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Get Electrified By Starlight Express’s “AC/DC”

I spent the entire Saturday listening to musical soundtracks composed by the great Andrew Lloyd Webber. Perhaps due to the recent news of a live-action film of the infamous musical Cats. But also, at the same time, songs from another Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, came up on my Spotify playlist. This prompted me to listen to the entire live recording of the NBC live production that happened this past spring.

After listening to the soundtracks, Spotify then introduced me to the 80s’ musical Starlight Express. I didn’t know that this musical existed until the recommendation popped up. I was baffled. I kept asking myself while listening:

What is “Starlight Express”?

Starlight Express is a musical that is centered on a huge race between trains around the world. It features one underdog, a low-speed steam shunter engine named Rusty, who dreams of winning. He doesn’t just to win the tournament, but also the heart of a brand-new coach named Pearl. However, there is the reigning champion, an Elvis-like diesel engine named Greaseball (who reminds me of the Pharaoh from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat). He is challenged by Rusty, a newcomer named Electra, and other trains from around the world.

Although the characters are mostly trains, the story is what is important. It’s a classic story about believing in yourself mixed with a little romance, the underdog factor, and the race element.

Starlight Express: A Train Musical, Seriously?

However, it is hard to imagine such a musical exist, especially when you think about the “trains” are actual humans on rollerskates.

How can humans portray inanimate objects so well?

How can they make that believable so that this musical could be a good musical to see?

Isn’t that idea too obscure?

There is some backstory on how Starlight Express was created. The musical is a mash-up of three failed project by Lloyd Webber himself — all dealing with trains too. First was a failed Thomas the Tank Engine animation project. Then, an ill-received train-themed pop song (which did make its way into the musical). Finally, a failed idea of a retelling of the classic Cinderella tale but with locomotives racing to be with the prince. So, conceiving a big production by melding the ideas together would be very weird and hard to imagine, right?

What WAS Sir Lloyd Webber thinking?

“AC/DC” is Okay With Me

But, here we are: talking about Starlight Express. Yet, it has some great songs including my new favorite “AC/DC”. This piece is sung by a futuristic electric engine named Electra. He serves as one of the two antagonists during the story. During the song, Electra explains the meaning of “electronic”. He further talks about what abilities he has since he is “the future of railroad technology”. These abilities are: Electra can shock anyone, cause a fire, pull down the lighting from the sky, and cause anyone to be erased from his “memory”. These abilities, according to the electric engine, signal that he is very dangerous and shouldn’t be messed with. Electra also boasts that the electric train contains enough “electricity”  — charm and personality — to attract many to himself. This makes Electra believe that he will have the upper advantage in the final race as everyone will abandon those sore losers of steam engines for him.

Speaking of futuristic, the character and lyrics were ahead of its time as Electra may have been one of the first bisexual characters in a musical.[2] The clue is in the chorus when the electric engine sings “AC/DC, it’s okay by me. I can switch and change my frequency”. When this musical first premiered in 1984, “AC/DC” was slang for being bisexual. According to the character profile found on the Starlights Express Wiki, Electra had his sights on both sexes. Now, I don’t know if it is true or not because I haven’t heard the creator himself talk about the musical in-depth (and if you know of a source, please feel free to direct me to it),. But, the lyrics do allude to that characteristic for Electra.

The Musicality of “AC/DC”

How “AC/DC” was crafted is very different than a musical number in the 80s. Before Starlight Express, most early 80s musicals — like Les Miserables, Cats, and Little Shop of Horrors — had an orchestra serving as the main instrumentation. Furthermore, Dreamgirl and Chess used popular music that was already common by the mid-1980s (i.e., Dreamgirls was Motown themed). But with “AC/DC”, Andrew Lloyd Webber (who was one the firsts to use modern instrumentation in musicals) had the future in mind when he composed the tune: an electronic piece that uses a drumkit and synthesizers to give that futuristic feel.

The piece also feels odd and something unfamiliar as it’s placed in the G minor key. Furthermore, it is set in the 7/8 time signature, which is the only song in the musical to be set in that time signature. The rest are arranged in the standard 4/4 time signature. This unusual time signature and minor key help solidified that, as the Starlight Express Wiki puts it, Electra is something “wild and startlingly different from everyone else”. [1]

That weirdness of the piece is what attracts me. I love the mystic feeling that the introduction brings. It features soft tones, the use of the starry effect on the synthesizer, and the female vocals hailing the superstar by singing his name over and over. When Electra begins, he introduces himself by singing “I am electric, feel my attraction”. This seduces the listeners while pulling them into his electric realm. The lyrics and the seduction of the singer’s silky voice urge the listener to continue listening while enchanting whom who continue.  Then, the chorus jumps around the relative circle of fifths to create a sense of something strange and electronically weird. While Electra is singing, his vocals often change frequencies having the pitch either go up or down with the aid of an autotuner.

The Evolution of “Starlight Express” Throughout the Years

As Mykal Rand, a British actor who has played Electra in many productions, simply puts it: Starlight Express is ever-changing as technology advances.[2] “AC/DC” also has changed over the years to adapt to technological advances. I am going to share the different versions of “AC/DC” from various points in time. It is hard to pick a favorite as each version has their own quirks. What is your favorite version?

The Jeffrey Daniel Version (1984)

Below is a promotion video of Jeffrey Daniel, a former member of the 70s’ group Shalamar. He was the first Electra in the original West End production of the musical. He also sang the piece on the Original Cast Album.

I like Daniel’s version with his smooth and attractive vocals. I also like the electronic tonal alterations done to Daniel’s vocals to fit the theme of Electra. 

The concept for the music video is a bit unique; you have geishas doing various tasks while Daniel is dancing and singing. At first, I thought it was pretty weird, why would geishas be involved with this song? But I figured it out; Japan was the leader of future technology up until the end of the 80s. It would make perfect sense to put something Japanese in a song about futuristic (train) technology.

Here are the lyrics:

I am electric, feel my attraction

Feel my magnetism, you will agree

I am electric, I have the contact

I am electric, the future is me!

AC/DC, it’s okay by me

I can switch and change my frequency

I am electric, mind how you touch me

I can shock you, I can set you on fire

I can reach up and pluck down the lightning

Watch the conductor, see the live wire

AC/DC, it’s okay by me I can switch and change my frequency

AC/DC, it’s okay by me I can switch and change my frequency

I am electric, I’m a computer

Don’t attempt to keep no secrets from me

If you make me bored, I hit my keyboard

You’ll be erased from my memory

AC/DC, it’s okay by me

I can switch and change my frequency, can switch and change my frequency, can switch and change my frequency

The John Partridge version (1993)

Starlight Express went through several radical changes in the early 1990s, thus ushering in a new version and a new cast recording. This version of “AC/DC” got rid of the introduction with DOS prompts-like introduction by Electra’s components/ Instead, the producers had the Components just introduce themselves with their regular voices. The reason why the DOS prompt-like introduction got replaced was that while it was cool and futuristic in the 80s, it became outdated by the 90s. Also, there was more of an emphasis on Electra’s vocals than the electronic gimmick.

It seemed like this new version tone down the vocal alternations and focused on Patridge’s powerful yet slick singing style. The instrumentation also changes as it is less high-pitched. Yet, there is more of a bass backbone supporting the song, more instruments, a more proactive, authentic drum set,  and a more fluid synthesizer.

The Mykal Rand Version (2013)

Here is a clip of Mykal Rand singing the song in 2013 with more coherent and updated instrumentation (and maybe a small helping hand from a sequencer). This version uses more of a bass synthesizer and an electric drum kit. Also, Rand also makes a pretty “mean” Electra.

The David Michael Johnson version (1989)

And a bonus for you: this is a German version of the tune, sung by David Michael Johnson in 1989. This from a live recording on the Bochum recording, which celebrated their 30th anniversary this year. This recording follows the original West End recording.

Yet, what I like I about this version is how Johnson adds more to the Electra character by adding in-character electrified laughs near the end. I also love how Johnson sings in a style that reflects Electra’s self-absorbed personality.

This is one of the better, coherent (vocal-wise) versions I found on Youtube.

You can find the lyrics for each version at the Starlight Express Wiki.


References

[1] “Electra.” Starlight Express the Musical Wiki, starlightexpressmusical.wikia.com/wiki/Electra.
[2] “Norfolk – Entertainment – Mykal’s Still on Track.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/norfolk/entertainment/visual_arts/theatre_dance/starlight_express_mykal_rand_feature.shtml


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