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A night-bridge over prowling waters.

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My man Jim Bartlett was kind enough today to link to my recent “For Those About To Rock” post in his own post about learning to like, or at least accept, AC/DC.

(Jim’s description of his first exposure to the band is particularly priceless. I had some of the same reaction upon hearing the “Dirty Deeds” album — particularly the seven-and-a-half minutes of moron-drool that is “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round To Be a Millionaire.)” )

I agree with Jim’s contention that the Bon Scott era of the band was vastly superior to the Brian Johnson era.

One of the main reasons — the above song not included — was that the young AC/DC actually employed some minimal command of dynamics. They recognized that there were times to play loud, and times to play soft, and they actually did both. Scott would do the same thing with his vocals, slipping into a leer or a spoken aside to mix up the feel of the song.

Johnson-era AC/DC, on the other hand, seems to tackle every single song at the same volume level and the same midtempo plod, starting with the same hammering blues-based rhythm riff. Even Angus Young’s solos don’t seem to take things higher.

Yes, dynamics matter. Which brings me to what I really meant to write about tonight — two great songs that reach their peaks just a little too early.

The first is “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

At the end of the second verse, when Art Garfunkel goes up for the phrase “And pain is all around,” he just sort of cuts loose for an instant, before reeling himself back in for the phrase “like a bridge over troubled water.” That’s the line that makes the hair on my arms stand up.

The song features the obligatory Big Ending with Simon, strings and big soggy drums, not to mention lyrics that abandon the personal for the oblique (“Sail on, silvergirl,” etc.) But it’s so overdone and mushy that the air just kinda farts out of it like a leaky balloon.

The heart of the song, and its most unforgettable moment, is just Art and a couple of overdubbed Larry Knechtels on piano, vowing in clear and certain terms to be there when all light and pleasure are gone.

Tonight’s other example — and the one that led me down this path in the first place — is “Night Prowler,” from AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” album, chronologically the final album track to feature Bon Scott.

Scott’s vocal on the first verse starts in understated fashion, then builds. He invokes rats in alleys, chills down the spine, graves and darkness. And then there’s this, in a frayed, full-throated roar:

“And no one’s gonna warn ya / And no one’s gonna yell ‘attack’ / And you don’t feel the steel / ‘Til it’s hangin’ out your back.”

Like Art Garfunkel’s big line, there is no artifice here — Scott is bringing the words from someplace deeper than a lyric sheet.

And, like Garfunkel’s big line, there is nowhere to go from peak. After getting knifed in the back, we get another four minutes of song, featuring a second verse; some overheated Angus soloing; and a playful joke from Scott on the fade. But they could have closed up shop at about the 2:30 mark without losing the real meat of the record.

These songs are really mirror images of each other: One is uplifting, the other foreboding. One is sung by an earnest young man from Queens with an angel’s countertenor and a math degree. The other features a scrappy ex-shipyard worker, from Scotland by way of Sydney, with a lusty snarl that would have made voice teachers faint cold away.

Neither of these songs, while memorable, quite gets it right in terms of pacing, building and peaking.

But they both give me goosebumps … something Brian Johnson, for all the gold and platinum on his wall, does not do.

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4 responses »

  1. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how Paul Simon has always been dissatisfied with that last verse to “Bridge.”

    Reply
  2. I had never thought of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in these terms, but I’m persuaded. Paul Simon has said he didn’t like the tacked-on third verse, and now it’s easier to understand why.

    On the subject of AC/DC’s dynamics: A few years ago I heard their song “Ride On” for the first time, and I kept waiting for it to ramp up to full-on assault. Five minutes in, I realized it wasn’t going to, which was so contrary to my past experience with AC/DC that I could hardly process it. “Ride On” is the only song of theirs in my library, and I don’t expect that to change.

    Reply
    • I guess Simon had to go *somewhere* for a third verse; he didn’t have enough song to just stop where he was.
      The third verse he came up with leaves me cold, though, both in terms of words and arrangement.

      Of course this is all individual taste. I know reasonable people who like the way the song ends.

      “Ride On” is definitely an anomaly in the AC/DC catalog.
      It’s an established pattern that each of their albums features one song that is slower and bluesier than the others. But none of the others underplay like “Ride On.”

      Reply
  3. Simon just wrote the song. If you want to hear it performed, it starts and ends with Aretha on her Fillmore West album.
    And for songs that peak too early, Cannonball Adderly’s “Walk Tall” off the Country Preacher album fizzles out as soon as “Brother Joe” “lets loose”. Strangely, the Wiki entry makes no mention of Zawinull’s (see what I did there?) crime.

    Reply

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