* * * * 1/2 out of * * * * *
Inexplicably overlooked by casual listeners, Powerage is considered by most fans one of AC/DC's best efforts: in the newsgroup alt.rock-n-roll.acdc, for instance, I remember it regularly winning the "best album" poll for the last three years. Whether you agree or not with these results, there is something about this album that anybody acquainted with the band's sound can't deny: Back In Black might be the most popular, with Highway To Hell not much behind, but Powerage captured AC/DC in what is possibly their purest essence. Raw, bluesy, loud, without the somewhat polished sound of Mutt Lange's productions, and featuring only nine songs (all very good), Powerage is probably the best of them all when it comes to production.
But let's go with a little bit of history. In 1977 AC/DC had had a real breakthrough with an album that defined the band forever, Let There Be Rock: where the music prior to the release of that album still had some elements of pop here and there, it was only with Let There Be Rock that the band finally broke out of all the conventions, releasing something that, in terms of raw and uncompromising attitude, was to hard rock what the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks was to punk rock. Let There Be Rock sounded like it was recorded in a garage (and yes, that is a good thing): incredibly rough, raw, gung-ho, and in your face.
The subsequent Powerage was, in terms of sound, the culmination of it all: AC/DC's perfect balance between the incredibly rough edge of Let There Be Rock and the more polished sound of later albums like Highway To Hell and Back In Black. Producers Harry Vanda and George Young surely had reached their peak. Powerage was also the first of the two studio albums that the band recorded in their most classic (and, according to the vast majority of fans, best) line-up:
Angus Young - lead guitar
Malcolm Young - rhythm guitar
Bon Scott - vocals
Phil Rudd - drums
Cliff Williams - bass
The newcomer was British bass player Cliff Williams, who replaced Mark Evans after he left for 'exhaustion'.
Thus far I have been talking about production, but make no mistake: this is an absolutely heavenly AC/DC album from any angle you look at it. The songs quality is excellent. Bon's voice had never been better. Overall, this is AC/DC at their finest. So, I am still trying to figure out why this album only sporadically makes it to the "best of the genre", and not quite that regularly to the "best of the band" lists composed by people who happen not to be fans of the band. The reason, I believe, is in the fact that Powerage sits right in between the band's musical and commercial breakthroughs, so it is skipped for the sake of briefness. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway, because I am a conflicted individual), this is a major mistake.
Showcased in an album cover featuring a creepy and ironic image of Angus electrocuted, Powerage is, simply put, a must for any hard-rocker.
Let's go song by song.
The album opens on the tongue-in-cheek rebellious Rock 'n' Roll Damnation, as Bon Scott claims:
They say that you play too loud
Well baby that's tough
They say that you got too much
Can't get enough
They tell you that you look a fool
And baby I'm a fool for you
They say that your mind's diseased
Shake your stuff
The song is a joyous pure rock 'n' roll tune with incredibly catchy riff and chorus. Although Angus doesn't deliver one of his usual solo breaks (there is indeed a solo on his part in the end, but it is intertwined with the chorus and Malcolm's rhythmical riffs), Rock 'n' Roll Damnation is unquestionably an excellent way to start.
So ok, you think Back In Black contains the most catchy riff AC/DC ever wrote? Think again. If there is a song that deserves that title is the second track off Powerage, the immense Down Payment Blues, an outstanding "power blues" that, together with Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks, ranks in my opinion as the best interpretation of blues ever done by a hard rock band. In fact, Down Payment Blues might well be my favorite AC/DC song out of the Bon era. Simple in structure yet absolutely memorable, the songs clocks just over six minutes but wouldn't grow monotonous if it were two times longer. In fact, I probably would not complain if it were stretched to the time of a whole CD. The song is centered around the life of a rock 'n' roll singer with not enough money to live high times but trying to do so nonetheless (obviously based on Bon's autobiographical and not-so-far memories), and has every single mark of AC/DC at their best: the monster riffs that propel through the whole length; a long, memorable riff by Angus; Phil Rudd giving a great muscular drumming in the central bridge; and Bon delivering his almost unintelligible lyrics with unmatchable intensity in the lines:
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
I've got holes in my shoes
And I'm way overdue
Down payment blues
Next is the softer Gimme A Bullet, propelled by good simple riffs and Cliff William's catchy bass line. Bon Scott does another great job here, his vocals being rough yet seamlessly intertwined with the rhythm. Like the previous track, and like most of the songs off this album, Gimme A Bullet does not follow the verse/chorus/verse structure that will become typical on AC/DC's best sellers.
Then the album gives us another memorable tune in form of rabid rock 'n' roll with Riff Raff, which proves that the loud attitude of Let There Be Rock was definitely not diluted. The song has every mark of a concert opener, and not surprisingly it was used for that in the subsequent tour. It would be great to hear it live again.
Sin City, another classic for the years to come, showcases Cliff Williams' immediate good response to the band through a dark, moody bass line in the bridge.
Noteworthy is also What's Next To The Moon, which features a long unconventional chorus, inspired solos by Angus, and especially Phil Rudd's intense drumming, one of the best examples for anybody who wants to know why his style works so well for the band.
The bluesy Gone Shootin' (which oddly enough will the moviemakers' choice some 18-years later for the soundtrack of the animation movie Beavis and Butt-head Do America) shows AC/DC's softer and most moody side: the perfect smokey bar room feel. The lengthy solo, though more mellow than usual, is one of Angus' best.
Up To My Neck In You, with its raw and loud reinterpretation of rock 'n' roll is basically a reprise of the spirit of Riff Raff (though I prefer Riff Raff), and the album closes with the loud Kicked In The Teeth, which reinterprets the classic Whole Lotta Rosie off Let There Be Rock coming dangerously close to the impacting power of that song.
That's it. Nothing pretentious, nothing overdone. Simply, an awesome dose of pure, good time rock 'n' roll raging power: Powerage.
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