AC/DC - Powerage
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
There aren’t two kinds of people in the world; there are three: People who hold onto the false belief that Back In Black is AC/DC’s best album; people who believe AC/DC never recorded a good album (i.e. wankers); and finally, there is a very exclusive club of knowledgeable cats like myself who know with utter certainty that Powerage is AC/DC’s best album. Also belonging to this latter group is Angus and Malcolm Young, who for years have been declaring Powerage their best album. Ironically, it’s the only Bon Scott-era AC/DC album that has been totally neglected by Classic Rock Radio, but if anything, that’s a good thing. One of the reasons why your average headbanger and Classic Rock Radio DJ skip on Powerage is because it isn’t simply about sex, drinking and tongue-in-cheek Satanism; not that these things aren’t worth celebrating, but sometimes the discerning music-listener needs a bit more. Powerage has the required AC/DC attributes: raw power, catchy-as-hell guitar hooks and Bon Scott sass, but it also has the “more” factor; it has cleverer than average lyrics and dare I say it…substance! Yes. Powerage, the AC/DC album between Let There Be Rock and Highway To Hell with Angus Young being electrocuted on the cover, has substance! One may even label it the thinking headbanger’s record. No balls, no Hell, and only one song with “rock” in the title! Were they mad!? Nope. They were simply growing up. But growing up didn’t mean rocking less or getting boring or pretentious. No. It’s still straight-up rock & roll (which AC/DC always was more than a heavy-metal act) and Bon Scott is still a witty scallywag. Unfortunately, the album was a commercial disappointment and they managed to both regressed and streamlined their sound on the party-friendly follow-up Highway To Hell. Of course, that album was a huge success and Bon Scott celebrated a bit too much one night and…well, whenever I’m inebriated and crashing I think of Bon and make it a point to not sleep on my back.
With Powerage, Bon’s lifeblood (sex, booze, rock & roll) is mixed bitterly and savagely with the painful decline of his marriage in a series of songs that string together sodden metaphors and wordplay to create a dark grindhouse movie about a man who dreams feverishly of getting even with his woman. And with their meatiest and most inspired performances ever, the band creates the perfect soundtrack to Bon’s jaded journey into the dead of night. Just listen to the acute use of simplicity in “Gimme A Bullet”; the Young Brothers strum two power chords, allowing the notes to hang with lascivious distortion, like the lascivious distortion Bon is singing of—the “long distance lips” driving him batty; Cliff Williams’ melodic bass-line sneakily underlines the tense fancy of the chorus: “Give me a bullet to bite on and I’ll make believe it’s you.” On “What’s Next To The Moon”, Bon sings one of his most pictorial dreamscapes: there’s a “wide eyed woman” on “the railroad track”, who is “thinking of broken bones”, while the engineer is “dreamin’ ‘bout Casey Jones”; the band compliment with a driving ghost train rhythm and intentionally choppy guitar-work that either floats like a whispering bad conscience or punches like star-crazed violence. With the deft subtlety of “Gone Shootin’”, Bon reveals some of the finer nuances of his relationship with his ex-wife without ever sounding too heart-on-sleeve; “something missing in the neighborhood of her cryin’ eyes, I stirred my coffee with the same spoon” gives you the impressive of a man and woman comfortable with one another but no longer connecting, and without the hard maudlin sell; likewise the band plays a relaxed, confident and rather bluesy groove with a serpentine guitar hook that manages to be tenacious yet understated.
Powerage isn’t just about woman problems; it’s also about poverty. No stranger to hard times, Bon came from a bona fide working-class background, spent some time in juvenal hall and didn’t begin making decent money at music until he was in his 30s. Hence, when Bon sings for working-class solidarity in the fast and nimble “Riff Raff”, it scorches with fire-lunged sincerity. An enthralling hard-rock epic, “Down Payment Blues” finds Bon criss-crossing financial hardship (“hiding from the rent man”, etc.) with fragile dreams of luxury; easily his best lyrics, the last verse is especially impressive, Bon dampening every line with a wet word choice, giving the listener a sinking feeling of encroaching reality:
“Sitting on my sailing boat; sipping off my champaign. Suzy baby all at sea; say she want to come again Feeling like a paper cup; floating down a storm drain. Got myself a sailing boat, but I can't afford a drop of rain.”
Again, the music perfectly complements the sentiment; the Young guitars working one restless hook in slightly varying fashion—not black & white, soft and hard, but a more natural flow between restrained playing and charging vigor—like the eye of a storm turning into thunderous weather; the rolling and cresting of Phil Rudd’s drums adding a pagan undercurrent. The black heart of the album, “Sin City, is not only the strongest song in the entire AC/DC catalogue, but continues with Bon’s wet dream of romanticized wealth and excess. “Sin City” is to Bon Scott as The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bon hankers greedily for “Lamborginis, caviar, dry martini's, Shangrila” and believes he can “win in Sin City.” This is Bon’s big moment; when it’s him crashing into the casino like the powerhouse, Mack-truck riff of the song—wired awake for several days and nights, nights, nights! It’s hard not to imagine Angus grinning devilishly as he knocks out those mean-as-a-scarfaced-pimp chords, edging Bon on: yes, you can win—you’re the baddest motherfucker in this town! Angus goes into his wicked as Caligula solo, then we’re in the heart of darkness when the music all drops out except for a lone creeping bass and Bon crooning about “ladders and snakes”; this is that quiet, sexy part of film noir—menacing, foreboding—before the shit goes down. We know Bon won’t win in “Sin City” and if he does, it will only be for a fleeting moment, before the devil collects his head.
Powerage is indeed about power: The power of money has over the working-class; the power a woman has over a man. It’s also about the power of rage and power-struggle—to get that money, to get back at that woman and to make your mark—snarling and biting—in the Power Age. And yes, it’s also about electrical power, power-chords and a band at the peak of their powers.
By: Edwin Faust
Published on: 2003-12-12