February 2023

Perfect Album: Powerage

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

            I know that it's evil,

            I know that it's got to be,

            I know I ain't doin' much,

            Doing nothing means a lot to me . . .


            I got holes in my shoes,

            And I'm way overdue:

            Down Payment Blues.


There are two schools on how one says the name of AC/DC's 1978 album Powerage. The conventional school holds that it's really two words, a portmanteau: Power Age. The minority position is that the album's title refers to a unit of measure nearly rhyming with "coverage." Given the electrical wires in lieu of arms shooting forth from Angus Young's coat sleeves and the fact that he's glowing inside and out, the minority school makes a strong case.


However you choose to say it, Powerage is a perfect album, serving up nine helpings of what this hard-rocking, hard-working band from Sydney, Australia does best. Some other hard-rocking musicians who feel the same way are Keith Richards and the late Eddie Van Halen, both on record as saying that Powerage remained their favorite AC/DC album despite later LPs, even the titanic-selling Back in Black.




AC/DC never went wide, just deep. Very deep. Starting in 1973, they began diligently mining a narrow seam of pure musical gold: rock and roll. In their great catalog of songs there are no acoustic numbers, no ballads, no collaborations with symphonic orchestras, no duets with pre-fab Pop divas. AC/DC unplugged? That's a non sequitur. The only group to outdo them in their laser-like focus on a kind of straight-ahead, hard-driving Rock song is The Ramones. And let's just take a second to imagine that double-bill. Man, if there is a heaven….


Speaking of heaven, there's a bronze statue of AC/DC's inimitable lead singer, Bon Scott, in Fremantle, Australia; the man it depicts dwells on Mt. Olympus, no doubt without a shirt. Powerage is the penultimate Bon Scott -era AC/DC LP. By the time he cut this record, he had reached the height of his singing and songwriting powers. His vocals seethe with character. He could modulate his voice from sinister dictation nearly spoken to an ardent plea that shatters glass, from a moaning croon to the defiant scream that ends "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap." His lyrical chops were just as fierce, equal parts Ogden Nash, Dashiell Hammett, and the double entendre -loving lads of Spinal Tap.


Sadly, just one LP (Highway to Hell) and two years later, Bon Scott would also reach the depth of the attendant lifestyle, literally drinking himself to death.


Powerage is easily the most underrated album of AC/DC's Bon Scott era, which is to say their greatest era. It is to AC/DC what Presence is to Led Zeppelin. Since it doesn't have "household name" tracks like their other albums, I'm not going to do a song-by-song exegesis. Just listen to the record and be rocked. But I will mention a few favorites and one ultimate favorite.


The epigraph of my piece is from the first song on the record, "Rock 'n' Roll Damnation," an ideal mid-tempo swinger to kick things off. In this age of utterly ineffectual multi-tasking coupled with manic, device-addled distraction, the line "doing nothing means a lot to me," well, it means even more to me now.


If the album is pronounced "powerage," then "Riff Raff" delivers the most of that stuff. It has an overture-like introduction, as if lead guitarist Angus Young and the boys begin by winding up a giant friction motor. How many watts do Angus and drummer Phil Rudd expend on this relentlessly rocking number? Well, not as many as the song yields—if only "Riff Raff" could be harnessed to solve the world's energy crisis. And be warned: this song can be very dangerous when driving an automobile; it compels you to go fast.


All things being equal (and Bon Scott-era AC/DC records are uniformly superb), Powerage contains my very favorite AC/DC song, "Sin City." And from a group that gives its listeners so many candidates—my mind reels with the abundance of choices: "The Girl's Got Rhythm," "Shot Down in Flames, "Problem Child," "Back in Black," "Shake a Leg," "Shoot to Thrill"—that's saying something.


But this song—tragically, so rarely played on FM Rock radio—moves with a swagger and assurance which commands. "Sin City" comes out of the gate with massive authority, an ex-convict's conviction about life's essential truths. If Las Vegas had any real balls they'd have made it their official song decades ago:


    And dust;

    Poor man last,

    Rich man first.



    Dry martinis,


    I got a burning


    Deep inside a' me,

    It's a yearning

    But I'm gonna set it free:

    I'm goin' in

    To Sin City.

    I'm gonna win

    In Sin City.

    Where the lights are bright,

    Do the town tonight,

    I'm gonna win

    In Sin City!

In all of Rock's sprawling achievement, there is no greater Quiet Time in the canon than the hush that follows the blaring guitar solo in "Sin City"—those plucked bass notes and frugal hi-hat taps awaiting Bon Scott's exquisitely lascivious voice to intone a solemn incantation:


    And snakes —

    Ladders give,

    Snakes take.

    Rich man, poor man,

    Beggar and thief.

    Ain't got a hope in hell:

    That's my belief.

Buddy, I can only write so much about a song this ass-kickingly great, an album this perfect (however one chooses to pronounce it) before I'm forced to repeat myself: just listen to the record and be rocked.




Side 1

Rock 'n' Roll Damnation

Down Payment Blues

Gimme a Bullet

Riff Raff


Side 2

Sin City

What's Next to the Moon?

Gone Shootin'

Up to My Neck in You

Kicked in the Teeth


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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