The Ridiculous Zen Art of AC/DC


I’ve been obsessed with AC/DC lately.  I want to try to explain why to those of you that might not get them.  I also think they demonstrate how powerful minimalism can be.

AC/DC albums are kind of the opposite of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album.  I love well orchestrated ornate pop music, but I love its opposite just as much.  The arrangements on AC/DC albums rarely go beyond what can be reproduced live by a four piece rock band other than backup vocals, occasional percussion, and Angus Young’s lead guitar.  There are some minimal guitar overdubs, an additional guitar in the chorus or whatnot, but rarely more than that.  Their records musically are usually just bass, drums, and one electric guitar in each speaker.  However, as Lou Reed said about Kanye West’s Yeezus album, “the arrangements are minimal, but the parts are maximal.”  It’s hard to sound bigger than AC/DC, they often play to packed stadiums, but they achieve this sound with only a couple of instruments.  Their sound is created by the way each musician plays and, more importantly, the way that they play together.  For instance, Angus and Malcolm Young, the guitar players and brothers that run the band, perfectly compliment each other in parts and sound so that their guitars sound infinitely bigger together than either one could on their own.  Malcolm, who is in the left speaker, plays a Gretsch guitar and has a thicker cleaner sound.  Angus, whose rhythm guitar is in the right speaker, plays a SG and his has a more distorted and biting tone.  The frequencies created by each insturment perfectly compliment each other, creating a gigantic sound.

They also use space in a way that each instrument achieves maximum impact.  On their mega-hit You Shook Me All Night Long, the bass does not come in till the chorus, which is unusual for a pop or rock record.  By withholding it that long, when it does come in, the listener really feels it.  The riffs that the brother’s write also often have large gaps in them.  By having moments of silence in between their riffs, you feel the full impact of each scrape across the strings.  Much like how a Zen garden, through being minimal, forces one to focus on what is there, they too pull the listener in by knowing what to hold back.  Even their drummer for most of their career, Phil Rudd, rarely plays the usual rock n roll drum fills.  He makes every cymbal crash count.  Except for when Angus’s lead guitar explodes, which again is so powerful because it is restrained until just the right part of the song, AC/DC does so much with so little.  A lot of other bands couldn’t get that kind of emotional impact with their music with twice the musicians.

One of the misconceptions in the media is that AC/DC make the same record over and over.  They do have a set of rules in place that can often make their music sound the same to the casual listener.  But there is actually a lot of diversity if you compare the rock n roll boogie of their earlier records to the more melodic rock of something like Blow Up Your Video.  Their records are always driving guitar based hard rock records that feature typical rock n roll subject matter in the lyrics.  There are no guitar effects used other than amp based distortion.  It’s like they set a frame and a subject matter, like a painter that only paints certain sized water color landscapes.  But as you know, there are a lot of different landscapes one can paint even within a certain sized frame using a certain medium.  By limiting themselves they achieve their unique sound.  They also must figure out how to be creative while limiting themselves.  Even on one album, lets take their famous Back in Black album, there is a lot of difference between the sound of Hells Bells and You Shook Me All Night Long.  One has a foreboding quality, while the other one is celebratory.  The devil is in the details with this band.  If you are willing to explore their music they have a lot to offer.

Now I know that some of you will think that it is ridiculous to take a band seriously that often only sings about sex, explosions, rock n roll, and more sex.  Forgetting that their original singer was actually pretty clever within the confines of those topics, I think one can take what they do seriously and think they are charmingly ridiculous at the same time.  Even the sexism that is apparent in so many of their songs is taken to such a ridiculous level that it is comic.  This is stuff that is meant as release and as fun.  There is a reason they can fill up stadiums and give so many people a great time.  I think you can listen to their stuff on several levels.  On one hand it is just fun ridiculous music, but if you pay attention to the craft they put into creating this stuff, it is pretty interesting as well.

Also, if you take their career as a whole, in their refusal to change thematically if not musically, their is a certain noble defiance in it.  Where other bands try to reflect their lives in their lyrics, AC/DC has almost made an art out of being an immovable object.  They are the mountain that has not been eroded through time.  Their biggest hit album, Back in Black, was written after the alcohol related death of Bon Scott and features a song called Have a Drink On Me.  Their new album, Rock or Bust, was recorded after founding member Malcolm Young had to retire because he was diagnosed with dementia.  Yet as they grow older and life thins their herd, they remain as they always have been thematically, unchanged, Mount Fuji in the background of the changing seasons.  Like the last sentence at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, they are grinning horribly and thumbing their nose at You Know Who.

Ian McLagan Slips Away…

The great Ian McLagan is no longer with us.  He played keyboards for the Small Faces and the Faces.  He worked with an incredible amount of musicians, everyone from Paul Westerberg to the Rolling Stones.  He also had a great solo career along with the Bump Band.  Ian was from England, but he chose to live the later part of his life in Austin, Texas.  I now live in Austin and might not even have moved here if not for him.  I have him to partially thank for all of the friends I have made here and for the musical career that I found in this city.

My brother and I wanted to move to a city that had a larger music scene than our home town.  At the time he was dating someone whose mom lived in Austin.  We had heard great things about the city and we wanted to check it out while we were trying to make a decision on where to move.  We were only down here for a couple days and we wanted to check out some live music.  Our friend’s parents just happened to take us to Ian’s free happy hour at the Lucky Lounge.  Although I knew his music, as I was a Faces fan, I was not really aware of him.  Our host mentioned something about his storied career, but it was only after his show that I checked out more about him and realized just how many amazing records he was involved in.

Seeing him live for the first time was one of those magical musical moments where every song struck some chord in my being. I remember walking out of that show feeling more alive than when I had walked in.  I couldn’t believe I could see someone like him for free on a weekday night.  The feeling we had leaving that show was one of the things that influenced our final decision.  He was also the first artist we went to see when we moved here.  He put on another amazing show as our plans that we had been dreaming of so long came to fruition.

Although I have seen his show countless times since those nights, have met him several times, and even got to sing on stage with him once, I highly doubt he would know me by name.  (I shared the stage with him at a show dedicated to the British Invasion at the ACL theater.  Shinyribs played that event and some of us got on stage for the big finale with Eric Burdon and the Animals.  Ian MaLagan was on stage as well.)  Yet even without knowing me, he was one of the kindest and friendliest musicians that I have ever met.  Usually people will make that bullshit up after someone dies, but with Ian it was true.  Even though he was a two time Rock N Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, he would walk through the crowd at his shows like he was just another part of the audience.  Several times when I was catching a smoke between his sets he would also come outside to take a break from the bar.  He would smile and talk to you as if he had known you for years, even if you were what I was, just another face in the crowd.  I can be somewhat quiet by nature sometimes, but he would always initiate the conversation with myself and whoever was standing around.  His ego never separated him from the people that came to see him perform.  At the British Invasion show he wasn’t holed up in his dressing room or only talking to people that were “names”.  He was right down in the thick of things talking to everyone, including me, a simple bass player in one of the opening acts.  I’m just trying to get across that this was a warm guy, that lacked any kind of visible pretension.  I walked away from every meeting I had with him thinking that there goes someone truly decent.

His music is fantastic, but that really goes without saying if you know any of it.  His keyboard playing was good enough for so many top tier artists, and his voice was sensitive and gruff, honest and true.  I’m especially a fan of his album Never Say Never, which is one of those front to back great albums.  The title tack is the song above.  However the song that will always mean the most to me is his song Wishing Hoping Dreaming from his Rise & Shine album.  It is one of those songs that creates its own world.  It’s sad and happy at the same time and you never want to leave its orbit once it is on:

You could have stayed a little longer
But you slipped away instead..

AC/DC, Bryan Ferry, Hieronymus Bosch, and the Washington Monument

One thing I’ve really wanted to communicate to people through this blog, is that if you think of music being visual, it can really open up your appreciation to it.  I want to use two records that I listened to on my recent trip to try and convey that.  Two records that I listened to a lot were AC/DC’s Ballbreaker and Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore.  Musically and aesthetically these records are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, although both artists have a signature sound that they rework in different ways throughout their careers.   I want to write this for the average music listener and not someone that understands the technical side of music.

AC/DC have, per usual, a very stripped down approach to musical arrangement and mix.  There is one guitar in each speakers, bass, drums, and vocals.  The only guitars that are added through overdubs added, that could not be recreated live, appear to be Angus’s lead guitar.  This album is brilliantly produced by Rick Rubin, and I am not always a fan of his work.  AC/DC are a band whose greatness comes from their playing and arrangements.  The way the band play with each other creates their sound.  The brothers Young, Malcolm and Angus, play dueling electric guitars as well as anyone.  The rhythm section play simply, but with a ton of swing and feel.  During the Brian Johnson era, AC/DC’s lead singer, the sound of his voice communicates more than the actual lyrics do.  All of this is presented as straightforward as possible, so that the listener can enjoy what the band is doing and not be distracted by any studio tricks.

On Ferry’s record, again as usual for Ferry, features dense arrangements with a lot of competing instruments.  Everything is also draped in studio effects bringing a sense of mystery to the proceedings.  I have described what Ferry does before as futuristic film noir.  Movies like Bladerunner and Trouble in Mind come to mind while I listen to his records.  Ferry has great musicians like Nile Rodgers and Johnny Marr on his record.  However the performance of the individuals are not as important as the overall sound.

One record is primal and straightforward, while the other one is impressionistic and slick.  (Though I would argue that what AC/DC does on an album like Ballbreaker is more sophisticated then they are often given credit for.  The way the brothers bob and weave their guitars is not amateur hour, not even close.)  I believe one can absolutely love both approaches.  Music fans are less rigid than in the past, but there are still people that prefer one approach over another.  I don’t think that we need to make such choices, as long as each artist is doing what they can to the best of their abilities.

I think what AC/DC does is monolithic.  It is like the Washington Monument.  It is minimalistic, but powerful.  All fat has been stripped off until you end up with something simple, but riveting.  If you were to compare it to a movie it would be like an excellent Western, where the story is as straightforward as possible, but communicates a great deal through the minor tweaks of the form.

Meanwhile, what Ferry does is akin to Hieronymus Bosch.  He is creating something with a lot going on and your attention drifts to different details and textures, while never focusing on one thing for too long.  I don’t mean that Ferry’s work is like Bosch in the images that it creates mentally, only that there are many characters and images on the canvass, that add up to a substantial whole.

If you think of music like this, in a way where sound is visual, I believe that it can open up many kinds of music that one might not have previously enjoyed.  If I like a record, it is not because it is a certain style, but because each artist is realizing their vision to the fullest extent that they are capable of.  In music there are so many styles and textures.  If you can like dramas, horror films, and comedies, one should be able to like a wide range of musical artists.

RIP Ian McLagen – Oboe Concerto

Oboe concerto
All the best ones are dead
And there’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

There’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

Oboe concerto
All I do is drink to absent friends
And there’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

There’s a song I can’t stand
And it’s stuck in my head

The older generation have tried, sighed & died
Which pushes me to their place queue

Round, rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round
Round, the rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round
Round, the rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round
Round, the rhythm goes round
Round, round rhythm of life goes round

By Morrissey.  This fantastic video was directed by Sharon Jheeta.

I just got back from Australia tonight.  I arrived to the sad news that Ian McLagan, Austin fixture and member of The Faces and The Small Faces, passed away tonight.  I’m exhausted as one can imagine.  I will post more on Ian in coming days.  I actually have a lot to write about after my trip and reading a great deal on the Civil War while away.  I might not have moved to Austin if not for Ian McLagan.  I saw him on my first trip to Austin at The Lucky Lounge.  It was one of those magical nights that helped me to fall in love with the city.  Anyway, I’m upside down from traveling halfway across the globe.  For some reason when I heard the news I thought instantly of the Morrissey song Oboe Concerto.  It says so much with such an economy of language.

7 Great New Albums By Career Artists

I am sorry my posts have been few and far between since reaching Australia.   This really has more to do with the fact that I left my computer behind more than anything.  I couldn’t justify traveling to the other side of the globe with it when I am only in country for 10 days.  Writing on one’s phone isn’t quite as appealing. 

I spent the afternoon walking around Brisbane exploring the city and taking pictures.  One of the albums I listened to was Weezer’s newest.  It struck me that not only have a bunch of great artists that have been around 20 or more years released albums this year, but that many have released records showing that they are still at the top of their game.  It has been a really great year for music so far.  Here are some records that came out this year that any music fan should own.   Also, if you are a fan of any of the following artists, but lost track somewhere along the way, I believe all of these records belong in a best of for each artist (In no particular order):

1.  Morrissey:  World Peace is None of Your Business

2.  Jackson Browne:  Standing in the Breach

3.  Marianne Faithfull:  Give My Love to London

4.  Leonard Cohen:  Popular Problems

5.  Bryan Ferry:  Avonmore

6.  U2:  Songs of Innocence

7.  Weezer:  Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Morrissey and Leonard Cohen have really never been in artistic decline.  Marianne Faithfull has always put out good work, but as a complete album I think this is her best since Broken English.   Jackson Browne’s Time the Conqueror was phenomenal, but before that album, ever since the 90’s, his records were too slick overall.  This new album is as good as his 70’s work, but updated for modern concerns.  I think this is U2’s best complete work since their 90’s trilogy, which has always been a favorite period of mine.  Although I really love Bryan Ferry’s Olympia,  I think this new one is front to back stronger.  I also think this is his best work since definitely the 80’s and probably even since Roxy Music’s Avalon.   As for Weezer, I felt that Hurley got a bum wrap, even if the production was a bit too slick, but this is without a doubt their best since their classic Pinkerton.  I would even put it ahead of the Green Album.  

Not only are these artists putting out vital work in relationship to their own careers, but I have trouble thinking of many new artists that have put out albums this year that are as front to back strong as these releases.  

I still need to get around to hearing Chuck D’s new album, as well as the Wu-Tang Clan’s.   I am also excited to hear the new AC/DC album that comes out next week. 

Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore

Bryan Ferry has a new album out called Avonmore.   The album sounds like somewhere in between Roxy Music’s Avalon and his 80’s output, however it does feature enough modern touches to no be stuck in the past.  I have always liked Bryan Ferry, from his early Roxy Music days until now.  Although I don’t think anyone thinks Bryan Ferry sings as well as Bryan Ferry does, which is actually part of his charm, his voice has always been distinctive enough to be interesting to me as a listener. 

I know that there are some of you who probably view his music as too slick, but if you think of music as being visual it has the ability to create it’s own world.  I can’t help but think of some kind of futuristic film noir when I put one of his records on. His music would fit perfectly in the Alan Rudolph film Trouble in Mind.  Even his lesser songs have interesting textures and atmosphere.   He has consistently done his own thing outside of the trends of the day.  Even during the glam era, Roxy Music were much stranger than most of the competition.  Their album For Your Pleasure is a beautifully unique oddity. 

If you are someone that likes latter period Roxy Music, or his early solo career, then this album will please you.  He is still out there painting his own universe, for which I am grateful.