Written by Phillip Mottaz
Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Smashing Pumpkins' "The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning", The Clash's "Guns On The Roof" and Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time."
This week I received a CD of two Hawksley Workman albums and I've enjoyed the hell out of them. I must admit I haven't heard much of Workman before now (which is a music writer's way of admitting he's never heard him, or heard of him, and probably wouldn't have if someone he knew hadn't given him the music for free), but I've been very much delighted by the romantic style and the rich textures of this crooner.
But I don't wanna write about him. He's great and I'm glad I have it now, but he doesn't have me excited or running around the house or strutting down the street. "Rock 'n' Roll Damnation" has me excited. As I've walked, driven, typed and cleaned around this week, I've been fist pumping my way through my mild AC/DC collection, trying my best not to be embarrassed about enjoying their music as much as I have. As a responsible adult, my highly-trained human brain should be dissecting the delicate wonders of Workman's music. But my brain has currently surrendered itself to the 14-year-old id living inside me, and that guy wants to drive.
A short while ago, I wrote an open apology letter to AC/DC. Throughout high school, they were a tool of ridicule because one very loud fan -- a defensive lineman for our football team claimed to have listened to them before every game. We'll call him "Robert," and Robert broke the first rule of high school by admitting anything about himself to anyone ever. Robert was perceived as dumb for having done this, therefore his actions must have been dumb, and therefore his tools for enacting those actions must have been equally dumb. For years to come, I saw AC/DC as the epitome of stupid rawk, and I strove to separate myself from that label. See, I was smart. I listened to "good" music, to "smart" artists. It wasn't until I got much older and only slightly less a-hole when I realized how pointless and destructive this thinking was. Rock music is, by definition, dumb, so it should not be held against a band for perfecting stupidity. So in my letter, I admitted to being a pretentious jerk who not only mocked one of my high school's loudest fans for his devotion to the band, but took it out on the band for years to come. I carried this burden well into college, where I really thought I knew it all and it wasn't until years into my adulthood where I got myself out of the mindset of perfection when I finally became wise to the Bon Scott era.
I was thinking about simply recycling the letter as my "G.S.A.T.M" for this week, but if I'd done that, it wouldn't be fair to the experiment that is this column along with acting as yet another slight against a band which has created some of the best, dumbest, loudest rock ever blasted through a car stereo. It would be another slap in the face to a band that has -- to its credit -- never ever ever ever ever EVER thought, "Know what we need for this song? An orchestra!" I'm through disrespecting AC/DC, and "Rock 'n' Roll Damnation" has done much to free me from my conscious thought processes and listen to my gut. Much can be said for a band's ability to create heart and convey the simple human truths that make Grammy voters wet themselves. But this kind of thinking is dangerous. It leads one to believe (as I did) that simple hard rocking comes easy. It doesn't.
"Rock 'n' Roll Damnation" addresses these slights more directly than any song I can recall. Scott sings how "You say that you want respect. Honey, for what?" and "They say that you play too loud. Well, baby, that's tough." Through early listens, you could take the implied message as that strange mix of empowering and combative and "who cares?" and "let's do it!" -- all of which have marked the best AC/DC tracks. It sounds like another full-fledged endorsement of the misunderstood rock lifestyle, where people don't respect what you do, but you don't give a damn 'cause you're getting drunk with your friends and their ladies. After all, Hell ain't a bad place to be. But on closer examination, the lyrics are more bitter about the situation (I almost want to say they're "realistic" since they reference living in the streets, but I think that's just poetic license. Almost as a rule, nothing about AC/DC is "realistic" by choice, and I will honor that). No one has ever accused AC/DC of being complicated, but these lyrics could at least be considered a collection of mixed feelings. They're rock stars, living that life, and they kinda love it... but they get no respect. Scott claims you should take your chance "while you still got the choice," and you'd assume that means take the chance to get into the rock life, but maybe he means you should take your chance to get out. This life is a damnation, as he puts it, then again, you do get to "live on your own" and that sounds all right, but you're always "chasing that pie in the sky." They admit they shouldn't want respect for mastering an art form dominated by stupidity, because you'll lose it, but... then everyone's confused. AC/DC has sung more songs about the mythical rock 'n' roll lifestyle to rival only Chuck Berry, but Berry never dealt with the crappy stuff that came with the good.
(A quick parenthetical paragraph about the other common tie between Chuck Berry and AC/DC--they both wrote two of the dumbest songs ever to be committed to wax, and possible committed against wax. Berry's "Ding-A-Ling" and AC/DC's "Big Balls" represent the lowest kind of "clever" humor that is neither clever nor that humorous. Perhaps it is another peril of a guitar-centric writing style that your thoughts center around the genitals.)
The nice part is that all these conflicted feelings about the rock 'n' roll lifestyle don't matter to someone in the mood for an AC/DC song. Lyric complications serve only to keep the singer interested. "Damnation" seems to be the kind of antagonistic-and-happy-about-it style song the band has perfected over its million-year existence. What matters most is the volume, the beat and the guitars. Casual swearing is a plus, and talk of "dark" subject matter (hell and damnation, to name a few) make matters considerably cooler. It's like seeing someone smoke a big cigar on the street. Even though I don't smoke, I can appreciate someone who does because they are handling a dangerous natural element with calm and ease.
The lyrics are, of course, secondary to another typically unstoppable Young Brothers riff. Many people -- myself included -- question the greatness of a band which lost its original and "better" lead singer, yet managed to make some of their best music after he died. This was was possible because the singer in a band like AC/DC has always been second to the guitars. As long as they had a guitar plugged into an amp, every other instrument could disappear off the planet. I can't think of another rock band where the non-singing guitar player personifies the band. Eddie Van Halen had the band named after him, but he didn't appear on the cover of every single album, video collection and t-shirt. The Youngs delivered a stellar rock out on "Damnation," the kind that makes you wish more than usual that you were under twenty. Maybe my fixation on AC/DC and this song in particular comes from my ever-growing desire to relive high school. The more I play this song, the harder it becomes to not blare it out the windows. I wish I knew someone as into this music as I am so we could go cruising. The simple act of driving around enjoying music feels uniquely American and I miss it in my adulthood. Don't misunderstand, I listen to music while I drive, but that's not the same. What I want to do again soon is get some buddies in the car and take a long drive so we can soak in the music. We're not headed anywhere. The point is to just exist in that moment. And when this happens, and I make my mix tape (CD), if I don't have some form of Australian testicle rock, then I'm the worst case of arrested development in the world.
As far as successful repetition of the song goes, there's no issue at all. Most of AC/DC's songs are just the same song reworked anyway, so if you've ever listened to a full album of theirs in one sitting, you're already accustomed to hearing a fair amount of redundancy. They love riffs. If you love riffs, then it's good news for you! Don't think about it. Just listen.
AC/DC "Rock 'n' Roll Damnation"