Thursday, September 28

Highway To Hell's Ditch

Well this hasn't started as I intended - making an "I'm back!" announcement and then promptly falling silent was entirely unintended. Sometimes life does that to you and your only choice is to roll with it.

But enough about my absence - pretending this is still last week, I'm going to spend a moment talking about The Pogues. The five releases with Shane McGowan were re-released in remastered form last week in the US (the remastering was done and released abroad in 2004). Being able to afford to replace aging cassettes is a joy; hearing the difference between the prior domestic cd release of If I Should Fall From Grace With God is mind blowing. If I Should Fall... has been a personal favorite for nearly 20 years (that makes me feel old), and the sound of that album has been firmly implanted in my brain. The original disc release is a bit flat - the instruments meld more than separate, and the sound is somewhat trebly, even at high volumes. Sounds a great deal like many late 80s cds - not bad, but lacking in warmth, richness, and bass response, all things which were strengths of the best vinyl releases (there was always some truth in the argument that records were better than cds, especially as volume increases. Playing them in the car is a bitch though).

The remastering has changed this thinness of sound, as well as raising the mastering volume to modern expectations. However, I have not heard any traces of the "loudness button" mastering so prevalent - to the detriment - of many new releases. Listen to the Gnarls Barkley cd and be pummelled by the lack of space in the sound field (read Nick Southall's piece here for more than I wish to go on about it, then read more in his followup on compression and loudness); listen to If I Should Fall... and hear the kick anchor "Sit Down By The Fire" the way it should, the space between the bass and the treble rich lead instruments, Shane's voice lurching back and forth in the gaps. Just wonderful.

The bonus tracks on each release, covering some odd singles and b-sides, are a nice addition. On a personal note, having "South Australia" moved out of its expected place between "Thousands Are Sailing" and "Fiesta" was jarring - I had no idea that it wasn't there on the initial English release! Their first version of "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" (a bonus track on the reissue of Red Roses For Me) is of particular interest, as it really is a rough version of the song that would be such an emotional, epic anchor to Rum Sodomy & The Lash. It is softer - more wistful than resentful - with the waltz a quiet beat, as opposed to the heavy accent that McGowan reels around so effortlessly and with such great affect in its second incarnation.

I truly expected to be devouring these reissues to the exclusion of all else for weeks to come. It was not to be the case, for by the weekend a second treasure trove had been revealed to me: a plethora of top notch live recordings of AC/DC from the Bon Scott years (note to readers: from now on, if I mention AC/DC I am referring to the Bon Scott version of the band. Though those first two or three albums with Brian Johnson are nearly peerless, they don't hold much interest for me. I like AC/DC because they were perhaps the greatest hard rock/boogie band ever, and though they would become one of the best purveyors of anthemic metal, I like to toe tap more than head nod). This golden hoard contained recordings from 76 to 79; from Edinburgh on the Dirty Deeds tour to Fresno on the Highway To Hell tour. Some were audience recordings, some soundboards, some radio broadcasts. All were borderline essential, with one particular standout - Angus Cha Cha, a bootleg of nearly pristine sound quality from the November 2, 1979 concert at London's Hammersmith Odeon.

I've heard good live AC/DC recordings - the indispensable Bonfire box set had both the soundtrack to the concert documentary Let There Be Rock, as well as what may be said to be AC/DC's best release Live From The Atlantic Studios. These recordings and others had convinced me that they were a much better live than studio band, but Angus Cha Cha is the proverbial pudding from which the proof is derived (I know this is a horrific turn of phrase, but damn it, isn't that what blogs are for?). What can you say about a 10 minute version of "Rocker", complete with a roughly four minute Angus solo (and I do mean solo - unaccompanied, alone) which contains within it a wonderful hammer-on sequence of such harmonic beauty as to make Eddie Van Halen piss himself? Or the always underrated "Walk All Over You", where the audience claps a rhythm to Angus' intro that nervously peters away as the anticipation of the tempo shift overtakes them?

I think it is also a show where the band doesn't overplay. AC/DC were so tight, so propulsive that they could sonically pummel the crap out of an audience. At this Hammersmith show they are distinctly playing along with the audience, and feeding off of their enjoyment. At the Fresno show, just a few moths prior, they are a wave overpowering the audience - all aggression and force. The sense of the direction they would take with Brian just six months or so later is apparent - head nodding metal. The Hammersmith show is different. AC/DC that night was a swingin' boogie band, the same guys who had cut their teeth on "Johnny B. Goode" and "Baby Please Don't Go". It is easy to trace the evolution from the latter to "Let There Be Rock" on that November night; the shuffle beat, the walking bass, Angus' nimble fretwork on his Gibson SG.

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