[On May 5, 1978, AC/DC released the almighty Powerage, their fifth album. Forty years later, we’d like to talk about it.]
With all due respect to the likes of Back in Black and Highway to Hell, which seem to be the most conventional picks, if you ask a serious AC/DC fan to name their favorite record they’re likely to say Powerage, which just reached its 40th birthday. That 1978 record edges out its predecessor, Let There Be Rock, though the pair stand as the high-water mark of the these Aussies’ long and storied career.
Powerage eschewed the sexual innuendo and not-so-subtle double entendres so common in the rest of AC/DC’s catalog, though it seems silly to refer to anything AC/DC did as “mature” — they’re simply not that band. But as much grief as the band gets for “making the same album over and over,” Powerage shows a band completely comfortable in its own skin and reveling in its role as underdog everymen looking to have a good time while somehow finding a way to simply get by. Bon’s hard luck stories of two-timing women and having patches on his patches are all delivered with a shrug that says “yeah, this sucks, but what are you gonna to do?” Like the band’s earlier work (but not true for everything that came after), Powerage sounds like it was recorded live, and minimally produced.
AC/DC was my third love as a kid (coming after I discovered KISS and Van Halen), but they’ve been the most enduring, and at this point I’ve been a fan for almost four decades. As a kid, Powerage didn’t top my list: There were flashier albums, songs with more testosterone and raunchy nods, and songs about not having enough money to pay your bills didn’t do much to resonate with 14-year-old me. But over the years, Powerage has not only become my favorite AC/DC album, but it’s also my go-to record to reverse a crap mood. Given the old “laugh or cry,” on Powerage AC/DC’s choice is to laugh, drink, gamble, and dance. And all of that is a hell of a lot more fun than crying.
ROCK N ROLL DAMNATION
You’ve got a lot of reading ahead of you, so in the interest of fairness, I’ll get right to the point: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation” is the perfect start on the greatest album by one of the greatest bands in the history of rockroll music. It’s the down-on-your-luck, world-is-out-to-get-me mindset of blues tradition packaged into three-and-a-half minutes of Young brothers Marshall stacks and natural, white hot distortion. It’s a wonderfully understated drum and open chord intro easing the listener into the song before dropping into an absolutely bombastic drive. It’s a showcase of Phil Rudd’s thunder — a huge element of that bombastic drive — on an album that would feature the best performance by the oft-underrated skinsman. It’s Bon Scott at his brutally honest best, somehow able to communicate all of that downtrodden blues feel while still coming out on top purely through brash attitude. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation” is natural in every way, the sound of a band that was all about feel feeling it in a way they never might feel it again. Most of all, it’s a mission statement for the album that follows, and a reminder that we’re all in this mess together. That rut you’re in? Yeah, you’re never getting out of it, so you might as well listen to rock and roll. [ZACH DUVALL]
DOWN PAYMENT BLUES
Although AC/DC’s musical DNA was always deeply entwined with the blues, they weren’t often as out and out traditional with it as on Powerage‘s raucously slow-burning “Down Payment Blues.” Malcolm’s two-chord riff – almost incessant in its square-shaped plain-spokenness – rides out the blues at their basest, and although his attack doesn’t necessarily change that much throughout the song, by the time the six-minute track winds its way toward that slowed-down straight-up blues coda, his down-strokes on the eighth note upbeats sound like vicious slashes of noise. And, for as essential as Angus’s solo is, take a minute and listen to how he gooses his line in the several measures leading into that solo break – his fingers are almost reaching for that solo before it even arrives, which (intentional or not) is an archly perfect mirror to Bon’s lyrics about trying to live the sweet life on credit and borrowed time: “I got myself a Cadillac / But I can’t afford the gasoline.” It’s a perfect song, and demonstrates that while many of hard rock’s other marquee names took the blues to wilder and weirder places, nobody understood the electric truth of the blues – its wry, bum luck simplicity – better than the cavemen savants of AC/DC. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
GIMME A BULLET
Listen to that intro — I mean, really listen to it. Malcolm’s guitar opens, stuttering on a simple stomping riff in time with Phil’s kick drum and Cliff’s staccato bass. Then Angus enters, bringing a countering riff to the table — also simple, equally killer. Then Phil picks up the groove, laying down one of those simple beats that only he can put that much slink into. And then comes Bon with another tale of a women doing him wrong, one who told him “Now you go you your way, and I’ll go mine, and that’s a start.”
“Gimme A Bullet” is a pretty straightforward AC/DC rocker, but there’s subtlety beneath, particularly for the typically stoic Cliff Williams. Largely known for rock-solid straight eighth notes on the root, Williams is a groove player, almost never flashy, but on “Gimme A Bullet,” beneath the intertwined riffs of the Young brothers, Cliff is getting down, slipping and sliding and getting as funky as he’d ever be, adding a strong underpinning on what could very easily just be another chugging riff-rocker, riding a bouncy quarter-note pulse. He’s a fine bass player, by any account, and “Bullet” isn’t his only stepping-out moment in his thirty years with the band, but Powerage was his first album with AC/DC, and “Bullet” is his moment to shine on the band’s finest album. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
Some songs really make you wish you could have been in the studio right after they were finished up. Not during the recording, but right after, when the band gets to listen to the final mix, to see the looks on their faces, to feel the energy and satisfaction in knowing that what they put down was a truly singular moment in rock and roll history.
“Riff Raff” is one such song, and a masterful meeting of raucous energy and reckless abandon. It seems as if it could have been written as it was being played and recorded right there in the studio. Every element feels as spontaneous as it does perfectly constructed (and make no mistake, this is a tightly written tune). From that fluttery, proto-noise intro riff and ensuing crescendo, it’s clear that things are gonna get nuts, which they do when THE RIFF comes in. That amazing, evasive riff that seems to be laughing at you when all you want to do is grab it; but you can’t, because it’s only for the Young brothers. When Bon appears during the verse for the first time, he already seems exhausted, pushing himself past his limits, and the huge HWHAAAAAAANG of the guitars responding to his rantings is as sassy a thing as the band ever delivered. By the time the chorus hits, you know Bon’s “HA HA HA” isn’t a laugh of actual humor, but a sarcastic and reluctant resignation to it all.
But then, the soloing… Angus Young absolutely goes off in this song, with repeated, blazing fast near-shredding that amplifies the flying-off-the-rails feel of the song, and leads back perfectly into the intro riff, which then finally allows the song to have a second verse. And in that second verse is one of the finest, most pure mission statements of rock and roll’s battle against the boring establishment: “I ain’t done nothing wrong, I’m just having fun.”
So yeah, it would have been fun to see the looks on the faces of Bon, Angus, Malcolm, Phil, and Cliff when they heard the wondrous bit of sexy sound they made. There were smiles wider than the whole of Australia, I’d imagine. [ZACH DUVALL]
To the world at large, AC/DC will most likely be remembered for its big riffs, Angus Young’s manic soloing and stage antics, and a lot of unsubtle songs about fucking. Die-hard fans know, however, that the band was also capable of great story-telling, particularly in the Bon Scott era, and perhaps never more so than on Powerage. “Sin City” is one such example of that storytelling. Whether you’ve been to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or the local bingo hall, “Sin City” is a tale we can all relate to: The first half of the song is all glitz and glamour, excitement and anticipation, “Lamborghinis” and “dry Martinis”. The song’s protagonist thinks he’s going to win — just like we all think, or at least secretly hope, we’re going to win. The anticipation climaxes with Angus’s exhilarating solo, but as that solo crashes to earth, things take a darker turn.
The band plays quieter now, more ominous: It’s the wee hours, and the vultures are circling. Our hero has had too much of everything but luck, and you can probably relate. You downed enough of those tiny free drinks to play way too loose, and then you hit the buffet a little too hard, trying to make up your losses in prime rib and crab legs. The glitz and glamour has tuned to “ladders and snakes”. Our hero is desperate. We’re all desperate. Fuck the rent, fuck the utilities, and fuck groceries, too: Let’s just win back enough money to drown our sorrows in booze. Deep down inside we know we “ain’t got a hope in Hell”, but let’s give one more go: “Spin that wheel, cut that pack, and roll those loaded dice”. We’re going in, and this time we’re gonna win!
I don’t have to tell you how it turns out. The song closes with the same riff that opened it, only this time it’s tolled out at half-speed, like a death knell. Piss drunk and flat broke on the bathroom floor of a dirty hotel is the best you can hope for. Good luck with those “Down Payment Blues”. [JEREMY MORSE]
WHAT’S NEXT TO THE MOON
Even on a decidedly square peg of an AC/DC record, “What’s Next to the Moon” is a bit of a curveball. It has slow-played its way into one of my very favorite tracks, in part because there’s simply nothing else like it in the AC/DC catalog. I love how the rhythm section and guitars seem to attack the song with different but complementary strategies, the former employing an insistent Williams bassline paired with Rudd’s low-end tom-battering beat, while the Brothers Young rely on a rather sleepy pattern of sustained notes and chords. Even Bon’s lyrics, usually about as subtle as a fart in an elevator, stray from the standard blueprint, delivering a cartoonish, allegorical narrative with references to Clark Kent and his alter ego alongside train engineer disaster-man Casey Jones. The doubled vocals in the final verse are an atypical AC/DC approach and add intensity to the story’s finale. I realize I’m at risk of making something pretty simple sound downright complex, but AC/DC’s expertise is in presenting the basic in a manner that keeps you coming back, again and again, and “What’s Next to the Moon” does exactly that. [MATTHEW COOPER]
I read somewhere that Powerage is Keith Richards’ favorite AC/DC album, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Keith is a champion of the “less is more” ethos; he never met a chord he’d play with three notes if he could imply it with two instead. While Powerage has its share of thundering rockers like “Kicked in the Teeth” and “Down Payment Blues”, it also features some of the band’s most understated performances, including “What’s Next to the Moon”, “Gimme a Bullet” and especially “Gone Shootin’.”
The track’s main riff features a laid-back double-stop lick from Angus and an even more spare, almost ghostly accompaniment from Malcolm. This greasy, very Stones-y groove makes up almost the entire song outside of the chorus and solo. In fact, the boys seem to dig the riff so much, they vamp it for an extra minute after the song reaches its natural conclusion. Over this almost-upbeat rockabilly-sounding riff, Bon Scott relates a witty and subtly tragic tale of losing a girl to drug addiction. What’s being shot in this tune is not bullets, but heroin, which might be another reason ol’ Keef digs it. Bon will probably never get his true due as a lyricist, but the line “I stirred my coffee with the same spoon” is such a keen lament that it cuts to the god-damned bone.
“Gone Shootin’” is a bit of an oddity in the AC/DC canon, but it proves the band can be every bit as infectious and even more clever when stripped of its usual power chord bombast. The song plays a key role in making Powerage a beloved classic to us folks at Last Rites, and to Keith Richards, too. [JEREMY MORSE]
UP TO MY NECK IN YOU
“Blistering boogie” — that’s how I’d describe “Up To My Neck In You” if I was only given two words…
Luckily, I have no limits on verbiage, so I can also throw in comments about Bon’s brilliantly cheeky lyrics — “Up to my neck in whiskey / up to my neck in wine / up to my neck in wishin’ / that this neck wasn’t mine.” Find me a better cracked-grin representation of hard luck rock ‘n’ roll resignation and I’ll guarantee you it was also written by Bon Scott. The man was the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll rogue, a scamp of the highest order, someone who could booze and brawl and live fast and dangerously, and do it all with such charisma that you not only loved him in spite of it, but because of it.
And of course, then I can talk about another example of the unparalleled Malcolm – Cliff – Phil rhythm section. I mean, just listen to that groove. Or better yet, feel it — and really you can’t help but feel it, anyway. Angus once said something to the effect of that, no matter how good an AC/DC song was, it wasn’t really finished until it made him move, until his feet were tapping, and God help anyone whose feet aren’t bouncing during this — it’s just kinetic energy, from start to finish.
Then I can also throw in a whole bit about how “Up To My Neck In You” is a 12-bar Chuck Berry rocker in form, just amplified tenfold; it’s that magical Stones-y blues-y boogie rock that AC/DC excels at, the perfect example of the direct lineage from Berry to Richards to Young. It’s a simple rock song, but it isn’t simplistic — it’s distilled. It’s pure. It’s perfect. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
COLD HEARTED MAN
AC/DC’s early catalog is a bit convoluted, the product of what were initially Australia-only releases and the subsequent re-arrangement of songs for the international versions. For whatever reason, “Cold Hearted Man” was left off every version of Powerage except the European release, and here in the US, it wasn’t available until the 2009 Backtracks set, which also compiled the left-behind tracks from the Aussie Dirty Deeds, Let There Be Rock, and other b-sides and rarities.
Originally fitted between the rollicking “Up To My Neck In You” and the closing “Kicked In The Teeth” on that European version, “Cold Hearted Man” is an interesting addition, and I’m assuming that it was left off of the international releases because it doesn’t quite fit with the others, being slightly more controlled, less aggressive, more in line with what the band would attempt on their following album. With that in mind, I can’t say that it’s as good a song as the remainder of Powerage, although it’s certainly more than good enough, and its retro-active inclusion adds a new element to a record that I’ve listened to literally thousands of times. A mid-tempo rocker with an undeniable pulse (of course — this is AC/DC, after all) and a simple sing-along chorus, it’s a strong song, clearly foreshadowing the moodier, funkier feel of Highway To Hell‘s underrated “Love Hungry Man” just a few more years away. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
KICKED IN THE TEETH
In baseball, the closer, when at the top of his game, is a holy man akin to a deity. Music is no different, even if most AC/DC fans are half in the bag by the close of a record. It’s important to leave a lasting impression.
But you know what leaves one hell of a lasting impression? Getting kicked in your frigging teeth.
The holy Bon Scott (RIP) takes the opportunity on this track to rip some vocal riffs before letting the band jump in with a romping stomping rhythm. Angus takes his classic solo, blues-based, strings dripping with feel, bends and well placed harmonies. By this point in the journey through one of rock’s best, Powerage, there’s no denying that AC/DC has their own style: an in-your-face, pub-centric take on the classic 12-bar. “Kicked in the Teeth” is another fine example, and a killer closing track to what is an historic album.
Now, go get more beer. [MANNY-O-WAR]