Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock (1970)

Warner Bros. Records ■ WS 1877

Released June, 1970

Produced by Deep Purple

Engineered by Andy Knight, Martin Birch, Philip McDonald

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Speed King
  2. Bloodsucker
  3. Child in Time
  1. Flight of the Rat
  2. Into the Fire
  3. Living Wreck
  4. Hard Lovin’ Man

Ah, Deep Purple “Mk. II”.

Why, out of all the bands that have gone through such monumental lineup changes (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, etc) they are the only ones that seem to have become firmly labeled with “version” numbers is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because the lineup change has such a drastic overall effect on songwriters–we can say “Barrett-era Floyd”¹ and “Peter Green” and “Bob Welch” and so on, to notate the controlling voice’s change. I don’t know–anything would be just a guess, and it’s likely just an indicator of the varying mentalities of fans that Deep Purple’s chose that approach.

Still, “Mark II” has its place highest in the echelons of music, particularly for being so thoroughly entrenched in hard rock when it was rapidly morphing into heavy metal (though most of the albums at the time given that have largely sloughed off that title as it has gained higher and higher minimums of power/volume/aggression/speed/etc over the years). Indeed, if the average person can assign anything to the name “Deep Purple”, it is probably “Smoke on the Water”, their monstrous hit from two albums (and years) farther on, Machine Head. Now, of course, “Highway Star” has gained a measure of fame from its inclusion in Rock Band, so there might be that further connection, but it, too, comes from ’72’s Machine Head anyway.

While I grew up with “Smoke on the Water” as I did with many a classic rock song, it regained strength when I came into my love of Frank Zappa, and the story of the burning casino studio in it. About four or five years ago, I happened upon the 25th anniversary edition of Fireball, the album between this one and Machine Head. The packaging, the tracklisting–it seemed intriguing, and I went ahead and got it. I quickly fell for that album and it’s peculiarities (particularly the romping and somewhat odd “Anyone’s Daughter”, which hasn’t really got an analogous partner on the other two albums, nor the non-album singles), then let myself begin to spiral outward from it and into the other albums from this particular line up of Deep Purple.

Both of the other “Mk. II” albums were indeed released in expanded formats, with Deep Purple in Rock and Machine Head bookending the set with the fewest and greatest number of bonus tracks (Machine Head has an entire alternate mix on a whole separate disc). In my inescapable desire to partition albums under schemata entirely of my own invention but apparently quite convincing (to me, at least), there’s a progression that I think of in many bands–a spark of novelty in the first album that establishes a sound clearly and gains a lot of appreciation as a result, a second album that seems to take that sound and throw out any and all boundaries, and then a third that refines everything learned in the first two²–and that tends to, as a result, often determine and define my preferences (I usually like the second album most). Deep Purple ends up no exception to this–Fireball remains my favourite, and I tend to prefer In Rock after that, and Machine Head last, despite the obvious appeal. It’s not defiance, it just seems to work out that way.

Either everyone agrees with me on Fireball or no one does, as I see it least of all on vinyl, though I admit I don’t look too intently. I picked up this rather beat up copy of In Rock on a trip to a used store I frequented less than most others two or three years back, simply because I was in the depths of my affections for Deep Purple at the time. It has a kind of charm for a record like this to look like this–it’s not an ultra rare disc, so it’s nice to see one that was loved for a good few decades, not treated as a hermetically sealed idol so much as a well-loved piece of momentary joy for someone.

And that’s really how Deep Purple works–not that they can’t be placed on any pedestals, but it’s music that demands enjoyment from listening, as it is built heavily on grooves, whether we’re talking about Gillan’s vocals, Blackmore’s riffing, Lord’s vamping, Glover’s basslines, or Paicey’s flood of fills and feel-based drumming. I have a number of records that have that cute instruction: “To be played LOUD” (eg The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), but Deep Purple in Rock I just kind of instinctively turn up–I do worry a bit about the neighbors, but it feels like the kind of thing that your neighbors would either nod sagely at the playing of, or shrug and admit that it at least makes sense to be playing it loud.

While “Anyone’s Daughter” has no equivalents floating about (from the band in question, I mean), the smaller hit “Highway Star” is hinted at when Deep Purple in Rock opens: “Speed King” is another boastful self-descriptive blast of groove and power. I should mention this is the U.S. issue of the album, wherein the introductory flurry of distortion and wild guitar flailing from Blackmore as well as the first snippet of Lord’s organ introduction is omitted (about a minute and a half). That is a shame, let’s be honest–but the real joy of “Speed King” is the riff that just leaps out of the gate, grounded by Glover’s deep bass, and backed by Paicey’s blasting drums. Gillan immediately makes clear the meaning of the witty description of the song in the gatefold (“Just a few roots, replanted”) as his words reference early Little Richard hits. But it’s all filtered through the riff-based power of a band that would come to define hard rock in many of the best ways. The forward movement of the song is what is most allusive if one knows “Highway Star” already–Ian Paice’s drums are fantastically thoughtful without any sacrifice of power and movement, something that is not as apparent in the later song. Lord and Blackmore³ have a brief interlude where they trade subdued and gentle licks, but it’s returned to the relentless pace of the opening, uninterested in anything more than a pause for anything else.

“Bloodsucker” eases the pace a bit, but pumps the “groove” quotient up to compensate. Glover’s bass rides under a tangled lick from Blackmore, but controls the sound, giving the bottom end the motor of the snaking movement of the song. Paice is happy to largely just keep the beat this time, though he continues to do so with great flair. Lord gets to turn the burners back to a simmering feeling, drawing out the emanations of the groove to a stretched, low-slung rest. But he’s not left to just this, as he gets a higher end solo that is turned in for another of the same from Blackmore–neither is overly long, even as they trade back and forth, each just a few bars to show off and flutter at the song’s melody and feel. Gillan’s voice is defined primarily by the stomping shuffle of Paice’s drums, but when he lets loose on that shrieking “Oh, no no no!” (not to be confused with the song “No No No” from Fireball, of course), he really makes his, ahem, voice heard and gives the song his own little inscription.

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising to me that “Child in Time” is the most appealing part of the album amongst the folks I know–either I know people who have no interest in Deep Purple, or I know people who like them whose taste is more readily ascribed to progressive rock bands, at least of the Pink Floyd variety, if not the more nerdy King Crimson set (this should not be taken as insulting–when we get to “K”, we’ll actually have a poll for Crimson, as I own enough). “Child in Time” is something like the amalgamation of hard rock, jam band, and progressive rock: it’s a ten minute epic song, filled with noodling, vamping, and slow, deliberate movement toward intended ends. With the heated coals of the beginning–gentle, sparse ride from Paice, majestic organs that cross the solemnity of church organs with the ominous nature of horror movie kinds–Gillan naturally chooses a lower voice to keep the song in the proper place, Glover and Blackmore largely just following Lord’s lower-pitched left hand. The mood Lord has established for us is borne out in the words Gillan sings: “Sweet child in time you’ll see the line/The line that’s drawn between good and bad/See the blind man shooting at the world/Bullets flying taking toll”. Gillan’s voice increases in power and pitch at the third line, but drops back low again after that, only to climb to an extreme with the next: “If you’ve been bad oh, Lord I bet you have/And you’ve not been it, oh, by flying lead/You’d better close your eyes/Oh! Bow your head…” and then from that extremely passionate warning turns to the shrugging, “If only you’d listened sort of tone,” as he sings “Wait for the ricochet…” His voice is gentle, singing only “Oooh-ooh-ooh…” repeatedly now, as Glover begins to push the band upward with a huge swathe of low end cutting through the track, Gillan’s “oohs” traded for “aahs” (writing really can’t do this justice, you know), which gradually expand and grow with the rest of the track, to shrieking, impassioned, wordless expression–before Paice turns the track martial with emphatic drumming, alongside Lord’s rhythmic pounding of keys. Blackmore slinks in his best solo on the album, soulful and wildly appropriate, as the entire song suddenly takes on a lolloping gait, charging forward instrumentally on the blazing fingers of Blackmore, his lead part like sparks from the flames now risen from those opening coals, the song burning faster, brighter, higher, harder, louder, sharper until it climaxes with a lead from Lord instead, which stops short, and returns to the slow roasting opening instead at just the right moment, but leaves Lord still playing a lead part.
Amazingly, the words I typed above are the only ones Gillan really sings in the song, and he begins to repeat them here, sounding like a revelation–like new lyrics, despite the fact that they are nothing of the kind. The song climbs and climbs as before, until it collapses into a chaos of distortion and sound, a final destruction that emphatically and appropriately punctuates the song and the side.

Side two returns us to the sounds that opened the album, though “Flight of the Rat” is a bit more at ease than the energetic “Speed King” or the groove-laden “Bloodsucker”. Maybe that’s appropriate–the title does imply a different kind of travel (be it air-travel or escape). Everyone’s a bit more relaxed, oddly, as if this is a palate cleanser following the beauty of “Child in Time”–it’s a more “fun” track, as much of the second side is.  It’s another long track (around eight minutes), but it’s more of a steady one than the rollercoaster of its predecessor, and its introspective lyrics are the opposite numbers-wise–they take up more of the left side of the gatefold than any other song, though this largely reflects the brevity of the lines. The interlude for instrumental show from Lord and then Blackmore (which eventually stops for a pretty great wah-wah “breakdown”) only furthers the feeling that this track is sheer enjoyment in a can, so to speak.

“Into the Fire” is probably the album’s heaviest track, in that more indefinable sense: Blackmore and Glover are crushing with their strings, and chug along with immense weight. Paicey pounds out a thumping rhythm with some semi-Moon-esque fills that give it a great flavour, while Gillan ups the feeling of a relative of “Bloodsucker”, as his words are dragged along in the wake of the song’s rhythm, until that pause at the end of each stanza where he let’s loose: “Into the FI-IRE!” he yells, not the shriek of “Child in Time” or “Bloodsucker,” but a more throat-scorching bellow that seems to belch up flames of its own, throwing smoke and ash into its sound. Just foot-stomping beauty, here.

Lyrically, “Living Wreck” is beyond odd; its witty description relates it back to groupies, while the lyrics themselves imply a groupie fallen all to pieces (“You took off your hair/You pulled out your teeth/Oh, I almost died of fright…”). So far as I’m concerned, it’s best to look past them (or take a bit of humour from them, at best). Blackmore’s riffing, particularly following Gillan’s first stanza, part muted, and hanging out firmly in the mids, is engaging and dirty in the best sense that guitars can be. The bassy bridge (a mix of Glover and Lord at the low end of his keys) booms and shakes the track under a meandering, casual lead from Blackmore, an unusual sound for him on the album, especially with its pinched, thin, mid-range tone that gives a crustier feel to the track on the whole.

The album closes with “Hard Lovin’ Man”, which gives Glover an unusual (but brief) spotlight at open, to slide back and forth on a line that defines the arc of Paicey and Blackmore’s charging feel for the song. A burnt, crispy drone of semi-distorted keys (yep!) emanates from Lord’s fingers, and turns that chugging gallop into something different, banding itself around the other three instruments. It turns into a peculiar, semi-off lead from Lord, that, as per usual, turns instead to a lead from Blackmore, who turns in a typically sparkling performance, one that seems to rustle and shake within a carefully controlled, limited space to keep it tied closely to the song as a whole. The whole thing collapses into absolute chaos, defined by the stereo-panned howls and squalls of distortion from Blackmore.

I have a longstanding affection for the hard rock vein of classic rock, particularly the kind that didn’t explode so completely as to define itself as itself, instead of a component of the whole (I’m looking at you, Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham!) and lose track of where it fit within the grand scheme of rock music–indeed, I have a hunger for the kind of sounds that seem to have fallen out of the 1970s approach to hard rock, lacking in pretension, dripping with fist-pumping kinds of energy and the histrionics and groove that made it so appealing in the first place, so much so that I once wrote about my favourite modern instances, and you can hear some strains of it in the last band I wrote about, Davenport Cabinet.

Deep Purple in Rock (and, to be fair, Fireball) really sate that craving quite well–In Rock perhaps managing it more thoroughly, if not as well, thanks to the “pure rock” approach to the album as a whole. It’s always interesting to gather the different thoughts about bands like this–today, a coworker actually mentioned the band purely by chance, he of an age to know them more as former “contemporaries”, and was semi-surprised to find I’d just been listening to the band. Friends into classic rock don’t bring them up much, but tend to respect them, and my father has one of his “strange” opinions when it comes to them–his preference is for the Rod Evans era, and albums like The Book of Taliesyn, though I suppose this isn’t too great a surprise considering he and I have always differed on the “harder” and “heavier” elements of rock music (we’ll have more fun with this contrast with later artists, I think!).

I think In Rock serves as a good place for anyone to go who has an attitude like mine: I don’t like being coloured by (ie, magnetically drawn to) a familiar single like a gravitational pull–the desire to hear the familiar is strong in almost all of us (if not, discounting extreme willfulness, all of us period), and it makes it hard, sometimes, to get a feel for an artist or an album when there is that point of inevitable attraction in a work. In Rock does have “Child in Time”, but this is both an extremely long track and also only the kind of track you’re likely to be familiar with when crossed fingers at the “progressive” nature’s chances of appealing to highbrow sensibilities encouraged someone to pass it on as “proof” of Deep Purple’s quality. Yeah, I’m kind of cynical–I’m wary of a lot of communities surrounding that word, and the occasional recursive interest in “proving” the value of things.

I think Deep Purple stand pretty well on their own, without the need to prove they aren’t “dumb rock”, nor to prove that anything that is (or could be) is not inherently valueless.

As a final note, though, I hate typing the title of the album. Is it In Rock? Is it Deep Purple in Rock? Obviously, the cover is a sort of pun and requires the whole phrase, but does that mean it was a play wherein the title was attached to the artist to make it work, or the original intention? No, this doesn’t really matter, but these things tend to stick with me anyway.

¹”Barrett-era”–doesn’t that just sound nice, as a phrase?

²This idea has been applied (quite subjectively) to numerous artists over the years. Mostly by me, and no one else. I keep it because I like how it fits together in my brain.

³If you don’t know this–yes, seriously, those are the members’ names. I know it sounds like some kind of fantasy heroes. I’ll admit, too, it’s less fun to refer to them as “Jon” and “Ritchie” respectively.


Day Forty-Eight: The Cult – Love

Beggars Banquet ■ BEG A 65

Released October 19, 1985

Produced by Steve Brown
Engineered by Steve Brown and Mark Stent

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Nirvana
  2. Big Neon Glitter
  3. Love
  4. Brother Wolf; Sister Moon
  5. Rain
  1. Phoenix
  2. Hollow Man
  3. Revolution
  4. She Sells Sanctuary
  5. Black Angel

Despite being a band I remain cursorily familiar with (at best), I actually wrote about The Cult twice on the last blog, once in bite-sized form regarding their fourth album, Sonic Temple, and very early on regarding the Beggars Banquet “Omnibus Edition” releases, which included this very album. I still have no idea what to make of them in more “global” terms than my own personal one, but I’ve found myself gravitating more and more regularly to their work, as proven by my eventual acquisition of this record (another of my more excited purchases from Hunky Dory. It is, so far as I can tell, actually a UK original from ’85, but I’ve never been too fussed about such things (even if I do find the thought neat and vaguely exciting).

“Nirvana” opens the album with a simple drumstick count from Mark Brzezicki (of Big Country), but Billy Duffy (though still credited at this time with the more officialese William H. Duffy) fans out a single chord from the guitar with the immediately pulsing bass of Jamie Stewart, Brzezicki now matching that pulse with hi-hat and off-beat snares. Duffy slashes guitar melody over this, big and broad, Ian Astbury descending from above with some simple “Oh, oh, oh yeah!” that seems to turn the band toward the verse as a whole, Brzezicki now embracing primarily snare and bass kick, Duffy’s crunchy riffs muted but escaping at the end of each of Astbury’s lines. Astbury’s voice is broad, wide and big, in keeping with Duffy’s guitar stylings, gnarling up in their unmuted freedom with a hook of a riff that builds up the tension–“And when the music is loud”, Astbury sings, and then it is just that: the initial melody was that of the chorus, and now his voice soars over the riffs Duffy started the album with, but held back a bit to let Astbury control that chorus like nobody’s business. At the midpoint, a start-stop bridge, emphasized largely by Brzezicki’s drums, but sounding best in the slippery, open riffs of Duffy. Billy goes into a coiled chug of muted riffing with the most delightful little branches of released strings that slowly manages to morph into a rising, rising, and rising solo that eschews the sense of “show-off” completely, being utterly appropriate for the song’s movement.

“Big Neon Glitter” is not bright and sparkly as one might think, single-picked, muted guitar strings with relatively light distortion echo just slightly, and are undercut by a sliding bass from Stewart that seems to fade down as it slides off of its notes, Brzezicki rolls into snare and bass hits, which slowly increase Duffy’s confidence, finally cementing it with a snare build that releases the strings, putting the same riff into a more complicated pattern, one that makes use of open strings for space,. Brzezicki, too, opens up, pounding the skins with a more primal–though just slightly restrained–force, before Duffy reaches into the heavens with another shining, high progression. “Drag me back/Drag me back drag me back drag me back” Astbury enters to say, seemingly repeating himself in a sense somewhere between hurrying the slow-moving and sinking into relaxation. Duffy’s guitars become more spaced apart, Brzezicki pushing the song forward, but Astbury making his notes count at the speed he feels appropriate, which isn’t always the tempo Brzezicki is setting. The bridge sees Brzezicki putting four on the floor, Stewart’s bass sliding up forcefully then back down with energy expended, Duffy’s guitar running tight circles around the rhythm section, Ian only briefly fading in with rhythmic vocalization that leaves as fast as it comes.

The title track makes for one of the best cases for the value of Billy’s overdubbing of guitars on the album–or, at the very least, one of the most apparent cases. He starts alone, playing a riff that goes on four beats and stops cold, but is picked up with a bending lead lick that overlaps just slightly with the riff’s return. The riff stays steady, while the higher lead lowers itself over a few steps, and then becomes a much more spacious, lower one that paves the way for Ian’s voice. Stewart mostly follows that standing riff, but fills the gap after its second run with a few beats and a downward slope. Ian keeps the power in his voice, but tunes it more toward a small crowd than the far reaches of a field, his words now leaving to let Duffy’s guitar lead return, experimenting further with its own range. A monster tom beat keeps the forward movement under Ian’s lengthy “Oh…” and lets Billy’s lead just burn and sail on through the rest of the track. The latter half of the car encompasses Astbury’s second lyrical set, half-desperate repetitions of methods of escape set to the varied poundings of Brzezicki and Duffy’s steadily high lead. A wah-wah warping of his lead carries it out through the end, Astbury improvising more and more steadily alongside him.

“Brother Wolf; Sister Moon” is the most explicit acknowledgment of the Native American aesthetic Ian favoured (actually, I think he still favours it). Duffy plays a low, arpeggiated chord over and over, joined subtly by bass kicks from Brzezicki, but most apparently by the flickers of mournful wailing that come from another of his own performances. It’s the kind of track you’d at least half expect to half spoken word lyrics, but Ian continues to make the most of his voice, his lyrics not even going in the story direction you might expect from the music and title, instead running on his favoured approach of a set of lines that are repeated in a fashion that is not always distinctly verse-chorus-verse. “And blow my fears…” he pauses, then sings “…away,” and Brzezicki drops his drums more strongly into the track–still a simple, steady and slow beat, but the snare drum echoing, and Stewart’s bass quietly rising up to join it in volume, too. It’s a hypnotic track, a slow fuse, but a burning one; when Duffy takes up the reins from Astbury and begins a solo that doesn’t much violate the song’s tempo, he doesn’t take that fuse and explode, so much as burn it brighter, Stewart’s keyboard part adding the most expectation to the track, high in the track and repeated with a melody that implies an eventual release, Ian repeating his lyrics before he pauses again, this time his word returning the song to its origins, a recording of an actual thunderstorm blanketing the track in one of the most musically appropriate moments for one I can recall.

Released as a single shortly before the album itself, “Rain” riffs more like “Nirvana”, though the steady four-on-the-floor from Brzezicki is given a speedy feel by his eighth note responses on the hi-hat. At open, Duffy’s guitars play as slowly picked chords on the one hand, but rising wails of lead. Mark releases his grip on the rapid beat slightly when the introduction ends, though, a subtle tambourine maintaining the eight notes, but most of the beat stuck to bass-snare-bass-snare pulsebeats. Duffy’s lead fades for the verse, his riffing turning to partly muted chugs, that open back up (though quietly) with Ian’s voice, which leaps along the tops of Billy’s high-reaching chorus lick. The return of the rapid opening beat allows Stewart’s bass to make itself known, before it gives way to the martial drumming of Mark and the shattering, tightly knit riffs that launch the song back into its chorus as the song finds its close.
Wah-wah is the order of the day in “Phoenix”, apparently a technique Billy picked up simply because there was a pedal in the studio, and not one he normally kept in his repertoire. He lays down a warbling riff, to which Ian replies “Yeah!” and Brzezicki adds a pair of kicks and then a steady beat to. Duffy’s lead burns off into the atmosphere and leaves behind a more restrained riff that mirrors Stewart’s bass, before it finds itself unable to be controlled and begins to spiral out from that simpler base, as Ian repeats “Fire, fire, fire…” in a way much calmer than he would do a few years later in “Fire Woman”. The wah allows Billy to wrestle out a song-length lead that gets neither boring nor too showy, and never stable and repetitious. It gives the whole thing a sort of “tougher” sense, not quite aggression but just pure strength.
“Hollow Man” is built on a steady foundation of  Stewart’s bass, one that ties down the free-floating riffs of Billy just long enough for Brzezicki to wrest control away and pull Duffy back down to earth for a riff that locates Ian’s voice and brings the song into a more distinct form that it carries onward. While a few songs on the album have backing vocals, they are most apparent here, in the only instance where they are the voices of Duffy and Stewart, echoing the words of Ian, at a vocal expression more of us can wrap our heads around. The lead riff Duffy follows with is like a rising flame that burns the rest away to leave nothing but a slightly tremolo-quivered ringing chord, and a bass-kick, snare-rim tap, which is itself burnt away with that same flaming riff, and leaves the verse’s structure intact in its wake instead. Billy’s lead begins to become wiry and aggressive in its bonds to the rest of the song, fighting more and more until the final beat of the song is let go.

Downtempo in a style very different from “Brother Wolf; Sister Moon”, “Revolution” has a thumping bassline and another of the more steady beats Brzezicki lays down. Duffy’s guitar is relatively subdued, though it doesn’t starve for volume or presence. Ian is similarly restrained: not quiet, not restricted in power, but kept at a reasonable medium largely, though his singing style doesn’t lend itself significantly to this approach and he throws a few tricks in here and there. At the chorus, though, he sings out into the distance, “There’s a revolution!/There’s a revolution!” with a kind of clenched-fist passion, though he spends most of the verses questioning the nature of revolution, the meaning of images, and the strength of either. It’s anthemic in an entirely different sense form “Nirvana” or “Rain”, which is exemplified in the deliberate pace of Duffy’s solo–it’s a fist raised more in solidarity, a glimmer of hope in rain, than it is a fist raised to punch at the air, or as a symbol to represent an undimmed effort despite exhaustion. The Soultanas (who are responsible for the album’s other backing vocals) appear with choral “Ahhs” and repetitions of the title word, all of it seeming to imply a non-specific revolution–not a theme song for a particular one, or maybe even any of them, yet not far off in tone from what one might be.

“She Sells Sanctuary” is a track the band was originally inclined to omit from the album, as it was released months earlier as a single, and was recorded with their then-drummer Nigel Preston, whose undiagnosed mental illness left him out of the band due to increasingly erratic behaviour. It’s chopped down from the lengthy runtime of the single (6:59 to 4:22), but still has a big sound that belies its comparatively short running time (it’s also now the second shortest track on the album, after “Rain”). The watery, ethereal guitar that starts it turns quickly to the burning rock of the song’s primary riff, which is expanded by the use of a clean guitar’s sound on the same riffs. Ian’s voice is in top firm, his mouth, his lungs open wide for every word. Nigel’s drums are steady and consistent, as is Stewart’s pulsing bass, but the Billy and Ian trade their energies throughout, soaring vocals for soaring leads, occasionally overlapped but never treading on each other. It briefly morphs into a vaguely psychedelic passage backed by steady 4/4 kicks, but it finds itself immediately becoming a final anthemic run through the verse and then a slow devolution into that watery opening guitar again.
The rapid song-end strumming that opens “Black Angel” is a complete distraction from what it becomes, a more clearly defined but still rapid riff is suggested, but replaced with a sped-up funereal clean guitar line that the distortion matches in volume, melody and rhythm. Reverberating chords let ring at the beginning of each measure suggest a desert’s desolation. Ian sings at his most gentle and quiet, but the kicks Brzezicki places behind him open his voice: “It’s a long way to go/A black angel at your side”…it’s a chorus that trudges with its words–it’s a long way to go, his voice says, not suggesting giving up, even sympathetic, but not just stating the facts, though maybe with a hint of confidence in the ability to finish the trip anyway. Of course, this is a trip with death, if “black angel” didn’t make that clear enough, the line is sometimes clarifed to “The reaper at your side”, nevermind “Journey on to the eternal reward”. It’s the theme of a journey, too intimate to be relegated to soundtrack status, but it would not be out of place there all the same–a cloaked figure pushing on through winds and sand, the hazy mirage of a black angel waiting off to the side. Brzezicki turns to a martial beat, implications of a steady march, and Duffy lays it over with his prettiest lead, which weaves around keys from Stewart, the mournful sound of a long journey that nears end but is still far off enough to be distant. “It’s a long, long, long goodbye” Ian begins to sing, and then it all wraps suddenly.
If you’re wondering, the symbols next to each song’s description are those that are placed in the back cover’s  tracklisting, as well as interspersed in the lyrics. If you actually blow up the picture of the cover in my hand, you’ll find that, oddly, the two sides are “reversed”: Side Two is above the central Cult wings, just below the band’s logo, and Side One is below and above the album title. Oddly, the back cover also shows the symbols in a row–and they’re reversed in the same fashion. Other pressings undo this choice, but I’m left wondering if it was intentional or accidental. I also wonder a bit if the symbol for “Hollow Man” is intended for “Black Angel”, though there are certainly enough death symbols in Egyptian mythology that that might be one as well (it’s not one I can place, so I’m not sure, myself–and perhaps it’s not so obvious as that). Each is of course drawn in the oblong shape that indicates a cartouche–but more than one is clearly taken from other cultures (a yin/yang appears in the one for “Revolution”, for instance).
The Cult has an interesting sound, and they’ve got a weird reputation. All the reviews included in the Omnibus edition prattle on about how they seem to be trying to bring back the ’60s, and other such tripe, and use this “against” them, despite the fact that it is not inherently good or bad, and Billy himself comments on realizing this, saying that he learned that Pete Townshend, for instance, was not automatically a boring old dinosaur just because Steve Jones (of the Sex Pistols) said he was, and that he had to “unlearn” a lot. I found all of this quite endearing: I’ve never been one to truck much with the reaction of punks as purely relevant to all music, much though I appreciate the shakeup–music can always use that.
What they actually sound like, though, is vaguely influenced by their imagery and their name: it’s music that carries on long enough and in fashions that use enough repetition that it could easily be thought of as mantra or chant, the kind of sounds and words that could fit with a darkened room lit only by large flames–not as a means of pretension or silliness, but as the right atmosphere for the sound. And sometimes it’s too big and loud and janglingly bright to fit in that space, but it seems right anyway. 
Indeed, this seems to be why “gothic rock” is attached to them as a label, at least in their early days (notwithstanding lingering associations from prior incarnation Southern Death Cult, which is a pretty cool name, you have to admit)–but they’re often pictured at the time (including inside the gatefold) in endless necklaces and paisley for Duffy, or the same excess jewelry and a leather jacket for Ian. There’s a sort of flowingness to their aesthetic as people that gives an oddly believable metaphysical sense to their image and sound. Astbury’s lyrics help this, but most importantly, none of it comes off as contrived or overtly naïve, it just comes off as aged, goth-y mystics who like to play rock. That might sound silly to some, I suppose, but it tends to work quite well for me, considering how they carry it off–neither taking it too far, nor seeming to chafe at its implications.
It’s nice, if nothing else, to see a band that is willing to create their own sound, not deny the past, and still come out of a scene (and a label) more known for the peculiar and “arty”.
  • Next Up: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Day Three: AC/DC – Highway to Hell

Atlantic Records ■ SD 19244

Released August 3, 1979

Produced by Robert John Lange
Engineered by Kevin Dallimore [Assistant], Tony Platt [Mixing], Mark Dearn[l]ey [Recording]

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Highway to Hell
  2. Girl’s Got Rhythm
  3. Walk All Over You
  4. Touch Too Much
  5. Beating Around the Bush
  1. Shot Down in Flames
  2. Get It Hot
  3. If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)
  4. Love Hungry Man
  5. Night Prowler
Already I find myself forced to eat my own words. I chose not to pull out an item like the 1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die one, not because I couldn’t do it, nor because it would force me through music I don’t know or maybe don’t like, but because I didn’t want to be too stuck into writing about an album everyone and their mother has written about already. Instead, I decided to go through my own collection alphabetically.

Well, here I’ve stuck my foot in it.

If I were smart, I would have discussed If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, the live album that precedes this one in the AC/DC catalog, but I decided the easiest way to sort out which album by an artist to discuss was to skip EPs and live albums (thus my choice of 86’s Provocation over their Minutes in a Day EP). This does mean that I’m stuck trying to talk about one of the most classic of classic hard rock albums in all of music history. Well, there are worse things to talk about, and certainly albums that could make me look much dumber.

If you aren’t a music person, or are and somehow don’t at least know of AC/DC or what they sound like, they, like many bands of the 1980s, have a reputation that precedes them for outsiders. This may sound strange coming from someone who just reviewed his copy of an experimental black metal album, but I spent my youth in a household that didn’t much go in for hard rock, metal or rap as these primary sorts of genres tended to arrive after the primary congealing of taste for my father, who dominated musical discussions and in-house taste in those days. That preceding reputation, then, carried over a bit to me. I had a friend introduce me to AC/DC by way of their follow-up to this, Back in Black with all kinds of both emphatic enthusiasm and a description of either Ronnie James Dio (of Dio, Rainbow and Black Sabbath, primarily) or a confusion of him and perhaps Bon Scott–or, even more likely, a confusion of my own memory as to what I was told. Still, there was an aura of forbidden mystique about “metal” and “hard rock” that left me with strange notions about Iron Maiden and AC/DC even as I heard the first track I can remember: “Hell’s Bells.” On some level, I remember finding it to be not nearly so scary as I thought, but also reflexively designating it “not my cup of tea,” as that was the attitude I understood followed it.

In high school, though, I started to actually begin pursuing music in various avenues, and AC/DC was a band I quickly latched onto (much like Thin Lizzy, VH1’s Behind the Music was actually a strong inspiration for this–seeing the human element behind music is helpful to me in grounding the sound against actual people, blasphemous though the notion may be to some). During my brief stint with “learning” the guitar, I finagled the acquisition of Highway to Hell, Back in Black, and 1990’s The Razor’s Edge for the alleged purposes of learning them. Instead, they mostly served as endless soundtrack to a cross-country roadtrip, to the chagrin of my family. I didn’t mind hearing the three albums over and over and over, but I was rather alone in this. Still, the music was foreign, as I’ve noted, to the household, so it had a newness, even as plenty of the singles had leaked in over the years through the radio (“Moneytalks” having been the driver behind my acquiring The Razor’s Edge in particular).

I picked up this LP some years back for about $2.50 (if the sticker on it is to be believed) during a phase that amounted to, “things I think I should have on vinyl, as I try to figure out what it is that makes me want vinyl, as well as things assured not to double my father’s own collection.” The album was ingrained by this time, and I’ve certainly not spent a lot of time since then listening to it–at the least, not listening to my vinyl copy of it.

I’ve gotten a bit lost here, but let’s get back to the point: AC/DC are pure hard rock. That means riff-based guitars, steady backbeats, guitar solos, up-beat tempos and crunchy distortion on said guitars. Riffs, if I need to go deeper, are usually guitar parts that are played as chords rather than single-picked notes, meaning that the guitarist strums at least a few strings at once, often using what are called “power chords,” so-called for their sense of, well, power and derived from their general simplicity: usually the index finger, ring finger, and pinkie occupy the top three strings in order, with about an inch (a fret, the place between the vertical bars on a guitar neck) between index and ring finger. Usually these chords are slid up and down the neck of the guitar or jump around between strings without changing shape. It allows for easy learning, quick chord changes, and a lot of volume without near as much effort as you might need otherwise.

The band hails from Australia originally, though most of the members do not, making them oddly reminiscent of the Bee Gees, another primarily-UK-born group that achieved fame through life in Australia. The rhythm section, Cliff Williams on bass and Phil Rudd on drums, has been near consistent since about 1977 (though Rudd left briefly in the 1980s), but is often left to do their job behind the vocalists and lead guitarist Angus Young. Carried along by blood is his brother Malcolm, the band’s rhythm guitarist who is far less showy but rocksteady and heavily involved in the songwriting. I say vocalists because, of course, shortly after this album’s release, vocalist Bon Scott died through “misadventure,” as they say (officially, even), related to the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle”–specifically, heavy drinking. This, then, was his last studio appearance with the band.

It’s reasonable for this to be the AC/DC album I find myself saddled with, not because it’s my favourite, but because it is the pinnacle of the first era of the band, the Bon Scott era. In the days from their first LP, 1975/4’s (depending on who you ask) T.N.T, straight on through this and even the next album, the Young brothers and Bon wrote the songs together. Bon was older than the two brothers, but had a mischievous and immature sense of humour that came through clearly in all their material with the broadest of winks that somehow managed to remain just on the edge of completely obvious. I’ve often referred to AC/DC, lyrically, as “masters of the single entendre,” because there’s never any question at all what “Big Balls” is about, despite the talk of some balls being held “for charity, and some for fancy dress.” Indeed, if you see anything that resembles a euphemism, whether intended or not, it seems clear that Bon meant something sexual by it.

Highway to Hell perfects that notion by not including any songs quite so blatant as “Big Balls” without losing the sense of humour or the obvious nature of Scott’s lyrics. I can’t say he walked a tightrope, as I’ve already noted how obvious his lyrical choices were, but the album manages to catch them more firmly on the edge of at least being able to sneak past the unwary, even if only the smallest attention makes their subject matter clear. It also balances this out with songs like the title track which is more reminiscent of songs like one of their earliest hits, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll),” finding Bon declaring his “old man’s” weariness of the rock gig (though he was only 33 when he died, he was still older than the Youngs by seven and nine years) and its excesses and drudgery, even as he clearly enjoys doing it and expresses this.

Rudd and Williams have both congealed in the band, as Williams has now completed an entire album with the band (1978’s Powerage) and settled more firmly into his role. They remain the firm, steady backbone with Malcolm behind the histrionics of Angus’s guitar and Bon’s wild, devilishly-grinned vocals, both of which are in fine form. You can hear Bon’s amusement in any of his songs as he sings them, and can tell the man had fun doing this, or was at least damned good at pretending he was, while Angus makes his Gibson SG (his signature guitar) absolutely sing out in blues-inspired solos full of rock-inflected timing and flair matched to the soulful bends and tremolo arm work that comes from the more blues and rhythm-and-blues inspired rock that they all heard as kids. If there’s any doubt, they did record “Baby, Please Don’t Go” on their debut–they may not have been steeped in the blues, but they had some familiarity with it.

The opener, that title track, was a single for the band and has become a signature tune to identify the band, though it may be eclipsed by “Back in Black” in that respect. The rest of the songs trade off emphasis between Bon Scott’s full-throated, if unusually high-pitched and not-incredibly-tuneful vocals and Angus’s blistering leads, often alternating between the two throughout the song. “Mutt” Lange’s production was his first for the band, and remains one of his earliest recognizable jobs. The band echoes or responds to Bon on occasion, with shout out lines to emphasize choruses and increase the quotient of both “participation” by the listener (as it only encourages the listeners to join in) and acts as the straight man to Bon’s wild vocal stylings. “Beating Around the Bush” really allows the Youngs to shine, edging outside the usual chord-oriented structure of the album’s songs by using a rapid and rolling lick as the opening and frame for the song, though they shift back to chords to allow Bon’s vocals their own space. “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” is an excellent example of the alternated strum-mute approach the Youngs often use for songs, muting chords to keep them short and sharp for the quicker songs, taking its title from the live album they released the year before and letting their more open, powerful chords ring out only for the chorus–the same kind used for the majority of the title track that lend it power throughout.

The album closes with “Night Prowler,” which is one of my favourite AC/DC tracks of all, reminiscent in some ways of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap‘s “Ride On” and T.N.T.‘s “Little Lover,” with its simmeringly slow tempo, but acting as the culmination of all that moody, slow-burning approach as it crescendos with a wailing lead from Angus, even as the song opens, almost the howl of a wolf–which isn’t inappropriate, as the song is, of course, about sneaking into a girl’s bedroom while her parents are asleep. Bon’s vocals start at an unsually low pitch, again reminiscent of slow tracks earlier in their career, before they, too, build to the chorus, where his voice matches Angus’ guitar in its similarity to a lupine howl. There’s a menace and a sleaze to the track that never feels dirty in any sense but the completely desired way–no feeling of unpleasant voyeurism or leering, as Bon’s attitude toward sex is always open but rarely (if ever) degrading. That he ends the song (and the album) by quietly intoning, “Shazbot. Nanu, nanu,” only seals the complete feeling of comfort one has with the band and their distance from the reputation the unfamiliar can occasionally saddle them with.

This album tops a lot of “hard rock” lists, which is utterly justifiable: there’s no “fat” or “filler” on the album, and it’s bookended by two distinct but equally powerful and excellent tracks. AC/DC are cursed, condemned, congratulated and commended for their consistency, but it has always been their intention to play music like this–sleazy, dirty, but fun and catchy. This album is all of those without fault, and it is indeed one you should at least hear before you die–even if you don’t love it or even like it, give it a listen and keep your ears open, not for the unusual, but for the amusing, the comfortable, and the fun.

  • Next Up: Ryan Adams – Gold