album's highlights, "Blind Repetition" lacks any sort of percussion, relying on her singing and a woodwind that jumps a fifth over and over.

That track's smoothness provides a soothing lull before "Brick-o-Lizer" kicks in with a minute of fuzz. "Brick-o-Lizer" doesn't really function as a stand-alone song so much as a transition into "Feels Good to Give Up". On this number, Goujon and Morando start with a Dre-like keyboard riff before adding that synth sound the Unicorns love to indulge in. Taylor Savvy and Yasmine Mohammedi join in with American R&B vocals. The number's smooth but unaffecting. It gives peace without the beauty of "Blind Repetition". By this point we've seen pop deconstruction (at least in the sense that the word has come to mean in mainstream music criticism), traditional-sounding electronic music, noise, a soft vocal track, R&B, and just a touch of hip hop on Cash and Carry Songs. Octet have created an album with diverse sounds, but -- for the most part -- a certain unity. This unity, however, lacks a center; it's more of a general effect, like listening to a radio station that plays varied songs from one musical field. For that reason, "Zwischenspiel" might help us get a sense of Octet's central (but not centering) idea. Zwischenspiel comes from the German and translates into English as "between play", but it echoes more of a French philosophical framework. Post-structuralism relies on a sense of indeterminacy, on language in play, and on unstable referents. The phrase "between play" suggests the brief moments of solid contact between changing meanings. The song "Zwischenspiel" contains some of the disc's most ambient and least rhythmic or melodic music, creating feeling of patience (which in turn requires change). The album relies on transition, but also on moments of hesitation.

"Zwischenspiel" is possibly the album's least memorable track on its own terms, but it does seem to sum up Octet's aesthetic on Cash and Carry Songs: keep genre-identity loose, resting in one spot only for one song at a time. The approach generally succeeds, but it also prevents Octet from being an identifiable band. It's hard to return to their sound when we don't know what it is. On the other hand, it's hard not to return to their sounds when they're so enjoyable.

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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