You Must Do What You Love to Survive: 'Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East'

Rock in a Hard Place is a sober chronicling of music in some of the most conservative countries on the planet.

Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East

Publisher: Zed
Length: 292 pages
Author: Orlando Crowcroft
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-07

Imagine you’re on a roadtrip with friends. After a long drive through a sweltering desert, your car is stopped at a police checkpoint. The authorities search everyone’s luggage for illegal items to confiscate. You feel a rush of dread, because this is no trip across the United States or a European vacation. It’s Saudi Arabia, where possessing contraband comes with much harsher penalties. Your thoughts turn to your newest heavy metal album, which contains political lyrics. Luckily, the shipping was late and there are no copies in the car -- you’d certainly be arrested otherwise. The officers argue with you about some artwork displaying inverted crosses, but they let you drive onward, mistaking you for a group of proselytizing Christians.

Now imagine you’re in northeast Iran, the same country where an Iranian news site announced a $100k reward for the killing of an exiled Iranian rapper. You’ve been operating a recording studio for your heavy metal band and have been sentenced to 100 lashes for the crime of satanism. You refuse to show your pain as the prison officers administer the excruciating punishment, which only serves to anger the judge. He orders 30 more lashes.

For most Westerners, music functions largely as entertainment, even when the songs are politically charged. However, in the Middle East, just engaging with music, whether as a musician or as a fan, can come with severe costs. This is the subject of Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East, a sober chronicling of music in some of the most conservative countries on the planet.

Orlando Crowcroft's Rock in a Hard Place follows numerous bands on the frontlines of the scenes in Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, and Syria. Crowcroft’s skills as a journalist gives him access to a wide pool of interviewees who recount the difficulties in sustaining any livelihood due to their oppressive environments.

Though many forms of popular music are contentious in the Middle East, heavy metal, especially the sacrilegious forms of black and death metal, is the most problematic. To authoritarian regimes, the uniform of black clothes, makeup, piercings, tattoos, and long hair represents rebellion, is mistaken for a cult, or is outright blasphemous. Heavy metal bands and their fans are seen as guilty of apostasy, a serious crime that can be punishable by death.

To avoid these outcomes, some bands flee their countries knowing they won’t be able to return. Others try to foster a musical culture in their mother country, usually with meager results. Each country’s political history is intimately tied to the bands, and as civilians, band members are often found in the crosshairs of active conflict zones. As musicians, they are subject to the full brunt of restrictive rule of law.

The courage of these subcultures is admirable, and their struggle is palpable. One Saudi Arabian band, despite being active for a decade, has only performed once -- outside their country. Lebanese heavy metal fans have risked kidnapping, snipers, car bombs, and certain death just to attend shows. Within these circumstances, the sense of community among fans is the glue that holds the scene together. Fans care after each other and foster places where they can play live shows, fundamentally driven by a love for the music. Many feel as if they belong to no other group, which only strengthens their resolve.

Others carry on despite mental trauma from conflicts that have ravaged their families. Ayman Mghamis, for example, was only 16 during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israel. He decided to begin rapping after his father was killed and his house destroyed in the Gaza City bombing during Operation Cast Lead. In these instances, Crowcroft presents music as a life preserver, an outlet to make sense of these harrowing experiences.

However, the bands sometimes exacerbate the already adverse situation by releasing intentionally provocative material. One example is Lebanese band Filthy Fuck, who named the first track on their first album “All Hail Allah the Swine”. Melechesh, from Jerusalem, composed songs like “Desert Pentagram” and “As Jerusalem Burns”, which led to a newspaper interview branding the band a satanic cult. Another band, Nekhei Na’atza, released an EP called Renounce Judaism.

Other instances are considered an affront to the country’s preconceived gender roles; merely leading a band as a female singer is enough to spark outrage amongst the conservative public. These bands are educated enough to know what they can get away with, but their existing persecution also leads them to intentionally lash out at their oppressors.

Among such somber subject matter, there are also moments of triumph. The Palestinian hip-hop group DAM eventually garners wide fame, performing with such heavyweights as Wu-Tang Clan, Dead Prez, and Talib Kweli. The group is the first Palestinian band to ever rap in Arabic. Yasser, a Syrian musician, risks his life by riding his bike through the conflict zone to his studio to rescue his recording masters before they are destroyed. With a bit of luck, he succeeds, and today, he plays his songs for thousands of people in Europe. Ramy Essam’s Tahrir Square performance drew a crowd of 200,000 when he performed his protest song “Leave”. The video went viral and was ranked 3rd on Time Out London’s “100 Songs That Changed History.”

Rock in a Hard Place concludes with a chapter on Syria, tying the book to contemporary politics. Crowcroft begins with a rare moment of poetry, unfolding the story of a group of refugees on a boat. One of them begins humming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a surreal yet unexpectedly beautiful moment.

Syria falls in line with the book’s other events. During police raids beginning in 2006, for example, music stores and studios were shuttered, their inventories confiscated or burned in the street. Syria would not hold another heavy metal show until 2010. Though Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly hostile forces made it difficult for Syria’s metal scene to thrive, it nonetheless continued through the years of its most intense conflict. One of the musicians, Bashar Haroun, contends the chaos actually gave people more freedom to do what they wanted since less authorities were bothering them. He organized a live event named “Life Under Siege” in a cafe without electricity or running water, where the bands relied on generators to power their sound equipment. The concert was held during Aleppo’s worst bombardment, just after Assad’s forces had dropped barrel bomb explosives on the city. The metal fans sequestered themselves in bedrooms around sounds of nearby artillery.

Even in a war zone, the musicians remained hopeful. “During these hard times you will die on the inside if you stop doing what you love,” one said. “We lost our country but to preserve our souls we had to do what we loved.”

Devoting each of the book’s chapters to a different country makes organizational sense, especially since there are disparate allowances and restrictions in each region. However, some of the stories become somewhat of a retread, and the journalistic style is dry, perhaps a function of the drastic material. The tribulations each band and many of its fans endures are important stories to tell, but many are similar. There is also a sense of remove when the book’s subjects are reduced to a few choice quotes.

Aside from providing a discography and list for further reading materials, a number of video documentaries are referenced throughout the book, providing a breadcrumb trail for further consumption and serving to visually manifest the people in the book.

Crawcroft’s most curious point is that the rise of extreme metal and hip-hop in the Middle East coincided with the rise of extremist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Crawcroft contends that “extreme ideologies need enemies in order to survive... alternative music, with all its associations, has proved a useful enemy.” Today, metal and punk can only be played in three Middle Eastern states: Israel, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. Within these confines, Rock in a Hard Place tells the story of a ceaseless struggle for people to see art thrive in the least likely places, despite any and all odds.

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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