Music

Poison: Look What the Cat Dragged In / Open Up and Say... Ahh / Flesh and Blood

Sweet Georgia Brown, just drink in these mug shots on the cover of the '20th anniversary' reissue of the band’s debut, 'Look What the Cat Dragged In'. According to this photo, it dragged in four whores. Lady whores. Chick harlots. Puckered-up girly men. Irrationally Mascara'ed sissy-britches-es.


Poison

Look What The Cat Dragged In / Open Up And Say ... Ahh / Flesh And Blood

Label: EMI
US Release Date: 2006-08-01
UK Release Date: 2006-07-31
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In the whole of rock journalism, it may be impossible to conceive of a more riotously absurd task than one that begins with the words: “Hey, can you review those Poison reissues?”

Whatever you think of Poison -- make that if you think of Poison -- try to imagine that your responsibility, on some random evening, is to complete that assignment with something approaching maybe not seriousness but competence. Is that even possible? Can you write about the gentlemen who gleefully recorded songs with actual titles like “Want Some, Need Some", “#1 Bad Boy", and -- God, I love this one -- “Back to the Rocking Horse” without, for the entire 1,000-word bulk of your article, seeming like you’re on the brink of spluttery, wet hysterics?

The answer is more complex than you might think. Wait, no it isn’t. The answer is no. This music is not good.

But having said that, it’s true that less talented musicians have gotten further in life looking goofier than Poison, and... well, wait again. I take that back. No one has ever looked goofier than Poison. Sweet Georgia Brown, just drink in these mug shots on the cover of the “20th Anniversary” reissue of the band’s debut, “Look What the Cat Dragged In". According to this photo, it dragged in four whores. Lady whores. Chick harlots. Puckered-up girly men. Irrationally Mascara’ed sissy-britches-es. I mean, has any band ever looked gayer? There have to be full-on gay bands looking at this cover going, “Oh, lighten up, queens.”

So, no, there’s little here that does not demand to be laughed at, in that head-back, belly-forward, bowl-full-of-jelly laugh that you imagine fat rich men do, like Mr. Monopoly or Dennis Hastert. But that doesn’t mean we cannot learn from it, revel in it, even -- stay with me, kids -- appreciate it. So in that respect are Ten Things I Learned While Spinning The “20th Anniversary” Reissues of the First Three Poison Records.

1. The “20th Anniversary” thing? Crock. Look What the Cat Dragged in was released in 1986, but Open Up And Say... Ahh came out in 1988 and Flesh and Blood in 1990, so the math is pushing it. Not that this is surprising. Women always tend to obscure their age (OK, that was my last girly-men joke. Swear.)

2. Poison, like many bands of its ilk, has long since circled the wagons on the nostalgia-tour circuit, where they do... pretty good, actually. Songs like “Nothin’ But a Good Time” and “Fallen Angel” are, as far as goofy keg-party songs go, about as good as it gets. And what, you want to drive all the way out to a soulless amphitheater to see John Mayer and Nickelback? At least bands like Poison and Motley Crue blow shit up.

3. When he speaks, C.C. DeVille sounds like Ross Perot mixed with Phyllis Diller mixed with the sound a ferret makes when it bursts into flame. It rules.

4. I should probably review the records. Look What the Cat Dragged In is a trebly, amateurish-sounding disc recorded by guys two years away from having any business in a studio; the “bonus track” cover of -- oh, if only my dad could turn his PC on to read this -- Jim Croce’s “Don’t Mess Around With Jim” being all the evidence you need of that.

5. Open Up, by contrast, finds the band pulling together for “Good Time", “Rose” and the age-old saga of the rebellious young whippersnapper “Fallen Angel", which, if you added 18 minutes to it, would have made a great Meat Loaf song. Also, the cover apparently created quite a controversy in 1988 from a populace unsure what to make of a cat woman with Silly String in her hair, a boxer’s nose and the worst fake tongue in the recorded history of photo manipulation.

6. Flesh and Blood is the sound of a band a little uncomfortable with the glittery shoebox it locked itself in. Thus, tracks like “Poor Boy Blues", “Life Loves a Tragedy", “Something to Believe In", (which, on some days, rivals “Rose” for sheer cheek), and “Unskinny Bop,” a title that, after 16 years, I still don’t fucking understand.

7. Did I say I’d do ten of these? That was shooting a little high.

8. You could spend hours combing these things for best lyric, but my humble choice comes from Flesh and Blood’s “Ride the Wind,” in which Bret Michaels urges listeners to “Lick the wind". Amazing. (Honorable mention to “Only to fly where eagles dare,” which comes from... you guessed it, “Ride the Wind!”)

9. My cousin will resent me if I don’t say something nice about Poison -- we went to a show in 2003 when she was like 25 weeks pregnant, if that gives you any indication of the hold this band still has on people. So here’s this, which is true: “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” is, for what it is, something approaching perfection. In a couple thousand years, the sea creatures who’ll have taken over our melted planet will use it to define the term “Monster Ballad". I once interviewed Bret Michaels for a story about its ubiquity, and he told me, “Slowly but surely, I think 'Every Rose' is becoming the 'Free Bird' of our generation.” And he might be right. As a punchline, John Mayer plays in on Chappelle’s Show. Fraudulent country hobbit Kenny Chesney plays it in concert. No less an image-conscious alt-rock hipster than Billy Corgan sang it in 2003 at a Second City benefit, where he admitted, "I have a soft spot for this song because it does mark a moment in time." Despite all his rage, he likes a Poison song.

10. Wait, that’s it. Poison marks a moment in time. They’re a magnificent microcosm of an era that’s long since expired, painted-up poster boys who see no reason to change their spots or stripes or digitally manipulated tongues at this stage in the game; moreover, to their great credit, they see that any whisper of evolution at this point would be met with ridicule, and a crippling silence broken only by the sound of Old Style bottles crashing against the head of C.C. DeVille. Poison knows what its role is, what it’s there for, and why DJs keep twirling “Every Rose” at Midwestern weddings year after year after year. They’re just the guys who hit on a thing and are gonna ride it into the sunset, while the other cowboys are left to sing their sad, sad songs. For that reason, the Poison reissues make it onto my CD rack, nestled comfortably for that day when I, too, need nothing but a good time. Except Cat Dragged In. That one’s shit.

3

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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