Music

What'll happen to the Village Voice's voice?

The Village Voice is not only the publication that got me interested in politics but also music journalism- I've been reading it since about 1982. I have them to thank for getting me into freelance writing (like this). I write for them regularly. Thanks to my association with them, I've heard and seen a lot of great music. I also have good friends that work there and have been there for a while. All of which makes me very interested and concerned about their takeover by New Times Media.

My first reaction was to call or e-mail my friends who work at the Voice and its sister publications like Seattle Weekly and City Pages but I wouldn't even know where to start. One Voice writer admitted how angry and scared she is about the whole thing and I'm sure that she's not alone. The memo that was sent around the Voice was cautiously hopeful and they also tried to paint a rosy scenario in a Washington Post piece.

Ominous things were already afoot recently. Earlier this year, even before this merger, the Voice union had a punishing battle with management which resulted in pay cuts for freelancers. Not long before that, the word count was cut for Voice articles so that the idea of a think piece was now pretty laughable- you had to cram more ideas (or less ideas) in a smaller space. In the last year or two, there were other similar battles that resulted in staff layoff's. What's that going to mean when they now will have to butt heads with NMT who don't know the meaning of the word "union"? More job cuts? Articles syndicated across the board, meaning less writing work for all? And what will happen to the famous bleeding heart editorial slant of the Voice? And what about the whole idea of indie media because a national conglom? Most likely, any changes that come won't be seen even after the deal is consummated- they'll likely wait until things have quieted down over time and then slowly implement changes gradually.

Yes, the Voice did survive Rupert Murdoch but while that was a marriage made in Hades, this merger will likely have long-term implications. Village Voice Media and NMT were already closing papers in the Midwest and West Coast recently so that they wouldn't get hit with any Dept. of Justice lawsuits about getting too big for their britches. One argument that VVM and NMT mount about why they need to expand is the same one that the broadcasters use when they want to expand with the FCC's blessing- competition from online media and other sources. Of course, having just a few big players mean that the smaller ones that are still around are going to be fighting for an even smaller plate of scraps now.

Not surprisingly, the reaction in other publications hasn't exactly been enthused. Witness this Boston Phoenix article where several former Voice staffers and media watchers see doom for the alt weekly environs and wonder how this jibes with the whole outsider, indie status that the Voice has proudly manifested for years. Or how about writer/author John Dicker's blog which predicts that the new M.O. will be : "Cut your freelance staff. Keep the writers in-house, except for the film reviews, which are syndicated chainwide. And most significantly: Shrink The Editorial Content." Probably the best reaction I've seen so far is Jeff Chang's blogwhere he likens the merger to Clear Channel's tactics of buying up and turning their properties into soul-less like fiefdoms (i.e. Jack stations).

But is all of this just much ado about zilch? Could it be that the owners' words can be taken somewhat at face value and that Voice and other publications under NTM will retain not only their unique style and attitude but that the people there won't have to suffer any further?

Realistically, that's wishful thinking at best. This is a bruising time for print media. Circulation is suffering, ad revenues are down, cut-backs are ongoing. The idea that a merger like this will mean stronger publications is possible but it also means that it will probably happen at the expense of staff members (literally) and the ever-shrinking content.

Like I said, the real extent of these changes aren't going to be felt for a while but for anyone who values the Voice or any idea of alt-media, there is something you can do. A merger like this happens not out of love but out of mammon so your input is important. Your support or lack thereof is what keeps them going whether it's buying any of them that are still for sale or supporting them with ad dollars or any event that they sponser. If the Voice is still the kind of paper that you've come to love and value 1, 2, 10 years from now, I urge you to keep supporting them. If it's not, then you shouldn't support them.

When an e-mail circulated earlier this year to Voice freelancers about the possibility of an impending strike, they asked us to sign a petition that wouldn't let the parent company use any of our work for a scab publication that they might try to put out. I agreed with them and said that if VVM couldn't reach an agreement with the staff, then I didn't want my past or future work associated with the Voice under such conditions.

If or when the time comes that the paper is at another crossroads, it will be a more slow and insidious juncture but no less crucial. At the time, don't forget why you read and support a publication like the Voice. If they can't earn your respect any more, then there's no reason to keep supporting them. Don't forget to remind them of that either- you can let them know at editor@villagevoice.com what you really think.

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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