Sunday, June 12, 2011

Let There Be AC-DC

I’ve never made it a secret that my favorite band is AC/DC.  What is not commonly known is that I used to hate them.  I know, right?  Unbelievable.  I blame my brother, Ed.

Actually my brother gets both credit and blame.  He’s the one that “found” them.  Right when he first heard them, he brought home a couple of records, “Highway to Hell,” and “High Voltage.”  Then he played them… over and over again, but only one side.  I would hear those same 4 or 5 songs constantly.  It drove me up the freakin’ wall.  With me, that much repetition will turn me against most any song.  So I dismissed them pretty much flat out.

When I first heard that their singer, Bon Scott, died, my first thought was, “Maybe they’ll stop making those shitty records now.”  For the record, I’m not proud of that moment.

But two events changed everything.  Maybe three… First, I heard “Hell’s Bells,” from their “comeback” album, “Back in Black.”  For the first time, I noticed the powerful riffs and big chorus.  I loved the slow build, starting with the stately bell, no doubt tolling for their fallen singer.  That song opened the door a bit for me.  After that, “You Shook Me” became a huge hit and nobody with ears could deny that it was a practically perfect rock single.

After “Back in Black” came out, they re-released “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”  The title track went straight to rock radio and was all over the airwaves.  AC/DC had a hit with 2 different albums, made in 2 different decades.  I was taken with the pounding drums and lowdown and dirty guitar sound.  Hmmm…

The second thing was that my brother went to see them in concert, up in Detroit at Cobo Hall.  They were on the very beginning of their “For Those About to Rock” tour… in fact that album hadn’t even been released yet.  They were basically playing the songs from their “Back in Black” tour, but closed with “For Those About to Rock.”

Ed came home from that show raving about what he’d seen.  He could barely put it into words.  “He (guitarist Angus Young) keeps going like this (mimicking Angus’s trademark head-bob and scissor-walk) the whole damn show… he never stops…  They had a big bell that came out of the ceiling for Hell’s Bells and these giant cannons for the last song…” He showed me a cannon on the front of his concert jersey.
This is the shirt, now bequeathed to Ed’s son and new AC/DC disciple, Daniel.

Remember that back then, there was no MTV yet and the only music videos were in Europe, or late at night on the Midnight Special.  No one knew what a band was like unless they went to a concert.  My brother has never been one that is easily impressed so if he was that excited about this band, I’d have to give them another look.

My opportunity to do so came shortly after that.  AC/DC release a concert movie called “Let There Be Rock,” shot in Paris with Bon Scott singing on their “Highway to Hell” tour.  I went to see it with my buddy Brill.  It knocked our fucking socks off.  Still best concert movie I have ever seen.

I didn’t know many of the songs; only those my brother had drilled into my head, but it didn’t matter.  I finally understood what AC/DC was about.  Seeing was believing.  This band was incredible and Angus Young was a freak of nature.

Several years later when VHS tapes took hold, I bought a copy of “Let There Be Rock” as soon as it came out.  It was like owning a piece of history.  But over the years, technology changes and dealing with videotapes became cumbersome.  I probably haven’t played my copy in over 10 years.  But this week, “Let There Be Rock” was finally released on DVD/Blu-Ray.  I had it pre-ordered as soon as I heard about it, right along with their latest concert video, “Live at Grand Plate”.  (That one was filmed in High-Def, in Buenos Aires during last year’s world tour.)  “Grand Plate” arrived 2 weeks ago and yesterday, I received “Let There Be Rock.”
The Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack on the left, and my old about-to-be-retired VHS, on the right.

The discs came in a nice tin case, with a booklet, some picture-cards and a guitar pick.  Still it bugged me that they used a molded plastic filler to take up about half the room in the case.  Why not just make the case thinner?  Why take up all that room on my video shelf?  Anyway, it’s just a small quibble.

So last night, I fired up the Blu-Ray, kicked on the surround sound, opened a beer and returned to the years when I was young and the band was about to become legendary.

The booklet that came with the package taught me an interesting tidbit.  On the day they filmed; the band actually played two shows.  The film crew used the first one as rehearsal, and then filmed the second one for the movie.  Plus, Bon Scott woke up with laryngitis that morning.  Two shows in one day… two AC/DC shows… Unbelievable.

I smiled through the entire opening as Angus kicked off “Live Wire,” standing atop one of those big Marshall stacks.  The song is a perfect opener because it builds slowly… first the bass, then the drums kick in, then Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar, and finally, as he hops down from his platform, Angus’s guitar comes smashing through to grab you by the throat.
Watch at least the beginning, then continue reading…

Immediately I found myself comparing this concert to the one from last year.  OMG, they looked like babies.  Angus must have been in his early 20s when it was filmed.  The difference in energy was apparent too.  Last year, Angus was in his 50s when he performed and while he still had his incredible energy (compared to most mortals) it was nothing compared to the zest and energy from “Let There Be Rock.”  He was back and forth, head bobbing in constant motion for the entire show, just like Ed had first told me.

It’s funny seeing a concert from so long ago… you notice how much things have changed.  The biggest thing to me here was that they still had cords on their instruments.  I have no idea how Angus was able to run around the way he did, without ensnaring everyone in guitar cord.  If ever there was a poster-boy for wireless, it’s Angus.  As a result, they keep it simple.  Bon’s up front, Malcolm and Cliff (the bassist) stay in the back flanking the drummer and Angus runs around in between.  Then for the choruses, Malcolm and Cliff stride up to the mics, yelp their lyrics, then step right back.

You can see this dynamic in the video above.  But sometimes I wonder if their mics are even turned on.  The trademark “big choruses” from the records aren’t all that big, live.  But I’ll give them credit for not using any tricks like adding echo or backing tapes.  It is what it is.

Between songs, you can hear the amps buzzing and crackling through the speakers, adding a crispy, crunchy sound texture.

This show was stripped down to basics.  There were no lasers or video screens.  No big inflatable “Rosie” for “Whole Lotta Rosie.”  No big Hell’s Bell or Civil War cannons.  No gimmicks at all.  It was just a stage and a band, playing their asses off.

The best part was the way it was filmed, using lots of long, lingering crane shots that followed the players.  That contrasted heavily with the new concert video I’d just seen, where no shot lasted longer than a second or two; like a 90-minute music video.

The sustained shots allow you to focus on a single thing… the guitarist’s fingers, or the drummer changing drumheads during the song, or the interplay between band members while the singer struts around the stage.

Ah, the singer.  Has there ever been a front-man with more charisma than Bon Scott?  Bon’s brilliance lies in that he always lets you know that he’s in on the joke, like an impish Aussie scamp.  I think Bon is kind of like Jim Morrison, only without the sleaze (and serious poet-y stuff).  The Lizard King once whipped out his lizard on-stage.  Bon would be more likely to tell you about it in metaphorical terms, then grin and shoot you a wink before strutting off. 

The movie is interspersed with short interviews and vignettes with the band.  There, you can see their sly wit and self-deprecation.  They have never taken themselves too seriously, other than to make sure everyone gets a show they’ll never forget.  In one segment, they ask Cliff if he composes.  He says, “Nothing to worry Lennon and McCartney about…”

In another segment, the interviewer asks each band member about Angus.  When Angus is asked what people think of him, he says, “Who’s the ugly little man up there?

And Lordy, he is tiny… 5’2” and nothing but sinew and gristle, as far as I can see.  He plays a large guitar as it is, (a Gibson SG) but on him, it looks like a guitar with a gnome riding it.

The show barrels through their early hits.  They hit their stride around the 4th song, “Sin City,” and never let up.  Later, after charging through “Whole Lotta Rosie,” where Angus has to change guitars in the middle of his solo, they chug into “Rocker.”  This bit always slays me because this is where Angus runs backstage, grabs some oxygen and water, then hops onto a roadie’s shoulders and rides out into the crowd, flailing a solo as he goes.
Angus performing amid a sea of people.

It’s actually kind of scary to watch.  There are no barriers and people are slapping his back, pulling on his arms, pushing them to and fro and still he never breaks the solo… Not so’s you’d notice, anyway.  You can see the whole number, here:
Angus nips off stage at the 3:04 mark, is hopping down onto his roadie by 3:40 and the fun begins.

In later years, they would have an aisle cleared and Angus would come out with a phalanx of security people.  I remember one show I was at, sitting in the 2nd row on the side when the Angus entourage passed by.  I was close enough to poke him with a stick.  It was to me what it might be to someone else being that close to The Pope.

Angus finally makes it back to the stage, then gets on Bon’s shoulders for a ride to center stage, where Bon chucks him off and Angus goes scissor-kicking across the way before climbing the Marshall stacks again for the guitar solo.

After all that, it’s finally time for the big finish; the cathartic “Let There Be Rock,” which is a veritable marathon of high-speed thrashing to a Chuck Berry beat.  This song is nothing but adrenaline and I figure it needed to be, given that it comes at the end of a 2nd 2-hour show.  Like I said, to be that active and frenzied every night, 200 nights a year, for 35 years and NOT be brain-damaged… Angus is a freak of nature.

Then the show concludes with a final frozen spotlight on the singer, with the words, “To Bon.”

Good on ya, Mate.  You were the greatest.  And I’m sorry I was ever glad you were dead.

I finished the night worn out, but with a smile on my face.  My legs were tired from doing the Angus-bob from my easy chair.  It wasn't as bad as when I used to go to their concerts... I've seen them 5 times; (sadly, never with Bon Scott) and each time was better than the last.  But they demand something out of you.  They demand every ounce sweat and energy that you can give and when they're done with you, you're as spent as they are.  I could probably do a post just on seeing them on concert and I just may, depending on how this one goes.

This music was the soundtrack to every party I ever threw.  In fact, it was the apex of every party… when the moment was right and everyone was happy and rockin’ out, only then was it time to bust out the AC/DC, sending the party into a sweaty overdrive.  We’d start with “TNT” go to “Dirty Deeds,” then “Highway to Hell,” “Back in Black,” “You Shook Me,” “Hell’s Bells” and then eventually, tear the place down with “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Let There Be Rock.”  I was always spent by the time that was finished, drained of energy by daring to imitate the mighty Angus.  And I always woke up with a sore neck.

But it was always worth it.  


Note: Both pictures of the band and the shot of the movie poster are scans of the photo-cards that came with the video package.


bluzdude said...

Director’s DVD Commentary: An AC/DC post has been stored in my head for years, but I finally found the right time to drop it, with the release of this movie on DVD. I apologize to anyone for whom this kind of music is not your thing. (Although, if it’s not, you probably haven’t read this far.) But if you DO like loud rock and roll and haven’t seen AC/DC before, do yourself the favor of looking up some You Tube videos. If you like rock and roll, you can’t not like these guys.

Also, we played more AC/DC songs at our parties than what I mentioned, I just didn’t want to list them all… I’ve gone on long enough.

Justin said...

Hey Bluz! Loved this post man! I work a Saturday at a grocery store(to help pay for the car). Usually it's the shitty grocery store music we're all used too. One night I'm working late, it's about I'd say...8:00.

Suddenly I hear on the store intercom the starting riff of "Back In Black"! I couldn't fucking believe it! Me and the meat department guy looked at each other in amazement!

It's like for a fleeting moment for once god threw us a steak and bone! It was the greatest 5 minutes of bliss ever at that otherwise horrible place!! Great post man, loved it! Rock on!!!\w/

bluzdude said...

My first job was in a grocery store, so I know how that can be with the shitty canned music... same weak-assed instrumental crap over and over again. Used to drive me insane.

Oh, and it's always a good idea to stay on the good side of the butcher guys. Anyone that can walk around with blood on their aprons and no one questions them, is no one to trifle with.

DG said...

Very cool. I'm ready for a summer soundtrack. I've seen very few live shows. Although everytime I walk past the poster advertising Meat Loaf's Pittsburgh concert date, I think of you!

bluzdude said...

Don't just think of me... Think of me telling you to buy a pair of tickets and GO! The Loaf has never put on a bad show...

Mrs. Bachelor Girl said...

I wish I had a cool AC/DC story, but all I got is that my first-ever sorority-fraternity mixer was with the Alpha Tau Omegas, and it was the "Back in Black" mixer. Everybody wore all black, and we sang karaoke, including some AC/DC, naturally.

Angus Young was on the t-shirt, though. So at least there's that.

Reeik said...

OUR infamous SPORTS ARENA concert and trip to get Billy G for your surprise gradutasion party what a weekend that was but most of them back then had some sort of MEMORABLE event ....

bluzdude said...

Mrs. Bachelor Girl,
Well, calling it the Back in Black mixer was certainly cooler than calling it the Johnny Cash mixer.

That was quite an event…

What my buddy is talking about is the first time we saw AC/DC, at the Toledo Sports Arena. They were on the Fly On The Wall tour in 1985. A bunch of us went down to the show, sweated our buns off and rocked ourselves senseless. Then Rik and Brill went directly from the show and drove straight to Baltimore to pick up our buddy Billy. They brought him back for a Barn Party we were throwing the next day and surprised the crap out of me. (It wasn’t my graduation party though, because I graduated 2 years earlier. And I had to “go to the spreadsheet” to confirm that… the concert date, not my graduation.) But this was one of many instances when one of our group of friends would show up unexpectedly and punk the dude that wasn’t expecting it.