Music

Scene, Should Be Heard

Photo (partial) from Monique Meloche exhibition, Chicago, 2003, from Graffiti.org

The Second City has some first-rate music scenes. So listen up, New York.

Just before Labor Day, I got another new roommate via Craigslist. Things had worked out fairly well using this method so far, though my former fellow renters had abandoned me for greener pastures (Alaska, law school, and a sweet downtown condo, respectively), I’d managed to stay on in my cheap, spacious duplex through sheer will, plus a hell of a lot of emails back and forth. It only took me a few interactions with Gabi to determine that he’d be a good fit for the fourth and final room in the place, even if he did use the word “holla” a bit too liberally.

A month into our roommate relationship, I still feel pretty good about the choice, but there’s one issue I should have foreseen. Like many people from "the city", whether natives or transplants, Gabi has the unfortunate habit of comparing everything anywhere to how things are in New York. If I hear one more sentence begun with “In New York we…” I think I might go crazy.

It might be endearing if he were from a foreign country; at least then there would be some major cultural differences that I could perhaps learn from. But no, New Yorkers just seem to feel that you need to know these things, because even if you don’t care, you should, because New York is about as real as it gets. (Can you imagine an Omaha native reporting on his or her city’s characteristics at every turn?)

My attempts to argue for Chicago over New York rarely hold muster for others, especially since I haven’t set foot in New York for at least two years and have little to offer in the way of straight comparison. And it certainly doesn’t help my case when my New York-centric friends spend most of their time here in an area not-so-fondly referred to as the “Viagra Triangle.” Realistically, I’d probably lose the debate on most counts, given that everyone seems to revere New York, and millions of people can’t be wrong (except when it comes to Fall Out Boy). But there is one area in which I think I could make a viable argument for Chicago: the music scene.

Having lived in the 'Second City' proper for over three years, I’ve come to know the music scene in Chicago quite well, and the wide variety of options and the depth of its history never fails to amaze me. The city may be most prominently associated with the blues, but the story goes far beyond the 12-bar tradition. Pick a genre and you’ll find it here with both local acts and nationally-known stars: rock, pop, jazz, house, country, folk, hip-hop…the list goes on, and so do the venues that support the various scenes. There’s a good chance you’ve seen the Metro, Riviera or Vic on your favorite rock band’s tour t-shirt, but how about smaller rooms like Schubas, the Hideout and the Empty Bottle? Or the venerable Old Town School of Folk Music, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year?

And that’s not even getting to the scores of legendary blues and jazz spots; each year, local organizations coordinate evening-long tours of the city’s most revered clubs, during which trolley-riding fans can hit as many establishments as they can handle for a flat fee. It almost seems wrong to visit institutions like the Green Mill and Kingston Mines in this “checklist” manner, but at least you can say you were there (and in the original location, too; in recent years, stalwarts like Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge and the famed Checkerboard Lounge have been forced to relocate, with Buddy Guy’s Legends under a constant threat to do the same). Besides, there’s a whole other undocumented world of music to experience, from years-old open mic sessions that feel more like family reunions to barely publicized avant-garde shows in unmarked basement spaces. Heck, just on the 15-minute walk from my place to my girlfriend’s, I once counted six different musical performances, and none at a place I would categorize as a music “venue”.

Really, it’s silly to attempt to wow anyone with sheer numbers, especially when I’m talking about competing with New York (though a recent studycompleted by the University of Chicago, purportedly the first of its kind to compare the relative health of the music industry in 11 major metropolitan areas, says that the numbers actually are pretty comparable). The argument for Chicago's music scene relies more on anecdotal evidence, anyway. Not just from a suburban-kid-turned-urban-cheerleader like me, but from those who actually work within the industry.

Chicago band 'The Handcuffs', photo from Sharkforum.org

During my time here, I’ve spoken with a number of musicians who see Chicago as an ideal place to attempt a musical career. They note the strong, established communities for nearly every genre (even the notoriously fractious hip-hop scene has begun to come together, though a fair number of artists still seem ready to jump ship if they could), the strength of which was evidenced by the huge, varied crowd that showed up in July to protest the mayor’s proposed ordinance that would have forced club promoters to be licensed. Though there are any number of opportunities, the city is low-pressure enough that they feel they can experiment without constantly being under the microscope. Add to that a comparatively affordable housing market (for those with some means) and you've got a formula that can support up-and-coming musicians for a number of years.

In my greatest display of hyperbole ever, I wrote before last year's Lollapalooza festival in Grant Park that the city was "quickly becoming the center of the music universe”. “Is that really true?” I can recall my brother asking me. Being that it was summer at the time, my answer was an unequivocal "yes". Warm weather being as delightful as it is in Chicago, everyone comes out to play during the summer months, and that includes musicians, who have many opportunities at the city's hundreds of festivals. From large-scale, city-run affairs celebrating blues, jazz, gospel, Celtic, Latin and world music, to equally revered traditions like Fitzgerald's American Music Festival, the Old Town's Folk & Roots Festival and the Hideout Block Party, to dozens of street celebrations featuring local and national acts, summer weekends are filled with music.

My friends and I often argue the relative merits of our respective home cities on a variety of criteria – sports teams, nightlife, attractive females, drinking traditions-- but the quality of each place's music scene has never come into play (it's a good thing, too; any defense of my hometown, Boston, would have to include an explanation for Aerosmith). Maybe it's because music from every part of the globe is so readily available, we no longer consider it to be important where it comes from; it's not as if living in, say, Atlanta, precludes you from hearing Bay Area hyphy (though it could possibly affect when you hear it, depending on how many music blogs you frequent).

However, it's long been a practice of critics to mention the origin of every new artist, believing that helps to put them in a context that the consumer can easily process. Because of the aforementioned global music culture, an artist's birthplace may not necessarily dictate his or her sound as much as it once would have – many bands sound like they're from Detroit without ever having set foot there. But it does still affect the way we judge a performer's legitimacy.

If I found out The Watson Twins grew up in Los Angeles instead of moving there from Louisville, Kentucky, for example, I'd be more apt to dismiss their gospel-country-soul as derivative. At a recent concert I attended, I took the opening band far less seriously once I learned that the members hailed from Phoenix (a "hotbed of musical talent", as I sarcastically referred to it). Somehow, it would've made a difference if they were from Brooklyn, or even Jersey.

From Chicago Blues Fest

When I think about possibly moving to other cities (Chicago is full of people who continually talk about leaving, but never do – though other cities may have more flash, the comfort and convenience here turns many would-be East or West-coasters into lifers), I wonder how much the music scene of a particular place might factor into my decision. Would it outweigh housing costs or job opportunities? Probably not. But if it comes down to a perfect climate with a limited array of options, or a chilly city with a regularly full slate (hello, Montreal), I'd take the latter, hands down.

Of course, it seems as though I’ll be in Chicago for the foreseeable future, and if I want friends in other places to make the move here, or at least come visit more often, I want the music scene to present as strong an image as possible. It’s not enough that I think things are great, or even if the numbers back me up; what matters most is perception, and right or not, most people I know don’t think of the city as a music destination on par with places like New Orleans (even post-Katrina, during the summer Jazz Fest) and Austin. As for New York, well, I’m still working on Gabi. Want to know how it goes? Just keep an eye on Craigslist.

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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