Archive for May, 2013


Young Boys

Angus Young

Angus Young

If you have even a sliver of musical awareness, even if you always forget the names of songs, never bother to learn band or singer names, and don’t have a clue what the lyrics to your favorite songs are, chances are you probably know Angus Young. You might not know he’s named that, what band he’s in, or what kind of guitar he plays, but you’ve probably seen him at least once – once is all it takes. He’s the guitarist with the flyaway hair, the twisted sneer and the convulsive stage antics, but you undoubtedly remember him for his costume. “Oh yeah… isn’t that the guy who wears the schoolboy outfit?”

The rumor goes that when Angus and his brother Malcolm were first forming AC/DC when they were teenagers, Angus had to rush to practice directly from school, and didn’t have time to change out of his uniform. Older sister Margaret Young suggested that he wear that as his stage costume – at the time, all the members of AC/DC were playing around with the idea of costumes, and Angus had tried several. They soon abandoned the idea, as another more successful local band was already doing the same thing. Angus’s schoolboy costume stuck, though, as it has to this very day.

I won’t mince words: Angus Young is one of the best guitarists still walking the earth. I say that with full knowledge that there must be thousands of guitarists with more skill, craft, and technical excellence than Angus. Most of them are going without recognition for one simple reason: technical excellence alone doesn’t make it. In order to really capture people’s hearts, minds and sexual organs, a guitarist needs to have passion.

That’s what the whole smashing guitars thing that The Who did was all about. That’s why Slash plays his Les Paul like he’s handling his own (allegedly) monstrous manhood. And that’s why Angus Young rolls around on the floor as one possessed by the devil and has a duckwalk that makes Chuck Berry jealous. And that’s why they’re famous and you, practicing 6 hours a day to Dream Theater in your dank basement and offering daily sacrifices to the Gods of Rock, aren’t.

Malcolm Young

All this talk and adulation thrown Angus’s way is appropriate, but it must leave his older brother Malcolm feeling overshadowed. Malcolm and Angus started AC/DC together, after all; the idea for the band was a mutual thing, after seeing the success in bands of their older brothers. The two Youngs are the two youngest of eight kids, born in Scotland but living in Australia by the time Malcolm was 10 and Angus 8. They’ve both been members of AC/DC for its entire 40-year life. They even play the same instrument, even if they have different roles. Yet all along, the quite shy Malcolm has been happy to let Angus have all the glory. Instead, he handles the business end of the AC/DC machine. All I can say is that he’s a good big brother.

1979 and Highway to Hell saw the Young brothers and company in top form. Even with the over-the-top antics of Angus and the powerful stage presence of Bon Scott, Highway to Hell still features some absolutely blazing guitar work from Malcolm. The distinctive flavor of their sound that instantly lets you know you’re listening to AC/DC is almost all the creation of the two Young brothers. Malcolm drives the action and Angus brings it home. This paradigm is heard on “Girl’s Got Rhythm,” “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” and “Shot Down In Flames,” but perhaps it’s strongest on the title track. “Highway to Hell” has the entire band working towards a climax of sound and fury, coming at last at the end through Angus’s guitar and Bon’s scream of “AAAAAALL THE WAY DOWN!!!!!”

Much is made of the musical partnerships of Mick and Keith, Robert and Jimmy, Steven and Joe, even Bono and The Edge – rightly so, too. But I think you simply can’t talk about two people working together like a well-oiled machine without mentioning Angus and Malcolm.

Next: the tao of Bon.

Richard Ramirez

Richard Ramirez

In the mid-‘80s, Los Angeles was in the grip of a full-scale panic, and it was caused by a man the press and police dubbed “The Walk-In Killer” but later renamed “The Night Stalker.” His killing spree was remarkable just by itself, but it’s accompanied by numerous atrocities done to the victims. What was done to them, both when they were living and dead, is impossible to explain or understand. Some were shot in the head, some were stabbed multiple times, some were raped… it gets worse. One woman had a T-shape carved into her left breast, one woman had her eyes gouged out by hand, and another had a pentagram drawn on her thigh with lipstick.

This was all done by Richard Ramirez, a 25-year-old drifter from Texas with a long rap sheet of drugs and traffic violations. After his capture, he was convicted of 13 counts of first degree murder, 5 counts of attempted murder, 11 counts of sexual assault, and 14 counts of burglary. His general pattern towards the end of his spree was he would enter the home of a victim, shoot and kill the man (if there was one), and rape or otherwise sexually violate the woman, sometimes killing her afterward and sometimes letting her live, forever bearing the mental scars of what happened to her.

While we as logical and sane citizens find it impossible to truly penetrate just why he would do what he did, several explanations have been posited. The first and easiest is that he’s just completely bat-shit crazy – no mystery to it, he’s merely nuts. The second is that he’s a Satanist. Any Los Angelino could tell you that he stood up in the middle of his trial and shouted “Hail Satan!” and showed off the pentagram he had carved into his palm. Those who don’t know very much about the Church of Satan find Satanism to be an easy scapegoat for any number of atrocious behaviors. The third, and most difficult to defend, is that he’s an AC/DC fan.

There aren’t very many people who sincerely believe anymore that rock and roll is the language of the devil, but in 1985, folks were more apt to point the finger that way. All it took was for Ramirez to leave an AC/DC hat at a crime scene, and then for him to admit his intense fandom of the band, especially the song “Night Prowler.” That naturally lead into accusations of AC/DC making godless, murderous music (and being Satanists), and of rock and roll in general causing people to go on killing sprees. It seems far-fetched, but some people really think that.

There’s a company called Beka Books that makes textbooks for Christian homeschool education. I went to a small private Christian high school, and we used Beka books almost exclusively. The curriculum for my Biology class, besides teaching creation science from a Protestant perspective and discrediting evolution up and down, had in its teaching that people who listened to rock and roll were put into a zombie-like trance called “zoning,” and their behavior could be completely unpredictable, not being influenced by any sort of morality. Short version: don’t listen to rock and roll, ‘cause you will probably kill people. “Zoning,” by the way, wasn’t presented as a theory or opinion, but as fully confirmed scientific fact.

my high school Biology book, published by Beka

my high school Biology book, published by Beka

I swear I’m not making this up.

If I had to make a wager, I’d say what was going on with Richard Ramirez had much more to do with the inside rather than the outside. The guy quite obviously had major issues with both his brain and his soul. Those issues might have been intrinsic and always there, or they might have been caused by some series of traumatic events that happened to him. My guess is both. But you can rest assured (and the members of AC/DC can, too) that it was NOT AC/DC’s music that caused him to butcher and ravage so many people. His citing of “Night Prowler” is very akin to Charles Manson saying The White Album gave him cues for his own murders.

To be fair, “Night Prowler” is a pretty nasty song. The basic idea Bon had when he wrote it was teenage sex, but sex between two underage people was very high taboo at the time. So rather than use a straight-up storytelling mode (Bon’s usual method), he used a killer stalking a girl at her house and killing her as an allegory for sex. ‘Cause, y’know, that’s so much better…

At its most innocent, it’s about a horny teenage boy sneaking into his girlfriend’s room at night. One level up on the sleaziness scale, it’s about a criminal who stalks from house to house at night, raping anonymous women. Going further, it could be about a vampire who does that. Further still, it could be about some Satanic ritual in which young girls are stolen from their homes, raped, and then sacrificed to some evil god.

I won’t speak to how disturbing that is (it should be self-evident), but I will say that to get a meaning out of “Night Prowler” other than the first level (or the second if you miss the allegory), you’d really have to let your imagination run away with you. Knowing Bon Scott as a songwriter and singer, he probably didn’t have the darkness in him to write a song about rape in any form, even a negative one. Ultimately, he was just a guy who loved to party, and he didn’t care enough about the consequences (short- or long-term) to let them get in the way of that. He loved fun, and rape ain’t fun; end of story.

“Night Prowler” closes the album, and Bon closes the song with “Shazbot! Nanu nanu!” as a sort of sign-off. “Nanu nanu” is a phrase said by goofy alien Mork on the ‘70s sitcom Mork and Mindy as a sign-off for his transmissions home. In an ironic twist, this sign-off would be Bon’s last recorded message to the world, as he died a mere 6 months after Highway to Hell’s release.

Next: the brothers Young.

AC/DC - Highway to Hell - 8/3/1979

AC/DC – Highway to Hell – 8/3/1979

I’m not one to buy into clichés. I usually see them as representing a collection of extremes, rarely having much to do with reality. Rock and roll is an institution that’s simply begging to be made into one huge cliché, and people have been obliging it since its inception. Anywhere in its history you look, you’ll see rock stars trying to live up to this monster idea of what a rock star apparently should be, often to the detriment of the music they’re creating. So it’s rare that an instance occurs where a band makes great music while simultaneously indulging in all the clichéd rock excesses: booze, money, drugs, hot women, trashing hotel rooms and other generally bad behavior.

AC/DC is one of those instances… almost.

I say “almost” because when I look at their songwriting with my critical, slightly-music-theory educated eye, it’s… meh. An AC/DC song follows a pattern pretty closely – there isn’t a lot of variation in key, tempo or chord structure, and that’s true of their entire career. It’s definitely not stunning work, and that may be the reason their ‘80s and ‘90s output wasn’t especially popular (with the exception of The Razors Edge). It wasn’t until they entered their 4th decade that they saw a big rise in their popularity, and that was mostly because of nostalgia.

Let me be clear, though. That mediocre level of songwriting is completely forgivable (and can even be celebrated) for two reasons. First, there is almost no hard rock band that sticks so closely to the traditions of blues music. Led Zeppelin did a better job at updating the blues, but that’s basically it. Even the mighty Rolling Stones took a pop approach to the blues, thus diminishing its bluesyness. As far as making it bigger, louder, and more bombastic, AC/DC is the way to go.

Second is this: they really know how to work it. Anybody can write a mediocre song – that would be the very definition of “mediocre.” But what not anybody can do is play that song with the gusto, heart, attitude and visceral gutsiness that AC/DC does.

And everything that I’ve just mentioned – from the clichés to the excess to the guts – is exemplified in their 1979 album Highway to Hell. They had been driving without seatbelts for their entire career up to this point, flagrantly and joyously disregarding any sense of safety or caution. Highway to Hell saw them flooring the gas pedal and taking their hands off the wheel. This was true for the Young brothers and the rest, but particularly true of lead singer Bon Scott.

Bon Scott

Bon Scott

No one could sing like Bon. By that I don’t mean he could sing particularly well, or even that his voice was any better than someone else’s; the opposite is true in a lot of cases. But this much remains: Bon Scott’s voice was unlike any other, and no one has been or will be able to duplicate it. Whenever anybody tries, it just sounds lame. The one and only exception is Brian Johnson, AC/DC’s lead singer after Bon’s tragic and unexpected death. And even there, Brian wasn’t imitating Bon, but just happened to have a voice that was eerily similar.

Highway to Hell is the apex of their first wave stardom, and also the deepest depth of their lack of control. The title song is tragically prophetic of the end that befell Bon Scott shortly after the album’s release. The music in “Highway to Hell,” like all other AC/DC songs up to this point, is dirty, wild, and full of abandon. As a guitarist, you can’t play this song without a sneer twisting your facial features. The lyrics display AC/DC’s glorious, play-with-fire naivety. It started with Let There Be Rock’s “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be.” They seem to be rushing headlong into danger, meanwhile screaming “Yeah! Bring on the danger!”

Next: you won’t feel the steel ’til it’s hanging out your back!

Love Kills

Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious

The entire pathos of punk in the 1970s – the clothes, the music, the attitude, the excess, the animalistic urge, everything – can be summed up in two words: Sid Vicious.

Sid Vicious started life as John Simon Ritchie in Lewisham, a district of southern London. Rumor has it that when Vivian Westwood suggested to Malcolm McLaren that he get a guy who hung around the Sex boutique named John to be the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, she was not talking about John Lydon, but Sid Vicious. When McLaren booted out Glen Matlock from the bass position, he recruited Vicious despite the fact that he had never played bass.

In fact, Sid’s bass skills were so lacking that he only actually plays on one track of Never Mind the Bollocks, that being “Bodies,” and on the rest Steve Jones plays both bass and guitar. But according to Keith Levene, he picked it up with alarming speed because of his incredible focus. One night he sat down with the first Ramones record, playing to it over and over again through the night. In the morning, he was a bass player.

The movie Sid & Nancy, directed by Alex Cox, is one of the only silver screen depictions of Sid. The titular roles are played by Gary Oldman as Sid and Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen, Sid’s girlfriend. After an initial meeting where Nancy (already a junky) is supposed to score some drugs for Sid, Nancy then introduces Sid to heroin before they have sex – all with a very bored Johhny Rotten in the room. From then on, they’re a pair. The only thing that separates them is the Sex Pistols going on a tour of the United States. And all along, they’re going in a wide and uncontrollable downward spiral; things get bad, then real bad, then real bad, and then the absolute worst.

The film has been the subject of a lot of controversy; Johnny Rotten in particular says it romanticizes heroin addiction, playing as merely the catalyst for the love that existed between Sid and Nancy. The famous scene at the end where Sid gets in a cab and finds Nancy (no longer gross and desiccated but in a white dress) and they go riding off in the distance is said by many to be the epitome of irresponsible filmmaking.

I respectfully disagree. The centerpiece of the entirety of Sid & Nancy is the love between the two central characters. Yes, they were heroin addicts, but I think the film is suggesting their love couldn’t really be complete and functional until they were off of heroin. Now, that point came after they were both dead, but in that, the film might also be suggesting that love is bigger than our temporal world. And as for romanticizing heroin use, you only have to look at any moment from the entire rest of the movie to see that heroin use is bad news. According to Sid & Nancy, there is absolutely nothing glamorous, fun or minutely redeemable about heroin.

I want to make something very clear, though. Sid and Nancy loved each other, but everything about that was horrible. There is much to be said about the positive and transcendent nature of love, but we almost always forget that love, like anything else in the hands of humans, can be an extremely negative force as well. The love between Sid and Nancy didn’t get them anywhere they wanted to go, but instead took them to increasingly worse and worse places. The same energy that fueled their love for each other also fueled their addictions. What’s worse, their individual addictions became more than the sum of their parts when added together, much like a marriage. It even fueled an apparent suicide pact they had forged. What Sid & Nancy brings out for me is that love is incredibly powerful, and just as it has the power to heal, build and create, so does it have the power to completely destroy.

Nancy Spungen

Nancy Spungen died in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan from bleeding to death from a stab wound to the stomach. It’s not certain, but Sid probably murdered her. He woke up from a drug stupor to discover her body on the bathroom floor, blood all over the hotel room. Of all the ways of murdering somebody, Sid’s murder of Nancy is the least malicious and most tragic. In the police interviews, Sid himself said, “I never stabbed her. I loved her, but she treated me like shit.” He later said he didn’t remember what happened, but she may have fell on the knife while he was holding it. What it really comes down to is that I don’t believe for a second that Sid had murder in his heart, at least not the cold-blooded, purposeful taking of a life which we stereotypically think of as murder; he just wasn’t capable of it.

Ten days after Nancy’s death, Sid tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists. He was taken to Bellvue Hospital to recover, and made bail from his murder arrest in February of 1979. The day after he got out of jail, Sid and his mother Anne were at a party to celebrate his bail. Anne gave him a fatal dose of heroin at that party, as she admitted to journalist Alan Parker near the end of her life. According to a suicide note left by Sid, he was fulfilling a suicide pact with Nancy. The whole story is just very, very sad, in every sense of the word.

Sid’s life and death represented the life and death of punk music, or rather punk in its Platonic, virginal form. Sid was more than just the bass player for the biggest punk band that ever existed – Sid WAS punk. After Sid, there was no more punk. I think something was lost that the music world can never get back. Blink-182 and NOFX and Rancid and Less Than Jake can put on a good show and rock as hard as the day is long, but they’re not punk. Nor should they be. Sid is dead, punk is dead, and it’s time to move on.

Next: bound for hell, and loving every second of the trip.