Monday, March 15, 2010

Flash Metal Suicide: AC/DC's "For Those About To Rock We Salute You"


I've sort of made it a resolve to write about the albums that are less obvious as critics' cliches. Certainly down the road sometimes, i'll write about some of the obvious ones, but for now, I like the idea of the underdog getting a new lease on life, or someone reading this and then giving those albums a chance again. Alot of great records get buried and forgotten about and it seems like the only information that exists on them is a lazy and oft cut and pasted quote directly out of All Music Guide's reviews or biographies.

It's been bugging me for a bit--the general consensus on AC/DC's "For Those About To Rock" (released in 1981) seems to be that it's a bad or inferior album. I think that because it's not the Bon Scott era, that it's not "Highway To Hell" or "Back In Black", that it's easy to dismiss this album. Obviously it's not absolutely up to the level of those two or something like "Let There Be Rock", but this record would be most bands' crowning achievement. It's still one motherfucker of a rock n' roll album. Those that say otherwise, I really have to question what they're actually hearing, or if they've at all bothered to give this album a proper chance to begin with. No one's going to say that this is the greatest rock album ever, but in terms of underrated and kicked around ones, this ranks way up there. AC/DC's biggest enemy at this point was probably the quality of their own back catalogue.....and you probably, indeed, can have too much of a good thing.

I think that those other albums are so damned good that it's just inevitable that there had to be an album or period that started the downslide. In that sense, this is the first album where I think that a sustained quality drop happened, leading into "Flick Of The Switch", "Fly On The Wall" and "Blow Up Your Video"....none that are terrible by any means, just not as good as the other albums. However, on this record, I have to say that the quality drop was barely perceptible.

Mainly, I think that the pressure was on to duplicate the success of "Back In Black", and as i've mentioned in other writings like the Urge Overkill "Exit The Dragon" writeup, sometimes the most difficult thing to do is to try to maintain success. Do you give people more of the same, or something radically different? Obviously AC/DC never changed up the formula much and have never put out a truly embarrassing album, but really, how do you follow up "Highway To Hell" and "Back In Black"? Those are such absolutely undeniable rock n' roll masterpieces, and for a "dumb" rock band, those albums are done incredibly smart--heart, passion, guts.....the sound of a band at the absolute pinnacle of their game, which is saying alot since the earliest material off of "High Voltage" is amazing in itself. But I like different AC/DC records for different reasons, they're all great in their own way, even though every song sounds exactly the same to the average audience.

The main issue with this record is that I don't think that it had the singles support that "Back In Black" did. But it has tons of great singles type songs. "Flick Of The Switch" suffered the same fate--without enough support for the record (also a really good album despite popular opinion), it sort of died on the vine. So even in AC/DC's sets these days and for the last long time, when the average person thinks of this album, they think of the title track..... then a long pause ensues. The same thing, I think, happened to an album like "Powerage"--the record company claimed that there were no singles on that record, but that's nonsense....there was "Sin City", "Riff Raff", "Kicked In The Teeth", "Gone Shootin" ("Rock N' Roll Damnation" wasn't on the original version of the record and was added to repressings of the record to add some singles power). The American division of ATCO hated AC/DC--they'd do anything that they could to bury the band and would claim that things weren't up to par (see: "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" not being released in America until about '81 or so).

Even after the success of "Highway To Hell" and "Back In Black", I think that the record company was fully reluctant to give AC/DC their due, you know, sort of, "...well this band has had two big albums, but we don't particularly like them and their 15 minutes in the musical trend game are probably up. When are these jokers going away?". Def Leppard, by then (also working with Mutt Lange on the "High And Dry" album in 1981) were doing a pretty damned good similar sound, and they were younger and prettier and more malleable with Mutt turning them into his pet studio band (Lange co-writes, etc) basically after "High And Dry". I've heard it from more than one source that although AC/DC liked the albums that Mutt made for them, that they weren't liking the feeling that it was someone else's record, and that it was too produced. Lange was--in the band's own words--brought in to help them attain the commercial status that had eluded them in the Bon Scott days, when they were touring clubs and dives and needed to reach that next level. I think that the label guys were getting word that AC/DC didn't really like to be told what to do, so they just moved onto the next band. Definetely by the time that The Cult put out "Electric", younger and hungrier bands were taking that sound and AC/DC were no longer the "it" rock band and their audiences and popularity started to slide somewhat.

The only real complaints that I could see about "For Those About To Rock..." is that maybe it added just a little more studio polish to the sound--a little bit more reverb on the drums, etc. AC/DC have since mentioned that this album is about as produced as they ever wanted to sound, and in that sense, I can see the band's issues with Lange filing off too many rough edges being at odds with their "plug in, play and get out" no nonsense way of doing things. But I think that it works for them at this point in their career, even if it is a tad too slick sounding compared to their other albums. Lange had got them to rein things in more. Malcolm (from the liners of the remastered "For Those About To Rock We Salute You"): "Mutt didn't like the fact that we raged a little too much at the end of our songs. He also made modifications to some of our arragements that really worked, and he was great with vocals". This record is also notable in that it was the final album in the trio of Mutt produced albums that led to AC/DC's permanent arena rock headliner status, before the band had opted to produce themselves for a couple of albums without Mutt or even long time early producer cohorts Vanda and Young (George Young being the big brother of Malcolm and Angus).

"Back In Black"'s mix is hard to beat--it's big, but everything sits just right. It's one of those mixes that will forever be used to test out great stereos, because it's just one of the greatest mixes in rock history. And this album's mix is still great, even though it's not quite as good. But there are some things that contribute to it's slightly inferior nature. On this record, the drums are even louder, the bass isn't that audible unfortunately (it was fairly low in the mix on "Back In Black"....giving that album a slightly odd low end curve as well), and Brian's vocals aren't that high in the mix when they should be louder. And Angus' solos seem to be reined in somewhat. On earlier records, it seems like they'd got Angus to do whatever he does, because it added to the live show (especially on drawn out songs like "Let There Be Rock"), but here, the solos kind of seem like a bit of an afterthought. They're still great, but they're no longer, you know, vying for dominance like they did with the vocals in the earlier days. So I kind of miss that. And that probably goes back to Malcolm's statement in that Mutt didn't like the out of control, seemingly improvised in the heat of the moment raging that characterized the earlier AC/DC stuff. But I realize that's also what makes this a different album, because they're well aware of everything they're doing, everything is conscious, it's not an accident.

So of course, some of the garagey grit and the rolling wink of the eye humour from the Bon era was gone, and in actuality, this was the first album written completely without any input from Bon....even if it was just rehearsals for what would become the demos or eventual songs, because Bon was still rehearsing with them before they'd started officially working on "Back In Black", so some of that spirit inevitably must have spilled over. "Back In Black" apparently, none of the music or lyrics were written with Bon, but I find it hard to believe that some of the riffs or basic initial pre-song sketches of the songs weren't written when Bon was around (this has been up for debate forever; some say Bon had a hand somewhere in the album; others state that everything was written after his death). Brian is a tad more hoarse on this record and maybe a bit screamier. He's still got the full range that he did on "Back In Black", without the vocal range loss that he'd had on following albums (this is especially noticeable on "Fly On The Wall"), so it still has that sense of excitement with Brian able to hit those highest notes that launch the songs up into another higher gear. But ironically, they'd got heavier. Most bands mellow out a little bit once they sense that the money is about to roll in. This is maybe somewhat of a duplicate of "Back In Black", but it's also heavier and more menacing. That's also why I give it extreme respect.

Apparently, problems plagued this record right from the get-go. (from the liners of the remaster) "Once they entered the Paris- based EMI-Pathe Marconi recording facility with Lange, AC/DC found it impossible to capture their signature sound on tape. 'The studio came highly recommended' said (Brian) Johnson, 'but we just couldn't get a good live sound. Mutt finally said, 'this is hard work--we're missing the point.'.....Returning to France, AC/DC were pleased to discover that Lange had found a solution to their recording problems: he'd simply moved the entire operation to a rehearsal space on the outskirts of Paris and hired the Mobile One Studio from London to record the group."

The Sony remaster of this record sounds fantastic--lots of detail and sharpness to it, just like all the other remasters. The title track starts the album off; a slightly darker song but still with that sense of party atmosphere so as to make an otherwise rueful song into something upbeat. But perhaps the darker vibe of the song misrepresented the album or just put people off. When Angus' morse code guitar starts out, it does sound pretty ominous--sort of like "Hell's Bells". The only other song on the album that's this consistently dark in tone is album closer "Spellbound"......slow, bluesy, menacing and hair raising, kind of like "Let Me Put My Love Into You". "Breaking The Rules"' verse (that morse code riff again) is pretty menacing, too. But I suppose that it's less pure menace than mischieviousness. Whereas "Night Prowler" was pretty dark lyrically, there was something in the music and overall mood that suggested a humourous take on the situation (apparently Richard Ramirez didn't get the joke). The mood on something like "Spellbound" is dead serious. It really sounds like the killer is out to get you. I think that's what maybe put people off about this. Without Bon's humour, the band's writing had got more and more serious sounding...this time, the killer really is gonna stick a knife in your back. But the killer, unlike "Night Prowler", isn't quite as evident-- it seems like the narrator is up against an undetermined or invisible nemesis.

Check out the lyrics:

"Beaten by a blind bend
Wrong way up a dead end
Screamin' through a speed trap

As I tear into a tail back

You know I can't do nothin' right

No I never sleep at night

And I can't even start a fight

Well my feet have left the ground
Spinnin' round and round

Spellbound

My world keeps a tumblin' down

Spellbound

My world keeps a tumblin' down

It keeps a tumblin' down

C'mon slide
"

.....so it's definetely not your typical AC/DC fare. Maybe people didn't really like it when the band started getting away from party and good time themes. That's understandable.

So, it's a party album.....with consequences. That's a vibe that I don't think that i've heard on their records, since....that dark, haunting quality. I guess there's tracks like "The Razor's Edge" on following records that were dark sounding, but this album really seems to always revert back to a darker, more brooding quality....that there's this uneasy, unsettling undercurrent. Maybe that's what put people off about it, but that's why I think that this record is a bit different, that amidst all the party themes on the surface, that maybe the death of Bon had sort of affected them more than they thought.

As mentioned earlier, there's tons of singles potential on this record. "COD", I think, would have been my choice for the first single--it's probably the most immediate song on the record, in terms of radio potential.....kind of Stonesy, with a killer chorus. The verses kind of remind me a bit of "Gone Shootin", that kind of cruising type riff. My second choice for a single probably would have been "Night Of The Long Knives"--great verse riff with a killer chorus. Oddly enough, both those songs are on side B! Had they been earlier in the song sequence, I dunno, maybe something would have clicked with more listeners. "I Put The Finger On You" could have been a great single as well, and "Evil Walks" could have been a great slower type single. "Let's Get It Up" has a real funky strutting type riff, and "Inject The Venom" also struts in the chorus, with a great stop/ start riff and dynamic sort of call and response between the vocals and the rest of the band. "Snowballed" is probably the fastest and heaviest song on the record; alternating to a slow, unexpected, choppy chorus part.

AC/DC, I truly salute you, because you indeed did rock on this album. It's just really too bad that it's not more popular of a consensus.

-Ryan Settee

3 comments:

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Spicediver said...

Ry,

Great review, you're bang on the money here.

For Those About To Rock soundtracked my teenage years just as much as Highway to Hell and Back In Black. Just last month I went back and listened to some AC/DC albums for the first time in many, many years.

This album is still a stunner and I don't think it's a coincidence that it was their last with Mutt Lange, because IMO they haven't made an album as good since. He knew how to soak up their sound and add just the right amount of polish.

I thought the production on all the following albums until The Razor's Edge was pretty shocking - I thought that at the time and I still think that now. Flick Of The Switch is sorely in need of polish, Fly On The Wall has almost no bass in the mix, and Blow Up Your Video sounds thin and tinny.

The dark edge - yep, you've made me realise now what's unique about this record. Many of these songs ("Spellbound", "For Those About To Rock", "Evil Walks") have a tension and drama that's really special.

I salute you. :)

SD

Ry Crooder said...

Thanks! "Fly On The Wall" has to be the weirdest mix on any of their albums....like you say, no bass, Brian's vocals are way back in the mix.

I really get the impression that after Lange was brought in to get the most out of them commercially, that the band felt boxed in and wanted to do things their way without having to overthink everything. While I think that it lead to maybe a better band atmosphere with less tension from producers suggesting this and that, it also is evident that there wasn't that additional outside opinion on things. George and Harry really guided things in the beginning, but by the time that George came back to produce them in the mid 80's, they'd got accustomed to doing things the way that they were doing them.

C'est le vie, as they say.

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