Music

The Most Effective Weapon

Matt Cibula

Not all that useful, ultimately, to talk about the importance of Joe Strummer in my life, because that only applies to me and my junior high and high school friends. I've actually done this before, written about how the Clash politicized us, made us care about US foreign intervention and issues of culture and class (funny how close "class" and "clash" always were), introduced us to dub and re-framed rockabilly so it sounded cool instead of corny -- but somehow none of that means much of anything right now.

Not all that useful, ultimately, to talk about the importance of Joe Strummer in my life, because that only applies to me and my junior high and high school friends. I've actually done this before, written about how the Clash politicized us, made us care about US foreign intervention and issues of culture and class (funny how close "class" and "clash" always were), introduced us to dub and re-framed rockabilly so it sounded cool instead of corny -- but somehow none of that means much of anything right now. Everyone who loved this band has stories about when they first heard or felt or loved or saw the Clash, and I don't really feel like I can do that better than anyone else.

And anyway, it's not the Clash that died this week. They've been gone a long time now, close to 20 years, and although you could make a case for "they live on in our hearts" and all that crap, it's not really all that relevant to Joe Strummer's heart attack. Hell, Mick Jones almost died 14 years ago, but he managed to cheat the Reaper. But even talking about the endless arguments that me and my friends used to have ("Strummer! Jones! Strummer! Jones!") wouldn't really tell you a lot about Joe Strummer himself, about how he was the last great multiculturalist, about his overall importance in music history, etc.

Indeed, there are a lot of people these days who will argue that Strummer HAD no "importance" in anything so dull as "music history". I've been reading stuff for the last six months about how the Clash was "boring", how their records were turgid and sluggish and way-too-political-and-not-fun-enough, stuff like that. I can't possibly imagine that this is anything other than backlash, a way of slaying an unslayable giant. But I guess there are people who really have actually heard all the Clash's records and still actually have these incomprehensible opinions -- it's all a matter of taste, innit? So I guess people are allowed to NOT -- like the music that I consider to be vital and spunky and fun and hilarious and serious and multi-faceted and everything that music is supposed to be.

The Clash has always had to face this shit. First, they were punks, hated by politicians and bourgeoisie and Teds everywhere. Then, they weren't real punks (oldest accusation in the book): the Ramones and Richard Hell and Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols were the real thing, man, and everyone who came after was just a poser. Then, when that didn't really stick, it was more about how Strummer had a public school education, how his dad was a diplomat, how he wasn't real, wasn't raw, wasn't street enough. And when that didn't take-who was real anyway? and it turned out that all them punks, rich poor middle-class, all of 'em were just weird freaky beatniks anyway -- things turned ugly: if the Clash were real punk rockers, they wouldn't play all that stupid reggae shit, they'd be hateful sneering sorts like that charismatic Johnny Rotten or they'd be down with the skinheads, and they'd certainly stop asking us to stop gobbing on 'em during shows.

But again, nothing like this ever really stuck. So now they're getting gobbed on by the little nephews and nieces of the same critics that loved the Clash, young "punk" pundits of the new century tossing bottles like "worthy" and "so-called" and "dad-rock", always from the safe distance of history. In this point of view, there is no such thing as "influence", no line of succession, and any band that is considered to be "important" is automatically discounted, especially if they tried to carry any weight at all-and there were times when Strummer and Jones carried the weight of the whole entire world on their teeny little shoulders. They're easy targets, my Clash; hell, they're now eligible for the freakin' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How

And now of course Joe Strummer won't be able to fight back. He was kinda doing that with the Mescaleros, a great band that I never got into because I never gave them the chance because I wanted to preserve the Clash in amber, wanted it to always be 1981 when Titus and Holbrook and I wrote letters to Jim Miller at Newsweek telling him what a tool he was because he refused to believe that Sandinista! was the greatest LP ever released in the rock era. But it ain't then anymore, now. It's almost 2003, Strummer dropped dead Monday night, he can't respond to these new no-nothing kids pissing on the Clash the same way he once pissed on rock history by declaring "No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones!"

Or can't he?

Because last night I laid down on the couch, turned off the lights, and put on Disc 1 of that aforementioned greatest LP ever released in the rock era. Sandinista! starts, rather famously, with "The Magnificent Seven", a rap track with a backing track so funky that some New York urban stations played as an instrumental. Strummer rapping is not a pretty thing, not a template for smoothosity; he doesn't even have the flow of mumble-mouthed titans like Biz Markie or Vanilla Ice. But damned if some of those lyrics ain't just kinda poetry writ small: "You're frettin' / You're sweatin' / But did you notice you're not gettin' anywhere / Don't you ever stop / Long enough to start? / Get your car outa that gear!"

Okay, those particular lines don't look so hot on the page, but it all makes perfect sense when you hear him sing-song-say them. It suddenly hit me, last night, that that is where Joe Strummer is truly unimpeachable as one of the greatest rock and rollers of all time: his amazing cracked-leather voice. Not to take anything away from Mick Jones, who remains one of the more affecting vocalists of the last 25 years -- but Strummer, man, he was simply one of the 10 best singers we've ever had. Just listening to Sandinista! proves this beyond all doubt. One doesn't have to think that Strummer was a genius-level writer (as I do) or to agree with his hyper-leftist politics (as I do) to hear the tough precision of his vocal attack; he pulls off songs as diverse as the avant-folk "The Rebel Waltz" and the skiffle blues of "Midnight Log".

Sure, he always had the punk rebel yell down pat; Strummer made an art out of the shouted intro, and the beginnings of "Guns on the Roof" and "Know Your Rights" could not have been done by any other human being in the world. But he never rested on this barbaric yawp-go through the Clash's catalog and hear example after example of how Joe Strummer's voice pulls off songs that shouldn't possibly work. The sneery breakdown at the end of "Clash City Rockers" where he's riffing on an old London folksong: "Come out and show me / Say the bells of old Bowie"? Perfect. The slurred-out jazzy lope of "Jimmy Jazz", when he starts spelling it ("J-A-Zed-Zed / G-Z-Z")? A hoot. His ad-lib at the end of "Revolution Rock", where he's offering up the Clash to play weddings and parties, "with bongo jazz our spesh-ee-al-I-tee"? Oh man, so perfect. The double-tracked man-vs.-himself monologues in "If Music Could Talk"? Creepy, sad, haunting, beautiful.

No musical style was beyond him, and he welcomed every challenge. Can you think of any rougher sound on the airwaves in 1983 than Strummer singing "Rock the Casbah?" Listen to it again, man: he's so radio-wrong, but that's exactly what the song needed. And on that same album, the now-maligned Combat Rock, he turns in one of the most intense and hardcore vocal performances ever recorded, "Straight to Hell." Goosebump city on that one, with his spitting whisper: "Lemme tell you 'bout your blood, bamboo kid / It ain't Coca-Cola, it's rice / There ain't no need for ya". Anyone who can't hear the purpose, the power, the pathos in that song . . . well, they just have no right to listen to it, that's all.

Let the poppist naysayers talk all their shit about how punk music wasn't all that great after all, or how if it was then the Clash weren't even really punk, or how they don't care for music that tries too hard or means too much to ancient 36-year-old bastards who should just be put out to pasture or something. They can say what they like about Strummer's lyrics or his performances or his fashion or whatever the hell they want. What they can never assail is the voice of Joe Strummer. It was a weapon, it was a blessing, it was many things. And it meant, by which I mean that it means, everything to me.

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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