Thursday, April 27, 2017

AC/DC's "Flick of the Switch": A Great Album Overlooked

For fans of AC/DC in the early 1980s, the release of Flick of the Switch took plenty of people by surprise, as well as a host of radio stations.

Gone was the polished, sharp sound found on its predecessor For Those About To Rock We Salute You, which shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Charts. Instead, fans heard a very raw, dry record with minimal depth in terms of the sound (guitars and drums especially).

But this is what the band wanted in 1983 – to get back to basics.

Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Brian Johnson and Co. were tired of working with uber-producer Mutt Lange (he did Highway to Hell, Back in Black and For Those About to Rock) and his constant knob twitching and endless takes.

So the band congregated at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, and hammered out Flick of the Switch in a month (For Those About to Rock took about five months), producing it themselves and damn how it sounded.

"There was a genuine desire to get back to the basics with Flick of the Switch," said engineer Tony Platt in the book AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll. "There was a general kind of consensus that we needed to find some way of moving on a little bit. You know the Johnny Winter version of Muddy Waters' 'Mannish Boy?' Where they're all shouting in the background? Basically what Mal had said was that he wanted to try and get that feeling of being in a room with it all happening. I don't think it really worked entirely."

The album enjoyed a lukewarm reception, barely selling a million copies upon release in the U.S. and getting to No. 15 on the chart. Radio stations largely ignored it, especially when Atlantic Records barely promoted the record in America because they felt there were no singles in site.

However there are some great songs on the record. The title track is an AC/DC standout, while "Rising Power", "Badlands", "Guns for Hire" and "Bedlam in Belgium" are fantastic AC/DC songs. All in all, it's a solid album that doesn't sound as good as it could. But after waiting two years between records, hardcore fans of the band loved the record.

This Band is on Fire

But it was a time of turmoil for the Australian hard rockers.

After recording drums for the album, Phil Rudd would get kicked out of the band, a victim of drugs and alcohol.

According to AC/DC: Maximum Rock & Roll, Rudd had been struggling for some time; tour manager Ian Jeffrey recalls getting a phone call from a strung-out Rudd at four in the morning when the band was playing in Nebraska during the Back in Black tour and finding the drummer in his hotel room in a state of disorientated agitation. Eventually Rudd broke down crying and begged Jeffery "Don't tell Malcolm." Jeffery also told that Malcolm punched the drummer after he showed up two hours late for the band's show at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum and was unable to play the last song of the encore.

Simon Wright, who is not nearly as good a drummer as Rudd, was brought in and appears in the promotional videos for the album. He stayed with the band until Chris Slade joined in the 1989. Rudd then returned to the kit for 1995's Ballbreaker album.

The band also cleaned more house, purging manager Peter Mensch as well as de facto photographer Robert Ellis.

It really was back to basics, even down to the album cover a pencil drawn rendering of Angus pulling a switch against a stark, white background. It's a cover concept Atlantic Records apparently hated.

Check out why making For Those About to Rock was a tough slog for AC/DC

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Operation: Mindcrime - How Queensrÿche Created their 1988 Opus

When you look at hard rock and heavy metal in the 1980s, Queensrÿche's opus Operation: Mindcrime is a record that soars above the crowd and has definitely stood the test of time.

May 3 will mark 29 years since the band released their first concept album, which has sold several million copies worldwide. And when it came time to record the follow-up to the hugely underrated Rage for Order record, the band probably didn't realize they'd made something that would be compared to legendary concept albums like Pink Floyd's The Wall or The Who's Tommy.

There's a Canadian connection to the idea for the story in that singer Geoff Tate came up with the concept during his time living in Montreal in 1987 and his observation of a terrorist group there. He found himself in an old Catholic church late one evening and was flooded with ideas for the revolutionary love story featuring Nikki, Dr. X and Sister Mary. Interestingly, Operation: Mindcrime was recorded at Le Studio, just north of Montreal.

"The idea for Operation: Mindcrime came in a flood one night as I sat on a well-worn wooden bench in the back of a Catholic Church," said Tate. "I had stayed behind in snow-covered Montreal in the end of the previous tour and the city and its people were my muse. One night in a bar called St. Supice, I met the man who became Dr. X. The cold, calculating, vicious personality of this man still makes me feel uneasy as I write this."

"His character and alleged involvement with a terrorist organization coupled with other personalities I had met on my travels truly were inspiration for this record," said Tate.

"We tried to paint a picture of what was going on and that's a real difficult thing to do. What we were trying to do was to paint an aural picture if you know what I mean," said Tate in 1988. "This album is the most difficult thing that we've ever had to do since we started the band. The lyrics were a lot of hard work. I got the idea not from a book I'd read or a film I'd seen, but from myself."

In the Donald Trump era of today, the story holds up remarkably well.

Tate features prominently in the songwriting, writing lyrics on all tracks except for "The Mission" (written by guitarist Chris DeGarmo), and the instrumentals "Anarchy-X" and "Waiting for 22".

"We'd been tossing around the idea of doing a complete concept album. Geoff especially wanted the band to do something massive in scope that utilised strict chronological sense," said DeGarmo in 1991. "He had a rough idea of the outline, of the Nikki, Mary and Doctor X characters way up front, and things just started to spark from his early enthusiasm. Lyrically I know Geoff considered the whole thing a massive personal challenge. Up until 'Mindcrime' he and I had pretty much collaborated on all lyrics, but he got on a roll with this one and virtually did the entire thing alone."

The band used Englishman Peter Collins to produce Mindcrime because Neil Kernon, who did Rage for Order, was working with Dokken and unavailable.

For the part of Mary, the band decided to use Seattle singer Pamela Moore, who met DeGarmo when she was working at a record store. According to Moore, they would often talk and then one day DeGarmo came in with Tate, who asked her if it was her voice on a series of radio commercial that been airing back then.

Then DeGarmo and Tate saw Moore play a live show and decided to use her as the voice of Mary. They flew her to Montreal to record vocals on "Suite Sister Mary", one of the most epic songs on Mindcrime.

In 2006, Queensrÿche (with DeGarmo out of the band) released the follow-up album Operation: Mindcrime II, which was well-received and went to No. 14 on the Billboard album charts.

Check out our post on Soundgarden's "Louder Than Love" album - one of their best

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Five Great Hard Rock Songs About Weed

It's amazing the influence weed has had on the music industry from the old blues right up to today where many bands celebrate the kush. Heck there's even the Stoner Rock music category now. You'll find many other lists with songs celebrating getting high on 4/20, but here are five songs from some of the best bands of all time:

Reefer Head Woman - Aerosmith

Never a band to shy away from drugs during their heyday, Aerosmith were sure reeling when they recorded a cover of Bill "Jazz" Gillum's bluesy "Reefer Head Woman" for the Night in the Ruts album in 1979. Gillum recorded it way back in 1938, and Aerosmith turned it into a hard rock number. No doubt the Boston Bad Boys were firing up the bong, especially after Joe Perry left midway through the recording sessions on the album.

Goddamn Electric - Pantera

When a band is pounding out lyrics like "your trust is in whiskey and weed and Black Sabbath - It's Goddamn Electric" you know they've got a good thing going. Pantera's ode to the weed life and great bands is off their Reinventing the Steel album. While it's a nod to weed, the song is about being yourself and living life for you, not someone else - a foundation Phil Anselmo, Dimebag, et al molded themselves on.

Sweet Leaf - Black Sabbath

Before Sabbath's 1971 album Master of Reality, few had openly celebrated marijuana and getting high. Then listeners checked out "Sweet Leaf" and learned how Ozzy, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and Tony Iommi enjoyed firing up the fatties. It's an open celebration of weed with Butler's lyrics personifying marijuana as a new love. The coughing at the start of the song is courtesy of Iommi after a huge bong hit.

Amsterdam - Van Halen

Everybody's favourite party band released "Amsterdam" on the hugely underrated Balance album in 1995. Essentially a song about the the famous Dutch city, it was unusual for Van Halen to openly talk about drugs on any previous songs. To that end, Eddie and Alex Van Halen were apparently not in favour of Sammy Hagar's lyrics since they thought it did their birthplace a disservice, but the Red Rocker refused to change the lyrics. Interestingly, a video was shot for the song, but MTV sent it back because of the "score me some Panama Red" reference. It was edited out, but MTV never did play the video. And because it's 4/20, do as Hagar says and "Light 'em up!"

Get Ready - Sublime

From a great band with a short legacy, "Get Ready" is more or less a cover of a reggae song by Frankie Paul from 1987. Paul wrote it as a love song and Sublime changed it into a song about getting high and ratted on for doing so. But you gotta love Bradley Nowell singing "Roll out the bong, crank up the song, let the informa call 911". It's a great song you probably won't find on many lists dedicated to Mary Jane.

Check out the five most underrated Sabbath songs from the Ozzy days.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"Degradation Trip": The Window into Jerry Cantrell's Soul

The eyes might be the window into someone's soul, but for Alice in Chains guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell, his second solo album Degradation Trip (which was dedicated to Layne Staley) is the window into his soul.

Released in June 2002, just two months after Staley was found dead of an overdose in his Seattle apartment, Degradation Trip is a vivid showcase for what Cantrell was going through emotionally when he wrote it from the fall of 1998 into spring of 1999. Alice in Chains was on its last legs as Staley had been in seclusion for some time.

Holing himself up in seclusion in a house located in Washington's Cascade Mountains, east of Seattle, Cantrell poured himself out emotionally into 25 songs, writing on an old Les Paul using a four-track recorder.

"I rarely bathed during that period of writing; I sent out for food; I didn't really venture out of my house in three or four months. It was a hell of an experience," said Cantrell in his Roadrunner Records bio. "The album is an overview of birth to now. . . Boggy Depot (his first solo record) is like kindergarten compared to this. The massive sonic growth from Boggy Depot to Degradation Trip is comparable to the difference between our work in the Alice in Chains albums Facelift to Dirt, which was also a tremendous leap."

"I got into a writing session which lasted for three or four months where I just continued to spew and pour all of this shit out of the depths of myself from every level and aspect of my life. I dealt with a lot of issues that aren't easy for me to verbally get across," said Cantrell. "I think it's easier for me to do it in a musical venue. But it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I'm glad I did it and I'm glad I went through the experience, but it's certainly something I don't ever want to do again."

The album, recorded with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo and Faith No More Drummer Mike Bordin, was first released as one record consisting of 14 tracks, at the request of Roadrunner Records. Then, five months after that was out, the label put out another version, Degradation Trip Volumes 1 & 2 with all 25 songs, which was the way Cantrell intended.

With more of an Alice in Chains vibe than Boggy Depot, you kind of think Cantrell may have been writing for the band, however that never materialized. But he played two of the songs, "Died" and "Get Born Again" to Staley, who helped finish them. "Get Born Again" appeared on the Nothing's Safe: Best of the Box album, while "Died" showed up on the Music Bank collection in 1999. It was the last song Staley recorded with the band.

Lyrically, Cantrell opens up about his relationship with Staley, especially on songs like "Bargain Basement Howard Hughes", which appears to be nod towards Staley's reclusiveness and the relationship the two had, with Cantrell confessing he broke Staley's trust in him and stole his dignity when he sings "Dignity I'd steal, now I know how it feel". It's that interpersonal turmoil that really comes through on this song.

You Do Your Thing, I'll Live My Life

Another is "Locked On" with its pretty clear lyrics like "Fallen rock star pushing needle. You don't know? Well that's alright. You do your thing, I'll live my life."

And to get a sense of Cantrell's mindset in late 1998, there's "Psychotic Break", which was sort of prophetic ("Thinking 'bout my dead friends whose voices ring on") after Staley died months before the record's release. Another is "Solitude", where Cantrell discusses the self-imposed isolation he put himself in and how he had to "take the time to pull the weeds choking flowers in your (his) life".

Then there's the track "Spiderbite" (one of the best on the record), which depicts how Cantrell got hooked on cocaine after doing it for the first time at 19 years old in Houston. While the songs "Dying Inside" and "Pro False Idol" take a cynical look at what being a rock star is all about.

Through every dark, visceral track, Cantrell leaves something from his psyche and it certainly makes for great listening and a phenomenal album.

If you're an Alice in Chains fan and haven't listened to Degradation Trip, it's a must.

Check out our look at the five most underrated Alice in Chains songs with Layne Staley on vocals

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Aerosmith's "Draw the Line": When the Drugs Took Hold

By the time Aerosmith had finished touring in February, 1977 in support of their amazing Rocks album, the rock 'n roll lifesytle had caught up to them.

The drugs had taken a firm hold, and the band was worn out after years of non-stop touring and recording.

But they had to go in and write the follow-up to what was arguably their best album.

"Draw the Line was untogether because we weren't a cohesive unit anymore," guitarist Joe Perry said in the Stephen Davis band memoir Walk This Way. "We were drug addicts dabbling in music, rather than musicians dabbling in drugs".

Knowing drugs had a hold on the band (cocaine and heroin), the plan was to try and avoid them while working on what would become Draw the Line. To that end, the band rented an old estate known as the Cenacle, a 300-room former convent near Armonk, NY., where they would be isolated without drugs around so they could focus on writing new songs.

But drug dealers deliver, and deliver they did.

As vocalist Steven Tyler said in his autobiography Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, the band was climbing up a mountain of cocaine carrying backpacks of heroin. Drummer Joey Kramer said of that time: "I don't know if we did any of those sessions, or made any of that record, straight."

Heck, even the album cover, depicting the band drawn with lines, is a nod to all the cocaine they were consuming, according to Tyler.

Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry were pretty out of it, and didn't contribute much in terms of songwriting together on Draw the Line. The band was also fighting amongst each other a whole lot as they recorded from June-October 1977.

The only songs contributed by Perry and Tyler were the amazing title track, "Get it Up" and "I Wanna Know Why". Perry didn't even play on "The Hand that Feeds" as he decided to stay in bed that day.

In fact, the process was so slow, producer Jack Douglas had to step in and contribute some lyrics, which included the words to "Critical Mass", which came from a weird dream he had at the Cenacle. He also co-wrote the "Kings & Queens" lyrics with Tyler.

Perry came up with the edgy "Bright Light Fright", a punky track about running out of "zoom", but the rest of the band didn't like it. Perry ended up singing it since Tyler presumably wanted nothing to do with the song.

While many critics hated Draw the Line, it's still a pretty good album. The title track is pure Aerosmith and a song like "Kings & Queens" shows the band spreading its collective wings to churn out a drug-induced medieval track that is just a great effort with a sublime Joe Whitford solo.

Draw the Line would ultimately be a huge turning point for Aerosmith as Perry would leave the band during recording of the follow up Night in the Ruts in 1979. He didn't return until 1984.

Check out the the five most underrated Led Zeppelin songs.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Five Most Underrated Van Halen Songs with David Lee Roth

With David Lee Roth on vocals, the original Van Halen produced six phenomenal albums from 1978-1984. Among the tracks from those records (especially Fair Warning) are many, many underrated songs that wouldn't be considered "hits", yet they are still amazing and sound fantastic today. So with no further adieu, here are the five most underrated Van Halen songs from their time with David Lee Roth:

D.O.A. (from Van Halen II)

The fifth track from 1979's Van Halen II record, "D.O.A." was on the demo Van Halen pitched to Warner Bros., but never made it onto the first album. The song has a kind of punk feel to the riff but with Eddie Van Halen's rhythm ability, he gives it a fantastic groove with Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen in the pocket on bass and drums. Anthony brings his usual amazing harmony to the chorus.

Light Up the Sky (from Van Halen II)

Another track from Van Halen's sophomore effort, "Light Up the Sky" is just an amazing song that was finished in the studio after Eddie came up with the main riff right after the band had recorded their debut album. And what a riff it is. It's a testament to Eddie's chops as a rhythm guitarist, not just his soloing ability. When they played their new songs for producer Ted Templeman to see what would make it onto the album, he really loved "Light Up the Sky". It's only a three-minute track, but there's plenty going on with harmonies and a funky drum breakdown. "Light 'em Up!".

Dirty Movies (from Fair Warning)

A bawdy tale of prom queen turned porn star, "Dirty Movies" is a gem off 1981's Fair Warning. The intro is wicked and sets the tone for the rest of the song as Alex Van Halen lays down a cool drum beat, Eddie chirps in some harmonics, some noodling, then it all kicks in with some virtuoso slide playing. Interestingly on his hand-written lyrics, Lee Roth changes the lyric from "go see Genie now" (perhaps alluding to the gal's name) to "go see baby now". The chorus is a perfect Van Halen effort, and Roth's chants of "take it off, take it all off" are perfect. Eddie's slide soloing during the last chorus is a particular highlight of this amazingly underrated track. It's a song that wasn't played live until 2015.

Sinner's Swing (from Fair Warning)

Once you hear that opening guitar riff on "Sinner's Swing", you know you're in for a ride. It's a hard rock anthem with some serious guitar crunch and a spectacular chorus. According to Eddie Van Halen, it was "spontaneous, first take". You can hear the solo was a first take as Eddie gets a tad sloppy near the end, but that makes it all the more better. The working title was "Get Out and Push" and it was a live staple on the Fair Warning tour in 1981.

Girl Gone Bad (from 1984)

Don't count out the second last song from 1984. That amazing riff came to Eddie Van Halen one night in a hotel room he and then-wife Valerie Bertinelli were in. Eddie woke up with the idea in the middle of the night and had to put it on tape. So he ended up recording it in the closet so as not to wake his wife up. The guitar on "Girl Gone Bad" is drivingly frantic - classic Van Halen. If it's a been a while since you listened to it, do yourself a favour and crank it up again.

Check out how Led Zeppelin created Led Zeppelin IV in 1971.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Angry Chair: Layne Staley's Insight into Rehab

When you look at Alice in Chains' finest album, Dirt, there is a chain of songs, all in a row, dealing with heroin and being an addict. Now, all the lyrics for those tracks ("Junkhead", "Dirt", "God Smack", "Hate to Feel" and "Angry Chair") were written by Layne Staley and they ultimately tell the tale of getting into heroin, becoming addicted, then trying to kick it.

While many addicted rock stars shy away from publicly talking about their drug use, Staley did it as a warning for people to stay away from smack.

And, ultimately, "Angry Chair" is about being in rehab and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Staley composed both the music and lyrics for "Angry Chair", a great song which has a very cool vibe with lots of echo and reverb, as he tells the tale of being right in rehab, dealing with being dopesick and the messages he's getting from counsellors at NA.

When you examine the lyrics from that point of view, Staley gives listeners insight into exactly what he's going through as he sits in an angry chair (a metaphor for rehab), feeling claustrophobic as his stomach hurts with the pain of withdrawal, but he doesn't care. Feeling apathetic is part of the withdrawal process, according to those who have been through it.

Then come the hallucinations as moderate to severe withdrawal sets in, as he sees himself across the way, moulded in clay. It seems real, so he's afraid as the face changes shape.

Following that, withdrawal gets worse as he goes through hell, "Burning on the angry chair". People going through withdrawal from heroin and other opiates say it's like going through hell.

Pink Cloud Has Now Turned to Grey

Then he realizes that "little boy made a mistake" as he knows the full consequences of getting into smack.

Then comes the "pink cloud" reference, which is a term used in NA to describe being sober, but it turns to grey as the withdrawal exerts its hold on him. But all he wants is to keep doing it, yet they tell him to get on his knees and pray, – another nod to NA, which often brings spirituality into the process to kick drugs – explaining why so many former addicts are born-again Christians.

Field of Pain is Where I Graze

Then Staley talks of being lonely in the the field of pain where he grazes. Of note here is he says "serenity is far away". Serenity is apparently a mantra of NA, but for him, it's far away.

Another reference, when he says "weight of my heart, not the size" is about an addict's heart actually swells up the more they use and can kill them. Interestingly, a person who's good has a big heart, but Staley turns it around to say it's the weight, not the size, meaning drugs have made him bad.

But even while he's trying to kick, Staley's not buying what NA is selling as he says "feed me your lies, open wide" and the line "So I'm strung out anyway" kind of says it's no big deal being an addict. Then the chorus of "lost my mind, yeah. I don't mind. Can't find it anywhere, I don't mind" is almost like Staley is saying he ultimately doesn't care about rehab.

In David de Sola's book "Alice in Chains - The Untold Story" Staley's mom estimated her son had been to rehab "12 or 13 times".

Check out how Alice in Chains created Dirt