Music

Robert Wyatt & Friends: Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974

David Marchese

A rare breed of musician who is forever alive to the possibility of new opportunities and forever blind to the existence of obstacles.


Robertb Wyatt & Friends

Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974

Label: Hannibal
US Release Date: 2005-10-11
UK Release Date: 2005-10-10
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One of the chief complaints about prog rock is that it stifles the playful energy of rock 'n' roll in favor of an emphasis on instrumental virtuosity and compositional sophistication. The fact that words like "compositional sophistication" can even be used in reference to prog rock is probably reason enough to think that the music's enemies may have a point.

While the music of bands like Yes, ELP, and King Crimson can be invigorating and exciting, there's a level of raw emotionality that often gets lost in the maze of tricky rhythms and endless solos. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Robert Wyatt's music falls within the prog camp. His compositions are long and complex, he lets his soloists go on for minutes at a time, and his rhythms are just about undanceable. But as the newly released live album Theatre Royal Drury Lane ably demonstrates, Wyatt's music has a beguiling innocence and emotionality that is rare in any kind of pop music and almost non-existent in prog.

The album (recorded in 1974 but unreleased until now) finds Wyatt at the peak of his powers, as he leads his friends from the English prog scene (including Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and guitar wizards Fred Frith and Mike Oldfield) through his roiling, careening music. That Wyatt was so in control of his musical power is sadly ironic, as the concert the music is taken from marked a major step in his return to music after a 1971 accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Maybe it took that kind of trauma for Wyatt to create music as rich and rewarding as what's on Theatre, but whether or not that's true, the album stands as a high point for listeners looking to explore the musical and emotional possibilities of rock.

Wyatt's ability to blend heartfelt, almost childish sentiment with aggressively challenging music is evident throughout the album. Whether it's his vocal on "Memories", where he improvises an angular, leaping melody with the unpredictable and unrestrained joy of someone discovering his voice for the first time, or the lyrics of "Signed Curtain", which are mostly a description of the parts of the song ('this is the first verse, this is the chorus', etc), Wyatt never lets the muso virtuosity of his supporting musicians overwhelm his own playful fascination with the music. On the aforementioned 'Signed Curtain', Mike Oldfield unleashes a long spiraling solo that might seem self-indulgent in a different setting, but is saved by the fact that Wyatt's own lack of pretension created a musical atmosphere of altruism rather than the selfishness — a problem of too much prog.

The set is dominated by songs from Rock Bottom, Wyatt's first post-accident album, and the performances match, if not better, their studio versions. "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road" provides a Miles/Fusion groove capable of accommodating both Wyatt's own scatting and a thrillingly knotty Hugh Hopper trumpet solo. "Sea Song", a clear-eyed look at the effect of Wyatt's paralysis on his marriage, rises on waves of frantic drumming and sinister synth lines and falls on watery electric piano and Wyatt's warm vocal.

The non-"Rock Bottom" maintain the high level of the rest of the album. Julie Tippetts delivers a crystalline, folky vocal on the stirring "Mind of A Child", and the concluding "I'm A Believer" (a shorter version of which provided Wyatt a small hit in England) extends The Monkees' pop anthem into a rousing, horn-driven seven-and-a-half minute epic, complete with multiple solos, cool tempo shifts, and a circus-music interlude.

More sensitive and compassionate than most prog, and more musically challenging than most pop, Wyatt's music occupies a unique space in the musical landscape. There's simply no one else doing what he did. As Wyatt is a reluctant live performer, Theatre offers the valuable opportunity to hear his music in a non-studio setting. The album is both a welcome addition to Wyatt's catalogue and an indispensable document for anyone interested in that rare breed of musician who is forever alive to the possibility of new opportunities and forever blind to the existence of obstacles.

8

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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