The Devil and the End of History
By Calliope Kurtz
Every generation demands something stronger. Bigger and badder. If you want to understand Chuck Berry, listen to the Rolling Stones. If you want to understand the Rolling Stones, listen to AC/DC. If you want to understand AC/DC... listen to AC/DC. You read that right, the narrative keeps shrinking--“Rock and roll is just rock and roll, yeah!”--while the midrange keeps cranking.
Angus Young: “We began by playing Chuck Berry covers. Every so often we would sneak in one of our own songs. We used to look at each other at the end of our own songs and say, ‘I don’t think they noticed.’ So then we put a few more originals in. We went from the bars to slightly bigger venues and then over the years to arenas and all of that. One day, you look around and you find that you’ve sold 200 million albums.”
Two hundred million? Ain’t these the guys who make a living biting heads off of bats? Nope. One better: AC/DC, zillions of dollars later, still look like guys who listen to AC/DC.In the world according to AC/DC, sex, money, politics and other trappings of adulthood are a sick joke -- but rock is sacred. No one this side of Chuck Berry has written so many great rock and roll songs about rock and roll, and no band short of the Ramones has so militantly refused to reach beyond the basics of the form. AC/DC offer a vision of the Stones if Keith had won every argument: no concept albums, no keyboards, no disco, no ballads, no gospel choirs. And Black Ice is their best argument in years--maybe decades--that evolution is for suckers. (Rolling Stone, 30 Oct 2008.)Even with that, making up for years of dissing AC/DC, Rolling Stone hedged. Keith Richards is plenty fond of acoustic ballads (he wrote “Wild Horses”) and the Ramones went with synths and Spector. “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” coulda been The Sex Pistols (at least circa Swindle). AC/DC, banging away on instruments available to Crazy Horse when they were still the Rockets, have, aside from a sly overdub or two, remained a bar band. That used to be a liability. Then, a turnaround: “Critics trashed AC/DC records for being more of the same, writing the same review of every AC/DC record for a quarter century--and the band is the problem?”(Blogcritics, 23 Oct 2008.)
Every single time someone ever purchases a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, money back guaranteed, that someone is expecting the contents of that bag to be Nacho Cheese Doritos.
Brian Johnson: “Someone said to Angus the other day, ‘Hey, you’ve made the same album 15 times.’ Angus said, ‘No, man, we’ve made the same album 16 times!’”
Paul Stanley, of Kiss: “Angus knows when you do something well, why stray? I’m always thrilled when I hear a great AC/DC song. I know it immediately. Whether it sounds like another one, that’s great. That was a great song too.”
Doritos made the same bag of chips a trillion times, top that.
Tell that to the Bon Scott fanatics. They seem to hear some sorta difference. “Rock and roll is just rock and roll, yeah!” Millions of people seem to be simply fine with the, er, new guy, 'Andy Capp.' It wasn’t Bon Scott’s demise that triggered Black In Black’s mighty hegemony, as much as it was John Bonham’s. And just in time, invisible hand. AC/DC simply started making Led Zeppelin albums better than Led Zeppelin did. Ballsier. That is, AC/DC became Zep without the girlfriend songs.
“Stairway to Heaven,” the big shebang. Sabbath followed with “Changes.” Then, Kiss. Mötley Crüe. Next thing, Foreigner. Soon enough, Van Halen’s doing it. Bon Jovi. Whitesnake. The ooze is everywhere. Acoustic guitars, synth-drenched pianos, orchestras galore. Sure, the girlfriends are happier, but for chrissakes, is there anywhere a guy can go--save Motorhead maybe--to just get some basic up-against-the-wall satisfaction on every track? You bet. And, with pathological numbers ranging from “Jailbreak” all the way up to “Spoilin’ For A Fight” it figures AC/DC came from Australia, a former penal colony. “I’ll gouge your eyes out” is how Black Ice ends: antisocial. Which would only be an exercise in blockheaded intransigence except for those gazillions of sales.
How many bands tell iTunes to fuck themselves and get the last laugh? “We don’t make singles, we make albums.” Well, go see AC/DC live and they ain’t playing albums, they is playing singles. Hits. But, screw it, since it probably took those other 14 tracks off of Black Ice to come up with “Rock ’n Roll Train,” why shouldn’t AC/DC sell the whole hassle? Since it takes a year to write and record a hit single worth touring on--these geezers have to, like, get in shape and even practice--why settle for only a month’s pay? It took over 30 years to put together the 2 1/2-hour show AC/DC plays. Three decades of work to come up with a single solid set list. They want to get paid for all of it. And they do. Angus Young: “Since iTunes came into existence, we’ve actually increased our back catalog sales without being on the site.” Who’s biting the heads off bats?
Nacho cheese, might as well get the whole deal. One thing the girlfriends don’t appreciate is that the best solos are usually on the non-hit tracks. Or at least the solos with the best air guitar mojo. Remember “Shake A Leg” from Back In Black? On Black Ice, it’s “Wheels.” Actually, all of Black Ice is bone-crushing fun. Number one, Grammy and all. Everyone agrees. Except your girlfriend. She thinks guys who do those air guitar solos, complete with the requisite air guitar face, are autistic. Which might be right, but that’s not the point. On second thought, that is the point. After all, if it wasn’t so fantastically bitchin’ sounding, Angus Young’s spastic schoolboy schtick would be just idiot instead of idiot savant. He looks like the sort of guy that got beat up in high school by guys who look like the other members of AC/DC. The laugh’s on us. Angus Young has more fun working than most people have fucking.
And, you bet, AC/DC does the same interview a million times over. So on and so forth. Malcolm Young: “AC/DC play basically what was going on with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis--trying to create the excitement and get the mood. We want to keep the flag flyin’. I think we’re the only guys except for the exception of the Rolling Stones. They’re about ten years, fifteen years older than us guys so we’ve still got a long way to go and we like to learn from their mistakes.” Didya hear about the Midnight Rambler? He’ll gouge your eyes out, too. Or was that ears? “Are you deaf, you wanna hear some more?” Is the intro to “Honky Tonk Women” the blueprint to “You Shook Me All Night Long”? AC/DC really should give some credit to Paul Kossoff of Free, who played the first AC/DC song... in 1970.
But whatever. Dinosaurs. The trick seems to be retaining enthusiasm for playing simple rock and roll. After 30 years. After 300 songs. 3,000 shows. Then turn all that into a double live disc. A 2 1/2-hour show. T-shirts and tie-ins until doomsday. Writing a new song without any restless twists. Or revealing any fatal indifference. Just a little honest unpredictability on a few licks. And only a few. Berry lost it after 1965. The Stones always struggled with it, from “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)” on. A lot of hot, hot bands had it (remember Humble Pie?) but they dropped it after a year or two. Lots of Bad Company there. Cheap Trick. AC/DC proved to be tour-proof. Booze-proof. Coke-proof. Hit single-proof. Industry-proof. Girlfriend-proof. Everything-proof. What a bunch of bastards.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The girlfriends got a lot friendlier if there were at least one or two girlfriend songs per concert or album. Then a band gets the other 50% of the population buying in. Rocking out. Power ballads. Hits. Mush. But, it’s a deal with the devil because girlfriends prove pretty perfidious when it comes to rock and roll. They’re loving Led Zeppelin one day, then, next week, it’s REO Speedwagon. Sometimes that big hit is the last flash of light before the big flash of light. Poof. Guys are more loyal. They’re dumb as dogs. AC/DC is the proof.
“Highway to Hell” proved more durable than “Stairway to Heaven.” From Straw Dogs to Iron Men. The all-AC/DC soundtrack to Iron Man 2, requiring not one minute of new material from the lads, topped every European country as the movie raked in even bigger (and younger) audiences for the band. Home run!
Nowadays critics realize AC/DC’s intransigent unwillingness to evolve even one iota adds up to rootedness. Like the fins on ancient Cadillacs. Or the devil horns on Angus’ SG. Put ’em in the Hall of Fame. Then on tour. Of course, sheer survival enters into the equation. There is no Led Zeppelin. The Stones got the hits but they can’t put together an album. Call it tradition or call it formality, but it is expected of champs to get back into the ring every ten years or so and make the cash registers ring. Reactivate the back catalog. Black Ice, the millionth version of their first millionth seller, whatever, makes it number one. Guys in their sixties, and they don’t even have to be black like back in the Sixties. It’s a long way to the top if ya wanna rock and roll. Highway to hell indeed. AC/DC, too basic to even use a cowbell or a stompbox once in a while, makes it to the finish line.
Which happens to be the cash register at Wal-Mart.
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