Tag Archive: The Razors Edge


Naughtiness

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a pretty good child. Behaviorally, I never did anything that was really dangerous; never smoked, never did drugs, never snuck out at night, was (almost) never disrespectful to my parents, and didn’t run with a bad crowd.

The biggest bone of contention between me and my parents was my musical choices. As I entered the second decade of my life, they started furrowing their brows. Bands like Aerosmith and Green Day caused them some grief, and they weren’t crazy about Smashing Pumpkins either. And it really started when I was in 4th grade and liked Vanilla Ice enough to ask for To the Extreme for Christmas. I got it, too.

But for whatever reason (fate, luck, God, circumstance, maybe all of them), I never discovered true naughtiness in music in my youth. The most I got was Steven Tyler quoting Frank Zappa (which I didn’t know at the time) singing “Buns up and kneelin’ / I was a’ wheelin’ and a dealin’.” And while that was more than enough for my parents, there were MUCH worse things out there at the time. 2 Live Crew caused quite a stir with “Me So Horny” and their entire As Nasty As They Wanna Be album, and it echoed in the church youth group my parents headed. Likewise, Digital Underground and “The Humpty Dance” crossed the consciousnesses of the teens in my parents’ youth group. They tried to play a cassette of it on a youth group road trip in my dad’s motor home stereo; he promptly threw it out the window.

Those two groups were on the periphery of my vision growing up, but Onyx wasn’t. When I was in 6th grade, there was a kid that went to my older sister’s school (Harkness Road, my own high school) that we gave a ride to in the mornings. We also took him to church for youth group on Wednesday nights (I went to the kids’ program at our church). His name was Luke, and he was what most adults would classify as a “bad influence.” My parents were friends with his mother, and I guess they were hoping good company would redeem bad character, the opposite of the way it typically works. It was through him that I experienced a number of different “naughty” things, Onyx being one of them.

Onyx were an early ‘90s rap group and a key figure in the gangtsa rap movement, a cluster of black artists that used incredibly violent imagery and profuse profanity. Since gangsta rap was meant to present an exaggerated glimpse into the black urban lifestyle and mindset, this also included rampant misogyny. Luke played me Onyx’s debut album on headphones one time, and I was particularly disturbed by the song “Blac Vagina Finda,” which essentially describes an interracial gang rape. I expressed my discomfort and distaste, and Luke laughed derisively and called me a pussy.

Loathe as I am to admit it, my desire to fit in with Luke and other people I was around caused me to wade into the sludge-teeming waters of gangsta rap for a while. It didn’t last long, since the overwhelming waves of stinking immorality bowled me over and were too much for me. It’s not that people like Onyx and Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were simply talking about sex and violence and the bad things of the world; I have no problem with that. It’s the way they talked about them. That way was extremely vulgar and obvious, which insulted the wordsmith in me, but looming largest in my mind was that it was celebratory. In their verbage, the bad things of the world weren’t bad at all. Gun violence was to be celebrated. Misogyny was to be celebrated. Illegal drugs were to be celebrated. Law and order were to be disrespected, insulted and ultimately destroyed. Love is weakness, attachment to your sexual partner is weakness, and your entire ethos is to be dictated by taking what you can get and not caring about how much damage you are causing to the people around you. Simply put, this was the opposite of everything I was brought up to believe.

So luckily, I went back to my Genesis and Phil Collins, and was on the verge of discovering R.E.M. and a world of other delights. And in the end, it worked out.

AC/DC probably would have been on that list of bands my parents were hoping I would NOT be into when I was younger. Like a few others I’ve talked about, my fandom of AC/DC is relatively recent. I was 9 when The Razors Edge came out, and I remember thinking “Thunderstruck” was pretty groovy, but the guy’s voice was like grinding gravel between two sheets of corrugated steel. And at that time, I didn’t have a clue that Back In Black even existed, let alone Bon Scott. A decade and a half later when the Jack Black extravaganza School of Rock was released, I found a liking for “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll),” which led me into Bon-era deliciousness. From there, I was hooked.

Music has always been the centerpiece of my life, the language through which I speak and am spoken to, but it’s better for certain music to enter your life at certain stages of your life than others. Gangsta rap, while it was a horrible experience for me, came around at just the right time. It taught me a very stark lesson about where my musical boundaries were, what I could take and what I couldn’t. AC/DC, likewise, came around at just the right time. Had I waded into their music at a younger age, I might have not only drawn the ire of my parents (even more than I did anyway), but I might have become a different, more depraved person. It’s because AC/DC came around when I was mature enough to deal with them that their bawdy talk and low-brow subject matter can hit me at the angle it does. If it were from a different, younger angle, it would probably be a lot more harmful.

Next: always a bridesmaid, never the best-selling album of all time.

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!