Music

The Killers: Sams Town

"This album is one of the best albums in the past 20 years. There's nothing that touches this album." -- Brandon Flowers, to MTV News, May 2006


The Killers

Sam's Town

Label: Island
US Release Date: 2006-10-03
UK Release Date: 2006-10-02
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The word "subtle" has never been a part of Brandon Flowers's vocabulary. He and his band the Killers performed ostentatious stadium rock anthems while on tiny stages in nondescript clubs. The band's videos had them cavorting on a Russ Meyer-esque dustbowl setting and playing checkers with Eric Roberts on a set inspired by Moulin Rouge. Their highly successful debut Hot Fuss veered from one extreme to the other; on one hand, you had the shimmering pop perfection of "Mr. Brightside", "Somebody Told Me", and "Smile Like You Mean It", but on the other, the effrontery of young master Flowers often got the best of him, as on the laughable "Indie Rock & Roll", the limp "Andy You're a Star", and most famously, derailing the otherwise likeable "All the Things That I've Done" by brazenly declaring he had soul while accompanied by a gospel choir. Polished to a slick sheen and shamelessly mining the characteristics of '80s UK pop and crowd pleasing American arena rock, Hot Fuss was an album befitting a band that calls Las Vegas home, heavy on panache, but low on passion, and like tourists who give in to the alluring lights, the noise, and the letter X (as a dude named Flanders once said), audiences surrendered, and loved every tacky minute of it.

With Sam's Town, Flowers has his sights set on something bigger, and with the help of ace producers Flood and Alan Moulder, is clearly bent on duplicating the same success of Born to Run and The Joshua Tree, but instead of sounding as profound as Bruce Springsteen and as beautifully grandiose as U2, it comes off as facile as Bon Jovi and as overblown as the Alarm. "I looked inside / Running through my veins / An American masquerade," sings Flowers at one point, unknowingly, and accurately describing an ungodly mess of an album by a band that tries far too hard adopting a persona that doesn't suit itself at all.

It cannot be understated just how good the Killers can be when they're firing on all cylinders. "Mr. Brightside" was proof two years ago, and "When You Were Young" does the same today, milking Springsteen's formula to near-overkill, but ingeniously averting disaster. Flowers abandons his Anglophile affectations of Hot Fuss in favor of a husky, quavering drawl, spewing ridiculous metaphors left and right ("We're burnin' down the highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane"), while adding string synths that echo the epic sweep of the E Street Band. If Dave Keuning's dead-on solo melodies don't hook you in, the glockenspiel does, and painfully obvious as everything is, it's irresistible, and for three minutes and 40 seconds, we're theirs, the song's over-the-top desire to impress us far more charming than ingratiating.

Unfortunately, the Killers have yet to parlay the fleeting, superficial magic of their finest singles into a complete album, and Sam's Town is so riddled with hackneyed clichés, pandering melodrama, and lazy songwriting, that we keep wondering just what gimmick Flowers will thrust upon us next in a desperate effort to hold our attention. The rousing title track quickly loses focus, degenerating first into a clunky sing-along, then a circus-like march, and finally a strings-filled outro, all in the final minute. "Uncle Johnny" tries to be profound, with Keuning attempting the same blues-inspired licks as the Edge on The Joshua Tree, but Flowers's histrionics (apparently his uncle did cocaine to take away the pain) reduces the song to self-parody. "Enterlude" and "Exitlude" are pointless, self-indulgent bookends for a nonexistent concept album, and "Bones" is simply farcical, combining a cheap Morrissey parody, tacked-on Motown horns, and an inexplicable Broadway chorus with some truly asinine lyrics ("Don’t you wanna feel my bones on your bones?").

Even the more tolerable tracks take sharp turns from the sublime to the ridiculous. The unfortunately titled "Bling (Confessions of a King)" is a decently executed U2 clone, but homage degenerates into fromage thanks to the uproarious line, "I get my glory in the desert rain / Watch it go...bling", and not even Flowers's resolute assurance that he'll take it higher and higher (down to the wire, I might add) can dim the song's unintentional hilarity. Whereas "When You Were Young" hits all the right notes, the same cannot be said for "This River is Wild", Flowers's Springsteen fixation going into overdrive, as clumsily written character sketches collide with overtly bombastic guitar riffs. "Why do I Keep Counting" would move at a stately gait in more restrained hands, but instead we're assaulted by layer upon layer of vocal tracks, the caterwauling cries of, "Help me get down", packing the emotional punch of a toddler throwing a fit in a cereal aisle.

Only does "Read My Mind" follow in the footsteps of Hot Fuss's best moments. A far better band when Keuning and Flowers tone down the guitars and singing, the Killers shine on the song, Flowers's synth offsetting Keuning's tasteful flourishes wonderfully. We're fed hokum like, "Breakin' out of this two-star town," and, "The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun," but the tenderness conveyed by both Flowers and the band sells the sentiment especially well. Sadly, it's the lone moment of clarity on a record staggeringly drunk on its own misguided ambitions. Like the lure of a master carnival barker, the Killers suck us in with a phenomenal lead single, but soon after we give in and pay the ten bucks, we see Sam's Town for what it really is: a tantalizing façade, a few mild thrills, and in the end, the unmistakable, hollow feeling that we've been cheated.

3

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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