Strike Anywhere: Change is a Sound

Margaret Schwartz

Strike Anywhere

Change is a Sound

Label: Jade Tree
US Release Date: 2001-08-14
UK Release Date: 2001-08-27

My friend Edwin has a favorite statistic, one he brings out whenever the subject of punk rock and authenticity comes up: The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollucks Here's the Sex Pistols did not go platinum until 1991. It wasn't until college kids-lots of 'em, and with money-started thinking punk was cool that its founding album sold. For those who may not remember, 1991 is also the year that Nirvana happened, and the year that Pavement released Slanted and Enchanted. Somewhere in that year Sebadoh released Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock. According to Rolling Stone and other, only slightly less dubious sources, 1991 is "the year that punk broke".

Those who are actually concerned with authenticity in the true, hardcore sense will note that none of the aforementioned bands, not even the Sex Pistols, comes close to what punk means today. Today's punk (and yes, it is a marketing gambit, sorry) is just as likely to be vegan as straightedge, and the politics may be less indie or socially focused (a la Fugazi) and more directed towards multinational corporations or international human rights (a la Rage Against the Machine). Richmond, Virginia's Strike Anywhere is an excellent example of how one might negotiate punk's contradictions and absurdities in 2001. It may even be true that after a decade or so languishing in the delayed response to the Sex Pistols, punk has begun to reinvent itself.

While we're on the subject of authenticity -- and you pretty much can't escape it, when talking about punk -- I should add a few disclaimers of my own. I was less than a year old during the Sex Pistols' nine-month heydey. I like Elvis Costello, punk's most famous defector, better than Johnny Rotten. My "coming of age" music was mostly what they'd call postpunk -- the kind of early '90s stuff that I read Strike Anywhere kind of bashing in a number of online interviews -- Husker Du and Pussy Galore and the Pixies and whatnot, probably even Nirvana.

I lived with a girl just after college who was really into the whole Virginia vegan punk scene, and once there was a concert and some 20 teenage vegans stayed on our floor that night. They were all really earnest, nervous kids who cleaned up after themselves and spent a long time in the bathroom. That's about as close as I've come to having any direct participation in this very community-based music.

Most of the music my roommate liked was fast and boring. Of course, with punk the medium is the message -- or rather, the message is the medium. Musicality and melody have never been part of this operation, whose original aesthetic was antithesis. Later, when bands like Minor Threat began channeling their rage into straightedge sermonizing and vaguely leftist politics, the aesthetic devolved into simplistic sloganeering over the traditional three-chord strum. But Strike Anywhere's first full length album, Change is a Sound, is actually not boring or preachy at all, despite its obvious self-righteous rage and political alliance to veganism. (Sorry, I'm sort of fixated on the vegan thing. I just think it's so odd they incorporated that particular piety into the ethos! Gives new meaning to the old Minor Threat adage, "don't drink don't smoke don't fuck at least I can fucking think." I mean does animal fat addle the senses? If so, I'm really going to enjoy my next cheeseburger. What about honey? What about anorexic punk rock chicks? Aren't they just getting the easy way out?)

So how did Strike Anywhere manage to make a record that both seethes with umbrage and hooks you in with melody and rhythm? Durned if I know, but they seem to be well read and intelligent boys, by the interviews. And they obviously don't think it's anti-punk to learn how to play, or even practice your instrument. That's one thing I like about punk's political arm; they always have this weird combination of belligerence and smarts, like they're idiot savants or something. It reminds me of some of the more contemporary Christian movements, who seem always to be using the Devil's enticements (rock music, television, eye makeup . . .) to make Christianity seem more fun. But punk rock is a more worthy cause as far as I'm concerned and intelligent but straightforward lyrics like "We are not the images we speak!" go a long way towards artfully capturing both punk's nihilism and its idealism.

I particularly enjoyed "You're Fired", and the last few cuts off the album, most of which showcase Strike Anywhere's particular knack for melody and passion. "You're Fired" is really interesting rhythmically, another unusual thing in a genre almost uniformly devoted to bash bash bash-style percussion. And, the rhythmic blurps and shudders always coincide with moments of purest melody, as if to unsettle any sense of sublimity. Thus form and content are beautifully merged on this album, which is why it may not be a keeper for those whose punk tastes are limited to that one Green Day ballad. Nor for the faint of heart.

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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