United Center, March 9
By Cara Jepsen
Among the young white males of the northwest suburbs the radio station to listen to in 1979 was the Loop, the album spinning on everyone's turntable was AC/DC's Highway to Hell, and the TV show to watch was The Dukes of Hazzard. Like AC/DC, the loud rock band with the locker-room lyrics, the Loop had a bad-boy image. Morning personalities Steve Dahl and Garry Meier trashed disco and broke barriers talking about taboo subjects, and jocks like Skye Daniels encouraged listeners to get jaked and blow lunch. Playing bands like Van Halen, Bob Seger, Bad Company, Kiss, the Police, and Pat Benatar, the Loop was one of the nation's great mainstream rock stations.
Things change, though--especially in radio. Today WLUP is an all-talk station skewed to its old audience, which now falls into the 25-to-54-year-old niche. But in 1993 WLUP's owner, Evergreen Media Corporation, purchased hard rock station WWBZ, rechristened it WRCX, and turned it into a mainstream rock station. You'll still hear Metallica, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, but you'll also get a dose of newer artists like Smashing Pumpkins, Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, Son Volt, and Green Day. The station is sort of a hybrid, drawing part of its audience from its competitors--adult alternative WXRT, classic rock WCKG, and modern rock WKQX.
Kicked off by Mancow Muller's outrageous successful morning show, the station has a cohesive lineup similar to that of the old Loop. While the jocks are mostly men with fakey names like Chris Payne and Lou "Lick Me" Brutus, the women, like midday jock Jo Robinson, act as the hip older sisters who'd take you to concerts or the cool girls in class who knew how to rock and wouldn't get grossed out when you farted. Throughout the day there are many allusions, direct and indirect, to bodily functions, penis size, and drinking, especially on DJ promos and during shift changes when the jocks banter back and forth. (As I write this Sunday's late night DJ informs me that "I'm Karen Haney, with your nocturnal emissions"). It creates a clubby cohesion that makes it difficult to turn the dial; in last fall's Arbitron ratings, WRCX ranked first during the morning drive and second throughout the day among listeners 18 to 34 years old.
The station's promotions contribute to its clublike feel. They include tried-and-true gimmicks like offering T-shirts, giveaways, interviews with big-name artists, and tickets to WRCX-sponsored shows priced at $1.03 or $10.35. And then they pull some nasty stunts; late last year the station announced the bands playing in competitor WKQX's "Twisted Christmas" benefit a full day before they were announced by WKQX-- which had been teasing its listeners for days. WRCX then added insult to injury by giving away 100 pairs of tickets to the event.
It's all very calculated; Evergreen Media owns 7 stations in the area and nearly 30 others nationwide. The programmers have gone back to their old formula for success, focusing on the 18-to-34-year-old audience by combining a lot of attitude with animated production and entertaining personalities, says Paul Heine, executive director of the weekly rock radio trade magazine Friday Morning Quarterback.
One of the bands the station promotes most heavily is the one that epitomizes the image the station's striving for--AC/DC. After 22 years and 80 million records sold, the Aussie band still attracts 17-year-olds of all ages with its mix of bathroom humor, over-the-top stage shows, and searing blues-based hard rock. Resisting the waves of punk rock, grunge, hair bands, and rap, AC/DC has continued to pump out hard-rock albums full of humor and songs about drinking, fucking, and bad women. One of the best examples of AC/DC's humor is 1976's "Big Balls," sung by original front man Bon Scott in an upper-class British accent: "Some balls are held for charity / And some for fancy dress / But when they're held for pleasure / They're the balls that I like best / My balls are always bouncing / To the left and to the right / It's my belief / That my big balls / Should be held every night."
WRCX gave away tickets to last Saturday's "BallBreaker Bash," including front-row seats to a fan wearing a 103.5 T-shirt. The station had been playing several cuts off the group's new record and, of course, the band had to be interviewed. The strategy reinforced the station's cool credentials by making the listener think that it had an in with the band.
One of the first things I noticed outside the United Center was an indignant, peroxided, and permed thirtysomething woman in fringe boots and leather jacket yelling to her friends, "Karen just got arrested for pissing on the sidewalk!" Inside, the audience was two-thirds male, with the majority of ticket holders in the older, Back in Black demographic, wearing tight jeans and small boots. In my row, though, were some young burnouts and their small girlfriends at one end; at the other end sat two women with their prepubescent sons (they left early). Indeed, there were a good number of under-21s in the crowd--kids in Mancow Muller T-shirts bobbing their heads to the music as hard as we ever did.
The extravaganza began with an eardrum-shattering video clip from Beavis & Butt-head in which the two cartoon characters stand outside AC/DC's dressing room trying to score runoff chicks. The screen then folded up, and a giant wrecking ball emerged from the rafters and broke through a Gothic wall, complete with gargoyles. The band came out of the rubble and launched into an enthusiastic version of "Back in Black." It was an appropriate opener; the new BallBreaker album, produced by Rick Rubin, is a return to the band's roots and has a raw bluesy sound. The band went so far as to dig out its old Marshall amps for the analog recording. They also brought back original drummer Phil Rudd, whose bare-bones style provides the base for the sexy groove of the album's best song, "Hard as a Rock." The record's other big singles, "BallBreaker" and "Cover You in Oil," also contain the same infectious chops and backing throb of previous classics.
During the two-hour show the band did what was expected. They rocked--and rocked well. It still sends shivers down my spine when Angus Young (who still dresses in short pants, tie, and cap) chicken walks across the stage while executing a perfect solo. He ran back and forth, working the audience and begging for applause while the stoic twins--longhaired, slack-jawed, tank-topped Malcolm Young and similarly dressed bassist Cliff Williams--hid near Rudd's drum kit, emerging only to sing backing vocals. Singer Brian Johnson, who looks like a ham-handed giant next to the diminutive Young brothers, also worked the whole stage, hunching over the mike, pointing his finger, and screeching out the lyrics in a convulsive pre-Rollins crouch.
Long ago AC/DC figured out that if you're going to play a stadium, you might as well put on a show. To that end, they brought out a giant AC/DC bell for "Hell's Bells" (for some reason it didn't come down from the rafters), bathed the audience in green light, and showed clips of old movies on the JumboTron for the slow, undulating new tune "Boogie Man." Angus also did a slow striptease and mooned the audience during the song. During "Let There Be Rock," a song that sounds like one long guitar solo, Angus (who's five feet tall) emerged in the middle of the crowd on a roadie's shoulder; later in the song he ran up a set of stairs and set off a chain of sparks with his guitar neck. But even more entertaining was when the giant wrecking ball made a second appearance with Johnson perched atop it singing "BallBreaker." He looked like a character out of This Is Spinal Tap riding a giant airborne Hippity-Hop.
But it worked. The audience responded with the traditional raised lighters. During "Dirty Deeds," nearly the entire audience shook their fists and yelled "Done dirt cheap!" Sure, AC/DC's stage antics are funny and kind of stupid, but they somehow avoid being overly dumb or embarrassing. As teenagers, we'd make fun of Angus-the-counting-horse's Rumpelstiltskin-like foot stomp. But it was never malicious because the band always execute their stunts with a sly, knowing wink--they know they're being goofy. They're having fun, and so are we. They also inject their humor into the merchandising; fans can get their picture taken with a life-size Angus cutout or buy a Brian Johnson-style hat featuring his embroidered caricature.
As with WRCX, there seems to be a formula that guides AC/DC, something that goes on behind the curtain. For example, one would think that Johnson, the singer, writes the lyrics (he replaced original singer Bon Scott in 1980 after Scott choked to death on his own vomit). But according to a recent article in Guitar World, Angus and Malcolm, who've been playing guitar together since they were kids, wrote the songs and lyrics for the new album. And despite their stage appearances, in real life Angus is said to be a quiet chain-smoker, while older brother Malcolm, who's a recovering alcoholic, is the brains behind the band. (Onstage Malcolm looks practically dead while he churns out a throbbing rhythm guitar). It's reminiscent of how Mancow pretends to have his sidekick Turd do a stunt, only to reveal later that it's all been an act and Turd hasn't broken his leg after all.
"I just noticed something about Chicago," yelled Johnson between songs. "You've got cold weather--but you've got hot chicks. This next one is for Chicago women." Then the band launched into "Girls Got Rhythm."
The set ended with "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)," which was performed with the repeated firings of six cannons. It was a deafening end to a kick-ass rock show; Johnson's last words to the audience were "We salute yoooooou!"
Back in the parking lot young guys handed out 103.5 decals. Inside the car WRCX played a block of AC/DC tunes. Earlier in the day Lou Brutus had delivered a taped promotion for his show with perfect timing. "My girlfriend won't go down on me--something about giving up meat for Lent. But I still have to do her. Something about fish being OK."
He could have been reciting lyrics to an AC/DC tune.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Greg.