Santogold: Santogold

This is the soda shack where punk and electronica meet the rhythm of a diasporic dub addiction.



Label: Lizardking
US Release Date: 2008-04-29
UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

It was love at first MySpace. One link and there I went. During the first chorus of Santogold's "Creator" I adopted it as my personal theme song and sent the link to my favorite DJ and my closest friends with the words: "This is my new favorite artist. I have no clue how to describe what she's doing."

And maybe love always defies explanation. Santi White reborn in the eclectic sound of Santogold calls her own music "a mash up of all that stuff". Produced by a crew including snowboarders, electronic and dub-based producers like Squeeze and Diplo and sounding like what happens when London, Jamaica, Brooklyn, Philly and an old school Hindi film soundtrack explode out of a Nintendo set, Santogold's self-titled first album is ska resurrected, punk retooled, drum and base repossessed and pop reborn. This is the soda shack where punk and electronica meet the rhythm of a diasporic dub addiction. You almost have to write a surrealist poem to describe this music.

Santogold's vocal energy, rhythmic momentum and her tendency to toot, squeak, stutter and shout into the microphone creates a new sonic archive and has made her music attractive to endorsed and unofficial remixers. At the same time the intensity and accessibility of her lyrics make every song fit into the skin of those angry, sexy, brave artist types among us like instant and renewable anthems.

Of course not everyone thinks that Santogold is so miraculously sent from heaven. Some say she's a watered-down derivative of her friend MIA, an artist whose production team has a lot of overlap with the crew that worked on Santogold's album. And while the confrontation, teasing, reggae influence and electronic experimentalism that characterize MIA are here, I have to disagree. The two artists are far from interchangeable. MIA's combination of riot grrl and Le Tigre and early '90s hip-hop depends heavily on bravado and the shock of a mini-femme gangsta chanting nursery rhymes over gunshots (and I love it! But...) Santogold on the other hand is less confrontation and more content. Her statements are more deliberate and specific and utimately much more profound.

This album is for more than dancing and confusing your liberal white neighbors (though it could be used for that). On this album Santogold literally creates a context for rethinking the possibility of art in an uber-capitalist moment.

Starting with "L.E.S. Artistes", a futuristic track reminiscent of Annie Lennox, with what sound like robotic cheerleaders clapping in the background, Santogold reminds us of the difference between art and entertainment. Asking questions like "what am I here for?" And giving answers like "you don't know me I am an introverted excavator", this track creates a reflective platform for it's own meaning. Art is something that costs the artist, but which may be "worth what I give up", if "I could stand up mean for the things that I believe". Starting here adds sincerity to what might otherwise be misinterpreted as merely a slightly over the top retro pop-performance (especially in the shadow of Santogold's feature on the scandalous "B.O.O.T.Y." song by Bangers and Cash).

"You'll Find a Way" completes Santogold's critique of the music industry, which is consistent with tone of artists such as Lauryn Hill version 2.0 and Res, whose debut album features a track that Santi White produced. Eschewing the rewards of a hollow market that thrives on disposable one-hit wonders she taunts "No way not me. What you've got is not for me" over a synthesized reggae bounce and an echo that makes it sound like she shouting from the back of Babylon. And "Shove It" takes it up a notch making her rejection of the mainstream into a collective one speaking in the "we" and repeating "We think you're a joke. Shove your hope where it don't shine." But in between these almost juvenile chants of rejection the verses spell out the intricate challenges faced by an artist struggling to evolve. At moments we hear the industry yelling back "We think you're a joke."

And if there was only going to be one hit on this album, I would be grateful for the distortion and affirmation of "Creator" where Santogold moves from critiquing what she rejects and introduces her full power. "You say no; I say yes I was chosen. And I will deliver the explosion."

Santogold's experimentation brings forth "Superman", a dystopic futuristic love song from a diva that doesn't need saving, and"Starstruck", a dizzy stalker fan mantra. There is also "Lights Out", a sweet and eerie lullaby that imagines a full power outage that "shuts down the station", but keeps her "daaarling" safe and "locked in tight" and the marching song "Unstoppable", illustrating what it takes for a fiercely fresh woman to protect herself from the "boys on the block".

This album is a place to crash, boots to wear, pepper spray to fight back with and charcoal to dirty your hands. If the struggles of urban artists sound like this, these 12 anthems ensure that starving will never go out of style.


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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