Music

Various Artists: Musicians for Minneapolis

Timothy Gabriele

Fifty-seven artists line-up semi-alphabetically to salute those affected by the Minneapolis bridge disaster last year.


Various Artists

Musicians for Minneapolis

Subtitle: 57 Songs for the I-35W Bridge Disaster Relief Effort
Label: Electro-Voice
US Release Date: 2008-03-04
UK Release Date: Unavailable
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One of the biggest fears I have at the moment is that I will judge the Musicians for Minneapolis album, a benefit for the I-35W bridge collapse, too harshly and suffer the same fate as its tribute subjects. I have an hour-long morning commute from Philadelphia to the suburbs to get to my job. The start of my ride involves traversing one of South Philadelphia's notoriously ill-kept bridges, which wobbles with heavy traffic flow and regularly logjams cars by way of the stoplights on each side. For the past week or so, I've sat in my car hovering over the Schuylkill River trying to find something good to say about this intensive collection of 57 songs from artists all over the world, hoping a few discriminating words won't be mistaken as a total reprobation of the cause.

Truth be told, when I heard the news of the I-35W Bridge incident, I was a bit relieved that the disaster claimed only a small number of casualties (13 of potentially hundreds). It made me feel a little more confident that I might perhaps make it out of such an incident alive were it to occur. Nevertheless, I remain undeniably tense on my morning commute thanks in no small part to the inevitabilities promised by Minneapolis's I-35W Bridge, the New Orleans levees, and the U.S.'s political indifference towards the massive New Deal-style public works project needed to reverse years of infrastructure deregulation, procrastination, and incompetence.

Like this hypothetical public works project, Musicians for Minneapolis: 57 Songs for the I-35W Bridge Disaster Relief Effort is an enormous undertaking. The three discs that comprise Musicians for Minneapolis are being released by Electro-Voice, which is not so much a record label as it is a professional audio equipment manufacturer. Despite their technologic namesake, Electro-Voice's compilers relied heavily on guitar-centric music for the tribute. One gets the impression that that the compilers found the unreleased Steve Vai track to be the tribute's ultimate catch, hence its appearance in coda as the final track of disc three.

Despite this six-string parochialism, the album takes a global rainbow approach to its sonics, providing an umbrella under which artists from all walks of life are welcome and perform side by side in -- get this -- an alphabetical-by-artist tracklisting.

Well, sorta. This self-regulating procedure is violated several times for what one can only speculate are reasons of continuity. Yet it still pits Terry Evans's gritty blues next to the psychedelic squeal of a very Syd Barrett sounding Faust (on perhaps the most commercial song in the band's history), which gives way to the upbeat ska of Fishbone. The dramatic and frequent stylistic shifts, which ebb and flow not only between genres but entire cultures of music listeners, beg the question: what the hell do any of these artists have in common beyond the fact that they all may have once crossed a bridge?

Surely, from a sales perspective, this album would do better had it been released on three separate discs pairing the most likeminded artists together. Most people skipping through the numbers on Musicians for Minneapolis won't be interested in roughly two CDs' worth of the material featured. It seems unlikely fans of the proto-nu-metal skronk of Helmet are going to "discover" the sentimentalist country ballads of Rockie Lynne, and vice versa. Maybe the compilers figured that support for the cause alone would move copies of the set off the shelves, and if they packed enough music onto it, most listeners would find something they liked.

Lynne's album opener, "The Chance to Say Goodbye", which was penned for this album, is a lurchingly saccharine tug for the heart strings, echoing the endless drippy requiems written in the wake of 9/11. But perhaps the clues to Musicians for Minneapolis's peculiar diversity lie in Lynne's verse, where he mourns the victims by cherishing their anonymity, suggesting that a tragedy like this could befall any of us, from any walk of life, of any musical persuasion.

Lynne's is not the only song in this package to deal with loss. If there is a thematic undertone to the lyrics of the work featured here, it's that of overcoming diversity, being dealt a blow and pushing through it. Spaced throughout the discs are verses like "As long as you're breathing / This'll get better", "I can't manage / The damage", "When I get to heaven / I'll be asking about you", and "There's got to be a better way / We try hard to keep it / Moving along". These sentiments offer little more than the equivalent of a nature poster with an inspirational quote on it in terms of encouragement, but it's hard to doubt that this version of philanthropy, the attempts to encapsulate loss in 4/4 time, especially among the local artists, is sincere.

Many of these songs come from oft-ignored enclaves of the musical critical complex: knee-slappin' bluegrass, public domain style pop-rock, anti-syncopation pop-country, folk muzak, inoffensive Barnes and Noble-style world music, lounge jazz, small-town rockabilly, and Christian rock. Still, much of it sounds apropos to music on an album produced by an audio equipment company. The sound is undeniably crisp, but more often than not the music sounds flat, the arrangements feel trite, and the lyrics are generally a hair short of obvious.

Unfortunately, the "established" artists rarely exceed these low standards. Nearly all of the recognizable names present plucked a tune off their latest disc and plopped it onto the album, passing that off as a contribution. Dick Dale even drags out a jangly surf-rock ditty that has been around for 46 years. One of the album's scarce new tracks is a collaboration between two of the most influential and batshit insane minds that ever put their brains to a mixing board, Lee "Scratch" Perry and George Clinton. What a rare opportunity this could have been had both of them not phoned it in.

And where are all the hometown heroes? Where is Prince? Bob Mould? Paul Westerberg? Tapes N' Tapes? If no b-sides were floating around, surely they too could be troubled to select a track of each of their most current albums and give it to a noble cause. If Dylan, formatively of the Twin Cities folk scene, can throw together a rarities disc for Starbucks, why not for folks who got trapped under thousands of tons of concrete?

Compilations of this sort are rarely the breeding grounds for experimentation and growth, but practically none of the artists here are in peak form. Howie Gelb and Calexico deliver their corresponding brands of the folk odyssey, but neither deliver much in terms of drama or reach. Red House Painters and Sun Kill Moon's Mark Kozelek delivers an adequately and suitably somber take on the pop standard "Send in the Clowns", but he doesn't work the same magic on it that he did on Red House Painters' recordings of Kiss's "Shock Me" and the Cars' "All Mixed Up". I guess we should just be thankful he didn't take on "Bridge Over Troubled Water".

Critters Buggin toss the 12 year old "Bill Gates" into the stew. It's fairly fun and wild, but the mix places too much emphasis on the vocals for the tribal drums and sax blurts to freak out as much they desire. Vocalist Doc Britton grasps the microphone like a radio announcer advertising the apocalypse, his megaphone spouting gibberish more insanely paranoid than Alex Jones's in Waking Life.

This is immediately proceeded by Gary Burger's even crazier nonsense in his collaborative update of the Monks' "Monk Time" with digital hardcore pioneer Alec Empire. The Iraq era-rendition doesn't have nearly the same force, not to mention the historical proto-punk singularity, of the song cut when Burger was an American G.I. stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. His classic jibe "James Bond, who is he?" is here transformed to "George Bush, who is he?" In this context, the Bush question seems to translate to "who does he think he is?" whereas the Bond version seems to reveal a kind of cultural revulsion, not to mention a proud obliviousness. Still, the new version probably scares the shit out of anybody looking for healing tomes in the midst of the surrealist anarchy Burger extols.

For others though, Burger's warfare is exactly what they need. Why strain the panic and confusion of recovery though with such an overall convoluted mess of a set? All the license plates adorning Musicians for Minneapolis's cover were more than likely listening to different radio stations when they crossed that bridge. Had they been incessantly tuning the dial back and forth though, we may have lost more of them.

3

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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