AC/DC: Powerage Album Of The Week Club review

The overlooked album that became AC/DC's Astral Weeks/Pet Sounds/Exile On Main Street…

AC/DC powerage

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 In a brilliant post on AC/DC Fans.Net, a few years back, someone called Alex Lebanon posited the theory that “Powerage has become AC/DC’s Astral Weeks/Pet Sounds/Exile On Main St”. 

“Like those three albums,” he wrote, “it contains none of the artist’s most famous songs.

“Like those three albums, it sold less than the records that came before and after them.

“Like those three albums, it’s a case of the whole being greater than its individual parts. “Like those three albums it’s lyrics are atypically serious and introspective and musically diverse and exploratory – in a word, it has WEIGHT.”

The man has a point. It didn’t chart, it didn’t break them internationally, and it doesn’t have a hit single, and sandwiched between two of the band’s other peaks, Let There Be Rock and Highway To Hell, AC/DC’s fourth international release, it didn’t immediately stake a claim as their best album. But over the years – helped by the likes of Keith Richards, Joe Perry and Slash naming it as their favourite AC/DC long player – Powerage has grown in stature and importance to the extent that you could call it arguably the best rock album of the 70s and not be laughed out of the room. Engineer Mark Opitz told the writer Jesse Fink: "In a way it was AC/DC's Sgt Pepper's.

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Here’s what we learned about Powerage…

That Powerage is the only AC/DC album title not to feature in a chorus of one of their songs speaks about one of the record’s key virtues: subtlety. Granted, there’s little that’s subtle about the throttling riffs on Riff Raff or the crunching Kicked In The Teeth, but elsewhere – on the beautifully lachrymose Down Payment Blues, the playful What’s Next To The Moon, the plaintive, in-the-pocket Gone Shootin’ – AC/DC display a discipline, control and restrained power that only the most mature and confident of players can attain.

Emphatically, it’s late frontman Bon Scott’s album. Much of the beauty of Powerage comes from Scott’s wonderfully sketched portraits of disappointed, desperate men pushed beyond breaking point by lost love and empty pockets. As cocksure as he could be, Scott always had an affinity for the broken and bruised; that guy with holes in his shoes, holes in his teeth and patches on the patches on his old blue jeans, and Powerage is a celebration of fortitude in the face of soul-crushing setbacks. 

Crucially, though, at the heart of the album there is always hope, always a glimpse of blue skies for those knocked in the gutter, as evinced by Sin City, a glorious ‘fuck you’ to the fates, a defiant last hurrah in the face of cruelly stacked odds. After Powerage, AC/DC would get louder, slicker and bigger, but they would never again display this much heart, soul and humanity.

“When Bon sang about going down to Sin City to get into god knows what,” Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan told us, “you knew – absolutely without a doubt – that he knew what he was talking about.”

Down Payment Blues is one of my all-time favourite AC/Dc tracks,” said Slash. “One of the most gritty but also most melodically articulate AC/DC songs of all time. Plus, the premise of the lyrics reads like my life story.” 

These were songs that meant something.

It was made under pressure. Predecessor Let There Be Rock was the first AC/DC album not to crack the Top 10 in Australia (in the UK it reached No.17, in the US it didn’t even make the Hot 100). Bassist Mark Evans was replaced by Englishman Cliff Williams – a man who couldn’t get a visa to perform in Australia. Atlantic, their label in New York, would have liked the group to now give Bon the boot too, blaming his vocals for the band’s lack of radio play. But again guitarists the Young brothers decided to knuckle down and prove everybody wrong. Which they did, quite spectacularly, with Powerage

By the time they were ready to go back into the studio in January 1978, they knew that this time they would have to do more than go in empty-handed, throwing it all together as best they could in a fusillade of alcohol and fags and making-it-up-as-you-go-along Aussie spunk. The next record would have to be their heaviest record yet, and also their most musical. It would need to show what AC/DC could do, demonstrating the one thing critics had got into the habit of expecting them not to achieve: growth.

Powerage was where Malcolm, in particular, really wanted to show they were good musicians too,” recalls their then manager Michael Browning. As a result, Powerage took longer to record than previous AC/DC albums, with ad-hoc sessions spread across several weeks at the start of the year. Experiencing fully for the first time the intensity of AC/DC in the studio, bassist Cliff Williams, for one, was convinced that Powerage was special. When they started work in the studio “we got there and got down, and did the long-hour days,” he said. “It was really a tremendous experience.”

Conceived as a showcase that would place AC/DC up there with the American superstars they were now sharing stages with, Powerage was split between yet more ton-up AC/DC classics such as Down Payment Blues, and more elliptical tracks such as What’s Next To The Moon. The latter, with its circular guitar figure replacing the juddering block chords of yore, was the most transcendent moment on any AC/DC album yet.

Whether intentional or not, the album had the same yo-yoing dynamic throughout its -nine tracks: one moment a perfect-10 rock monster like Riff Raff, the next moment another mid-paced stroller built around an almost pop guitar figure: Gone Shootin’. If the music is light, the lyrics are anything but, as Bon recalls losing a girlfriend to heroin: ‘Bought a ticket of her own accord/To I dunno/Packed her heart in a travellin' bag/And never said bye bye/Something missing in the neighbourhood/Of her cryin' eyes/I stirred my coffee with the same spoon/Knew her favourite tune/Gone shootin'/My baby gone shootin'…

The lines between old-school, go-get-’em AC/DC and new, more measured, see-what-we-can-do AC/DC are pleasingly blurred. Sin City begins like classic AC/DC – towering intro, all-guns-blazing riff. Gimme A Bullet, with its low-slung guitars and chugging drums, sounds more like the Lynyrd Skynyrd number it almost steals its title from than anything AC/DC had put down on vinyl before. Its lyrics are one part heartbreak to two-parts Western tough-guy: ‘Doctor, doctor/Ain't no cure/For the pain in my heart/Gimme a bullet to bite on’.

The final two tracks, Up To My Neck In You and Kicked In The Teeth, date back to earlier Powerage sessions of six months before. One other track, Cold Hearted Man, only made it to the very earliest vinyl editions of the album released in Britain. The band genuinely hated it. For the rest of us it was simply one more catchy tune.

"Powerage couldn’t be better,” says Blackberry Smoke's Charlie Starr. ‘The lyrics are genius, the riffs are as good as anything before or after, and it features some fantastic guitar work from Angus and Malcolm. As great as Highway to Hell would be next, Powerage was the last time that they were raw and under-produced and in their element. It’s just so gritty and real, warts and all." 

They said...

"The result was an album that seethes with barely controlled aggression… It's the bleakness that makes Powerage. Without the triptych of Down Payment Blues, Gimme A Bullet and What's Next To The Moon, the more triumphant tracks (though it's all relative, here) wouldn't cut through the fog." (The Quietus)

" it's perhaps the most overlooked of their 70s records, also because, frankly, it is the most uneven of them. Not that it's a bad record… but overall, the record is just a bit too wobbly, one where the parts don't add up to a record as hard and addictive as before – but there's still plenty worth hearing here." (All Music Guide)

What you said...

Sue Barrett: This is the best album ever, - and AC/DC’s best. From Rock n Roll Damnation through to Kicked in the Teeth, it flows and rocks, every song classic AC/DC. This is my desert island disc, just fantastic.

Alan Webb: The finest album ever recorded in the history of all recordings. Ever.

Gerry Ranson: Definitely the best AC/DC album by some margin and probably the best ever example of a Vanda & Young production. Hot, dry, reverb-free and in yer face. And let's face it: there's really nothing wrong with Cold Hearted Man.

Craig Allen: Their masterpiece. Gone Shootin’ is as good as it gets.

Graham Watt: This album is part of my bone marrow at this stage. Their masterpiece.

James Litchfield: The absolute creative pinnacle of AC/DC's career, a classic in the true sense of the word. Bon Scott at his lyrical best on the brilliant Down Payment Blues ('I know I ain't doing much, doing nothing means a lot to me...') with Angus and Malcolm simply on fire in the riff department on the likes of Sin City and Riff Raff. The Vanda/Young production is spot on, retaining the bands' edge (unlike Mutt Lange's radio-friendly polish). Even the album's title and artwork are the best, making it the complete package. One of my favourite albums of all time. 10/10.

Andrew Williams: The best AC/DC album by far. Bon at his peak. Worth the price just for Down Payment Blues… It's also a good middle ground between the rawness of the earlier work and the pristine production of later albums.

Nigel McGarry: This album is pure Malcom Young. A masterclass in rhythm guitar playing. From the opening riff of Rock And Roll Damnation (depending on which version you listen to) to the closing Kicked In The Teeth. An absolute blast.

Tim Rose: Absolutely their best. Bon was really coming into his own as a lyricist. His lyrics are less jokey then earlier releases and full of the gleeful menace that made him so great. The band was tight, playing with a bit more restraint that added to the atmosphere of Bon’s lyrics.

Uli Hassinger: That album is the quintessence of kickass Rock’n’Roll. Songs from boys from the gutter who give a fuck about the establishment. In this sense it has almost a punk attitude. The only other album which reaches this atmosphere is Rose Tattoo's debut album. The power and the drive of the album is absolutely stunning up to these days.

Ed Brown: Great album from a legendary band. They say AC/DC keep making the same album over and over but they never made one like this again. 

Rudy Talavera: This was the first AC/DC album I got. I bought it on cassette. Must have been around 10 or 11 at the time. I didn't always know what they were talking about but it seemed real. Like they were your relatives, or guys down the street just living life. Down Payment is great poetry. Sin City was like a fairy tale. A tale of a working class James Bond or something. .

Lewis Griffiths: Gone is the jokey, blokey sexual braggadocio. Instead, this feels like Bon holding up a mirror to the cold financial and emotional realities of the hardscrabble life in a touring rock'n’roll band still trying to break through. When (the greatly missed) Black Spiders used to perform their ‘heavy-as-fuck’ version of Kicked In The Teeth, there was really very little they needed to change.

Iain Macaulay: That whole body of work from '75 to '79 should be regarded as classic albums. Think about it, to release such a solid back catalogue of timeless music in the space of five years, with little radio play and almost entirely relying on word of mouth about a killer live show, is some feat. Not even Creedence or The Doors, both of whom released a comparative number of classic albums in an almost identically short time span, can testify to having the same limitations placed on their careers as they rose up the tree of classic band stardom.

Mike Knoop: It really feels like a band album and not the Young brothers plus 3. While Angus will always be amazing, the rest of the band gets to show off a little, not their usual operating procedure. Specifically, I like the tribal tattoo that Phil Rudd beats out on What’s Next to the Moon and Down Payment Blues and the pulse of Cliff Williams’ bass underscoring Scott’s lyrics on Sin City. I also also agree with others that have pointed out how Bon Scott flourished as a lyricist on this album. Who can’t identify with the frustration of Down Payment Blues or Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation? Sin City is my favourite AC/DC song of all time. The guy knows the game is fixed against him but he’s ready to play all the same. 

Mike Bruce: One of AC/DC's finest hours which makes it a strong contender for one of the best rock and roll albums ever. A bold claim perhaps, but the proof is in the grooves, and I mean that in every sense of the phrase. Never mind Sin City, this album is hook city. The Vanda and Young philosophy of having hummable choruses hits a peak on this album. All the tracks fishhook themselves into your memory after just a listen or two. To paraphrase Dr Johnson; when a man is tired of AC/DC he is tired of life....

Final Score: 9.1 ⁄10 (596 votes cast, with a total score of 5473)

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