I’m starting a new series on Complex Distractions called ‘Random Grab’. It’s basically what the title suggests, I’m grabbing a random record out of the library and talking about it and its significance to me and my life. The collection is getting pretty big downstairs, so I’m trying to utilize what I have as opposed to continually adding new records and causing me to have to build new record cases every couple months. Not that this means I’m not buying new vinyl in 2019. It just means I’ll be a little more calculating with my purchases.
Anyways, welcome to the first ‘Random Grab’. Today’s grab is AC/DCs dark horse classic Powerage.
How old were you when you first got into AC/DC? If I’m being honest with myself, I suppose I was probably 5 or 6. I wasn’t actively buying AC/DC albums at 5 or 6, but I was very familiar with Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Highway To Hell, and Back In Black thanks to the Hubner parental units. They had Dirty Deeds and Highway on 8-track and we listened to them often in the car, while Back In Black was part of the vinyl collection we played in the living room. I was programmed early to love the tight rhythm section of Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, the buzzing bark of the Gibson SG and Gretsch of the Brothers Young, and the strangled carnival barker growl of Bon Scott. It was a magical sound that defied pretty much anything and everything else going on in rock music at the the time. The closest it got was punk rock, really. Or maybe the Detroit scene? I don’t know. There was no fussing with AC/DC, and there was an almost child-like nature to them that totally appealed to the 5-year old me. “Night Prowler”, “Beatin’ Around The Bush”, “There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin'”, and of course “Hells Bells”. What in-the-know kindergartner wouldn’t be down with AC/DC?
Fast forward to the summer of 1986 and the release of Who Made Who. I’d already dropped action figures for rock and roll cassettes and had amassed a collection of Van Halen, Ratt, Twisted Sister, and Quiet Riot cassettes by now. I was done with elementary school and was entering the summer before middle school. When I first heard “Who Made Who” on MTV I had chills. The riff, the rhythm, and Brian Johnson’s vocals all just hit perfectly. After a few years of pretty so-so records AC/DC strike rock and roll gold with a movie soundtrack for a terrible Stephen King adaptation(adapted by King himself, natch.) Next trip into town I had my mom take me to Big Wheel(a popular retail store chain in the Midwest that preceded Walmart) and I grabbed Who Made Who. What I didn’t realize was that Who Made Who was basically a collection of Johnson-era AC/DC tracks plus three newly recorded songs, as well as one Bon Scott track(“Ride On”.)
This purchase started me down my AC/DC rabbit hole in the summer of 1986. I began collecting every album I could get my hands on. Over the next year and thru 7th grade I’d pick up what I could when I could save enough lunch money for a cassette purchase, or album titles would end up on birthday and Christmas lists. By the summer of 1987 I had everything up to Who Made Who. Some albums got more attention than others. High Voltage, Let There Be Rock, and Highway To Hell were favorites, while Back In Black and For Those About To Rock were favorites of the Johnson era.
One album at the time that I’d bought but my younger, naive self overlooked was Powerage. Powerage had the bad luck of landing between the first truly raw and rough AC/DC album Let There Be Rock and their breakout Robert John “Mutt” Lange coming out record Highway To Hell. Between the ferocity of Let There Be Rock and the radio-ready sound of Highway To Hell, Powerage seemed to pale. To younger ears, especially, Powerage just sort of melted into the background.
Of course, 30 years later I’m here to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Powerage is AC/DCs best Bon Scott album.
Don’t believe me? Well let’s talk.
First off, I think a lot of folks can agree that Let There Be Rock is the first true AC/DC album. Not that High Voltage and Dirty Deeds aren’t real AC/DC records, but Rock captures their live power, not only in the strength of the songs but how the record was recorded. Everything was recorded live in the same room; from the guitars to the drums to the bass to the vocals. Everything bled into each other, giving that album a particular hum and life that High Voltage and Dirty Deeds lacked a bit of. Those records were recorded piecemeal, while Rock was blasted out over a two-week period with the band feeding off one another in one room. Hell, there’s even the infamous story of the final track, “Whole Lotta Rosie”, being recorded and Angus’ amp caught fire. Instead of stopping the take George Young told them to keep rolling. They weren’t gonna get another take like that. Angus finished the track with the studio filled with smoke as his valves melted in his Plexi head. Fucking beautiful, man.
Powerage picks up right were Let There Be Rock left off. Except with Powerage there’s a little more nuance in the songwriting. They have one album down with this new way of recording, so the band and their producers have worked out the kinks and the sound is tighter with more low end. They dropped bassist Mark Evans for Brit Cliff Williams and Williams adds a touch of class to the AC/DC sound. The result is a groove-heavy set of gritty blues and back-alley grime. They let up on the gas pedal this time around and bring us to a cruising speed that suits the band perfectly.
The songs? “Rock and Roll Damnation” opens things up with a gut punch. Bon Scott lays the messianic flair on thick as the band give it to us hard and heavy. You’d almost think that maybe it’d more of the same Aussie down under thunder(and really, who would be opposed to that?), but while we’re treated to the familiar things don’t stay that way. “Down Payment Blues” rolls in like a mixture of hellfire blues and that seedy drug connection you run into at a bar at 1:30 am on a Sunday morning. A .50 millionaire, baby. I think Bon Scott has never sounded better than on this track. “I got holes in my shoes, and I’m way overdue” as Angus plays a solo that sounds like it’s built on pure electrical current and the earth’s centripetal force. Pure fire. “Gimme A Bullet”? Dirty jeans strut, thru and thru. This is rock and roll for those late nights where you’ve got nothing left to lose, and not even a dime in your pocket. Gas half full in the tank, you might have enough to get to the border. Hit the pedal and see what happens.
Elsewhere, “Sin City” is slinky as a drunk snake on some nondescript Melbourne highway. That opening riff sounds like something Vaughn and Double Trouble could’ve pulled off. “Diamonds, and dust/poor man last, rich man first” Scott sings over a down and dirty groove. “What’s Next To The Moon” is another nuanced bit of attitude that seems almost futuristic in comparison to what came before it. “Riff Raff” is balls out rock and roll madness. Pedal to the metal, almost a punk rock free fall.
Okay, so I don’t think there’s a single trip up on this album. I think Powerage is the perfect AC/DC record. From “Gone Shootin” and it’s breezy summer strut to the bare wire explosion of “Kicked In The Teeth” everything on this album is done perfectly and without hesitation. Precision, gritty rock and roll.
I don’t think we ever see this AC/DC again. Highway To Hell turned them into an international rock and roll band with “Mutt” Lange’s studio sheen and then Bon Scott died. Brian Johnson stepped in and started a whole new era for AC/DC. One that while I did quite enjoy, never captured the fire and fury and self-effacing humor of the Bon Scott-era. And whether you agree with me or not, AC/DC faced a continual decline throughout the 80s, with Blow Up Your Video arguably the lowest point(if you disagree, let me know why. I’m curious.) The Razor’s Edge gave them a shot of adrenaline, and a genuine MTV hit with “Money Talks”. I even saw them on that tour in November of 1990 with my older brother and it was pretty amazing, actually. Cannons blazing, duck-walking, and dollar bills falling from the roof. Plus Love/Hate opened the show. After that? What? Black Ice? Ballbreaker? Stiff Upper Lip? Fuhgeddaboudit.
AC/DC have been a constant in my life since I was a 5-year old sitting in the backseat of a 1977 Pontiac Firebird. They became a gateway to higher rock and roll learning when I was 12. They were the first band that I ever bought a songbook of, and I learned nearly all of the songs in that book. Powerage was an album I didn’t pay much attention to until I hit my 40s and realized just how perfect it was. A glimpse of a band at their most powerful and at the top of their game. It sounded like it came easy to ’em, and maybe it did.
Whatever it was, Powerage is a rock and roll classic.