AC/DC: POWERAGE (1978)
A slight dropoff from the high fever of Let There Be Rock, this record goes generally easier on the ears — cleaner, tighter, more disciplined, almost everything strictly mid-tempo — but, no matter how many times I listen to it, just does not seem to have that many unforgettable riffs. Best tunes are right there in the middle ('Riff Raff' and '
The «laziness» of the record is exemplified by numerous rewrites: the riff of 'Gimme A Bullet' is really just a variation on 'Dirty Deeds'; 'Up To My Neck In You' was not so good even back when it was called 'Ain't No Fun (Waitin' Round To Be A Millionnaire)'; and although the great punkish punch of the riff that opens 'Let There Be Rock' was a viable contender for the title of 'Best Rock Moment of 1977', there is really no need to recycle it for the entire melody of 'Kicked In The Teeth'. No wonder the boys almost never revive these numbers in concert: what good are weaker copies when you can go straight for the powerhouse originals?
Nevertheless, there is still a relatively strong pro-Powerage lobby among AC/DC fans, one that transcends the ordinary attitude («all AC/DC albums kick ass, every AC/DC album is their best since the previous one») and finds some sort of really special charm in these songs. This can hardly have anything to do with a change in lineup (new bassist Cliff Williams is on board, but does that make a big difference?), or with Angus' new soloing techniques, as he continues coming into his own style rather than simply speeding up the old rockabilly licks.
Rather, it has to do with Bon Scott's continually upshifting position in the band. The early records established him as a competent frontman, capable of matching the Young brothers' guitar power and writing a hilarious double entendre every now and then. Let There Be Rock upped the stakes on guitars, and Scott had to comply by developing an even scarier rock'n'roll roar that confirmed his status as one of the genre's loudest, most reckless screamers. On Powerage, he continues his evolution by starting to write interesting lyrics.
Subjects are no longer limited to describing the bare thrills of carnal pleasures; Scott tries on the shoes of a prophet of carnal pleasures, one who is no longer content to merely experience them and state the experience as such, but — God help us! — attempts to ponder upon that experience. Not only that, some of the lyrics are downright ambiguous and, sometimes, loaded with metaphors that take time to decipher. All of a sudden, the idea of earning a Ph.D. based on AC/DC songs no longer looks like a totally ridiculous matter!
And, actually, Bon could not have found a better time to reinvent himself as this sort of tough street guru than the Young' brothers temporary respite: whenever the riffs get tired and lazy, it is Scott who steps in to overshadow the proceedings. What is the best thing about a song like 'Kicked In The Teeth'? Why, obviously Bon's ferocious acappella intro: 'Two face woman with your two face lies, I hope your two face living's made you satisfied!' The rest is nowhere near as good. What is the best thing about a song like 'What's Next To The Moon'? Why, obviously Bon's lustful, but ironic chorus: 'It's yer love that I want, it's yer love that I need!' The rest is just okay.
None of this prevents the entire band from adding 'Riff Raff' to their already long list of total classics. Now here is a phenomenal rock'n'roll riff that is impossible to underrate, along with experimental scratchy-noisy sections and lengthy barrages of over-the-top soloing that pick off from where we had been left with 'Whole Lotta Rosie' and carry the ecstasy even further. Bon's presence here is minimal — two small verses in a sea of instrumentation — but he still leaves his mark, with simple, but enigmatic lines ('Riff raff, it's good for a laugh, riff raff, laugh yourself in half' — how come the fans never take offense at that chorus?).
The only other song whose riff (raff) is still fresh in my head after all these years is 'Sin City', but it is almost certain that Scott has had a hand in this, too: his 'I'm going down to Sin City!' is no less anthemic than the far better known 'I'm on a Highway to Hell!', but far more refined and sarcastic. I think it is the only song off the album that they have continued to perform with Brian Johnson on a regular basis — just because the melody is so stadium-rousing — but, overall, I can see how Brian would be seriously uncomfortable with most of the material on here (although most of the songs have occasionally been performed with Brian from time to time).
I understand that «an intelligent AC/DC album» is an oxymoron, but pare down the notion of «intelligence» to be level with typical AC/DC values, and you may have something there. For a brief while — two short years — the band was on the verge of trading their clownish image for the status of an Australian Thin Lizzy, and if you like blazing hard rock, but cannot stand explicit dumbness, Powerage is unquestionably the AC/DC album for you. But the riffs are really not that good, trust me on that one. Almost not that good to the point of getting a thumbs down, but thumbs up nevertheless, because that sudden surge in the level of Bon Scott's charisma has to be reflected in some sort of judgement.