Music

The Raveonettes: Pretty in Black

Adrien Begrand

On their second album, The Raveonettes' obsession with 50s pop culture has only increased.


The Raveonettes

Pretty in Black

Label: The Orchard
US Release Date: 2005-05-03
UK Release Date: 2005-06-06
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The last time we left The Raveonettes, they had surprised many with their charming Chain Gang of Love, a record imbued with 1950s nostalgia and brimming with plenty of fuzzed-out guitar noise that owed a lot to The Jesus & Mary Chain. Guitar ace Sune Rose Wagner and statuesque bassist/femme fatale Sharin Foo shamelessly mined mid-20th century popular culture, from the rockabilly-tinged tunes to the kitschy movie poster artwork, while providing harmony lead vocals in the same kind of slightly disaffected, yet endearing way that the brothers Reid did on Psychocandy. The Raveonettes gimmick was simple: songs were short, Wagner's guitars dominated the mix, burying the bass in a whoosh of distortion, the percussion was spare, save for the odd minimal electronic touch, and as the album cover boasted, every song was recorded in B flat major. As fun as Chain Gang was, it was obvious that subsequent album that adhered to such a formula would have a limited shelf life. So, in the same way that Chain Gang was an impressive departure from the rather wooden Whip it On EP, their latest album continues the band's evolution.

Or is that de-evolution? The more the years go by, it seems, the more The Raveonettes' own little Wayback Machine seems to drift further and further toward McCarthy-era America. You can almost sense the time travel on their stirring cover of Buddy Holly's "Everyday", a live staple, and which appeared on the recent A Touch of Black EP. A gorgeous collision of shoegazer noise and classic pop, Wagners' ear-splitting waves of guitars match Foo's faithful recitation of the song stride for stride, but soon, the tender melody wins out, the gentle, lilting notes dominating, as the distorted guitars fade, receding into the background. No, those kind of guitar effects would not be needed where they're headed. On Pretty in Black, their transition from an alt-rock curiosity to a full-fledged retro act is almost complete. The likes of David Lynch and John Waters might come to mind when hearing The Raveonettes, but on the new record, any sense of Lynch's sinister irony or Waters's campiness is cast aside in favor of a sincere homage to a bygone era.

Not only are the songs longer than three minutes and are not all recorded in the same limiting key, but the overall sound is greatly improved. Wagner's guitars have been turned down, bringing a cleaner, more vintage feel that casts aside all the Jesus & Mary Chain comparisons, epitomized by the fabulous, tightly-wound solos on the wanton "Love in a Trashcan". Plus, with new bassist Anders Christensen in the fold, they're a full-fledged band now, giving Foo the chance to give up the bass for good, and handle more lead vocals and rhythm guitar. Veteran producer Richard Gottehrer knows all about creating present-day nods to classic pop, having produced such classic albums as Richard Hell & the Voidoids' Blank Generation and The Go-Gos' Beauty and the Beat, and his tasteful production eases up on the gimmicks and lets the music do the work, while managing at the same time to mold the most full-sounding Raveonettes album yet.

Musically, Pretty in Black delves deeper into the late '50s/early '60s popular culture landscape than the band has done in the past. Wagner's and Foo's lead vocals are greatly improved, the pair displaying more emotion and nuance in their singing, perfectly exemplified by Wagner's Ricky Nelson-esque solo turn on the tender "The Heavens", and of Foo's faithful, yet luminous cover of The Angels' classic "My Boyfriend's Back" (which producer Gottehrer co-wrote). "Here Comes Mary" and "Seductress of Bums" hearken back to the sugary-sweet crooning of early '60s teen idols (Bobby Vinton and Frankie Avalon come to mind), while "Somewhere in Texas" borrows a little bit from "Ring of Fire" era Johnny Cash. Both "Sleepwalking" and "Twilight" are two of the best full band performances on the disc, two very effective stabs at rockabilly, this despite the fact that "Twilight" comes close to being marred by its light disco beat, the only awkward musical touch on the CD.

The majority of tracks pale in comparison to the shimmering "Ode to L.A." "Come on, let's go to where it's fun, I want a slice of L.A. sun," croons Foo, in her best vocal performance to date, as the song immediately takes off into a startlingly good imitation of Phil Spector's girl group pop, with its stripped down, insistent beats, Wagner's crystalline guitar notes, and the ever-reliable sleigh bells, as the song rides a dreamy wave of sumptuous rock 'n' roll. Then, when you think it can't get any better, the great Ronnie Spector makes an appearance midway through, her ageless voice sounding as flawless as ever, and from then on, the song is hers, as she launches into those fabulous "whoa-oh-oh"'s that she made so famous on The Ronettes' "Be My Baby".

With Spector, as well as former Velvet Undergound percussionist Maureen Tucker, and Suicide keyboardist Martin Rev contributing cameo appearances, Pretty in Black might brazenly flaunt its devotion to vintage rock 'n' roll, but it arrives during a time when trendy, tetchy post punk is starting to dominate, and the album's no-frills sound proves to be a welcome diversion. By moving in the complete opposite direction of everyone else, Wagner and Foo aren't really giving us anything new, but with two good albums now under their belts, the duo are proving to be one of the most reliable bands around when it comes to old-fashioned, catchy rock.

7

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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