Music

Sergio Mendes: Timeless

Timeless is a noble pursuit, and the guest roster is impressive, covering a who’s who of modern urban music.

It's been done so much over the past decade or so that it's starting to become a cliché. Aging artist who still has "it" (talent and musical ability) but doesn't still have "it" (commercial appeal) teams with a series of younger artists and makes (or tries to make) an album that restores their popularity. The thing is, though: this plan doesn't usually work. For every Supernatural by Santana, there's a million artistically bankrupt tries at the same thing-like uh, Santana's last two albums.

The latest artist to receive this treatment is Brazilian keyboardist Sergio Mendes. Mendes reached the height of his popularity in the mid-'60s, when the cool, lounge-y songs (including Beatles & Simon & Garfunkel covers) recorded with the combo Brasil '66 led to his being one of the first Latin American music superstars. Sergio's still been working all this time, but he hasn't been near a Top 40 chart since 1983's adult contemporary prom ballad "Never Gonna Let You Go".

Timeless is a noble pursuit, and the guest roster is impressive, covering a who's who of modern urban music: John Legend, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Black Thought, Justin Timberlake. However, the brain behind this project is the Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am, and if you think that Mendes' classy piano stylings would make for an awkward match with the guy responsible for writing "My Humps", then you're not way off base.

Actually, my issue with Will here has nothing to do with the overall production or sound of the album. He and Mendes do a good job staying true to Sergio's original style, while adding just a few modern touches: a little light turntable scratching here, some drum machines there, a bit of sampling (mostly from Mendes' own records-although the "Funky Drummer" loop buried in the Jill Scott collaboration "Let Me" is excellent). I would have been perfectly content with this album had Will just played the back. Unfortunately, the guy (who, in terms of MC skills, is somewhere between MC Hammer and Carmen Electra) ruins nearly half of the album (he appears on seven of its 15 tracks) with his atrocious rapping. I suppose it could be worse. He could have had all the OTHER Black Eyed Peas rhyming on every other song. Maybe he should have let the badly missed Pharoahe Monch (who rips it on the Timberlake-written, war-themed "Loose Ends") rhyme a little more and we could have called it a draw.

Let's go back to that Jill Scott song for a minute. Scott, one of the finest vocalists of this generation, gives a sublime, Billie Holiday-esque reading of the seductive ballad "Let Me". After Scott's first verse, Will barges in with an idiotic sing/rap. It's akin to having a lovely floral display, then having a buzz saw come in and chop all your flowers to pieces.

Not to say there's nothing to enjoy here. "Please Baby Don't" pits the classy John Legend against some fine Rhodes work by Mendes. The song is reminiscent of both Bacharach and David's mildly Latin-ized '60s work and Stevie Wonder's occasional experiments with Latin music. Stevie himself shows up on "Berimbau/Consolacao", with one of the more fun and playful performances I've heard from anyone in a while -- and the man does it all on harmonica, not singing a word. The album's title track proves that while India.Arie still overdoes it a bit on the "love everybody"/hippie chick thing, she's got a vocal style to be reckoned with. Equally appealing are experiments with dancehall reggae ("Bananeira", with Mr. Vegas) and a samba/reggaeton/hip-hop en Espanopl hybrid ("Samba Da Bencao" featuring Marcelo).

That shortlist of highlights proves that Timeless had the capability to be an exceptional album. However, someone mistakenly told Will that his talent deserved to be showcased more than the other guest artists on this album, and it winds up turning what could have been a fantastic genre cross-pollination experiment into a slightly better than average album almost ruined by a guy who needs someone to tell him to stay on the other side of the microphone a little more.

6

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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