Reviews

Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, and Sugarcult

Patrick Schabe
Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, and Sugarcult

Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, and Sugarcult

City: Denver, Colorado
Venue: Ogden Theater
Date: 2001-11-17

Fun to Be Had Both members of the SoCal punk scene located around Long Beach, California, Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger have been friends for a long time. Sharing a home at Mojo Records, the band has maintained a friendship as well as a working relationship, with members of Reel Big Fish's horn section contributing to various Goldfinger tracks over the years. So a shared billing tour should come as no surprise. From this relationship the cleverly titled "Crouching Fish, Hidden Finger Tour" was born. I've been a fan of Reel Big Fish for a long while, but came to truly love and respect their greatness after the release of 1998's Why Do They Rock So Hard?. I even used their music to help me complete a grad school final, linking their music to the general themes of postmodernism (seriously). However, every chance I'd had to see them live had been blown by one mishap or another, so the chance to see the band on a double bill with Goldfinger was too good to pass up. Playing back-to-back shows at a mid-sized theater, Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish managed to sell out both nights. If anything, this was impressive for the fact that it's been years since Reel Big Fish put out an album, and Goldfinger, although a perennial favorite with a relatively new disc in Stomping Ground, hasn't had a huge amount of support from the MTV empire or many local radio stations. But the strength of both bands' fan networks and the quality live shows they promise drew an impressively dense crowd of teenaged ska kids and young punks. If the marketers of music had any sense, they'd be paying closer attention to shows like these, filled to capacity for bands that hit the peak of their commercial success in 1997, rather than trying to shovel teen pop down everyone's throats, but that's Eisner (CEO of Disney) World for you. The kids who filled the floors of the Ogden Theater that night came to dance, mosh and crowd surf, and they got their wish. Ultimatum band Sugarcult got the main opening slot for this show and proceeded to fire things up with some energetic rock. Having turned quite a few heads with their performances on the Warped Tour, Sugarcult are a punk-pop band that proves that the beginning and end of the sound doesn't have to be Blink 182. Their debut album Start Static is slick, pure rock, blending power pop playfulness with a touch of punk for edge, expertly balanced and kept tight and fast. This sophistication carries over into their stage show, and their technical ability and sheer energy was enough to get a crowd of kids split between ska and punk into the spirit of Sugarcult. By the time they played "Daddy's Little Reject", one of the best tracks on the disc in terms of blistering rock power, the crowd was dancing along and whooping it up. Closing the show with their anthem-like single, "Stuck in America", this relatively unknown opening act had the audience singing along and shouting out their appreciation of Sugarcult. When Reel Big Fish hit the stage next, to the theme from Rocky no less, the crowd exploded. Opening their set ironically with "Down in Flames", a song about the impending decline of their commercial success, Reel Big Fish set the mood for the type of humor and self-reflexive wit that characterizes their whole act. Aaron Barrett and Scott Klopfenstein were in top form that night, both vocally and in terms of crowd interaction, but this is usually par for the RBF course. If there were any shockers, they came in the form of the horn section. Not having kept up with breaking RBF news in a while, it came as something of a surprise that Tavis Werts had decided to quit the band. However, replacing him is former Spring Heeled Jack trumpeter, Tyler Jones, and his on-stage rapport with trombone player Dan Regan was obvious as the two danced around the stage together. My conviction that Reel Big Fish are one of the world's best cover bands was also reaffirmed as they ripped through their classic take on A-Ha's "Take on Me", as well as their excellent version of Lita Ford's "Kiss Me Deadly", playing up on Aaron's '80s metal fetish. Of course the crowd shouted for the college favorite, "Beer", which the band obligingly gave into after repeated shouts from all side of the theater. And there were the obligatory versions of "Sell Out" and "The Set Up". But the real fun came during their run through of "Suburban Rhythm". After the band had finished the version of the song that appears on Turn the Radio Off, they began again, going through the song in different styles, in all replaying the song three times back to back in punk, death metal, and disco styles. For all that, it was the announcement of a new album in April 2002 and playing one of their new songs that drew the most applause. All in all, they put on an excellent, if brief, show. By the time the equipment changes had been made and the Goldfinger banner was dropped over the back of the stage, I was a little burned out from expending so much energy on the Fish. However, John Feldmann and company kicked things off in high gear. With his hair slicked into a Mohawk, Feldmann got the crowd pumped by leaping around the stage in typical Goldfinger style. The crowd interaction from Goldfinger seemed minimal compared to Reel Big Fish's joking around, but they managed to keep things moving with crowd-pleasing versions of their staples such as "Here in Your Bedroom", "End of the Day", and "Counting the Days". And if the kids who came to see RBF were dancing up a storm, the Goldfinger fans went ballistic, thrashing around in their enthusiastic response. Goldfinger contributed some of their own covers as well, running through punchy versions of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" from Darrin's Coconut Ass and Nena's "99 Red Balloons" from Stomping Ground. Throughout their set the crowds pushed, danced, shoved and surfed keeping the activity at a premium and the frenzied atmosphere thick with excitement. If I felt any disappointment, it was later, when I'd had a chance to speak to a friend of mine who went to the show the next night. He told me that the line up was reversed with Reel Big Fish playing the last, and longer, set, that they ran through seven versions of "Suburban Rhythm", and that they had even crazier stage antics than the night before. However, it was difficult to be disappointed by the great performances I'd seen, so it wasn't much of a loss. Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish proved what fans have always known. In spite of critics who cling to notions of some abstract golden ring of musical art, and corporations who can only evaluate a band based on the balance sheets, music is most powerful when it inspires fun. Scenes come and go, shift and mutate, but concertgoers can recognize a good show, a good performance, when they see one. The double bill of the "Crouching Fish Hidden Finger Tour" offered a megadose of energy and amusement that was infectious and spread through the entire crowd. I still maintain that Reel Big Fish are an excellent example of postmodern art, and that Goldfinger are populist punk at its finest, but intellectualizing the experience of their concert is really missing the point. Enjoying live music is all about the show, and Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger put on a great show. When all was said and done, I walked out of the concert happy for a number of reasons. First, I'd broken the curse that kept me from seeing Reel Big Fish and was satisfied enough that I'll make en effort to catch them live again anytime I have the opportunity. Second, the show was fun from start to finish and it's difficult to find that at any time. Lastly, the "Crouching Fish, Hidden Finger Tour" proved that a scene could survive the cold shoulder from the big members of the music industry. With the power-punk-pop of Sugarcult, the ska of Reel Big Fish, and the punk of Goldfinger drawing a packed house, decent music is still alive and well.

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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