Wednesday, November 12, 2008
When I hear a song like "Riff Raff," a key Powerage track, I become convinced that the reason AC/DC are so beloved is not that they pull out a great riff for almost every song they've ever done - it's that they pull out three or four. In "Riff Raff" alone, there's probably around five, maybe six if you count the bassline: there's the opening guitar salvo, the main riff, that little uppity figure before each verse, the outro riff... one after the other, they just keep blasting through you relentlessly until you're left thinking, "JEE-sus, cut it out! The song's already awesome enough, you beautiful Aussie motherfuckers."
Yes, in case you couldn't tell, I've been in quite the AC/DC mood recently. Maybe it's fleeting, and maybe by the time I'm finished with this post I'll be completely sick of them. Maybe I'll finally submit and say something stupid like, "UGH they just keep writing the SAME STUPID hard rock song OVER AND OVER." But I don't think I would just lie to myself like that.
Powerage doesn't have any hits on it, which is probably why it's one of AC/DC's lesser-known releases - not to mention it was released before Highway to Hell and Back in Black, two of their most definitive and beloved releases. Powerage is what you could call AC/DC's "cult" album, held in lovingly high regard by Bon Scott-era AC/DC aficionados. Since this was the band's last album produced by Vanda/Young, tossed to the wayside in favor of the more mainstream Mutt Lange for the next few albums, people consider this to be their last "rough" album, offering a grittier sound beyond the poppy sheen of their later releases - their last "pure" album, some might say. This is all arguable - AC/DC have always had the same basic sound, rough or not, for their entire career - but it's hard to argue that Powerage was overlooked, and it shouldn't have been.
Just look at the album's tracklisting. You've probably never heard any of these songs before (I sure hadn't), but man, they're almost all great. And in ways you might not even expect from a so-called "simple" hard rock band like AC/DC: "Rock 'n Roll Damnation" is a perfect Rolling Stones-esque boogie, "Sin City" is a creepy hard rock dirge, the aforementioned "Riff Raff" is a punk-worthy guitarfest, "Gone Shootin'" is a cool groove-rocker. Maybe the most unexpected piece of hard-rock bliss here is "Down Payment Blues," maybe the best mid-tempo song AC/DC ever attempted: at six minutes, it features a seductive riff good enough to probably keep your attention for much longer than six minutes. And Bon Scott - AC/DC's first and most entertaining lead singer - delivers some purely badass lyrics: "I know I ain't doin' much / doin' nothin' means a lot to me / livin' on a shoestring / a fifty-cent millionaire / open to charity / rock 'n roller welfare." All sung in this kind of low, cool growl. And there's some great basic AC/DC rockers on here too: "Gimme A Bullet" (featuring the immortal chorus "Gimme a Bullet to bite on / and I'll make believe it's you"), "What's Next To the Moon?," "Up To My Neck In You" and "Kicked In The Teeth" are greats all (even if the latter song there kinda steals the riff from "Let There Be Rock," but it's still pretty cool).
I don't know. It's the little things. The way Bon Scott suddenly does this "HAW HAW HAW!" thing in the middle of "Riff Raff." The kinda-sorta handclaps littered throughout "Rock 'n Roll Damnation." That random bluesy riff that comes out of nowhere near the end of "Down Payment Blues." The bass-only breakdown in "Sin City." It's all just so damn cool. Pure cool-rock. Apparently Powerage was Keith Richards' favorite AC/DC record. I have no idea if that's true - every review of the album I've read has cited him as a fan, but I haven't seen any solid proof. People also say that Dick Clark has a copy of Third Reich 'n Roll framed in his office, but who the fuck knows if that's true? Who fact-checks these reviews?? Either way Powerage definitely has that Stonesy vibe, so if Richards was a fan I wouldn't be surprised.
Listen. If you want to walk down the street and feel like a total badass, no matter who you are, just get some AC/DC on your iPod. Powerage ain't a bad place to start. It's a perfect blend of Bon Scott's theatrically devilish sleaze and Angus and Malcolm Young's mastery of the Pure Hard Rock Riff. How the fuck did they keep up with this riffage for so long?? God only knows.
Hey. I bet you thought I was gonna talk about Black Ice in this post? Ehh?? Hah, no. I only know one song from that record, "Rock 'n Roll Train." And admittedly, it's pretty good, and Brian Johnston is in shockingly good voice for a 61 year old. The guitar sounds a little wimpier than I expected, but it's solid nonetheless. But man, if you want some rippin', organic early AC/DC, Powerage is choice. None of that Mutt Lange sheen. A rip-roarin' misogynistic fantasy of a good time.
(Oh, and you should really check out this live performance of "Riff Raff" so you know what the hell I'm talking about here. I can't embed it 'cuz it's disabled. Just watch for yourself. Don't we all need this kind of music? All the time??)