Reviews

Sons and Daughters + Holy Fuck + A Place to Bury Strangers

Wilson McBee
Sons and Daughters

After experiencing two opening acts defined by imagination and verve, what a downer it was to hear the rote rockisms of Sons and Daughters.

A Place to Bury Strangers + Holy Fuck + Sons and Daughters

Sons and Daughters + Holy Fuck + A Place to Bury Strangers

City: Washington, DC
Venue: Rock and Roll Hotel
Date: 2008-03-19

The ticket distributor behind the will call window at Rock and Roll Hotel was conducting an informal poll of concertgoers who were attending this triple-bill. Which of the three acts brought you here? Noise-shoegaze newbies A Place to Bury Strangers, electronic jammers Holy Fuck, or Scottish punk revivalists Sons and Daughters? I could see from the hand-written tally, later confirmed by a slew of early audience exits, that the gig's overwhelming draw was not its headliner Sons and Daughters, but the upstart opener A Place to Bury Strangers (APTBS). The band, which released its debut last year on Killer Pimp (an actual indie that probably still distributes from a car trunk), has been riding a blogwave to the heights of hypedom. The poll results made sense to me (who asked the ticket matron, as an equal-opportunity music journalist, to check all of the band's columns), even if they may have perplexed the show's promoters. Sons and Daughters, despite releasing three mildly successful albums that spread themselves across many of the usual genre and generational divides, are not necessarily a band worth getting overexcited about, and certainly not a band many people would schlep out on a rainy night to catch. But APTBS, whom the district's newspaper of record called "ear-shatteringly loud" and whose MySpace tag promises "total sonic annihilation"? “Now this,” you can imagine the bored bureaucrat, web surfing on government time, saying to himself, “this I gotta see.” Pity the thirty-something who expected Sons and Daughters to bring opening acts as innocuous and middlebrow as themselves. (Incidentally, the lineup was unique to DC: Holy Fuck and APTBS are touring together, but the shared date with Sons and Daughters was a singular occasion.) Much has been made of Oliver Ackermann's searing pedal wizardry, but it was as much Jono MOFO and Jay Space's furious rhythm section that brought A Place to Bury Strangers’ set to the level of tinnitus-inducing performance art. Against an eerie backdrop, lit only by a projector and occasional strobes, the Brooklyn trio constructed a pounding wall of jangling, screeching sound, with Ackermann's vocals buried deep and only the most subtle traces of structure evident in the compositions. Although the band's album often strains into monotony, hurt by too-cool vocals and a resistance to tempo-changes and melody, APTBS provide a terrifically intense live experience. Like monsters unleashed in the darkness, Ackermann and company wallop ears and chests in a musical experience that is felt as much as heard. As soon as the ear-splitting, guitar-throwing finale had faded to a loud buzz and the band had exited the stage, witnesses stumbled for the exit doors to smoke a cigarette and let their eardrums recover. While Holy Fuck is hardly as intimidating, the quartet has a similar yearning for the experimental. Breathing room increased marginally for the Canadian group’s set but most of the near-deaf troglodytes who came out for ATPBS stuck around. Holy Fuck, which features the unusual configuration of two keyboardists/electricians backed by a drummer and bassist, claims the moniker "improvisational electronica," which means they take samplers and effects machines and try to "play" them in the same way a jazzman might play a trumpet. The band's leaders, Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh, situate themselves behind dueling decks of gadgetry, summon a beat from their organic rhythmic section, and then set off on a tour of dance and electronic soundscapes, incorporating fuzzed-out vocals, synthesizers, and a host of other obscure noise-makers. Borcherdt and Walsh did their best to enliven the crowd, and although a few kids down front were freaking out into fist-pumping mania, in general the audience stood still and took it in without much excitement. I grabbed a spot to the side of the stage where I could watch Walsh work, but trying to understand the method to his knob-twisting, button-pushing machinations was akin to watching an uncle dabble under the hood of my Volvo: complete incomprehension. Holy Fuck make a marvelous racket, and the constant eye-contact between members as well as the imprecise stops and starts gave the impression that we had witnessed a unique performance. After these two acts of imagination and verve, what a downer it was to hear the rote rockisms of Sons and Daughters. From the moment the foursome strode onto the stage, the mimicry on display was obvious. Lead guitarist Scott Paterson, with an Elvis-styled hairdo and sweet-faced snarl, seems convinced he is Ron Asheton or some other proto-punk wailer, gyrating and cringing during even the most formulaic riffing. Co-lead singer Adele Bethel alternates her femme fatale poses with an offensive lack of subtlety: during one song she leaves the microphone on the stand and attempts a cold-eyed Stevie Nicks impersonation, while on another she whips the cord and struts back and forth in the mode of Grace Slick. Ailidh Lennon perpetuates the stereotype of the aloof bassist, dedicated to the music but not in for all the theatrical bullshit, you know? An excellent study of Bill Wyman and D'arcy Wretzky, Lennon chewed gum for the duration and never once smiled. I couldn’t get a good view of drummer David Gow but I’m sure he plays a good wildman a la Keith Moon or John Bonham, or, who knows, maybe he’s a sophisticated jazz-guy like Charlie Watts. However decent Sons and Daughters’ records may be (their EP Love the Cup with the irresistible “Johnny Cash” still finds its way onto my playlist every couple of months), playing in person the band comes across as a bunch of wannabes whose songs all sound the same: barreling rhythm, twangy guitars, frenetic female vocals, rest-stops every four minutes. Dipping into the famous guitar lines from “I Wanna Be Your Dog” during a scripted jam, the band’s performance begged the question. Which is worse: seeing a has-been or seeing a never-was? Though I have been spared the pain of watching the varicose-veined Iggy and the latest Stooges incarnation, I can imagine that the senior spectacle inspires a similar dread to that felt while watching Sons and Daughters prance around as if what they were doing mattered. Punk rock has become an empty trope, as easily entered and understood as an action movie or a television crime drama. People are drawn to the familiar: thus the success of Sons and Daughters. Thankfully, the first half of the night’s bill proved that hope for rock’s revolutionary character springs eternal. A Place to Bury Strangers and Holy Fuck express elements of the bizarre, the incomprehensible, and the painfully original that will no doubt be aped by generations to come.

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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