Music

Tinariwen: Aman Iman

Tinariwen: (left to right) Eyadou, Abdallah, Said, Hassan, Ibrahim, Bassa, Intidao [Photo: Thomas Dorn]

Tinariwen plays rock guitar with a rangy American sound, broad and lazy and slow.


Tinariwen

Aman Iman

Contributors: Independiente
Label: World Village
US Release Date: 2007-03-20
UK Release Date: Available as import
France release date: 2007-02-05
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The latest issue of Songlines has a photograph of Tinariwen on the cover. Ibrahim ag Alhabib gets to stand at the front, as usual, because he has the most rock 'n' roll hair in the group. This hair is a big, bushy mass, a respectable explosion of curls, hair that could go rasta overnight if it wanted to. The band says that it turned from warfare to music in order to bring attention to its people, the Tuaregs, who have been displaced from their nomadic patch in the Sahara, but I imagine Ibrahim ag Alhabib's glorious head of hair looking disdainfully around at its desert milieu, the sand, the guns, and muttering in its owner's ear: "I am wasted here. We must go into show business." And so a band was born.

The headline across the photograph runs like this: "Tinariwen. Is Rock 'n' Roll Ready?" I'm not sure that rock 'n' roll cares. Oh, people will listen to the album and then they'll talk about Ali Farka Touré and then they'll say, "Desert blues, it's desert blues, you know, like real blues but different, because the people are singing in Saharan or something," and then they'll purse their lips and nod thoughtfully, but rock on the whole will wander on as if Tinariwen had never existed.

The world music press sometimes has a fascination with the idea of mainstream genres and mainstream album sales. It's as if the Top 40 is behind a window and here's world music with its nose pressed against the glass, watching people throw money at Nickelback and Norah Jones. "Why not us?" it sighs. It doesn't seem healthy, this attitude of deprivation, the sad eyes hanging out on stalks, always looking for something magical -- the breakthrough song! The band that the mainstream world notices! Amasskoul, Tinariwen's last album, attracted admiring reviews in the kinds of magazines that usually discuss English-language bands, but Amasskoul didn't do The Great Thing: it didn't Break Through. It was loved, though. One commentator said that he found it monotonous, like sand dunes rolling on and on and on, but, overall, it was loved.

Aman Iman is more of the same, with a grimier, sharper focus. It won't necessarily Break Through but that doesn't stop it being very good.

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib [Photo: Alioune Ba]

The group plays rock guitar with a rangy American sound, broad and lazy and slow. You can see where the "desert blues" tag comes from. The rhythm isn't the same as blues but the mood is similar. It's a downbeat downslide with an optimistic twitch of salt at the end of each twang. The downward movement says, "Sadness", then the Vegemite twang adds, "Never say die." But the trot of the guitar is not a trot that's familiar to blues. It's the lurch-up lurch-down gait of a camel. There's at least one other place where the music of the local nomads moves with the same step as their favourite riding animal, and that's Tuva. You can tell music from that area because it runs like a horse. Listen to Yat-Kha. Even when it's doing a stormy, mostly-English rock song like "Come Along", you can hear the horses in there, galloping away.

Tinariwen never sounds like that. It can do rock and Yat-Kha can do rock but they'll both be different rocks because of that camel and that horse. And this is one of the reasons why listening to music in a foreign language is about more than being tantalised by words you don't understand. It shows you a difference between people who have traditionally ridden camels and people who have traditionally ridden horses and people from countries where cars have taken over for generations -- long enough to affect the music -- and then they make "Jesus Built My Hot Rod", by Ministry, which is an excellent song.

Tinariwen: (left to right) Said, Hassan, Eyadou, Bassa, Ibrahim, Intidao, Abdallah [Photo: Thomas Dorn]

The other thing about Tinariwen is that they clap. They rarely use drums. Instead, they have this clapping. The clap is their percussion, their time-keeper. The clap is their most obvious link to Tartit, another Tuareg band that has been getting some press recently. Tartit loves the clap. The members of Tartit are almost all women, which makes them sort of the chick Tinariwen, or Tinariwen the bloke version of Tartit. Tartit embraces the traditional clap and downplays the modern guitars. Tinariwen balances the two together. They unite the old local music and the modern foreign music with unusual skill. They bring a rock music dirtiness into their songs too: the guitar note that grinds itself into the mud at the start of "Clar Achel", the way the singer's voice lingers and goes rusty during "63", a song about the 1963 rebellion in which Ibrahim ag Alhabib's father died. They don't make the mistake of associating modern foreign music with cleanliness, as some groups do.

At the root of their music, and the music of Tartit as well, is the massed trance-chant. It gives Tinariwen's songs a denseness that you rarely hear in English-language rock. It also leaves them with that sand-dune sound. (The dry chant seems to be common currency across the globe: it's one of the reasons why Australian Aboriginal music struggles to update its musical traditions and get them out into the wider world. How do you unite a long, flat chant and a short pop song?) This is not music that deals briskly in verse-chorus-verse. Each song is an ecosystem that bubbles up and down, beetles crawling under the mulch, trilling noises breaking out and then subsiding, a drum (for once) in the background murmuring toom toom.

Tinariwen is not the only Tuareg group out there, but when it comes to uniting rock music with local traditions, they're the most advanced. They rock, they clap. They might even Break Through. You never know.

8

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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