Opinion seems to swing around the fifth AC/DC album. When I was a teenager in the early 80s, 1978's Powerage seemed to be regarded as a bit of a lost album – stuck between Let There Be Rock and Highway to Hell, lacking any of the big songs that have featured in every AC/DC live set for the last 35 years. Over the last 15 years or so opinions were revised – perhaps thanks to Keith Richards' endorsement of it – and it became the best AC/DC record. In recent months I've seen a countervailing swing, with posters on forums and messageboards suggesting champions of Powerage are just posturing because they're afraid of being too obvious by admitting a love for Back in Black.
For what it's worth, I'm in the Powerage camp. It was the first album I ever bought – on cassette, from the big HMV on London's Oxford Street, at the end of December 1980. It cost me £3.99, and it was the long-deleted version that featured Cold Hearted Man instead of Rock'n'Roll Damnation.
But it's not only sentiment that draws me back to Powerage. AllMusic identifies it as "a final curtain to the band's early years", but I think that's wrong: it's actually the album that debuts what was to become the classic AC/DC sound. Where its predecessors all indulged heavily in swinging, clumpy blues – you get a lot of der-der der-der for your money on the early AC/DC records – Powerage is all about the four to the floor, with new bassist Cliff Williams taking on a string of basslines that must have required supreme self-discipline to execute without being tempted into the occasional run up and down the neck. Yet it's not the classic sound polished up for the gold discs that were to follow – AC/DC are still being produced by Harry Vanda and George Young here, with no Mutt Lange to demand stadium-sized choruses.
It's also the sternest AC/DC record – I'm pretty sure it's the only one without any sexual innuendo. Its songs are all about disappointment and failure, with Bon Scott's writing – and he was one of rock's most undervalued lyricists when he put in some effort – as sharp as a needle. He was always an acute chronicler of poverty ("I've got patches on the patches/ On my old blue jeans/ Well, they used to be blue/ When they used to be new/ When they used to be clean," he sang on Ain't No Fun (Waiting Round to Be a Milionaire) in 1976), and he never really captured its sense of helplessness better than on Powerage, where he's dreaming of riches on the occasions he's not bemoaning a heartless woman.
I could have picked pretty much anything from Powerage for this slot – my favourite song, in fact, is probably What's Next to the Moon, which was later given a country-blues reading by Mark Kozelek of Red House Painters – but I've opted for Riff Raff for its display of AC/DC's supreme confidence as they approached their pomp.
Here is Powerage's best riff – a pretty much unimprovable spiral, which seems as much a force of logic as guitar pattern – and what do AC/DC do with it? First, they allow 45 seconds of build-up before they even get to it. That's how good this riff is: it's worth three-quarters of a minute of waiting before they'll even let you hear it. And that's not the only measure. It's so good they know you don't want Bon Scott to come in immediately with the vocal, so they run through the whole cylce of the riff, letting it unspool to its whole length, before Scott opens his mouth. On this clip – recorded live in Glasgow in 1978 – it's 1min 50s before we hear from Scott. That's confidence in your riff.
AC/DC? Good for a laugh, as the song says, but good for much more than that.
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