Clods and Camp: Back In Black

03Apr08

Should it depress me that AC/DC’s Back In Black has had a staying power one could never have guessed in 1980, and has now the fifth higest selling album in US history?  In the early ’80s it seemed to some of us that AC/DC, Queen, and Styx were equally depressing examples of the very worst that rock culture had to offer — Christgau lists AC/DC as a “meltdown” band in the Consumer Guide to the 1970s.  The occasion of hearing the song “Back In Black” on Jack-FM yesterday led to a great conversation with my wife Ruth on this subject. 

[Note to those who don’t have Jack in their market:  Jack-FM is itself perhaps the most cloddish of the random-shuffle programmed stations available right now, appealing primarily to listeners of 1980s pop and pop-heavy metal, with a smattering of pre- and post-1980s tracks every hour.  It has a curmudgeonly man as “Jack”, with a voiceover that goes “we play what we want” in a nah-nah-nah-nah-nah kind of voice.]

Kenny:  In 1980, none of us listening to this stuff thought it was campy at all.   Why has camp improved AC/DC so much, when it has done only so-so for Queen and nothing at all for Styx?

Ruth:  It’s pretentiousness vs. unpretentiousness.  Styx acts like they’re singing about something you’re supposed to take seriously, so even though you want Mr. Roboto to be a joke, you just can’t make it one.  All AC/DC wants you to believe is that they are clods living the rock dream, so it begs you to take it as a joke.

Ruth is right on the money.  This is also why Journey is now official the worst band of all time:  even the execrable Styx benefits from their absurd overextension of a bad concept, making them occasionally as funny as Queen.  Journey, meanwhile, wants you (who are, of course a teenage girl, and not a savvy one) to believe every word of “Open Arms,” which is as depressing as in rock gets.  Journey are liars through and through.  But AC/DC:  this is not a band, so one can tell, which intended camp.  But it achieved camp at a very high level through living the stupid-ass 1970s rock and roll dream from the point of view of Australian male marginality, the self-understanding of proud descendents of a prison colony.  The result is a beautifully ugly cartoon that adds intensity to the music.  Not soul intensity — anime intensity.  AC/DC didn’t lie; they just did what sounded right to them, and hit it big. 

I have “Back In Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” on my iPod, and I’m sure that someone out there can tell me the names of three or maybe five other tracks I’d enjoy just as much — but not more.  And I wouldn’t be caught dead reviewing their albums looking for these additional tracks myself; I can live a good life without becoming acquainted with their duller stuff.  But when I consider how much worse it would be if “Paradise Theater” or “Frontiers” were now the fifth selling album in US rock history, I get all happy about the existence of AC/DC.

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4 Responses to “Clods and Camp: Back In Black”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    AC/DC is a Distinctions Not Cost-Effective Band in the 70s book.

  2. 2 kmostern

    Oops.

  3. 3 schweitzito

    Damn straight about how time has improved AC/DC. although I never disliked “You Shook Me All Night Long.” I think it’s funny about what it says about their confidence in their strength beyond their airplay cuts that they’ve never allowed a best-of — who would still buy their albums? As it stands now, maybe Back in Black has a chance to top Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-75 itself.
    Then again, it’s hard to claim that they never intended camp — just what did the leading Young brothers mean by wearing their school uniforms on stage, not for a gag but always?

    But Styx has been my personal Worst Band Ever since around 15 years ago, when I heard “Rockin’ the Paradise” back to back with some crap by REO Speedwagon and couldn’t believe how much more together, how much more relaxed, the REO dodos sounded — when REO kicks your ass in the groove, that’s lame. As for Journey, they’re spared by the camp classic “Don’t Stop Believin,” which I confess I never stopped liking. Actually, camp isn’t quite it, it’s schmaltz, but the kind of schmaltz that’s overwhelming, reminding you that one thing wrong with ordinary dreck is that it doesn’t have the power to do anything to you at all. So it’s lying to me — if I’m smart enough to know who’s lying, I’m smart enough to know when it doesn’t matter.

  4. 4 schweitzito

    As for Jack — I gave in to the bus ads and tried it a few years ago. Stayed with it for two weeks, actually — aside from the annoying pretaped announcer, I was fairly impressed with the format, mainly because it was mixing in the best of 80s late AOR and top 40 (with some 70s stuff mixed in) with a fair amount of 70s-80s beaty black pop. I stopped listening when I noticed that the percentage of black music was declining fast. Oh well.


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