Paul van Dyk: Global

Matt Cibula

Paul Van Dyk


Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2003-02-11
UK Release Date: Available as import

The kind of techno music called trance, in the hands of Paul Oakenfold and other similar artists, is incredibly unpopular right now with a lot of critics and DJs who see it as facile and cookie-cutter and ho-hum and so-what and who-cares. It is supposed, by these haters, that anyone with ProTools and a glowstick could produce a serviceable trance track. Too safe, too easy, they say, too derivative, too boring.

But these criticisms don't mean much to ravers in Ibiza or Goa or Milwaukee or anywhere else that large numbers of sweaty young pierced people shake their well- and barely-clad asses. To the kids in the clubs, trance is fun and cool and great, because it's got a good beat and you can dance to it, and also because it's got a certain ingrained Dark Side of the Moon/"Blue Monday" psychedelia to it that makes it interesting and trippy. And isn't that what it's all about?

Paul van Dyk doesn't really want any part of this controversy. He claims that he doesn't make trance music. I guess I disagree, slightly, because I think a lot of his stuff sounds A LOT like trance, except maybe more layered and gentler and a good bit more beautiful than the other stuff I've heard. But I always want to give the artist some latitude in not fitting into little critical boxes. So let's say it like this:

Global collects 13 van Dyk tracks, each remixed for this release by him, and puts them all together in a continuous mix twice, once on a regular old music CD and then again (in Dolby 5.1 surround sound) on a DVD, together with video footage for every single song and a whole tractor-trailer-load of extras. The songs range from interesting and cool to blah and by-the-numbers, the footage hops from self-aggrandizing and boring to beautiful and big-hearted. It's all very precise and perfectly done, if you like that sort of thing.

Which I do, kind of. Trance is, for me, hard to hate: it's just too genial and cute for that. Van Dyk's oeuvre is just so . . . adorable! Things start off with "We Are Alive," probably his biggest hit, in a majorly remixed version that takes out virtually all the content from the verses and points everything towards the ecstatic chorus. The synths punch away in modified house style, the perfectly recorded drum patterns slip in and out of Big Beat, and the heart cannot help but sing along: "We're aliiiiiive!" And then boom, before you know it we've transitioned into the spacey krautrocky "Seven Ways" and nothing stops for the next 71-plus minutes.

These tracks are all pretty well overhauled, remix-wise, so they all at least sound good, and they flow together nicely, too. I'm not saying that van Dyk is incredibly technically precise because he's German or anything . . . but damn is he on point with every single beat. Even the tracks that don't really work for me at all are well-nigh impeccable in their structure; although "Forbidden Fruit" seems pretty formulaic and cynical in its Windham Hill-ish synth washes, you still have to appreciate the fact that the bass drum pattern replicates the typical house piano rhythm with amazing precision and distinct sound design.

What Global really proves, to me, is that it took van Dyk a while to find his true voice. All the early stuff included here, from the music box plug-and-play-ism of "A Magical Moment" to the "wow check out my computer" generic thumpery of "Words" off the Seven Days album, seems aimless and opportunistic to me -- hey, just because you have a really good copy machine doesn't mean you're creating something worthwhile.

But the tracks from the Out There and Back LP definitely stand out. "Beautiful Place" and "Together We Will Conquer" are both kinda darkcore and Kraftwerkian in their intentions, while still pushing all those pleasure-center buttons with the throaty breathy sighs of van Dyk's wife Natascha. I truly dig this mix of the St. Etienne collaboration "Tell Me Why (The Riddle)," which brings the disco funk and the laptop sine-wave trickle-downs for a minute and a half before introducing Sarah Cracknell's sad little voice: "The morning comes / And snow is falling" is really probably the perfect thing for Ms. Cracknell to sing, n'est ce pas? I'm not quite sure what happened to suddenly give van Dyk a new sense of urgency with these songs, but I'm glad it did: there is a little soul here, by god, a little soul and some feel for the human emotions that can't be found as easily in the earlier tracks.

The two new pieces bode pretty well for the future, too. On "Animacion," from the soundtrack to the Mexican movie Zurdo, it actually gets hard to predict where the chord structure is going to go next, and those menacing little hornet-synths are fun fun fun no matter how many techno acts throw them randomly into the mix. And the fakey sitars on the lengthy breakdown are a nice Spinal Tap touch. And the album closer, "My World," is a total decepticon track: here, it's almost like he's sending himself up with that initial Doris Day chipper melody, especially when it turns into an inside-out New Order tribute/homage/ripoff. A sense of humor in a van Dyk track? That could only augur well.

Now, about the DVD: it's incredible. Splendid interface, tons of extras (including five of his original videos, interview segments with PvD and his obsessed fans around the world), easy to use, etc. But the bulk of the program consists of a 76-minute program of video to accompany every single song. Some of it -- including a three-track stretch right in the middle -- is largely lifted from other van Dyk videos, which allows one to actually see the beauteous and sultry Natascha van Dyk, and to get a glimpse of her husband's bland good looks. (Think a thinner smarter version of Greg from "The Bachelorette.") But most of the Global DVD features images shot during van Dyk's extensive world touring schedule. Hence, I think, the name of the collection; we get to see the cityscapes of San Francisco and NYC and Bangkok and Mexico City and Miami all kind of blended together and juxtaposed, compared/contrasted, and it's cute in an idealistic "we are the world" sort of way.

So if you think that video of wildly coiffed Japanese punker kids on the street juxtaposed with footage of PvD mixing things up at a Tokyo club goes well with nice easy little techno songs, then you'll be in heaven. Me, I still can't get over the whole self-aggrandizement "oh wow isn't life wonderful when you're a big famous DJ" thing (like in the segment for "Beautiful Place" where he starts out in Berlin for Christopher Street Day and then flies to Northampton, England, for a night gig at the Gatecrasher Festival)…but then again the footage IS really kind of cool in an easy-going way, and it's not like van Dyk himself is going around acting like he thinks he's hot shit, either.

Maybe he should or something, I dunno. But I think he seems pretty endearing in all his (silent) video appearances, and he's incredibly German and earnest in all the interview segments, and none of his music would hurt a damn fly. Overall, I'm getting all kinds of nice happy feelings from this CD/DVD by PvD.

As to how many times I'll actually listen to it or watch it when this review is over, I dunno.

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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