LP Look Back: The Overlooked Gem, AC/DC’s “Powerage”

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We’ve reached that dreaded time of year when the holidays have descended up on us, and bands have stopped releasing new albums. Oh sure, I’ve spent most of the past few weeks listening to the superb new Stones album, “Blue and Lonesome,” but as I found myself shut in because of the snow and ice outside, cabin fever has set in. Which is odd, because I’ve only been shut in since I got out of bed this morning. I began to flip through my album collection but I didn’t get any farther than the A’s… more specifically, AC/DC.

Is there a joy more pure and wonderful than listening to AC/DC? They’re just a fun band. When I first met my wife, the Rock Chick, one of the first things I liked about her was she was one of the first chicks I’d ever met who knew the difference between the Bon Scott-era AC/DC and the Brian Johnson-era. Most women I’d known didn’t know the difference. It was the Rock Chick who got me back into AC/DC, who I thought were spent creatively after “For Those About To Rock,” when she turned me onto “The Razor’s Edge” and more importantly “Stiff Upper Lip” which are great, great late period albums. The first concert I ever took the Rock Chick to was AC/DC on the “Stiff Upper Lip” Tour… ah, fond memories. That was a  wonderful evening with Angus’ guitar solos and women taking their tops off… and that was just on the ride down to the show…

I will admit, if the Rock Chick has a flaw musically it’s her complete dismissal of the Bon Scott-era of AC/DC. Although I will give her credit for loving “If You Want Blood, You Got It.” As most people know, Bon was the original, charismatic lead singer of AC/DC. He tragically died sleeping in the back seat of a car after a night of drinking when he choked on his own vomit. Which frankly, is how I think every great rock star should go out. The man has been described as a “street poet” and for once I think they got that one right. His lyrics about the grimier, darker side of life are nothing short of brilliant – the Nobel Committee ought to put on the “Highway To Hell” LP and start considering following up the Dylan nomination with Bon… but as usual, I digress.

Most people focus on the Brian Johnson-era of AC/DC’s career probably because a) it’s lasted longer and b) they were much more popular during Brian’s tenure. After “Back In Black,” one of the best selling albums of all time, AC/DC became international superstars. I can see where that kind of LP sales could eclipse the earlier, lesser-known work. If you look at the macro picture though, under Bon Scott, the band was headed that way. With each successive album, from “High Voltage” to “Dirty Deeds” to “Let There Be Rock” AC/DC’s following and stature continued to grow. While they didn’t even tour in the US until 1977, hitting small venues no less, like CBGB and the Whiskey (underscoring once again, if I could time travel, I’d spend all my time at concerts), they were building toward that eventual breakthrough which came in the form of “Highway To Hell.” While everybody loves “Back In Black” it was “Highway” that broke them. If you listen to Bon’s lyrics you can discern several things… he truly believed he was battling for rock and roll as an art form and that he was going to go to Hell for doing that. Although it certainly seems like  he was having an extraordinarily good time doing so. One could imagine him crossing the River Styx, with his shirt off and a bottle of Old Crow whiskey in his hand, howling…”Don’t stop meeee!”

Eventually, after “Back In Black” people began to go back and discover AC/DC’s earlier albums and many, many of their songs began to get airplay that before weren’t getting much play at all. The early albums added depth and context for “Back In Black.” And while all that is great, there is one album that for reasons that are inexplicable to me, remains overlooked. That album is “Powerage.” Maybe it’s the odd cover art. I absolutely love this dark, dark record. I realize that there wasn’t really a discernible single on the record. I realize that “Highway To Hell” eclipsed everything that came before it but to overlook “Powerage” is criminal. Keith Richards, of all people, has been quoted as saying “Powerage” is his favorite AC/DC album, and frankly does anybody need more of an endorsement than that?

As the 70’s went on, as I mentioned, AC/DC’s fame and fortune continued to increase on the international rock scene. They opened for Black Sabbath… wouldn’t you have loved to drink with Ozzy and Bon back then? I know I would… They were gaining attention, especially in Europe. They were poised to break through in a big way… and then it’s like Bon Scott knew the end was near, and right before the breakthrough, they paused and went into the studio and recorded a dark and foreboding LP, “Powerage”….and it’s fucking brilliant.

This album finds Bon’s lyrical gifts beginning to blossom. The LP opens with what was ostensibly the first single, “Rock N Roll Damnation.” It starts the LP off with a MONSTER riff… and then Bon comes in with, “They say that you play too loud, well baby that’s tough.” The chip on Bon’s shoulder is as big as a car. This song sets the table and signals, this is going to be a dark ride and Bon has some scores to settle. I really don’t think of AC/DC as a “singles” band and frankly I think “Powerage” is an album that you need to listen to in it’s entirety, like Pink Floyd. It sets a mood. I listen to this album and I just want to take a shot of whiskey and do some brawling… and I haven’t been in a fight since grade school and I lost that one.

“Down Payment Blues” and “Gimme a Bullet To Bite On” are just great tunes. In “Down Payment Blues” Bon sings, “I got myself a Cadillac but I can’t afford the gasoline.” This is dirty, dirty bloozy rock. “Gimme a Bullet…” is a classic Bon break up song… He’s got a “pain in his heart” and he’s calling for a bullet to bite on… and he’s going to make believe it’s his ex… I think we’ve all been there…

The centerpiece of this record, for me, is the tune “Gone Shootin’.” The riff is infectious. The dark story about a man lamenting that his girl friend has gone out in their bad neighborhood to score herion is harrowing, but the way Bon growls, “My baby’s gone shootin’… she’s gone, gone, gone,” it brings chills to my spine. Likely the subject matter kept that one off the radio… it’s the heart and soul of this record. It is my all time favorite AC/DC tune.

I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention the amazing lead guitar playing of Angus Young. With Malcolm Young on rhythm guitar, these guys lay down gargantuan riffs throughout the album. The song “Up To My Neck In You” may be Angus’ finest hour as a guitarist. “Riff Raff” is a colossus of a guitar party. The Young brothers set the scene with their one of their best riffs as Bon takes us into “Sin City” another gem of a song on this album. The guitar riff on that song makes me feel like I’m in the car with the band at the city limits of Las Vegas… and some shit is going down. There isn’t a bad song on this record. The frantic LP ender, “Kicked In The Teeth Again” is a break neck hard rocker… You can barely keep up with Angus’ solos on that one. These guys don’t really slow down at all on this record.

I’ve turned a few of my esteemed rock friends onto this album, Matthew and Stormin’ out in Denver and both of them at some point have turned to me and said some version of, “how did I miss this album?” You true rock guys out there, and you know who you are, should do yourselves a favor and get this record on the turntable as soon as you can. You will not regret it…

As always my friends, on this cold, cold winter day, stay warm, pour something brown and murky, put on “Powerage” and enjoy… Although don’t give into that mood to start brawling… I’m a pacifist… a lover, not a fighter.

Cheers!

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