System of a Down: Steal This Album!

Adrien Begrand

System of a Down

Steal This Album!

Label: Sony
US Release Date: 2002-11-25
UK Release Date: 2002-11-26

Released in 2001, System of a Down's sophomore album Toxicity was an important one, bearing three vital characteristics that popular music was sorely lacking: it gave the masses a hook-laden album that still remained true to its hardcore roots, it took the stale "nu-metal" genre into all-new territory, establishing the band as one of the most vital forces in heavy music, and it also provided young listeners a razor-sharp voice of political dissent, something that had been sorely missing since the demise of Rage Against the Machine. Fronted by the outspoken, powerful-voiced Serj Tankian and guitarist extraordinaire Daron Malakian, System of a Down combined the whacked-out genius of Frank Zappa, 1980s aggro punk like the Dead Kennedys, old-school thrash metal, and Eastern musical influences into an unmistakably original signature sound of their own. Toxicity took things considerably more further than their eponymous debut album, possessing more of a grandiose feel, the band completely unafraid to shed their punk roots a bit more and go for the really soaring, transcendent melodies. The album was a roaring success, as the band co-headlined the 2002 Ozzfest tour. The only question that remained at the end of the year was, "So what are they going to do next?"

Well, their answer is to throw their now-huge number of fans a bone, in the form of studio leftovers to tide them over until the official follow-up album comes out. Nirvana did the same thing when they released Incesticide back in 1992, on the heels of the monstrously popular Nevermind, and like Incesticide, System of a Down's Steal This Album! isn't just a cheap mish-mash of junky outtakes. In fact, it only further proves how good a band this is, and despite a few tepid moments, it hints at even more greatness on the horizon.

On their official web site, System of a Down say, "We don't consider any of these songs B-sides or outtakes. The songs that didn't make it onto Toxicity are as good as, if not better than the songs that did." Indeed, the band do give these songs the full album treatment, even going as far as employing Andy Wallace to add his trademark polish to the mix. The result is a CD that sounds fantastic, but despite the blistering, aggressive production, the weaker moments on Steal This Album! are still glaringly obvious.

One of the characteristics that made Toxicity so unique was the band's unabashed social conscience, made all the more impressive by the eloquence prevalent in Tankian's lyric writing. On Steal This Album!, the social commentary is still there, and for the most part, the songs continue in a similar vein. This time, the band tackles gun control ("Nuguns"), globalization ("Boom!"), both songs bolstered by some scorching musicianship, with the astonishing Malakian at the helm. Unfortunately, "A.D.D. (American Dream Denial)", despite its good intentions, lacks the originality that a song like "Deer Dance" possessed, with Tankian actually singing, "We fought your wars with all our hearts / You sent us back in body parts." The dadaist metal strains of "Fuck the System" is even more boring, and "Chick 'N' Stu", with its absurdly catchy chorus of "Pepperoni and green peppers / Mushrooms olives chives", tries to be a critique on the insidiousness of contemporary advertising, but the lyrics merely repeat the lines, "Advertising causes need . . . Advertising's got you on the run."

Steal This Album!'s best moments are actually the ones that aren't overtly political. "Innervision" delves into more spiritual themes, featuring powerful vocals by Tankian, while "Bubbles" is a full-on metal assault combined with System's trademark Eastern melodies. "Highway Song" is standard "I'm sitting writing poetry while staring out the window of the tour bus" musing, but it works well here, reaching similar heights as Toxicity's "Chop Suey". The album climaxes with the great quartet of songs that end the record: "Egobrain" features acoustic guitar, theremin, and some refreshingly positive lyrics by Tankian ("As I turn to sand / You took me by the hand / And declared that love prevails over all"), while the heavier "Thetawaves" has Tankian blabbering about beta carotene and the national debt (trust me, it works). The totally stripped-down acoustic ballad "Roulette" is one of the most sublime moments in the band's brief history, and the emotional "Streamline" (originally released on 2002's The Scorpion King soundtrack album, of all things) is aided by a string section and some very Metallica-like guitar harmonies, bringing the festivities to a gripping end.

With its minimalist-to-the-extreme packaging, made to look like a homemade mix CD (a tactic used by many bands in the past, including Metallica 15 years ago), Steal This Album! really looks like a hastily-assembled B-sides compilation, but don't let yourself be fooled. Though it has a small amount of junk, the finer moments win out in the end. On System of a Down's official web site, Malakian says, "This record is like a bridge between Toxicity and our next studio record. It may give our fans a clue at the direction we're headed in musically." If that's indeed the case, then fans have every right to be excited.

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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