AC/DC – Powerage – Review


Powerage (Epic/Legacy)
by Brian Varney

As with the first batch of remastered AC/DC albums, there’s no apparent logic determining the order in which the albums are being reissued, but there’ll be no high-falutin’ conceptual discussion of common themes etc., which is exactly the way it should be when AC/DC is the topic. Moreso than any other band of its era, AC/DC represents rock ‘n’ roll distilled to its purest essence, the sorta thing – hard to believe as it is in today’s world – that once scared parents, eggheads, and other squares away when it originally reared its deformed head. When late ’70s punkers talked about their music as stripping away the excesses of bloated ’70s superstars, of taking rock ‘n’ roll back to its rawest, most beautifully simple form, they were lying. If they’d been telling the truth, they would’ve sounded like AC/DC.

Yeah, I know, a pretty lofty claim for a band that’s spent the better part of 30 years churning out songs based on the same three chords, no-frills/no-fills drumming, and single-entendre lyrics that a clever third-grader could make up (this one applies more to the Brian Johnson incarnation). And yet there’s that indefinable essence, that unattainable brass ring that so many bands have reached for and failed to grasp.

The first album to discuss here is Let There Be Rock, an album known mostly (and rightfully so) for “Whole Lotta Rosie,” one of the two or three best songs of the band’s career. Lifting off with a genius opening riff and carried along like a freight train careening out of control by Phil Rudd’s brilliantly just-in-front-of-the-rest-of-the-band drums, “…Rosie” is just about as orgasmic as rock music gets. And, hey, the rest of the album ain’t bad either. “Dog Eat Dog,” “Problem Child,” and the monumental title track are among the high points of this very fine set, the band’s second U.S. release. A step up from U.S. debut, High Voltage, but merely a stepping stone for the brilliance that would follow.

Powerage plants a powerful kick square in Let There Be Rock‘s nuts, lifting the band’s brilliance to new heights thanks to stronger, more consistent songwriting, sharper production, and hotter playing. Though the favorite AC/DC album of most hardcore fans, Powerage is not an album that’s often mentioned by general folk when reviewing the band’s highlights. This is an instance, however, where the geeks are right ’cause this album contains perhaps the band’s best batch of songs. Lotsa finery to be had here, most of it taken at the torridly sexy midtempo pace where the band creates its most timeless magic. The album’s highlight is “Sin City,” the most perfect song the band ever wrote, the kinda song you could put in the dictionary as the example following the definition of “rock and roll.” Also taken at this same tempo are the oddly introspective “Down Payment Blues” and the simply odd “What’s Next to the Moon,” both given maximum emotional weight by riffmeister Malcolm Young’s torrid rhythm lines. Like true bluesmen, the Youngs’ playing derives its power as much from the spaces between the notes as from the notes themselves. Like the work of a master brickmason, AC/DC’s art lies in its artlessness, the no-frills, rock-solid craftsmanship holding together in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself but will outlive its flashier counterparts several times over.

For Those About to Rock We Salute You is a fine album that doesn’t really get its due because it had the misfortune to follow Back in Black, the band’s best-selling album (and still, if I’m not mistaken, one of the top 10 sellers of all time). Most folks know the monumental title track (and for good reason – the intro alone is classic), but there’re plenty of other worthwhile slabs of the band’s trademark grease-boogie covering the usual subjects, as song titles like “Let’s Get It Up” and “Inject the Venom” (which never fails to make me snicker) bear witness. Sigh… Say what you will about the boys in AC/DC, but they’ll never let you down. Lotsa folks long for the sense of underlying malevolence that accompanied Bon Scott’s undeniably powerful presence and, as a result, don’t give the Brian Johnson albums a fair shake. The Johnson albums are good-timey party albums, the difference between the Bon-era albums and these something like the difference between Black Sabbath and Ozzy solo, though the chasm here is nowhere near as wide. Truth be told, I do prefer the Bon albums, but there’s space on my shelves for both.

Who Made Who sits uncomfortably in the band’s catalog. Put together originally as the soundtrack to a Steven King movie that flopped, the album compiles moments from the band’s past but isn’t a greatest hits album. There are also a couple of the instrumental pieces the band put together to serve as incidental music for the film, but there are just a couple of those, so this is certainly not an original score. There’s also a new rock track, the pretty-decent title cut that’s hampered by typically bad ’80s production – the drums are reverbed to hell and back, the guitars are flat and boxy, and everything is squashed together, robbing the band’s sound of the space that serves their songs so richly. For a band that made sticking to its guns a point of pride, the product-of-its-time production on the title cut seems, as the band’s sole concession, to draw a lot of attention to itself. However, it’s only one song, so it’s not enough to get really upset about. The instrumental cuts are OK, but nothing to expend much emotion on either way – I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say how well they served as accompaniment to the visuals. The rest of the tunes sample the Brian Johnson era with a Bon oldie throw in for good measure. As an album, it’s a bit of a bafflement, but it’ll always be near and dear to my heart since it was the second AC/DC album I bought. I’d worn out my Back in Black cassette and decided to get another. I don’t remember why I chose this one, but I guess it’s not too important at this point. The thing I do vividly remember is the way I was mesmerized by “Ride On,” the aforementioned Bon cut, a smoldering slow blues number that pretty much jump-started my interest in the rest of the band’s catalog. It also awoke a love of blues music that I wasn’t aware was inside of me. I played that song over and over until you could damn near see through the tape. So, yeah, Who Made Who is A-OK in my book. Yeah, I’ve got Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, the album where “Ride On” originally appeared, but it’s nice to go back and hear it in what, to me, is the original context. After all, I heard the ending of “Sink the Pink” each time I rewound the tape to hear “Ride On,” so I still expect to hear it right before that slow count-in.

In my memory, The Razor’s Edge was the last really big AC/DC album, the last time the popular kids at school liked them. Maybe that’s why I, snob that I am, didn’t like the album when it came out. I suppose the fact that the big single (in my school, anyway) “Moneytalks” was a lot poppier than the AC/DC I was used to had something to do with it, but looking back with the benefit of age and hindsight, I can’t see why I didn’t go berserk over “Thunderstruck.” When I popped the disc in just now, I made it about halfway through the song before I was jumping around the living room, banging my head and air-guitaring like a fool.

An even more pleasant surprise is how good the rest of the album is. It’s not their best album or even close to it, but when you consider they’d been at it 15 years when The Razor’s Edge came out, it’s pretty darn impressive. Lest you would accuse me of soft-pedalling, though, check out “Fire Your Guns” or “Shot of Love” and see how long you can resist the urge to bounce your foot off your little brother’s punk rock CDs in time to the beat. Much more rock ‘n’ roll than gentlemen their age have any right to be, AC/DC prove with The Razor’s Edge that the passage of time and the ever-present cycle of trends mean nothing when compared to the majesty of rock, and there’s a place reserved for them in heaven as a result.