Film

What If They Didn't Report the Box Office Figures... and Nobody Cared

For many, the lack of an 'official' box office result will mean very little this week. Considering what it does and does not represent, it should have never really mattered in the first place.

It was stunning news. In light of the horrible events that played out at Midnight, 20 July, in a crowded Colorado movie theater, Warner Brothers made the decision to not report box office totals for its Summer tentpole release, The Dark Knight Rises. While many believed the final installment in Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise would easily come close or match the huge returns of May's The Avengers, the studio felt it would be insensitive and inappropriate to discuss earnings with so many dead and hurting. It was a smart move for a company concerned about both the safety of the public and its own bottom line. Without numbers to toss around (though some outlets are playing the estimate game), the tragedy in Aurora is sparred another senseless media scar (Warners will, on second thought, release some information today, Monday).

Indeed, over the last few days, both Nolan and his work of cinematic art have been the subject of so much pointless speculation that the truth -- one crazy young man committed a horrific act of mass murder -- is getting lost... or at the very least, micromanaged for maximum ratings points. Websites post science fair video of the alleged killer, trying to read something into his button down nerd persona. The 'Net goes even further, investigating his life to the point where profiles on Match.com and some pseudo-swingers site have become some manner of anecdotal evidence. As the police dismantle an apartment full of booby traps and families begin the difficult process of healing, Warners wants none of the attention marketing success might bring. The Dark Knight Rises will be fine, financially. No need to celebrate such a triumph at this time.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about this move is how unprecedented it really is. Ever since the late '80s, when high concept movies regularly broached the $100 blockbuster benchmark, box office results have been a part of the regular news cycle. Between wars in far off lands and political turmoil at home, Monday morning talking heads highlighted the weekend's "winners", success always signified by dollar signs instead of critical or creative consensus. With each proceeding phenomenon, the box office results became more and more 'significant'. Outlets looking for scoops became prime candidates to cart out the studio's scientific 'estimates'. The fact that said statements had to, on occasion, be modified to reflect real attendance over the three/four/five day period became nothing more than a speed bump in the race to declare an entertainment victor.

As media has become more and more democratized, such an obsession makes sense. We cattle like to feel as if we are part of the herd, and the box office results are our veiled vox populi. We measure ourselves against the popularity of what's playing at our local Cineplex, arguing for our own aesthetic appreciation when something unconscionable (usually the latest from some soon to burn out flavor of the month) makes it all the way to the top. Of course, we don't take certain givens into our collective complaints. Almost any family film, unless it is truly god awful, will swallow up significant weekend numbers for the mere fact that parents need a place to stash their spoiled, subjectively entitled kids for a good 80 minutes. Add in a true brand like Disney, Pixar, or Shrek, and the returns are a review-proof guarantee.

The popcorn part of this is no different. This year, we had three major superhero films vying for end of Summer superiority. Of the three, only The Amazing Spider-man was a legitimate question mark. Since it was a reboot, without any real significant star power and an unknown action quantity behind the lens (Marc Webb), it could have gone either way. But The Avengers had fanboy fave Joss Whedon, and an entire back catalog of ersatz epics to work with. And Batman... well, enough said. Still, there's a given in the movie biz, a basic quantification that continuously confuses and frustrates those of us who cover it. Michael Bay can be lambasted from here to Pearl Harbor over his lack of subtlety and flagrant ADD bombast, and yet each one of his Transformer films made a mint.

Besides, all box office reporting is uniformly flawed in one chief way -- it fails to take into consideration the international impact on the overall result. Think that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was a lesser installment in the lagging franchise? Maybe even a bomb? Think again. While it made a mere $204 million in North America, it earned a staggering $800 million overseas. That makes this otherwise mediocre mess a member of the elite Billionaires club. Similarly, Battleship may have flopped in American theaters, but in other places around the planet it managed to make close to $250 million (the total now eclipses $300 million). As you can see, such bean counting is never an indication of actual quality.

What it is, however, is a barometer, a quick cultural meter of what we embrace, and what we reject. It's a tired talking point, a means of avoiding both conflict and abject individuality. The box office results literally mean nothing in the grand scheme of things (Tyler Perry consistently opens films, but the end result is never a massive commercial contender) and have lead to more wrong conclusions than right (as mentioned before). No, it's a false badge of honor, a holdover from when Hollywood had to battle back against the upstart Independents, increasing pay TV choices, and the overriding influence of the Internet. Now, it's something to note in a post-weekend aside, an indicator of popularity and marketing push, nothing more.

Warners may sense there would have been/will be a symbolic outrage if and when it releases a final total (along with the accompanying commentary from clueless pundits), but what they really want to avoid is next to impossible - the stain of association. No matter what the final tally, The Dark Knight Rises is destined to go down as the movie that inspired/incited a massacre... rightfully or wrongfully. Perhaps, with time, the association will grow thin and then fade away. Until that time, nothing the studio does will alter the current climate. For many, the lack of an 'official' box office result will mean very little this week. Considering what it does and does not represent, it should have never really mattered in the first place.

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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