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!

AC/DC Returns With “Shot In The Dark” From The Upcoming LP ‘Power Up’

They say that timing is everything…

On November 22, 1963 the American President John F. Kennedy was famously assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The youthful President seemed to embody a bright and energetic future for the American nation and people were hopeful in a scary world. The entire nation mourned his death like a family member had passed. We were once a united nation… Even my Sainted Mother can tell you where she was the day John Kennedy died. So could Lou Reed, apparently…the only thing Lou and Mom have in common. Nobody in America knew at the time but there were four lads in Liverpool who were about to change the world. By February 1964 when the Beatles arrived in America they had exploded onto the American consciousness like nothing else before or since. A grieving nation looking for something happy and hopeful grabbed onto the Beatles like a man about to fall off a ledge reaching for a railing. I’m not saying JFK’s assassination made the Beatles as popular as they were, but  you gotta wonder if it helped?

I was sitting on my back patio this Tuesday when the surprising news that rock and roll guitar legend Eddie Van Halen had passed away reached me (Guitar Legend Eddie Van Halen Gone Too Soon at 65, RIP Eddie, #EVH ). I guess I should have seen that coming, he’d been battling cancer for five years. I just hadn’t heard that news about his cancer returning. I foolishly thought he’d beaten it. Prior to that news, I knew that AC/DC had a new single coming out and I was excitedly waiting for that to happen. They released it at noon on Wednesday. The new track, “Shot In the Dark” (it’s original, not to be confused with an old Ozzy tune of the same name) is from the upcoming AC/DC album Power Up. It’s no surprise, but I love this new AC/DC song. I’m guessing I would have loved it anyway, but like the Beatles coming after JFK, I do wonder if the Eddie news affected me? I can say, that after Tuesday, I was in the mood for some good-time, up beat, old school, fucking rock and roll!! Who else but AC/DC to deliver the goods!?!

I’m on record as a huge AC/DC fan. They were the first band I took my wife to see in concert when we’d just started dating (AC/DC’s Stiff Upper Lip Concert – I Discover I’m Dating The Rock Chick). I will admit that while the Rock Chick and I share a love of AC/DC she’s firmly in the (leader singer) Brian Johnson camp while I straddle both worlds. I love Brian but I will always be on the original singer Bon Scott’s bandwagon. As an aside, the Rock Chick does a fabulous impersonation of Bon Scott on stage, but I’m getting off track here. It was indeed the Rock Chick who reconnected me with AC/DC after I’d lost track of them during the period after For Those About To Rock. The mid to late 80s were not the prime of AC/DC in my opinion. But starting with the great “comeback” album Razor’s Edge AC/DC returned to form. Frankly, everything they’ve done since has been fabulous.

I do owe this band an apology. After 2008’s Black Ice, AC/DC ran into some issues. Sadly, rhythm guitarist and founding brother Malcolm Young succumbed to dementia and eventually passed away (RIP Malcolm Young, Rhythm Guitarist Extraordinaire of AC/DC). Shortly after that, founding drummer Phil Rudd – who had left AC/DC after 1983’s Flick Of the Switch and returned on 1995’s Ballbreaker – ran afoul of the Australian legal system. He participated in the recording of Rock Or Bust but wasn’t able to tour. Rock Or Bust was the first AC/DC album recorded without Malcolm… Angus Young (lead guitarist) was able to replace Malcolm for that album and tour with their nephew Stevie Young on rhythm so he kept it “in the family.” During that tour it, Brian Johnson was diagnosed with a severe hearing disorder and was told if he played one more show, he’d be deaf for the rest of his life. Believe it or not, old friend of the band Axl Rose took over the lead vocals for AC/DC so they could finish the tour. It was at that point – Malcolm had passed, Brian was going deaf, Phil Rudd was likely going to prison – that in a post on bands who should call it “quits,” I named AC/DC as one of those bands (BourbonAndVinyl List of Bands Who Sadly, Should Call It Quits). In my defense, even bassist Cliff Williams had indicated he was going to quit since his road partying buddy Brian was gone. I was clearly not alone in thinking AC/DC were over.

Late last year, which seems like another lifetime pre-COVID, I started to hear rumors that Angus Young and nephew Stevie Young were up in Vancouver recording… Further, I heard that bassist Cliff Williams, despite threats to quit, was also with them. Soon I heard stories in the press that not only Brian Johnson had been spotted in Vancouver but Phil Rudd was with him too. “We’re getting the band back together,” flashed through my mind. I had wondered if Axl might pop in to sing until I heard that Brian had undergone an “experimental procedure” to cure the hearing problem. You know it’s never going well in any medical situation when they start talking about experimental medicine, but I guess in this instance, it worked. On the “Rock And Roll Albums to Purchase Soon” list I carry around in the back of my brain – I don’t dare write it down in fear that the Rock Chick will realize how much I’m spending on music – I added AC/DC to the top of the list. Then I guess I just filed it away…

About a week ago on “the social media” I started seeing these cryptic posts from AC/DC. It was just a neon lightning bolt (stylized to look like the bolt they use between the AC and the DC on their logo). The light was off and the it popped and hissed into life, fully lit up in red. I knew, as most people did, the time had come. The new AC/DC was almost here. AC/DC actually put up a billboard outside the school that Angus Young attended (sort of) as a child with the words “Power Up” on it so we almost immediately knew what the album’s title would be. Now we just had to wait for the tunes…

First singles from this band tend to be some of the greatest songs in rock and roll history. Even if you just look at them since the comeback, their lead singles have been great, great songs:

  • Razors Edge, “Thunderstruck” – An iconic Angus Young riff and a great track.
  • Ballbreaker, “Hard As A Rock” – After sort of ignoring AC/DC for 10 years, I loved this track so much I actually went to see them on this tour. I’ll never forget Brian carrying Angus around on his back while the latter solo’d.
  • Stiff Upper Lip, “Stiff Upper Lip” – This album is where I fully got back on the AC/DC train. Great track that always takes me back to a great concert. I’ve gotta thank the Rock Chick for buying this album on one of our first dates… she played it and I thought, “Hey, wait a minute, this is awesome.”
  • Black Ice, “Rock N Roll Train” – One of the greatest AC/DC late-career anthems. If this song doesn’t bring you to your feet with devil horns extended on both hands, well then you’re not a rock and roll fan. And you might wanna check yourself for a pulse.
  • Rock Or Bust, “Play Ball” – I love this track despite the fact they let Major League Baseball use it on commercials. It’s just solid rock and roll.

I couldn’t wait to hear “Shot In the Dark.” There is nothing greater than dropping the needle, or in this case pushing “play” on the Spotify app and hearing that great riff-age come blasting out of the speakers. Angus teases out a signature little guitar when suddenly the band kicks in with full force. Even the Rock Chick looked up at me and said, “Oh man, that’s really good.” Phil Rudd is the only drummer that should ever play in this band… he’s right in the pocket and his drums, as always help drive “Shot In the Dark.” He’s not the fanciest drummer, but there’s so much rock n’ roll swagger in his drumming. And let me just say, it’s great to hear Brian Johnson back on the microphone. It’s a big chunky riff and Angus’ guitar solo is quick and incisive. “A shot in the dark, beats a walk in the park,” indeed.

AC/DC long ago found out that they do one thing but they do it to perfection. Hard ass rock and roll. I think this will probably be their swan song but I am very optimistic that in this dark world, AC/DC’s Power Up will be that rock and roll rescue we all need.

Turn this one up loud!! Cheers!