Wednesday, 8 March 2017
Ballbreaker - AC/DC
I had the time of my life at Arrow Rock, meeting some good folk, braving the weather to see some surprisingly good bands (Ten Years After and Golden Earring exceeded expectations), learning that mayonnaise is the only thing one should put on one's fries...
...and enduring the oddly dystopian setup whereby music was being played through scaffold-mounted speakers in the campsite all night and day. The one song I remember playing incessantly was 'Moondance' by Van Morrison. But that was nothing compared to our neighbouring camper. He roared in early on the second day with his motorcycle club and set up camp next door. We learnt from him that he was unable to buy an Iron Maiden album as he kept asking music store owners for 'ee-ron may-ee-den'. We learnt that he was in "one of the biggest" Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute acts in the Netherlands.
And we learnt that he really liked 'Cover You In Oil' from AC/DC's 1995 album Ballbreaker. Really, really liked it. To the exclusion, or so it seemed, to any other music. He would sit on his deckchair, can of Gouden Zegel in hand, CD player in his lap, listening to 'Cover You In Oil' over and over again. It would reach the end and he would skip back to the start. Sometimes, when he was drunk or slow we'd get a couple of seconds of the next track, but his fingers would find the skip backwards button and we'd be back on 'Cover You In Oil'. This went on for three days straight.
Later that summer, I imagine, I was going around my parents' place singing 'Cover You In Oil' as some kind of ironic joke to myself which backfired when they in turn bought me parent album Ballbreaker for Christmas.
Review: AC/DC are one of those acts that loom large over the rock landscape. They've got their superfans, they've got those who love their big albums (I fall into this category), and you've got those who may not even like Acca Dacca but feel obliged to profess a nodding acquaintance and approbation of their major works. It just doesn't do to profess to be a rock fan and be dismissive of AC/DC - like long-dead playwrights or ageing matinee stars, they are accorded an almost automatic respect for their achievements. Certainly, in this writer's opinion, at their best they were (are?) electric - but as with Iron Maiden (or Ee-ron May-ee-den), I'm minded to say that AC/DC have too much filler in their catalogue to be considered the creme de la creme.
So to Ballbreaker, which I haven't listened to in a long time. I admit that because of my prejudice about AC/DC's uneven output I was worried that this would be a grind. On that count, I have been pleasantly surprised. Producer Rick Rubin has the right idea at keeping arrangements sparse and stripped down - guitars sound like guitars, drums sound like drums and Brian Johnson's helium 'n' leather vocals sound ripe and lusty.
What about the songs? They're...not bad, in the main. Here's my main gripe with Johnson-era AC/DC - everything is done at a fairly stately processional. Many of these songs are fine in isolation, but nothing grabs you by the throat or induces a bout of self-administered whiplash as 'High Voltage' or 'Riff Raff', for example, do. As such, everything on Ballbreaker takes a little bit of huffing and puffing before it gets going. I don't mind it at all if it takes a while for a big old hunk of rock to get revved up, but this album screams out for song that socks you with a haymaker at the outset.
Happily, then, if you like mid-paced blues-rock, you'll be thrilled with Ballbreaker. 'Hard As A Rock' is catchy and fun, even if by this stage AC/DC were trading on single entendres for their yucks. My Dutch friend should've been a bit slower off the mark when skipping back to his favourite ditty because 'The Furor' has a tasty, minor-key descending chord progression that is possibly the most interesting thing on the album. 'Boogie Man' is 'Night Prowler' 2.0 but, again, taken on its own merits a decent tune. The quality dips a little on the second half of the album, and I find something vaguely annoying about 'Hail Caesar', but not enough that I would hit the shuffle button if it came on in the car.
Now for a minor gripe, one which I have alluded to already. AC/DC's lyrics have never aspired to poetry, but in the early days their sleazy doggerel held a similar appeal to the priapic doublespeak found in a Carry On... film. Alas, there is little here that Sid James would cackle over, so obvious are the sex metaphors. Obvious, and tired. Listening to 'Love Bomb' and 'Caught With Your Pants Down' actually shaved a few points off my IQ (and the latter isn't helped by straining to sound like 'Whole Lotta Rosie' without an ounce of the original's manic energy). But for all my complaints, the sound coming out of my speakers is tough and lean, and whilst unambitious, the songs are hooky enough to maintain interest for the most part. It's not brilliant, but Ballbreaker really isn't too bad at all.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention 'Cover You In Oil' again. It's an early track, so once I'd listened to the album all the way through, in homage to my Dutch biker acquaintance I skipped back and gave it another listen. It's punchy, possesses a swagger that's not so evident on the rest of Ballbreaker and has a chorus that is dopey enough to sing along to. I've now heard 'Cover You In Oil' more than almost any other person on the planet. Almost. I truly hope that somewhere in the Low Countries, a man with a greasy mullet and a luxurious moustache is sat in a Laz-E-Boy, supping on a Gouden Zegel and hitting the 'back' button at the first hint that 'The Furor' might start playing.