“Click, click, then bass drums, bass and guitars erupt into a full-blown urgent demand that leaves no doubt as to their intent or room for ignoring their presence. The start of Let There Be Rock is one of the most instantaneous in any genre of music. It is a roller coaster with no slow uphill climb to prepare you for what is about to happen. Wherever you are, you are immediately catapulted into seemingly rhythmic gunfire.”
Originally I thought I would write something for this post on atonal music and for a while I thought I would go for John Cage’s 4’33’’. For those as fresh to atonal music as I was a few weeks ago it is pronounced ‘Four minutes, thirty-three seconds’ and that is the length of the performance. Its distinguishing feature is that all the instruments are instructed by the composer not to play at all. It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of total silence. The difficulty I had with this piece though was that I had not personally ever got to the point of committing to a relationship with it, as rewarding as it might be. Because of this lack of relationship I realised that I had to choose a work that I have committed to absolutely. Waterfall by Arshile Gorky was one such possibility because I always looked forward to catching up with my old ‘friend’ when visiting Tate Modern. The green especially always lifts me up and makes me feel refreshed.
Instead, though, there is a much better, if less erudite, example that I want to share with you. In the not so dark recesses of my youth I had a penchant for loud thumping rock music, as performed by the likes of Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Rainbow, Deep Purple and most of all AC/DC or as antipodeans like to call them, ‘Acker-Dacker’. Their rhythm seemed to resonate with my own hyperactive nature. There was a solid and infectious pulse to all their songs that pulled at something very primitive within me. At the same time their consistency of chord progression and melodic structure, which was worlds away from trying to be the next new vogue, channelled a teenage sense of defiance to the norms of society and the screaming yelps of the fashionable. (Interestingly, their consistency is very nearly being heralded as a major achievement when it used to be regarded as utterly unimaginative). At the time, theirs was a decidedly unpopular path and that suited me perfectly.
However, at the age the sixteen a problem arose and a choice needed to be made. The problem was that, apparently, there are such things as lyrics and these are quite important to most teenagers. Although, I have to say at the time I was somewhat oblivious to the whole concept. So when Bon Scott sang Problem Child I quite possibly wasn’t aware of the intellectual vacuum within with he crafted his particular trade and thought that his vocal noises were really just another kind of instrument. The question of his highbrow lyrical status just wasn’t an issue. Nonetheless, once the matter was pointed out to me that lines such as:
I’m hot and when I’m not,
I’m cold as ice.
Ya get out my way.
Just step aside,
Or pay the price.”1
were not really as productive as they might be, I had to agree, especially when I listened to my friends suggested alternatives, such as Elvis Costello‘s version of Jerry Chesnut’s Good Year For The Roses:
“I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick,
On the cigarettes there in the ashtray,
Lyin’ cold the way you left ’em,
But at least your lips caressed them while you packed.
Or the lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee,
That you poured and didn’t drink,
But at least you thought you wanted it,
That’s so much more than I can say for me.”2
So, the choice I had to make was whether I would broaden my horizons and look beyond AC/DC for lyrical sustenance, not that that was why I liked them, but my friends obviously had a point. If I wanted to foster and nurture my intellectual capacity outside the classroom with the teenagers go-to educational medium of choice – some form of popular music – then I could probably do better than AC/DC and my friends seem to know a good few bands that could help. Elvis Costello was beefed up with side orders of The Clash, The Who and The Small Faces, all of whom fulfilled the lyrical quotient and also, importantly, had loud guitars and one of them even had Keith Moon!
For the next twenty years the AC/DC albums were packed up into the loft as my record collection grew without them, but with such diverse ‘new’ talent as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, among other 1960s icons. Preceding the 1960s, I listened to blues from Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Howling Wolf. As for post-1970s, Madness, The Specials and Dexy’s Midnight Runners made a welcome return from my pre-AC/DC days. It would take a long while, though, for any contemporary era to stake its claim in my collection. However, Nirvana managed to break the deadlock to remind me and everyone else just how amazing guitar, bass and drums could be after what felt like an eternity of keyboard-flavoured dross. Then in the late 1990s The White Stripes seemed to rekindle something from the wreckage following the explosion of The Pixies. My friends’ intervention, it seemed, had worked and I had developed a thirst for new horizons.
However, something felt like it was missing and was calling me from the loft.
As much as I relished and still do delight in listening to my musical discoveries, theirs is a thrill, which only really occurred from a small number of artists and songs, that never got close to the one that AC/DC used to give. For twenty years I tried consciously to broaden my interests and lay-off the base and unfortunately, at times, crass output from the brothers Young and their compadres Scott and Johnson. However, something seemed to be missing in Hendrix et al that was so plentiful in the space carved out by AC/DC. Malcolm’s chopping staccato riffs, Bon’s leering bawl, Cliff and Phil’s driving tempo and rhythm, and Angus’ running across the whole so flawlessly gave/gives me such energy that I felt/feel almost entranced, or even possessed, by their ‘High Voltage Rock ‘n’ Roll’.
Uneasily at first, like a guilty addict that slips off the wagon, I began to surreptitiously listen to an album from the loft. Although, they weren’t actually from the loft, because albums had been superseded, instead I bought a CD or two. Slowly, slowly, as if trying to convince myself that I was in control of a long passed craving and was only listening to these old songs out of curiosity, I started to go back into the world of AC/DC. I soon discovered that there were a few songs and albums that I just couldn’t get on board with, due to the lyrics being stuffed with asinine innuendo or the music being second rate in my opinion. However, after a while, little by little, I admitted to myself that I had brought AC/DC completely back into my life once more and found myself with a playlist of sixty-six tracks covering around fifty-seven songs (due to nine being reproduced on a live album). Forty-four were from the Bon Scott era and thirteen from the Brian Johnson years. In those six first years with Bon, from 1974 – 1979, the band created a template of sheer excitement that continued onwards to a large extent in the first three years with Brian but then waned away for me. However, having fifty-seven songs in any bands roll call, that can be said to send adrenaline coursing through someone’s veins, is surely an enormous achievement.
As well as recapturing my lost connection to these musical energy injections, tentatively at first, I began to realise that something else was occurring. As the guilt subsided a new feeling replaced it. I recognised that I was coming to terms with my affinity for the music of AC/DC and that I wasn’t embarrassed or disappointed with myself anymore. Instead, I started to feel that I was being honest with myself and that their music meant a great deal to me, which was actually far more important than any snobbish attitudes that I had built up, possibly reluctantly, over the past twenty or thirty years. To find an artist, musician, performer or poet with whom one feels that they shine a light into one’s self is an incredibly important connection. However, to rediscover such a connection after a considerable period of time has lapsed demonstrates that there must be a personal value to that connection that has the hallmarks of a relationship. I now know that there is certainly something like a relationship that exists between certain AC/DC songs and me. If I were to go deaf and never hear those songs again it would feel like a loss of a relationship with a dear friend, because just like our friends can nourish and enrich our lives so too has AC/DC nourished and enriched my life.
As I write these words, I recognise the difficulty that many of you will have in relating to my views on AC/DC because they sound so uncultivated, boring, repetitive and loud. Two thoughts spring to mind, though. The first is easy. I accept that one person’s AC/DC is another person’s Robert Plant, Ultravox or Boy George and so should you. Everything I say about AC/DC, I hope, is transferrable to you with your favourite artist or band. So, please replace AC/DC with Rita Ora, Iggy Azalea or Jason Derulo, as you see fit. The second thought is that maybe I need to explain just what happens when I listen to an AC/DC song.
Out of the fifty-seven tracks there are several that ignite a unique thrill within me. High Voltage and Problem Child from the off grip my attention as much as sharp slap about the face, Girls Got Rhythm and Get It Hot find their groove from the outset and bounce through the verse chorus structure with bold and beautiful thumps, riffs and hollers. The choice narrows to a top four of once-heard-never-forgotten songs that I shall hear and keep in my blood until, as they say in rock ‘n’ roll speak, the day I die.
Shoot To Thrill has all hallmarks of a well-crafted AC/DC composition, with staccato riffs, screaming lyrics (which are best not intellectually engaged with), and a solid groove courtesy of Phil on drums and Cliff on Bass. Then after a couple verses and choruses and Angus’ instantly recognisable lead work, the instruments par back to leave just Phil’s toms and Angus’ bright distinct rhythmic midrange pattern. A few bars later Malcolm joins in with a perfectly timed five note run into dynamic power chords that release the rest of the band to join in and progressively get louder and louder. Angus and Brian alternate in working up the scale to reach a plateau of sound that feels euphoric after the build-up which has been carefully laid out and crafted beforehand. It really is something quite special in their canon.
If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) similarly has the AC/DC pedigree of getting off to an impressive start with a solid riff and punchy delivery from Bon before giving two choruses in under two and a half minutes to release Angus’s florid lead-work and then some majestic drumming from Phil that demonstrates how the band work together to perform a song with everyone contributing to whole rather than getting lost in their own egos. Riff Raff erupts from Angus’ roughly cut lead to Cliff and Malcolm’s escalating rhythm to a held power chord that provides a stage for Angus and Malcolm to perform a heart-racing double guitar riff. The whole song is a virtuoso performance piece that shows just how unique and in sync the brothers are with each other but also with the rest of the band. Perfect timing happens with every crash and smash of Phil’s cymbals and drums and all three string-players. As with Shoot To Thrill, after the second chorus, space is cleared for a crescendo to emerge. Malcolm holds a power chord whilst Cliff, an unsung hero, as all bass players are, keeps the groove rumbling so that Bon and Angus can work up the excitement to the last chorus.
The work that I really want to focus on though, because it never fails to seize me immediately is the eponymous track on their 1977 album Let There Be Rock. Along with Whole Lotta Rosie, which had Angus’ final solo recorded in Albert Studios replete with smoking speakers as the producers shouted “keep playing,”3 Let There Be Rock is an AC/DC standard bearer that showcases all that is best, unique and utterly irreplaceable in their music. Other songs such as Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll might come close with Bonham and Jones’ obvious enthusiasm for the song coming across. But there is something in Plant and Page’s performance’s that strikes me as half-hearted and not fully committed. They play because they can, they are consummate musicians and can turn their hand to most genres, key and time signatures. Where Led Zeppelin might be masters of all they want to be AC/DC will never be seen in such illustrious light. However, AC/DC are masters of themselves and their style. From the off they have known where their expertise lies and have stuck with it without feeling the need to conquer new territories. Let There Be Rock strikes this note of authenticity for me and is the vanguard of what they have to offer anyone who listens to them. It is simple, rhythmic and primitive music but so beautifully paired down and honed that one can leave everything else behind and dive into the raucous sound and pounding beat to be carried away every time from ones daily grind into something that excites and electrifies one’s senses, bringing a sense of strength and vitality, akin to adrenaline when ready to take flight or fight.
Click, click, then bass drums, bass and guitars erupt into a full-blown urgent demand that leaves no doubt as to their intent or room for ignoring their presence. The start of Let There Be Rock is one of the most instantaneous in any genre of music. It is a roller coaster with no slow uphill climb to prepare you for what is about to happen. Wherever you are, you are immediately catapulted into seemingly rhythmic gunfire. With no apparent melody, only fast solid pounding, the first twenty seconds manages to repeat it’s four bar pattern sonic fireworks four times before the guitars drop out completely to reveal Bon Scott’s pseudo-biblical chant about the birth of rock layered on the top of precision drum and bass timings that continue the pace and march they first took with the guitars. For a band apparently so dominated by guitars there are forty seconds without a single note or chord struck by Malcolm or Angus. However, such a large proportion of guitar silence works to build anticipation for when they come back in after their explosive first entrance. Malcolm emerges first with a rhythmic two-chord strike pattern followed by Angus hammer sliding notes into a firmly picked out lead arrangement that respects the twelve bar blues structure to end with a couple of held high notes before the stomp of the entrance bars get repeated and Bon gets to deliver the second verse and chorus. By this point the groove of the band is unquestioned and Angus plays a bouncing counter-rhythm into the high notes once more to enable the now understood eruption sequence followed by the third verse and chorus. From here on in Angus works threads around his brother’s riffs and the bands rhythm until Malcolm smooths the riffs into strums producing a wall of sound to release the finale of ever escalating notes from Angus that culminate in a characteristic plateau of energy that gets pared down in a series of unison strikes from cymbals, and guitars to announce coming of the end. A final high-end flourish, rumble and thrash breaks to leave a slide from Angus and then a double strike completes the experience just undergone. Calling it a song or track at this point feels like such an inaccurate understatement.
For me, Let There Be Rock sets off an irrepressible force of nature within my body that makes me feel alive like almost no other feeling one can experience. It nourishes and lifts just as a friend can do when excited by something you have to say to them as they eagerly wait upon your every word. Or, to be more physical it gives similar euphoric sensations as can be achieved through exercise, so I am now told but also dimly remember. To know that I can always get this lift from AC/DC is something that I now understand I can commit to without shame because it beats throughout my being and blows out cobwebs as it energises and awakes me from my daily stupor.
It appears, then, that I have re-learned to trust AC/DC and by so doing have recaptured something of myself in the process. I guess this makes me a Gadamerian and an unusual Cavellian – there can’t be many who have worked through “the burden of modernism”4 to find themselves embracing AC/DC, I suspect!
- AC/DC, Problem Child, Young, Young & Scott, Let There Be Rock, Albert Productions, 1977.
- Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Good Year For The Roses, Jerry Chesnut, Almost Blue, F-Beat, 1981.
- Brown, J., AC/DC: In The Studio, 32.
- Cavell, S., ‘Music Discomposed’ included in Must we mean what we say?, 187.