Review: AC/DC’s Spectacular Return, ‘Power Up’

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Malcolm Young

I am stuck in a state of stupefied, delighted wonderment these days and have been since last Friday when AC/DC returned – against all odds – to deliver what might be the B&V album of the year, Power Up. I must confess I thought these guys were done. I don’t do this often, but I certainly owe lead guitarist Angus Young and the rest of this band an apology. It was during their last tour for Rock Or Bust that I included AC/DC in my BourbonAndVinyl List of Bands Who Sadly, Should Call It Quits. Mea culpa, mea culpa, I am sorry. Never bet against one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

I could be forgiven for thinking this rock and roll juggernaut had finally been halted. Prior to recording Rock Or Bust we had all heard the sad news that rhythm guitarist Malcom Young had succumbed to the effects of dementia. I had a grandmother who went down that way and it was simply awful. Stevie Young, nephew to Malcolm and Angus, was stepping in to replace Malcolm on Rock Or Bust. Stevie had played with AC/DC back when Malcolm had gone to rehab to quit drinking. He realized it was interfering with his playing, and with the band and the fans were too important to him. Malcolm was that kind of man!

Everything seemed to be moving forward and then original drummer Phil Rudd ran into some, um, legal issues. On the ensuing tour for Rock Or Bust he had to be replaced by drummer Chris Slade who had played with AC/DC during a hiatus Rudd had taken in the late 80s/early 90s. Slade had last played with AC/DC on the Razor’s Edge LP. And then, with only about 10 dates left on the tour Brian Johnson developed a severe hearing issue that made it impossible for him to perform live. If he tried to sing live again, he risked losing his hearing completely. He had to retire in the middle of the tour. Friend of the band Axl Rose stepped in and helped Angus and the boys finish the tour, good on Axl. Shortly after that, longtime bassist Cliff Williams announced he was hanging it up. Apparently he used to party on the road with Brian and without him, the road wasn’t going to be as fun. I get it… you’re on the road you need a drinking buddy. Finally, in 2017 Malcolm Young sadly passed away (RIP Malcolm Young, Rhythm Guitarist Extraordinaire of AC/DC).

Toward the end of last year I heard rumblings that Angus and Stevie Young were spotted up in Vancouver. Soon there were rumors that bassist Cliff Williams may have changed his mind and returned. News spread they were working on a new album dedicated to Malcolm. If that doesn’t fill your eyes with a tear you’re not human. Brian Johnson apparently underwent some sort of miracle cure for his hearing and has returned to the fold. The Rock and Roll Gods were clearly smiling on AC/DC. Even more miraculous is that Phil Rudd somehow evaded prosecution. The entire band, save for Malcolm, had returned. And man, have they returned!!

I’ve been a big fan of AC/DC’s since Back In Black (LP Lookback: AC/DC’s Masterpiece, ‘Back In Black’ Turned 40 Yrs Old June 25, 2020) which I purchased shortly after it was released in 1980. While the Rock Chick only digs the Brian Johnson era AC/DC, I’m also a huge fan of Bon Scott’s time with the band (LP Look Back: The Overlooked Gem, AC/DC’s “Powerage”). I don’t think they’ve ever put out a bad album with the possible exception of Fly On The Wall. And I’ll admit Flick The Switch was a bit of a letdown after For Those About To Rock but everything else in this catalog is top shelf. I would even recommend Blow Up  Your Video, an overlooked gem in their catalog.

Since meeting the Rock Chick in 2000 when she turned me back onto AC/DC they’ve put out some great music. Stiff Upper Lip (2000) is a phenomenal late period AC/DC album that everyone should own. Black Ice (2008) was another great record but it felt a bit long to me. It was fifteen tracks and seemed to go on a bit longer than it should have. When they followed up with Rock Or Bust it felt slightly short to me. That album was only eleven songs and only thirty-five minutes long which left me wanting more. Weighing in at 12 tracks Power Up feels, to quote Goldilocks, “just right.” Angus went back through the tapes and found old songs he and Malcolm had written but never recorded or released on a record so every track says “Written by Angus and Malcolm Young,” the way God intended AC/DC songs to be written. The album, as mentioned, is dedicated to Malcolm and one has to believe the group came together to honor their fallen comrade. They certainly brought their best.

The first single, “Shot In The Dark,” is one of the great, classic AC/DC songs, reviewed on B&V earlier, AC/DC Returns With “Shot In The Dark” From The Upcoming LP ‘Power Up’. The opening track “Realize” signals that the band means business on this album. It’s lean, mean and it rocks. I read that “Realize” is a track Angus and Malcolm had tried to get on previous albums but never did. “Demon Fire” is another great potential single, that signals the return of Brian Johnson’s lascivious lead vocals. “Wild Reputation” is a bloozy treat. “Kick You When You’re Down” is a favorite of the Rock Chick’s. When we first listened to the album she looked at me and said, “Damn this is a great album.” “Through the Mists of Time” is an almost wistful rocker that one might think was inspired by memories of Malcolm. There isn’t a bad track on this record. If I have any complaints it’s that I’d like to hear them do a slow, bluesy number…but nobody does that anymore. And, let’s face it, I’m probably the only one asking for that.

Through out this record Stevie Young’s bedrock rhythm guitar picks up where Malcom’s left off. It allows Angus Young’s classic lead guitar to soar above it. When Angus comes in for a solo he has this magical way of creating tension and then releasing it with a clean, beautifully played solo. He’s really one of the greatest guitarists that we’ve got left. Phil Rudd is the only drummer who should play with AC/DC. Having Cliff back on bass helps them keep that solid engine of a rhythm section in place. I can’t say enough about Brian Johnson. The guy still smokes I think. And yet his vocals, after whatever miracle hearing cure he went through, are spot on. He’s gravelly, bluesy and always sounds horny. I just love his singing here. It’s so great to have him back in the fold. The band brings a certain amount of menace to this lean rock set that sets it apart from many of their albums.

It’s hard not to think of this as the swan song for this seminal, iconic band. I hope not, I’ve counted them out before they were done before. This is a must have for rock fans everywhere. It may not cure COVID but it sure feels like it could. At the very least we should acknowledge how great it is to have rock and roll like this released into the world. When AC/DC release an album, it’s a big fucking deal. And when they deliver the goods like they have on this album, it’s an even bigger deal.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say this may be the B&V album of the year… it certainly will be on our “best of 2020” list. Turn this one up loud and for once this year, celebrate the joy, the power and the majesty of rock and roll.

Cheers!

BourbonAndVinyl’s Rock Chick’s AC/DC Playlist, “This ones for you, Mal”

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If you’re like me, the sad news of the passing of AC/DC’s co-founder, rhythm guitar player, and songwriter Malcolm Young hit you hard. AC/DC has always been a big favorite of mine and I never thought Malcolm got the credit he deserved. The Rock Chick has always shared my proclivity for AC/DC and as documented, AC/DC was our first concert together. Alas, that was the last time I saw AC/DC. It’s another sobering message from the cosmos that came in loud and clear – always, always buy the ticket and go see the show. Pretty soon we won’t have the option to buy the ticket… but as usual I digress.

Needless to say, the Rock Chick and I were both down yesterday after hearing the news. I saw there were a tremendous number of great condolence statements from all across the music world. The quiet, unassuming Malcolm was quite a force in hard rock. So like everybody else, I went to the stereo to put on some AC/DC. It would have been easy to just slip Back In Black on the turntable and turn it up. But that seemed too perfunctory.

Then I realized, The Rock Chick had put together an AC/DC playlist years ago. It’s one our favorite playlists. We’ve played it at parties and it always goes over well. I couldn’t help but think it would be a more fitting tribute to Malcolm to listen to a broader spectrum of his music than just one album. And I must say, turning this music up loud was the balm my soul needed.

Now, like everything in marriage, music is a compromise. I’ve often described my musical tastes and the Rock Chick’s as being a classic Venn Diagram, the famous overlapping circles. And even though we both love AC/DC, inexplicably, my wife doesn’t like the Bon Scott-era. She’s all in for Brian Johnson. I chuckle to think that when I first got into AC/DC I couldn’t tell the difference between the two. As my listening became more sophisticated, I realized that Bon had a raspier, bluesier vocal style. I’d also say Bon had a better sense of humor, but the Rock Chick might debate me on that topic. I don’t always subscribe to the theory of “happy wife, happy life,” but in the case of this playlist, I pick my battles.

The Rock Chick’s playlists are always better than anything I can come up with. Her party playlists always get somebody running up to me to ask what these songs are… my playlists tend to get people running up to me to ask if we can change the music. “Yes, Rich, we have some Oasis we can put on…” The Rock Chick tends to avoid songs that were over-played or that were big hits (like say, “You Shook Me All Night Long,” a great tune but we’ve all heard it 1000 times). She goes to the deeper album tracks. There always seems to be the right mix of popular tracks and deep cuts. This playlist is heavy on Brian Johnson tracks, and on their later albums, which is what BourbonAndVinyl is all about in the first place. I am slowly bringing The Rock Chick over to the Bon Scott stuff… track by track she’s getting into Highway To Hell. And I play the criminally overlooked LP, Powerage as often as I can get away with it…(LP Look Back: The Overlooked Gem, AC/DC’s “Powerage”) It was bound to seep in.

So for those of you who were saddened by yesterday’s Malcolm Young news, I will share this, the Rock Chick’s AC/DC playlist. It’s meant to help the healing. I have put it out on Spotify under the title, BourbonAndVinyl.net The Rock Chick’s AC/DC Playlist. As mentioned, you’re not going to find “You Shook Me All Night Long” or much Bon Scott. But as I listened to this yesterday it gave me a real appreciation of Malcolm and his brother’s work across the latter part of their career. It’s not meant to be a complete, best-of, kind of retrospective. It’s just something that gave me solace and I wanted to share it in these sad days.

Without further adieu, here are the Rock Chick’s AC/DC Playlist tracks. This one’s for you Mal:

From Back In Black:

  1. Hells Bells
  2. Shoot To Thrill
  3. Back In Black
  4. Have A Drink On Me  (Something I did in Malcolm’s honor)
  5. Shake A Leg

From Ballbreaker:

  1. Hard As A Rock
  2. The Furor  (I realize this was banned in Germany, but it’s a wicked good track)
  3. Hail Caesar
  4. Whiskey On The Rocks (The perfect BourbonAndVinyl track)

From Black Ice:

  1. Rock ‘N Roll Train
  2. Skies On Fire
  3. Anything Goes

From For Those About To Rock:

  1. For Those About To Rock
  2. Put The Finger On You
  3. Let’s Get It Up
  4. Evil Walks
  5. C.O.D.

From Highway To Hell

  1. Shot Down In Flames
  2. If You Want Blood (You Got It)

From The Last Action Hero Soundtrack or Backtracks (Box Set)

  1. Big Gun

From Powerage:

  1. Gone Shootin’

From Razor’s Edge:

  1. Thunderstruck
  2. The Razor’s Edge
  3. Are You Ready
  4. Shot of Love
  5. Let’s Make It

From Rock Or Bust:

  1. Rock or Bust
  2. Play Ball
  3. Sweet Candy

From Stiff Upper Lip:

  1. Stiff Upper Lip
  2. Hold Me Back
  3. Can’t Stand Still
  4. Give It Up

From Who Made Who:

  1. Who Made Who
  2. Sink The Pink

 

RIP Malcolm Young, Rhythm Guitarist Extraordinaire of AC/DC

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Oh man, not another one. I awoke this morning to the sad news that Malcolm Young, the extraordinarily talented rhythm guitarist for AC/DC, one of the world’s (and one of my) favorite hard rock bands, had passed away. He had been suffering from dementia and had to retire from the band prior to the tumultuous recording of their last record, Rock Or Bust. Dementia claimed my maternal grandmother and it’s a tough way to go. By every account that I’ve read, statements from other musicians, Malcolm was described as being a “sweet” guy. Being that talented and that nice are some pretty great things to be remembered for. He was preceded in death by his older brother George Young, who was in the Easy Beats, an early Aussie rock band and who was later a producer for AC/DC. Tough couple of months for the Youngs.

It had to be somewhat difficult for Malcolm. He’s always been a bit overshadowed by his brother Angus on lead guitar who, in his school uniform, was the visual symbol of the band. He was also probably overshadowed by the lead singers – who wouldn’t be overshadowed by larger than life Bon Scott and later Brian Johnson. The front man always gets the attention and the chicks. Yet, Malcolm cowrote every song they did with Angus and Bon Scott and later with just Angus. I would say Malcolm was more important than anybody on the microphone to AC/DC. His riffs were the foundation of every tune they put out. Even though he retired prior to the recording of their last album, Rock or Bust, Angus said most of the song ideas and basic riffs were written by and demo’d by Malcolm. He was as important to rhythm guitar as Keith Richards. That bedrock rhythm guitar allowed his brother Angus to soar on so many great solos.

One of the first albums I remember buying was AC/DC’s Back In Black. I was working as a bus boy at a steak joint named York Steak House in Oak Park Mall out in the suburbs of Kansas City. The crew I worked with there was one of the funnest, most degenerate group of people I’ve ever met. And believe me, I know a lot of degenerates, but these guys took the cake. One of the managers had a big keg party for the employees, most of whom were underage for drinking, but why split hairs over silly rules. We were out at some lake in western Johnson County. Somebody dropped the Back In Black cassette into the boom box and it was like an explosion in my head. My life had changed. Listening to that album, and marveling at the monster guitar riffs, I thought it was some band’s greatest hits album. I remember we were so fiercely air-guitaring I fell and hit my head on a park bench… maybe that’s why I remember that party so clearly… it was literally jarring. Talk about your head banging, I lived it, baby.

It was shortly after almost wearing out Back In Black, that I started researching AC/DC. It was then that I realized that they had just replaced their lead singer Bon Scott with Brian Johnson. I thought it was Brian singing on Highway To Hell, their vocals were so similar. Now, I can hear the difference clearly. One of the reasons their sound stayed so consistent was Malcolm and Angus’ monster riffage. I remember going to the mall and for some inexplicable reason I bought Highway To Hell on cassette instead of vinyl. The mistakes of youth… I think I wanted to play it in the car. That album underscored to me, it doesn’t matter whose up front singing, it’s the guitars that power that band.

I saw AC/DC on the Ballbreaker tour with my buddy, The Accountant, and they were just so spectacular. A lot of that was due to Malcolm’s perfectionist tendencies. He was so committed to the fans. He even quit AC/DC in the 80s to go to rehab to quit drinking. He’d realized his playing was suffering and he loved guitar more than booze. That’s commitment.

I had drifted away from AC/DC, even after seeing that great Ballbreaker show. It wasn’t until I met the Rock Chick and she turned me onto some of their great later albums, The Razor’s Edge, Stiff Upper Lip, that I reconnected with this great band. The Stiff Upper Lip tour was the first concert I ever took the Rock Chick to, chronicled on this very blog, AC/DC’s Stiff Upper Lip Concert – I Discover I’m Dating The Rock Chick. I’m very glad I saw that show, and glad that Rock Chick reintroduced me to this wonderful band. AC/DC remains and will remain in high rotation here at the B&V home.

Today the rock and roll world has lost another foundational player. We down here at the B&V lab will be flying the rock flag at half mast. Me, I’m going to pour a tumbler full of something strong, brown and murky and turn on the Rock Chick’s fabulous AC/DC play list. RIP Malcolm!