Richard Hawley: Lady's Bridge

The guy who should have won the 2006 Mercury Prize makes an even stronger bid for 2008.

Richard Hawley

Lady's Bridge

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2007-10-02
UK Release Date: 2007-08-20

Ever since venturing out on his own as a solo artist after years of work as a supporting musician, Richard Hawley has, over the course of five full-length albums, brought simple, sincere songwriting back to an overly cynical and trite pop music world, the singer-songwriter looking as out of place among the Arctic Monkeys, Art Bruts, and Girls Alouds of the world as a humble suitcase style 45 RPM record player in a room full of iPod nanos. After an extended period of slowly building a core group of admirers, from indie rock fans to admirers of vintage 1960s UK pop music, to bored critics looking for anything better than the latest bunch of Williamsburg freak-folkers, Hawley's warm, unassuming music found its way to a considerably larger audience in his home country, thanks in large part to the aggressive release of six singles by label Mute Records, and especially his nomination for the 2006 Mercury Prize.

Unlike the odd faux-crooner that comes along every so often, waxing nostalgic but still exuding smarm over slick, saccharine arrangements (a Canadian named Buble comes to mind) that don't so much pay homage to an old sound as clobber the living crap out of it, Hawley, a seasoned veteran with both a cunning ear for hooks and as comfy a voice as you'll ever hear, brilliantly offsets luxurious production with some likeable working class simplicity. He can get as misty-eyed as the worst of us, but he's also been everywhere and seen it all, and as a result, we hang on his every word.

After carefully evolving as both a songwriter and a musician with his terrific albums Late Night Final and Lowedges, both of which showcasing his versatility as a guitar player, Hawley found his defining sound on 2005's Coles Corner, impeccably interweaving the melodrama of Roy Orbison with the orchestral grandiosity of Scott Walker, and the much anticipated follow-up, Lady's Bridge, sticks faithfully to the same formula. Only now, as hard as it may seem to comprehend after such a gorgeous record two years ago, the new album outdoes its predecessor, exhibiting improvements in nuance, musical variety, and even mood, as the self-described "speccy twat from Sheffield" even manages to cheer up a little bit, even if the lightheartedness is fleeting.

Opening with that unmistakably Spector-esque, heartbeat-like rhythmic thrum, "Valentine" is a perfect example of Hawley's mastery of the form, the song gently building to a graceful crescendo of an orchestra and full band, underscoring his double-tracked lead vocals which hearken back to the Righteous Brothers, the uplifting, cinematic melody contrasting with his typically maudlin sentiment ("Just take me back in time, now you're not here anymore"). First single "Tonight the Streets Are Ours" is a radical departure, as Hawley's narrator brims with youthful optimism, exuding the same kind of "let's get out of this town" sentiment that a certain New Jersey band perfected 30 years ago (complete with glockenspiel), only tinged with a mid-'60s sweetness reminiscent of classic Burt Bacharach. The sprightly skiffle number "Serious" continues the upbeat mood, as Hawley whimsically sings simple rhyming couplets over a buoyant acoustic shuffle, while the whimsical yet gently self-effacing "I'm Looking For Someone to Find Me" has the sardonic Hawley winking at us all the while.

Not surprisingly, it's the more haunting numbers that really make this record, as rivers, oceans, and darkness dominate Hawley's lyrical imagery. Plaintive waltz "Roll River Roll" samples the oeuvres of both Scott Walker and Johnny Cash, graceful blues piano fills offsetting his decidedly throaty, Cash-like (or is it Kurt Wagner?) rasp, "Roll river, rrolll..." The Cash influence is especially strong on "Dark Road", which clip-clops along lazily, one of the few songs where Hawley's guitar prowess is accentuated the most, while the wistful title track is disarming in its simplicity, its quiet melody the kind of pop hook that so effortlessly wins us over, Hawley doing what he does best, working within the confines of a classic, oft-repeated songwriting style, but coming across as completely genuine. "Our Darkness" and "Lady Solitude" continue along in the exact same vein, Hawley in full crooner mode, slowly building up to the album's plaintive denouement, "The Sun Refused to Shine" proving the previous moments of happiness were only fleeting, as he pulls the shades on his morose little world and shuffles off, hands in pockets, into the post-closing time, Sheffield night.


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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