Damo is one helluva fan. My first big one! I contacted him through a friend of mine, a musician called Lucas who plays a miked-up a shard of glass with his mouth, complete with saliva and blood smearing all over its surface. Damo’s musical predilections, while also pretty wild, at least use conventional guitars and drums and so on.
Damo’s place, a small flat in a housing commission building perched on the southern edge of the fashionable bit of Surry Hills, is a shrine to loudness. Every surface that could possibly transfer noise to the outside world has been fastidiously padded with custom-cut knobs of foam. He’s even built some thickly insulated panels which hinge so as to swing across and clip into place, blocking out the windows. And in the deepest corner of Damo’s tiny abode is a padded cell, a chamber so perfectly sound-proofed you can almost hear your own blood pumping in your veins. It’s here in this airless cave, with just enough room for a computer and a drum kit, that Damo rehearses and records his own music.
â€œAC/DC is probably the biggest influence on my musicâ€ he says, munching away on one of the falafel rolls I’ve brought for dinner. He shows me his prized collection of LPs, original vinyl records in plastic sleeves. â€œThe only Bon-era record I don’t have is TNT. A friend of mine bought it for me as a present, but then the bastard decided to keep it for himself.â€
As we eat, Damo tells me he’s had a look at my blog, and doesn’t agree with some of Clinton Walker‘s ideas about AC/DC. â€œ Malcolm and Angus are really given a rough time in that bookâ€, he says. Damo particularly objects to the conspiracy theory that Bon had a big creative input on Back in Black, for which he should have received credit.
â€œOK, here’s what I make of it,â€ he says. â€œWhen Bon was alive, the process of writing songs was collaborative. Malcolm and Angus would have a riff or a melody sequence in mind, they’d go into the studio, and jam, and Bon would bring his notebook. His notebook was full of scraps of lines and phrases but nothing complete, no â€œsongsâ€ as such. He’d pull out a few lines, see if they fit with the tune or rhythm that Malcolm had going. He’d add a bit here and there and they’d all make it up together as they went along. That’s why those early songs are credited Young/Young/Scott. To imply that Bon wrote the songs for Back in Black is just wrong: it’d be like saying he was a singer-songwriter who left behind complete works which others could just plunder. But he never worked like that.â€
To illustrate his point, Damo puts aside his falafel and shuffles around on the coffee table. He locates some of his own scraps of notepaper with song titles and ideas. I ask if I can look at them a bit more closely, but he seems a bit embarrassed. Suffice to say, on each scrap of paper there’s a haphazardly scrawled array of words, or word groupings. Sometimes they rhyme. When he jams or records, Damo says, he lays these scraps out in front of him, and waits to see if anything will come from it. It’s a process of writing music that is not separate, or prior to, the moment of jamming on the instruments themselves.
I seem to remember Clinton mentioning something about how some of Bon’s notebooks went mysteriously missing shortly after his death – so I guess there’s still fuel for the conspiracy theory that the rest of the band may have rifled through those notebooks for ideas. But if what Damo is saying is true, it’s the alchemical process in the studio that counts, rather than words on a page.
What’s more, Damo’s not convinced by Clinton’s idea that Malcolm and Angus gave bass player Mark Evans the boot for being too good looking. â€œNah, just have a squizz hereâ€, he says, pointing to a photo of Mark. â€œHe’s not that pretty â€“ he’s just an ordinary long haired Aussie guy, looks more or less like Malcolm. It’s just that his replacement, Cliff Williams, is a better bass player.â€
Damo poses with his Bon Scott collection, and I shoot off a few photos of him in his homemade anechoic chamber. Then we head out for a drive around Redfern and Waterloo. Damo plays the album Powerage (1978) for me. He chose it because â€œits a complete workâ€. While there aren’t any big hit singles on it, apparently it really “flows as an album”. Indeed, I don’t recognise any of the songs on Powerage. And I must admit, it’s hard for me to really get into it first time around. But it could be because I’m only half listening. My other ear is tuning in to Damo’s stories, and I’m also trying to keep the car safely on the road. (For an interesting review of Powerage, by a guy who agrees that it is AC/DC’s best, check this out).
We pass by some of his old haunts, including a houso flat he used to live in that was so notorious for breakins and drug deals it’s now been boarded up permanently. Damo tells me about growing up in Bankstown and Campbelltown. When he was a teenager in the late 80s, he was also into bands like Metallica, but not everyone liked them. Other kids listened to music he didn’t like, but everyone liked AC/DC. They were a common currency among musical tastes. Another story speaks of a more coercive form of belonging: â€œ…one of my mates, he was a bit older than me, he came from an outback town in North Queensland… he said that in that town, if you didn’t listen to AC/DC you were labelled a homosexual. So it was a prerequisite of fitting in socially.â€ Yikes.
â€œBut wasn’t Bon himself quite camp?â€ I ask. â€œOh sure,â€ says Damo, â€œYou should check out some of the videos of him in the 1970s, prancing around in tight leather laceup vests. Sometimes the band appeared on stage in these really gay superhero costumes, and they were definitely influenced by David Bowie and that whole seventies performance style.â€
So although Bon’s lyrics were always staunchly (if amusingly) hetero, this â€œif you don’t like AC/DC = you are gayâ€ equation must be a layer of meaning added by Australian fans themselves. I’m kind of relieved that Damo, although rather scary-looking with his straggly long hair and Merv Hughes-style handlebar mustache, actually seems to be a really gentle guy. â€œOh, not really,â€ he says.â€ â€œI’m gentle on the surface, but sometimes I snap. From living in the western suburbs and living in these housing commission places, I keep this sort of inner psychopath in reserve, in case I need to defend myself.â€
Before I drop him back home, Damo tells me he’s been disappointed with AC/DC’s recent albums. They all have one or two good tracks on them, but in general, it’s nothing to get excited about. â€œI mean, if they came out on tour again, I’d definitely go along to see them. They’re still the best band I’ve ever seen, they really work hard as entertainers, and that’s what they do best, but as far as studio albums go, ever since Back in Black they’ve just lost their formula. But I don’t really care. There’s enough incredible stuff on the old records to keep me going for ages.â€
I tell him about an idea of Clinton’s, which I’d forgotten up to now. It was this: the reason the band made such strong music in the 1970s was because it was somehow â€œauthenticâ€. They were all in their twenties (in fact, Angus had only just finished being a teenager) and the music was about partying, having fun, rocking out, etc. So the music emerged directly from their own lives. But as they got older, in the late 1980s and 1990s, the music didn’t really evolve with them. So it might seem a bit forced, a bit repetitive, without that vital urge it once had. You’ve got fifty somethings singing as if they were twenty somethings.
Damo agrees: â€œYeah, I guess, in a way they’re still writing songs about Bon’s lifestyle back in the seventies. But to write good songs about partying, you need to go partying!â€ I ask Damo what kind of music he reckons AC/DC might make now, say, if they were to make something that came out of their own lives. â€œBlues, maybeâ€, he says. â€œThey could stick with a simple blues style of writing, and write about everyday life. But I don’t think they’ll ever top what they’ve done. When you’re a musician, you’re a musician for life, and if you stop playing you may as well die. I dunno, it’s not for me to say. But maybe they could just break up and play some blues…â€
[PS: check out Damo’s own music here].
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After I leave Damo, I pop over to see Mickie. I need to return his digital camera. We’d half-organised to meet up and chat about Bon “sometime soon”, since he’s a big fan too, but it seems he can’t wait that long. â€œAh, I wanna play you this song, man!â€ he says. He fiddles around on his iTunes, pulls up the album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and fires up the song Big Balls. The whole song, incredibly, hinges on a half-baked pun about â€œballsâ€: on the one hand, a ball is a polite social dance held in upper class circles, and on the other, testicles (the size of which are an indication of one’s virility). It’s hilarious when sung, and somewhat less hilarious when you read the words without Bon’s voice. What Mickie likes most of all is Bon’s faux aristocratic tone: the way he sings in the voice of a toff who likes to throw big balls, and who invites all his friends â€œto come and come and come!â€ There’s something in Bon’s mischievous tone which indicates that not even he can believe that it should be possible to get away with such preposterous ribaldry. But get away with it he does, somehow… Being a class-conscious Irishman, Mickie loves the way â€œweâ€ (by implication, the audience is working-class) can make fun of the song’s snobbish protagonist.
This aint â€œSerious Music”, even by rock and roll standards. And Bon’s lampooning of snobbery in â€œBig Ballsâ€, I reckon, is dished out in equal doses to those purists who might deny a role for humour in music …