Books

The Second Plane by Martin Amis

Michael Noble

Assuming the 21st century began precisely at 2 WTC, Manhattan. 09:02am, September 11th 2001, these 11 essays and two stories are a chronological tour through Amis’ post 9/11 worldview.


The Second Plane

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 1400044545
Author: Martin Amis
Price: $24.00
Length: 24
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-04
Amazon

Examined backwards, history can be doggedly imprecise. The 20th century can claim to have started with Jack the Ripper in 1888, in 1901 with the death of Queen Victoria, or in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That century’s successor, still young, has already had several birth announcements.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the advent of the World Wide Web, the accession of George W Bush. Contenders? Sure, but still merely runners-up. From the perspective of the present day, the birth of the 21st century can be traced to a single location, a single time and a single event.

This locus is where Martin Amis titles his new collection of essays: 2 WTC, Manhattan. 09:02am, September 11th 2001. That precise moment when America realized that the panic and fear already streaming out of New York was not the accidental result of “the worst aviation disaster in history”, but an intentionally dreadful and deliberate assault on her complacency.

What follows are 11 essays and two stories that amount to a chronological tour through Amis’ post 9/11 worldview, as it developed over the following six years. In the first piece, written immediately after the attacks, the author’s stunned awe is palpable. Pondering his feelings at the time, Amis claims that he “first felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear.”

The fear lingered. And, after rubbernecking at the causes and effects, it deepened and it widened. Amis’ early hope may have been that Afghanistan would be bombarded ‘not with cruise missiles, but consignments of food”, but this wish would soon be consumed by anxiety. His fear of Islamism has now matured enough for him to consider it in terms of absolute enmity. Writing in 2006, he recalls the face of a guard at the Dome of the Rock, as “a mask…saying that killing me, my wife and my children was something for which he now had warrant”.

We’ve been here before of course. In his 1987 essay, "Thinkability", Amis’ fear of nuclear war, and specifically, of surviving it, led him to conclude that his first duty in such an event would be to “find and kill his wife and children”. The considered threat to his family is not the only connection between Amis’ current alarm and his earlier dread of nuclear Armageddon. One detects in both of them a menacing thrill in the possibility of the end of the world and particularly in being around to see it. And which dealer in narratives wouldn’t want a ringside seat for that? Amis certainly fancies a ticket or, as he puts it “If September 11 had to happen, I’m not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime”.

A similar thrill is in evidence in the piece "On the Move with Tony Blair", in which the author travels through London, Washington, Belfast and Baghdad with the then soon to be ex-Prime Minister. Amis delights at the mechanisms of power, even at the particulars made necessary by modernity -- the heavy door of the armoured limo; the corps of bodyguards; the sequestered city centre traffic. This sort of high-level, personal access is highly coveted by journalists, and is extended only to a very few. Such excellent advantages can be won by a prominent reputation. And Amis’ reputation is one of the most prominent that there is.

His early career at the New Statesman notwithstanding, this reputation was built on his capacity for fiction. There are two-and-a-bit pieces of fiction in The Second Plane (the fraction is the incomplete novella The Unknown Known, described and analysed here within the context of an essay). It is perhaps a mark of the subject at hand that makes these two pieces among the most disappointing in the book. Amis admits that the September attacks, and the context in which they happened, made writers of fiction abandon their works to take up temporary careers as journalists. Events in the real world were so "real", so immediate, that writers found their own imaginations wanting.

This may be true for Amis, at least. The stories in The Second Plane are among the weakest offerings in the book. In the Palace of the End, a bleak horror story, rehearses the familiar Amis theme of thwarted masculinity. A parody of the torture palace of a Saddam-like dictator, it charts the old tropes of the male; the infliction and stoic endurance of industrial-grade pain; marathon virility and the shame provoked by its failure, while placing the protagonist in a situation that resembles little more than a macho harem. For the lead character, one of many ‘doubles’ of the dictator’s son, the loss of identity is an emasculation. Less than a man; a concubine of agony.

The Last Days of Muhammad Atta, imagines the missing hours of the hijacker of the first plane to hit the WTC, and paints another forlorn picture of a repressed and sad man, this one led by his inadequacy to commit the worst imaginable atrocity. The inspiration for this is clearly Sayyid Qutb, the ‘father of Islamism’, whose book, Milestones, is described here as the “Mein Kampf of Islamism”. For Amis, Qutb is a curious figure, another repressed and backwards male, who, prevented from directing his urges in the usual directions, diverts them into a millenarial ideology resembling “an abbatoir within a madhouse”.

In his closing piece, Amis allows a brief digression on the term ‘9/11’ itself. It may be snappy and modern, and replete with a double relevance for the emergency services involved, but it is still far from ideal. While terms like ‘Fourth of July’ and the ‘October Revolution’ carry a certain gravitas, an abbreviated date seems somehow inadequate -- too offhand, too simple. But it will do for now. For who are we to give that event an honest name? We don’t yet know the real context under which to understand it.

It may have been the birth event of the 21st century, but we still don’t have any idea what will follow. We may have the luxury of time, but we don’t yet have its perspective. We still live here.

6

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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