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No Sikth Please, We're British

Simon Warner

What happens when high culture meets low, high art meets popular, establishment meets street, funded meets fundless? At Fuse, it's a culture clash.

What happens when a nu metal band wanders on to the stage of a prestigious festival focusing on art and experimental music? A little bit of pandemonium is the answer as an appearance by rockers Sikth at Fuse, a five-day jamboree of contemporary and jazz music in early March, held in the northern English city of Leeds.

Fuse, the event, was meant to stand for musical marriage: the coming together of styles, the fusion of contrasts, the intermingling of voices. On this occasion it had more to do with sparks followed by fireworks as some members of the crowd threatened to sue for damages after Sikth turned the amplifiers up and shattered the relatively mellow calm.

Apart from a mass walk-out within the first couple of numbers, the management of the West Yorkshire Playhouse had to deal with a volley of criticism, even litigious threats, even before the group had completed their set. By the interval the bar was buzzing with the fall-out from a performance that reminded the gathering that rock'n'roll has rarely toed the line of discreet convention.

Sikth comes from Watford, close to London, and has garnered a reputation for a tight, taut rock style that incorporates both spoken word and precisely syncopated tempo changes. Their sound is reminiscent of jazz rather than rock, but with an emphasis on volumes at the upper end. Sikth came to the attention of Fuse¹s artistic director Django Bates, a prodigiously talented jazz composer and arranger who was keen to ensure that the festival's doors were open to as many musical shades as possible.

In the end, scheduling saw Sikth allocated as the support act to Bates; own showcase gig with his band Human Chain, a highly acclaimed four-piece augmented by a string quartet and a dazzling vocal talent, the Swede Josefine Lindstrand. The headline act's music moves smoothly from chamber music to swing, pop to bop, chart to art, in a manner that is both ambitious, adventurous yet strangely accessible.

The furore that accompanied the Sikth performance could have been predicted, perhaps, but the storm in the teacup was more interesting for what it symbolised than the brief eruption of anger it triggered. The dispute vividly exemplified the enduring gap between different musical terrains: that cultural no man's land where high meets low, art meets popular, establishment meets street, funded meets fundless.

Britain was once dubbed the land without music. The nation that gave the world Shakespeare has long been regarded a literary oasis rather than a symphonic one, but there has been, nonetheless, a post-war tradition of supporting composers who work on the innovative fringe. The Arts Council, the UK's public grant-awarding committee, has backed the cause of experimental in music with reasonable dedication, certainly since the 1960s. Not that it's efforts turned British audiences on to ground-breaking musical works en masse. Orchestras remain tied to more traditional repertoires — the classical, the romantic, the Beethovian, the Mozartian — and, no matter how far a conductor wants to break with the ties of the past and showcase challenging new pieces, there is an all too fine line between imaginative policy and the harsh facts of the box office. Just as modernism was the sophisticated obsession of a minority, its stylistic heirs are fawned over by a minute percentage of the population.

However, there are places and spaces when the shock of the new can be experienced. The best example is the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which happens each autumn and gathers composers, musicians and their followers for a concentrated taste of this highly refined elixir. Work by Cage and Reich, Luciano Berio and Gavin Bryars often features on the menu. Jazz has also latched on to Huddersfield's coat tails, and Tim Berne's Science Friction opened the 2003 festival.

Meanwhile popular music — particularly rock and pop — almost inevitably falls outside the parameters of regional or state backing. Would-be indie acts and punk combos, metal groups and funk outfits, even girl groups and boy bands, are regarded as sturdy enough to stand on their own feet without the aid of government coffers. This may be the result of fierce economic reasoning or mere historical snobbery. After all, the UK is reckoned to have 40,000 bands at any one time looking for a deal. Even if a group signs on the dotted line, major labels tend assume that only one out of 20 will make any kind of profit. So rock, in itself, is actually no licence to print money.

While bands with an ethnic dimension — say, reggae, maybe, bhangra — occasionally attract some subsidy, possibly for a festival or carnival with a black or Asian theme, the pop styles that have littered the charts and concert halls for the last few decades are regarded as unworthy of funding as they are expected to operate under the harsh rules of sink-or-swim capitalism. But there are anomalies to this received wisdom. The night after Sikth generated a rumpus among a small portion of the gathered customers, an American band, with impeccable indie credentials headlined. Sometimes, an overseas act can convince even the establishment that rock values and experimental ethics are not mutually exclusive.

Yo La Tengo, who have been spreading their eclectic gospel from a base of New Jersey for almost 20 years, turned in a storming set to a packed house, with Ira Kaplan's spell-binding leadership taking his trio and the audience through a dizzying tour of punk, funk, rock and jazz, suggesting Hendrix one minute, the Velvets next and New Order the minute after. This tour de force, sometimes polemic, sometimes richly comic, was not destined to be lost to the ether of a Yorkshire Saturday night. BBC Radio 3, the nation's bastion of serious broadcasting, was not only a key sponsor of Fuse but it was also on hand to record the Yo La Tengo set for future broadcast.

For Gorky's Zygotic Minci, the support act of the night, it came as some surprise that Radio 3's branding was evident in the theatre. The lead singer of the long-serving and reputable Welsh indie group expressed some shock that the BBC's high art station had anything to do with the evening's proceedings. Not that this homegrown band were to be featured for transmission; only the visiting Americans would enjoy that accolade.

In short, the excellent Fuse festival drew attention to the contradictions that continue to haunt the British arts. Popular music, occasionally a useful political hook — for example, when Prime Minister Tony Blair pinned his colours to the Cool Britannia associations of Britpop during the mid-1990s — is generally relegated to the shadows when so-called "real culture" is being assessed. Django Bates had the courage to give Sikth a shot on an alien stage, but the feedback from the customers confirmed that the canyon between high and low practices remains, sadly, wider than one would hope..

*The title of this column is a play on a popular play, No Sex Please, We're British.

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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