Tag Archives: Rick Rubin

Rocks In The Attic #859: Johnny Cash – ‘American Recordings’ (1994)

RITA#859A nice bit of serendipity occurred recently. I was playing Johnny Cash’s American Recordings album, the first of his six with Rick Rubin, and the only one I own. I posted on the Vinyl Lovers Of New Zealand group on Facebook, as I always do, that I was listening to it.

‘I really must seek out more of these,’ I wrote. ‘I’ve heard them all, of course, but this is the only one I have on record.’ At $50 a pop brand-new, it was unlikely I’d ever stump for them all in one go, and I never saw them in second-hand racks. My long-term goal was to buy one a year or so, until I had them all.

A comment from one of my fellow VLONZers said ‘I have NM copies of III, IV, V and VI, as well as Unchained [II] for sale in great condition. PM me if interested.’

I jumped at the chance and $100 later – just $20 per record for the ones I didn’t have – I now have the full set.

RITA#859aThe first record in the six represents the start of a late-career resurgence for Cash, at the height of grunge. Producer Rick Rubin had seen Cash perform at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert in 1992 and felt he had been overlooked and forgotten by the music industry and the record-buying public.

Recorded between May and December of 1993, the bulk of the album was recorded in two key locations: Rick Rubin’s living room in L.A. and Cash’s cabin in Tennessee. Two additional live performances were captured at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room on Sunset Strip, just five weeks after the actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose there.

Unlike the subsequent albums in the American series, which finds Cash backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers alongside a who’s who of guest appearances, the first record is performed completely by Cash himself, just a voice and a guitar. It therefore doesn’t have the grunt of those later records – and it’s a long way from the perfection of American IV: The Man Comes Around. But it’s still a great album, full of what Rolling Stone called ‘biblical intensity’, highlighted by Rubin’s ‘no-frills production’.

Tennessee Stud, one of the songs recorded at the Viper Room, was originally written by Jimmy Driftwood in 1959. It probably stands as the most well-known track from the album, if only for its inclusion one year later on Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown soundtrack. The song perfectly encapsulates the ethos of the American project, and gives an indication of what was to come: the opportunity for Cash to breathe life into cover songs, old and new, alongside a brace of originals, to bring his music to a new audience.

Hit: Tennessee Stud

Hidden Gem: Drive On

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Rocks In The Attic #732: Billy F. Gibbons – ‘The Big Bad Blues’ (2018)

RITA#732I was looking forward to this. After the out-of-the-blue brilliance of ZZ Top’s La Futura in 2012, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a follow-up. The band have been touring since – they never seem to stop touring – but there’s still no new studio album. It seems Billy has given up waiting too, recording two solo albums during this time – 2015’s Perfectamundo, and this, The Big Bad Blues from last year.

The record feels very under-produced. Now, while this may have been a good thing for a blues album from yesteryear, it just makes this record feel cheap and rushed. The production, by Gibbons himself, alongside Joe Hardy, sounds like it was all recorded in one take (again, another plus point for an old blue record), and there’s just nothing interesting to differentiate the tracks from each other. It makes me wonder how much of Rick Rubin’s input was responsible for La Futura.

Missin’ Yo Kissin’, credited to Billy’s wife, is just a retread of La Grange (itself an appropriation of John Lee Hooker) and sounds too much like an old man trading on former glories. Only on the covers – Muddy Waters’ Standing Around Crying and Rollin’ And Tumblin’, and Jerome Green’s Bring It To Jerome – does the record kick into another gear.

Hit: Rollin’ And Tumblin’

Hidden Gem: Standing Around Crying

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Rocks In The Attic #562: Various Artists – ‘Less Than Zero (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

rita562I watched this film for the first time recently. I’d always been aware of it because it’s one of a handful of notable soundtrack appearances by Aerosmith from around this time. The Aerosmith completist in me searched this record out long before I had a chance to watch the movie.

The soundtrack opens strongly with a Permanent Vacation-era Aerosmith rocking out to a cover of Huey “Piano” Smith’s Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu. Drummer Joey Kramer is on fine powerhouse form, and the band really sound as young and energetic as anybody else, enjoying their second lease of life in post-rehab sobriety. The record was released by Def Jam, and many of the songs were produced by Rick Rubin, so I can only presume Aerosmith are included as a result of the Run-DMC connection.

The rest of the record – mostly cover songs – is a patchy affair. Poison’s weak attempt at Kiss’ Rock And Roll All Nite belies the whole glam rock movement’s claim to artistic merit, Slayer’s version of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is fun, while the Bangles’ version of Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade Of Winter sounds like they’re on autopilot.

So I sat down to finally watch the film I knew the music of so well. I really wish I hadn’t. If anything, Less Than Zero resembles the awful St. Elmo’s Fire in terms of its shallow posturing, although it is slightly harder-edged coming a couple of years after that earlier film. As an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel, I have trouble seeing any of his satire on the screen as it seems to have been overwhelmed by big gloop of late-‘80s Hollywood sheen that engulfs the film.

Something terrible happened as I watched the final act of the film. I got a slap in the face from déjà vu when Andrew McCarthy’s character narrowly prevented Robert Downey, Jr.’s character from taking part in a gay tryst. Then, in the final shot of the film where McCarthy, Downey, Jr. and Jami Gertz are driving off into the sunset, and McCarthy realises that Downey, Jr. has died from a drug overdose, I had a realisation myself. I had seen this film before. I just hadn’t remembered it because it was so forgettable.

Hit: A Hazy Shade Of Winter – The Bangles

Hidden Gem: Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu – Aerosmith

Rocks In The Attic’s Buyer’s Guide to…AC/DC

  – 3 essential albums, an overlooked gem, a wildcard, one to avoid, and the best of the rest –

“I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made eleven albums that sounds exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made twelve albums that sound exactly the same.” So says, AC/DC lead guitarist and fifty-nine year old Scottish Australian schoolboy, Angus Young. While other bands have been cursed by following the same formula over and over again (Francis Rossi, please stand up), AC/DC have turned it to their advantage.
ACDC0Over fourteen studio albums, the band have stuck to a blueprint of blues-based heavy rock. 99% of their songs follow the same format – counterpoint guitar riffs from brothers Angus and Malcolm, steady 4/4 drum beats, driving bass lines, soaring vocals and finally, a solo from Angus. There’s no room for piano, no room for strings and the only backing vocals you get are from the rest of the band, who are about as tuneful as an after-hours pub karaoke session.

Lead vocal duties divide the band into two eras – the band’s formative years were helmed by fellow Scottish Australian Bon Scott, but his untimely death in 1980 saw the band enter a more commercial phase under the screams of flat-cap loving Geordie Brian Johnson.

But regardless of what you may have heard, there are differences between their albums. Each of their 1970s albums follow a progressive arc, until they settled on their massive world conquering sound as they entered the 1980s. Albums since that point have struggled to find that same high level of quality, acting mainly as a springboard for the band to go out on the road for yet another world tour.

Start off with: Highway To Hell (1979, Atlantic Records)

ACDC1The album that saw the AC/DC break America was also their swansong with Bon Scott, who would die just months later. Up to this point all the studio albums were produced by former ‘60s Australian beat group stars Harry Vanda and George (older brother of Angus and Malcolm) Young.  For Highway To Hell, the band would enlist the production duties of Robert John “Mutt” Lange – notable amongst other things for producing Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and marrying Shania Twain.

Lange’s production revitalised the band. Overnight they changed from a noisy rock band from the backwaters of Australia into a household-name stadium rock band. Aside from the title track – typically played by the band in their live shows to open their encore – not much else from the album has survived into the band’s live set to this day; but this is probably the most consistent of all their albums.

Follow that with: Back In Black (1980, Atlantic Records)

ACDC2After Bon Scott’s death, the band could have called it a day. Most bands would have, if they’d lost their lead singer. But AC/DC were always more about guitars than vocals. After auditioning half of London for the job (including Gary Holton who would go on to play Wayne in TV’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet), the band settled on Brian Johnson. The resulting album is a tribute – a relatively sincere one, considering the medium – to their fallen bandmate. Opener Hells Bells sets the scene with a tolling bell, before the band slowly introduce their new banshee vocalist.

Back In Black, also produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is probably AC/DC’s most commercial-sounding record. Singles such as the title track and You Shook Me All Night Long saw the album become the best-selling rock album of the 1980s. It’s currently tied with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon as the second best-selling album of all time (after Michael Jackson’s Thriller).

Just like VHS beat Betamax as the consumer’s choice of video in the 1980s (a fact commonly attributed to the pornography industry selecting the fledgling VHS technology as the way forward), Back In Black outstripped all other contenders in record sales by being purchased by every strip club in America. You Shook Me All Night Long has soundtracked a lot of lapdances – it’s not heavy rock, it’s stripper rock! Def Leppard would achieve the same feat later in the decade with Pour Some Sugar On Me, from their best-selling Hysteria album – a song that sounds like it’s describing a sexual act, but was probably written about their one-armed drummer Rick Allen making a cup of tea.

Oh, and Shoot To Thrill? The best middle-eight instrumental section in rock music, hands down.

Then get: Powerage (1978, Atlantic Records)

ACDC3Powerage is AC/DC’s greatest achievement – the last thing they did before they crossed over into the mainstream. At this point, it’s all still them; there’s no ‘hit-making’ hot-shot producer in the background to claim any credit. The album is no-frills rock ‘n roll from start to finish, although it does come with a celebrity endorsement – Rolling Stone Keith Richards earmarked it as his favourite AC/DC record.

Aside from Sin City, not much else from the record has survived into the band’s live set to this day. Still, opener Rock ‘N Roll Damnation is almost the quintessential AC/DC song, and Riff Raff has one of the band’s longest intros, building up for over a minute and finally released when Angus Young bends an open D-chord that sounds as sick as anything.

But it’s the slow-burn of songs like Down Payment Blues that really wins people over, on Powerage, the most introspective of their records.

Criminally overlooked: The Razor’s Edge (1990, Atco Records)

ACDC4In March 1990, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry mentioned to Guitar World magazine that ‘people put us down for [using outside songwriters], but I wonder how an AC/DC record would sound if they’d pull somebody like Jim Vallance into the songwriting process. Would they get another one-song record with Heatseeker, or would you get a whole album that was that cool?”

At the time, AC/DC were actually in the process of doing something along these lines. While that September’s The Razor’s Edge was written in its entirety by Angus and Malcolm Young, it was produced by Bruce Fairbairn – the man who had produced Aerosmith’s successful comeback albums, Permanent Vacation (1987) and Pump (1989).

It’s almost a cliché to disregard any of the post-Back In Black albums as cannon-fodder (pun very much intended); but The Razor’s Edge saw the end of a run of ‘80s albums where the band had very much lost their way. From this point on, with albums produced by the likes of Rick Rubin and Brendan O’Brien, they spent a bit more time and effort on their studio output.

The album’s opener, Thunderstruck, is another contender for the quintessential AC/DC song and concrete proof that they were still as relevant to ‘90s rock music as they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The long-shot: For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (1981, Atlantic Records)

ACDC5The third and final album produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange fails to match the quality of its two predecessors, but it does have its moments. It’s so close to Back In Black and Highway To Hell in its chronology that you can almost hear some of the magic of those records in its grooves. Of course, on the other side of the coin, the album’s other next-door neighbour is 1983’s Flick Of The Switch, where their mid-‘80s rot really set in.

The album-opening title trackremains a firm live fixture – they’ve closed their sets with the track for the last thirty three years – and the track serves as the true peak of their creative accomplishments. It was all steadily downhill from this point on.

Avoid like the plague: ’74 Jailbreak (1984, Atlantic Records)

ACDC6An EP – usually priced as a full-length album – containing just twenty four minutes of material, ’74 Jailbreak is a cynical cash-in release on the behalf of Atlantic Records. It’s essentially a small collection of leftover songs that didn’t make the international releases at the start of the band’s career (several of these early albums were combinations of songs from more than one Australian release, with some omissions made in the interests of running time).

This really is what you buy only when you have all of the other AC/DC albums, even the questionable mid-‘80s ones.

Best compilation: Iron Man 2 (O.S.T.) (2010)

ACDC7AC/DC must be one of the only major bands in the world without an official ‘greatest hits’ compilation. Sure, there are box-sets – Bonfire (1997) and BackTracks (2009) – but these aren’t compilations in the true sense of the word. The band has avoided issuing a simple collection of their singles – something I really respect them for.

Of the two soundtracks they have released – 1986’s Who Made Who (the soundtrack to Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive) and 2010’s Iron Man 2 – it is the later release that stands as the nearest thing to a ‘greatest hits’ release, split roughly 50/50 between the Bon Scott and Brian Johnson eras.

It’s just a shame the film is so boring!

Best live album: AC/DC Live (1992, Atco Records)

ACDC81978’s If You Want Blood You’ve Got It captured the live sound of the Bon Scott era, but its raw energy was plagued by a muddy Vanda / Young production. 1992’s AC/DC Live doesn’t suffer from that problem. Taken from 1991’s The Razor’s Edge tour, the album offered an authentic live recording of the band. Bruce Fairbairn had got close to capturing that sound on record (on The Razor’s Edge) and was invited back to produce the live record.

Live At Donington, the album’s companion piece video, is also worth checking out. Recording during their third headlining appearance at the British rock festival, it’s essentially the same set as can be found on the AC/DC Live record (and on every subsequent tour for that matter). One nice little bonus extra on the DVD / Blu Ray version is a commentary track comprised of an interview with the Young brothers as they talk though the concepts and directions behind each of their albums. You know, those albums that are supposedly all the same…
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