The Rocker

The Rocker is almost salvaged by the charming performances of its actual youngsters (as opposed to the adults doing youngster shtick).

The Rocker

Director: Peter Cattaneo
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate, Teddy Geiger, Josh Gad, Will Arnett, Emma Stone
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Fox Atomic
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-08-22 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-08-20 (General release)

Drummer jokes are hard to make new. Especially, as in the case of The Rocker, when you have 100 or so minutes in which to tell them. The basic, overarching joke here is that Fish (Rainn Wilson) is a man-boy of the first order, not only delayed in moral and social behaviors, but granted something of a motivation to boot: as the film opens, Fish displays his decent chops during a show with his band from Cleveland, Vesuvius. It's the '80s: their hair is big, their spandex is tight, and their pyrotechnics are passable. While lead singer Lex (Will Arnett) is surely pretty, when Fish starts juggling his sticks, the girls go a little wild.

After the show, the other shoe drops, as the boys learn they have a contract with a major label -- and a caveat. They have to lose their drummer to make room for an executive's nephew. Not a new device, but a serviceable one: Fish's bandmates are wholly un-loyal, actually trying to escape from their erstwhile friend by screeching away into the night. The fact that he chases them down and attacks their speeding van by leaping on its roof and piercing it with his sticks expands the realm of drummer jokes exponentially. He's a kind of ninja-ized Michael Meyers monster, more terrible and more preposterous than any punchline in drummer joke history.

The movie skips ahead a couple of decades, when Fish -- looking much the same except for his shorter haircut and short-sleeved business shirt and tie -- is working in an office, despising every minute. Again, the movie doesn't pull punches: his associates are nerds with precious little sense of how to interact socially, going so far as to insist he listen to the new Vesuvius CD as loudly as they can crank it on their desktops (it's unclear how the metal band has remained in the distribution loop for 20 years, though the fact that these are nerds-for-fans might explain their enthusiasm). No matter how agonized Fish's face, they barely notice, though his broad mugging provides for yet a few more seconds of visual gaggery: yes yes, we see, Fish remains stuck in child-gear, still resenting the betrayal and still harboring dreams (somewhat submerged beneath his abjection) of sitting at a kit again.

Lo! he gets his chance when his nephew Matt (Josh Gad) unexpectedly needs a drummer. Living with his sister Lisa (reliable Jane Lynch) and her family, Fish is to this point the loser uncle. When Matt's emo-ish band, ADD, picked to play at their high school prom, suddenly loses their drummer (he's grounded), Fish suggests he can fill in. After a rehearsal, Matt and his mates -- frontman Curtis (pop singer Teddy Geiger) and Amelia (Emma Stone) -- agree. He is, after all, from Vesuvius.

Seizing his day, Fish determines to get the band a real gig (this especially after he mucks up the prom performance, drumming "In Your Eyes" into heavy overdrive). They begin to catch on when Matt's pesky little sister Violet (Samantha Weinstein) posts a video to the web, a video that shows Fish in his altogether while rehearsing and eating Chinese food, rather grotesquely. Though the "Naked Drummer" is surely a lame drummer jokes, the film uses it, for a minute anyway, to satirize the silliness of web-fame (three words: "Leave Britney alone!"). It's not long, however, before the satire leads to mushier fare. The band achieves a kind of success, initiated by the arrival on Lisa's front doorstep of the unctuous record executive David Marshall (Jason Sudekis), for whom no compliment is too audacious or meaningless (i.e., "John Lennon is rolling over in his grave to hide the giant boner you just gave him!").

Fish convinces the parents of all the kiddies to allow them to go on the road under his chaperoning, at least until he indulges in his long-delayed dream of drinking until he pukes and trashing hotel rooms -- on the record label's dime. Here the film shifts gears a bit, as Curtis' mom, Kim (Christina Applegate), herself a former rocker, joins the traveling party. She serves as love interest for Fish, though the fact that she's his frontman's mother is not just a little yucky. As The Rocker only approaches the expected Jack-Black-Will-Ferrellish level of repulsiveness occasionally (it also keeps a toe in the ultra-nice That Thing You Do! water), it's not clear how this romance is supposed to work. Though they enjoy some late night Guitar Hero, they hardly seem suited. After Kim speechifies about becoming an adult when she learned she was pregnant (as opposed to her immature boyfriend at the time), it becomes clear her attraction to Fish is purely formulaic -- she's supposed to make him into an adult, but she's obviously too cool for him.

While such disparity is par for the drummer joke course, The Rocker is almost salvaged by the charming performances of its actual youngsters (as opposed to the adults doing youngster shtick). The combination of Geiger's vulnerable boy and Stone's acerbic girl is more or less balanced by Gad's earnest intelligence (though his eventual girlfriend seems an afterthought, as everyone else pairs off). More significantly, though, they function as if they're in a real movie even as they are asked time and again to react to Fish's foolishness. Increasingly a distraction in a movie that's supposed to be about him, Fish becomes the drummer joke.


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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