Some songs are custom-written for Houston, even if they come from halfway around the world. Just as I exited the Gulf Freeway this morning onto that long flyover leading to downtown, AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” came on the trusty satellite radio. The skyline slowly rose into view as that needly guitar part faded in, and that funny chant that sounds like any drunk in the world at last call came next, punctuated by cannon-like drums. (“Thun-der!”) The whole band finally kicked in, Brian Johnson announcing “You’ve been thunderstruck!” as I sped by the ramp leading to Scott Street. In a word, fucking awesome.
Even more awesome are the lyrics: “Went down the highway, broke the limit, we hit the town” – pretty much what I was doing – “Went through to Texas, yeah Texas, and we had some fun.” So far so good. “We met some girls, some dancers who gave a good time.” Hell yeah.
“Broke all the rules, played all the fools, yeah, yeah, they… they… they blew our minds.” Wait a minute. Maybe they did write it about Houston.
But even if that’s true – musically, “Thunderstruck” may be the most multi-faceted song in AC/DC’s entire catalog – its most ardent defender wouldn’t try to place it on the same level as “Highway to Hell” or “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Obviously it’s not filler either, and I began wondering: surely other bands of AC/DC’s stature must have worthy songs that fall between massive hit/concert staple and studio throwaway.
Of course they do. Generally these songs might make a singles comp or live setlist, but wouldn’t be among the first or last three at a show. (Though “Thunderstruck” opens both 1990’s The Razor’s Edge and 1992’s AC/DC Live.) Click through for my picks; leave yours in the comments.
Led Zeppelin, “What Is and What Should Never Be” (Led Zeppelin II, 1969) – Alternates Robert Plant’s dreamy, meandering reveries with Jimmy Page’s serious slide-riff action and John Bonham’s brutishly punctual pounding. John Paul Jones’ nifty near-reggae bass ties the whole thing together.
Rolling Stones, “Casino Boogie” (Exile on Main Street, 1972) – One of several Exile album tracks (“Loving Cup,” “Stop Breaking Down,” “All Down the Line”) on par with the hits. Perfectly embodies the album’s blowsy demeanor, with a smokin’ sax solo to boot.
The Who, “A Legal Matter” (My Generation, 1965) – Barrelhouse piano and honky-tonk guitar turn Pete Townshend’s attempt to ape the Stones’ “The Last Time” into unlikely Mod perfection.
Van Halen, "Everybody Wants Some!!” (Women and Children First, 1980) – As Eddie shreds (duh), David Lee Roth offers invaluable insight into his songwriting process: leave a tape recorder on while he and his buds sit around ogling the local talent (“I like the way the little line runs all the way up the back of the stockings”). Classy ending, too: “Look, I’ll pay ya for it. What the fuck?”
ZZ Top, “Francine” (Rio Grande Mud, 1972) – Wrong on so many levels: for starters, the titular object of Billy Gibbons’ affection “just turned thirteen.” Eww. Worse, she’s already been in the joint, because he’s going to throw her back there if he ever catches her with “Stevie P.” Whoever that is.
Francine must get around, because Gibbons says if she messes with “my mother’s son” – his brother? himself? – “I’ll call her daddy and get my gun,” which is just a recipe for disaster. Still the Top’s prototypical boogie riff; it’s been translated into Spanish by them and others – most recently Evelyn Rubio and the Calvin Owens Orchestra on last month's La Mujer que Canta el Blues - and sounds just as dirty.
Guns ‘N’ Roses, “Rocket Queen” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987) – Longer than any song on Appetite except “Paradise City.” Axl is at his schizophrenic best, comparing his tongue to a razor and sneering “I can do you favors, but then you’ll do whatever I like.”
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Later he pleads, “Don’t ever leave me… All I ever wanted was for you to know that I care.” Awww. Axl also makes sex noises, but Slash is too busy showing everything he learned from Motley Crue’s Too Fast for Love to notice.
Journey, “Be Good to Yourself” (Raised on Radio, 1986) – Rocker that bounces along on glockenspiel-like piano and Steve Perry’s blithe assurance that “I’m turning off the noise that makes me crazy.” Oddly enough, the band split not long after this album came out.
This song also prompted the accidental, but bad-ass, discovery that Journey and Joy Division are back-to-back on my iTunes.
U2, “The Unforgettable Fire” (The Unforgettable Fire, 1984) – Maybe the most non-U2 song on the band’s most non-U2 album; only “Pride,” “Bad” and “Wire” really resemble the band of either War or The Joshua Tree. Introspective and brooding – two adjectives rarely linked with U2 until Unforgettable Fire, and seldom since – the song glides through Bono’s nomadic lyrics on a beautiful string line that bears the strong stamp of first-time collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. – Chris Gray