Brian Wilson

Lou Friedman

If there was poetic justice, this show would have been filled. Hell, this is THE BEACH, yet the amphitheatre was only 1/3 full. It's a blasted shame...

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson

City: Wantagh, NY
Venue: Jones Beach Theater
Date: 2009-08-13

Brian Wilson
There's still four months to go and plenty of concerts to see before we flip the calendar to 2006, but it's pretty safe to say that this humble reviewer has just witnessed the best concert of 2005. And who would have thunk it would come from someone many left for dead (mentally, emotionally and spiritually) a scant five (or was it 30) years back? There was a serious Beatles/Beach Boys rivalry back in the '60s and '70s. The upstart lads from Liverpool crossed the pond and presented a sound unlike any in the lower-48. Meanwhile, on the left coast, five guys who were all about sun, sand, surf, fast cars, and cute girls were leaving their own indelible mark on the American psyche. Both bands had at least one member into TM (Transcendental Meditation for you young'uns) and both went through psychedelic phases, but only the Beatles were able to withstand all that and keep their musical aura strong. The Beach Boys withered under the strain of forging a new direction, and soon, Brian Wilson abandoned the band - and life itself. For years afterwards, the surviving Beach Boys continued to tour, though recordings usually bombed because Brian had been chief songwriter and composer. And, with Mike Love, they still tour under the Beach Boys banner. After over 30 years of wrestling with more issues than one can comfortably conceive, Wilson started to emerge from his shell. He did the odd concert here and there, completely nervous - understandable since, even in the band's hey-day, he hardly ever actually toured with the Beach Boys, citing his notorious nerves. As he resurfaced, he would sing, and sometimes play his keyboards. Last year, Wilson finally released his legendary unfinished masterpiece, SMiLE, a record he began in the '60s and had originally intended to rival Sgt. Pepper, but that fell apart as he himself fell into deep depression. Finally realized and released in '04, SMiLE really is an amazing piece of work, but some listeners have a problem with it because it was intended for release when psychedelic pop was the norm. But if you put yourself in a time capsule and dial back to that era, it's a total blowaway. Wilson decided to tour on SMiLE, and playing a date here and there. The success of the show (along with many positive and kind reviews) gave Wilson the impetus and courage to take on a full-blown tour. Now, he's been on the road for well over a year. The format is the same as the early shows: a set of Beach Boys hits, an intermission, and then the entire SMiLE album performed from start to finish. Now, a year after the album's release, the current tour is nearly the same; the only difference is an encore with five more Beach Boys songs. If there were any type of poetic justice, the Jones Beach Theater would have been filled for this show. It was a humid evening, but bearable, with a breeze blowing in from the ocean. Hell, this was THE BEACH! -- a perfect setting to see Wilson. Yet the 14,600-seat amphitheatre was about 1/3 full, a blasted shame (Tickets upstairs were going for $20, to boot.) And yet Wilson and his band played like there was a full house. And every single person who showed up got more than their money's worth. Wilson's voice is not what it once was, but there were only one or two occasions where you could hear the strain. His band (including a small section of horn and string players) was airtight, giving the music more power and, well, more life. And even though there was only one official "Beach Boy" on stage, if you closed your eyes you'd never have known the difference. Wilson played several hits in the opening segment and a few nuggets as well. The show opened with "Do It Again", bringing the band and the crowd into the proceedings at full speed. There were classic Beach Boys songs ("Dance Dance Dance", "I Get Around", "California Girls") mixed with album cuts ("Add Some Music to Your Day", a Christmas song called "Little St. Nick", "Sail On Sailor"). The SMiLE album takes a lot of effort to create onstage, with all its twists and turns, but Wilson and crew pulled it off without a hitch. Of course, the project included two of the Beach Boys' biggest songs: "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations". Wilson spoke to the crowd only on rare occasions, but every "Thank you" that emanated from his mouth was heartfelt. Encore songs included a rollicking version of "Johnny B. Goode", as well as "Help Me Rhonda", "Barbara Ann", "Surfin' U.S.A.", and "Fun Fun Fun". The enthusiasm and sheer joy on Wilson's face while he was performing spoke volumes about how far he's come along and how grateful he is that there are people still out there who not only remember him, but want to hear him for years on. This is one of those "happy endings" for a career that started off with so much promise, but became caught in the usual drug- and alcohol-related quagmire. It's also a happy ending for those who checked out the show, since Wilson's newfound love of his music spread throughout the sparse crowd.

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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