Malcolm Young: Update

I said in a post back in April that Malcolm Young, rhythm guitarist and indispensable musical director of AC/DC, had had to take a break from the band for health reasons, and that it would be very sad if he could never play with them again. The news came today that he’s indeed retired from the band, just as I was writing a review for The List of Jesse Fink‘s fine book The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC.

Fink’s book confirms that Malcolm Young was the leader of AC/DC, and in his absence it’s hard to see how the band can go on. But then, it’s been hard for two decades now to see how the band could go on, and yet go on it does. The thing is, AC/DC were once about much more than bloody-minded determination. Bloody-minded determination is no doubt the thing about them that chimes with many of their older, male fans, but listening again to their early stuff as compared to their later stuff, what’s been missing from them since Bon Scott died has been sheer love of life. Scott may have drunk himself to death, but the more you listen to him (and the more you read about him), you sense he’d have preferred not to, whereas Brian Johnson’s chronic Barrett’s Syndrome, a condition in which the oesophagus is seriously irritated by chronic gastric reflux, can hardly be much fun; it’s as if being AC/DC’s lead singer has literally made Johnson sick.

With Malcolm Young gone, AC/DC have finally morphed into a tribute band to themselves. It’s a sad day, but if anyone has earned a rest from driving one of the world’s biggest bands, it’s him. If only the rest of the band would do the dignified thing, bring out one valedictory album and call it a day.

Malcolm Young: Update

Kristin Hersh

Most of my posts — Jesus, I don’t post often enough, what’s wrong with me — are titled according to the form ‘[Name of artist] and [abstract noun]’. This is because, like a good critic, I like to use the artists I’m writing about as pretexts to discussing whatever else I want to discuss. However, sometimes I just want to praise people like I should.

I came back from holiday last month having started to read Kristin Hersh’s memoir Paradoxical Undressing (published in the USA as Rat Girl, a less interesting title, in my view, but then the difference between the ways in which the UK has received KH’s music and the ways in which the USA has received it is enough for an article in itself.) Okay, I’ll review it another time, but in short: I loved it. I hadn’t listened to KH’s music for a while but the first Throwing Muses album, plus their second EP Chains Changed, are installed permanently on my iPod. Reading her book reminded me of those two crappy springs in 1988/89 when I didn’t study enough and failed to get a free place in university, partly because I spent all my time listening to the radio, including songs from the Muses’ third LP Hunkpapa, the one on which they began to bow to industry pressure and try to bend their music to fit what the industry wanted.

Before I go any further, I come to praise Kristin Hersh, and Tanya Donelly, and Leslie Langston, and Bernard Georges, and David Narcizo. Hersh in particular, because she writes most of the songs. Having finished Paradoxical Undressing I went back to the Throwing Muses stuff that I had (basically, the first album and Chains Changed, plus Hersh’s solo debut Hips and Makers, what, I’m crap, I failed to keep up) and was reminded again just how great a band they were/are, and how remarkable a musician Hersh is. I’ve since gone out and a clutch more Muses albums — Hunkpapa, House Tornado and last year’s Purgatory Paradise — and Hersh’s most recent solo album Crooked.

Nobody else writes songs like hers, apart perhaps from Tanya Donelly, which is just to say that — at least when Donelly was in the Muses — they wrote a bit like each other. The moment when I got definitively lost inside a Muses song was ‘Finished’, from Chains Changed. To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the words of ‘Finished’ are, but what got me is the song’s relentless, hammering weight; it rolls over you and stamps on you and just when you think you’ve had enough, it turns on itself (‘Hope this dog don’t / spin me round again . . .’) and starts biting its own neck. It helps that Chains Changed is one of the few early Muses recordings that captures the band’s mass and heft. (It took a stupidly long time for bands led by women to be recorded with the same level of care and attention and bands led by men, as anyone who’s got the Fanny boxed set can confirm.) ‘Finished’ is followed by ‘Reel’, which is just as ravishing but in the opposite way; ‘Finished’ throws you down on the ground, ‘Reel’ catches you up in its whirl.

It’s a mystery why this band, and Hersh, haven’t had the respect that they deserve, not that they haven’t had a lot. Well, of course, it isn’t a mystery at all: female rock musicians are not as feted as male ones, or when they are, it’s in specific ways that have to do with the extent to which they provoke certain conversations about femininity. Hersh has said that ‘People don’t treat me particularly female’ and Throwing Muses never traded on their collective cuteness. Hersh says in Paradoxical Undressing that she thought of the band as being like ‘spinach’, which is to say ‘ragged and bitter’ but ‘good for you’. I’m not sure of that as a description; I happen to like spinach, but unless you dress spinach up with things like parmesan cheese which immediately make it slightly less good for you, it’s not very sensuous, whereas there is something sensuous about the way Throwing Muses knock the listener about. (If there is an 80s alternative rock band that resembled spinach in the senses of being virtuous, healthy, at best quietly uplifting and at worst dull, it’s 10,000 Maniacs.)

Kristin Hersh

Ian Gillan, Jesus Christ Superstar and Not Christian Rock

I’ve been weirdly preoccupied for some years now with an album that lurked around the edges of my childhood — oh come on, don’t pretend that hasn’t happened to you. The album in question is not one that my parents owned. My dad was too much of a classical snob for that; the music I grew up hearing him play on a succession of increasingly dilapidated stereos was mostly by composers like Hindemith and Bartok, but late in life he developed a fondness for female alternative rock icons, probably as a result of his dead-end job working for RTE. He would come home and ask me ‘Have you heard of someone called Kristin Hersh?’ Or would buy Bjork’s ‘Debut’ and sit on his bed and listen to it, rather than hang out with the rest of us.

Well, I already liked both Kristin Hersh and Bjork, and have inherited his taste for Hindemith and Bartok which, being me, I’ve pursued to a far more lunatic level than he ever did. But the album that I want to talk about is not by any of these people. It’s an album that, in my memory at least, our cousins were inordinately fond of, and because we were a bit uneasy around our cousins, that alone was a reason to think it a bit of a weird album. Besides which its authors were the two most irredeemably unhip names in late 20th century popular music: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The album, of course, is Jesus Christ Superstar.

Lloyd Webber and Rice’s original album was a purely studio affair, recorded in 1970, with a cast so unlikely as never to be quite repeated. The basic backing band was the Grease Band, the same band that famously prevented Joe Cocker at Woodstock from looking like a total tool: Henry McCullough (guitar), Neil Hubbard (keyboards), Alan Spenner (bass) and Bruce Rowland (drums). They were augmented by dozens of sessions musicians, including future Sex Pistols producer Chris Spedding and Irish jazz guitarist Louis Stewart, a fleet-fingered Tal Farlow clone whose playing on this album is about as unengaged as it’s possible to imagine.

The cast was trippy. Subsequent stage productions of JCS established a tradition by which Judas was played by a black actor, probably out of reverence for Carl Anderson, who played the hell out of the role in Norman Jewison’s movie and in subsequent stage productions, only to die of leukaemia aged 48. But in the original album, Judas is played by the white English actor Murray Head. Mary is Yvonne Elliman, a Hawaii-born singer who ended up playing the role an absurd number of times, both in the movie and on Broadway, as well as landing a gig as one of Eric Clapton’s backing singers and, according to Clapton himself, becoming his girlfriend for a while, which can’t exactly have been fun. Nevertheless, Elliman — whose Mary is very obviously a conflation of the Biblical Mary and the Apocryphal hooker-with-a-heart Mary Magdalene — commits herself totally to the role’s combination of tenderness and frustration. Barry Dennen plays Pilate with the clenchedness of a very clenched thing, in a performance he’d subsequently repeat for the movie. And Jesus, you ask? Who is the son of God, on this mother? None other than then recently-recruited Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan.

Gillan seems like a weird choice for Jesus, but in fact it works, as long as you’re willing to go with Rice’s conception of the Jesus story as being entirely lacking in anything supernatural. Of the lead vocalists associated with the three biggest British hard rock bands of the late 60s/early 70s — Led Zep, Sabbath, Purple — Gillan was the most human, not to mention the only one with a functioning sense of humour. (Robert Plant would have made a great angel, except that there are no angels in Jesus Christ Superstar, and it would be lovely to hear what Ozzy Osbourne would have made of ‘King Herod’s Song’.)

Gillan’s plain-man persona is one of the weird and unpredictable factors that make JCS work, over four decades on. Of course, the aerial shriek that he first used in Deep Purple’s ‘Child in Time’ is used here in ‘Gethsemane’, but to far more dramatic effect. ‘Child in Time’ is trying to reflect from a distance on the prospects for humanity, but ‘Gethsemane’ is one man in a garden in the middle of the night facing the fact that he’s going to die for reasons he doesn’t really understand, and is all the more effective for that. Elsewhere, if Gillan indulges himself a bit too much in sighs and ‘Ooh yeah’s, it’s forgivable because it paints a picture of a Jesus who is convinced that he’s the son of God, even if not everyone else is. Some of the stage Jesuses in JCS have played Jesus as if he really is the son of God, not as if he’s just a guy who believes himself to be the son of God, and the distinction is crucial, because JCS is a rare fiction about Jesus in that it’s utterly silent about whether or not Jesus and his followers are correct.

That’s why JCS is not Christian rock. Christian rock begins with faith, and tries (and in my view, entirely fails) to use the language of late 20th century popular music to communicate the importance of faith to others. But pop music, as we know it in the West since the 50s, is incapable of expressing such remote concepts as faith in divinity or belief in the redemption. There is music that can convey such things: Bach’s cantatas, for example. But not the kind of inoffensive folk-rock which is what usually passes for Christian Rock. The music of Jesus Christ Superstar uses hard rock, gospel, soul and pop forms to convey various things, including fear, anger, love, excitement and much else, but even when the album is portraying Jesus dying on the cross, it doesn’t do it through popular forms but through Gillan’s muttered monologue and a backdrop of bleak electronic tones. The album ends not with Jesus’ resurrection, but in doubt and grief, as his followers melt away silently.

In short: despite its reputation, Jesus Christ Superstar is in no way Christian Rock. In spite of, and perhaps even because of, its flirtation with schlock and showbiz, it’s one of the great albums of the 70s; in some ways it’s the album that the Beatles never got around to making. There’s more to be said about this album, but that’ll do for now.

Ian Gillan, Jesus Christ Superstar and Not Christian Rock