Music

The Figgs: Follow Jean to the Sea

Ten CDs and two decades into their cultish career, the Figgs parlay power chords, surging choruses and twitchy sarcasm into an exuberant pop rock cocktail.


The Figgs

Follow Jean Through the Sea

Label: Gern Blandsten
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
UK Release Date: 2006-11-20
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In "Regional Hits", the second cut on the Figgs' 10th full-length album, guitarist Mike Gent describes a scenario that must have happened once or twice to his band. A song comes on the radio that no one's ever heard. The girls are dancing. The beat's insistent, the guitars twitchily fuck-it-all. It's a "regional hit", the kind of song that gets the kids moving in local clubs but never makes it to radio. Gent and his crew, Pete Donnelly on bass and Pete Hayes on drums, might be forgiven for making the song bitter...after all, how can a cut this catchy lose out to Josh Groban in the world marketplace? But no, the beat is bouncy, the choruses insidiously hooky, the guitars fuck-it-all insouciant, a peanut gallery of mockers when the verse turns to matters like publishing rights. Yes, we're screwed, we've always been screwed, we'll always be screwed, is the song's upbeat message, but what does that have to do with anything?

Started in 1987, the Figgs have had their brushes with greatness, their flirtations with major labels, their ego-gratifying nods from established masters (they have toured as backing band for Graham Parker and Tommy Stinson). Their sound, which still contains traces of late '80s college rock jangle and early '90s new wave beats, is not exactly timeless but not wholly dated either, unless staccato four-four drums and driving guitar eighth-notes have gone out of style, which, last I checked, they hadn't. Yet though some elements of the Figgs' no-holds-barred power pop have remained constant, their latest album shows a sort of maturity, a coming to terms with the fact that good party music is hard to make and easy to dismiss...but that making it has its own rewards.

The first half of the album is good, not stunning, including the sideways grinning "Regional Hits" and the dizzily sweet, backwards-looking title track. A Joe Jackson-ish "Don't Hurt Me Again", also up front, is jangly and urgent, juxtaposing romance and realism in acid lines like, "I would give you a helping hand if you would...come untie me," its intensity not at all compromised by new wave harmonics.

Still, it's in the album's second half that the Figgs really take off, starting with the very Mats-reminiscent "Jumping Again" with its stinging guitar opening and swirling, giddy pop chorus. But if the Figgs use the same chords and tropes as Let It Be-era Replacements, they do so from a less damaged, less desperate perspective. "Jumping Again" is like a Mats song in an alternate world where the sheer joy of the ride overwhelms all the crap that comes with it. Maybe aging gives perspective; the band observes that "This town is no easier than it's ever been" but turns to aspirin, not hard drugs, to ease the pain.

"Jumping Again" is, by a nose, the album's best cut, but it leads into a whole series of winners. There's new wave jittery "Let Me Hold You", surely one of the band's live highlights, all driving eighth notes and circling choruses, very rock without being in the slightest bit heavy. It's followed by the dryly humorous "Hobbie Skirt (In Erie)", its simplicity-movement, back-to-the-land verses in conflict with the caffeinated propulsion of the musical line. "We ended up in Erie / We ended up with tractors and plows / This was a new beginning / no more dealing with traffic and crowds," the band sings in happy harmony, but you can't help but feel, given the coiled twitchy guitar, that they're not as comfortable with the simple life as they let on.

You could spend all day picking the lyrics on this album apart, but it would be a waste of time, because in the end, the words shrink a little away from the music. They're only remarkable for the way they fit into surging melodies and hard-charging rhythms. In the album's closer, "Chasing after words", the words talk about trying to pin down meaning, making sense of things. But it's not until just before the bridge when "Chasing after words / Couldn't pin them down / Chasing after words" turns into "Thought I heard a sound....sound" that the song picks up and flies, jittery and pop-rock into the ether.

7

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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