Powerage, or: Bon Scott done got a broken heart
Powerage occupies a funny spot in AC/DC’s discography. It’s the one before Highway to Hell, the band’s commercial breakthrough(ish) and maximum power, and after Let There Be Rock, and altogether far, far more uptempo, fun, and, I think, if better means more fun, better record. Powerage is moody and preoccupied with sleaze and bad times, losers and rue; it’s not, reiterating, in the sense most associate with the band, your typical AC/DC record. Powerage has a legitimate Vibe running throughout. Uptempo opener Rock and Roll Damnation was the record’s final track, written only at the behest of the record company, who allegedly persuaded the band to squeeze something radio friendly; it’s a fine little number, but out of place.
Downpayment Blues is Bon Scott’s ultimate tribute to being poor and/or living beyond one’s means, and features, paraphrasing Independent Record Reviewer Mark Prindle, one of the simpliest, dumbest, rattiest guitar melodies of all time, but it totally works; we’ve all been there, we’ve all experienced fiscal insecurity, we’ve all lived beyond our means, regretted it, the stress it begets, and wondered why the world is coming down so hard on us to get its green back – it’s only money, isn’t it? The more a person lives, the more he or she realizes just how pathetically, utterly the world is determined by money, how it gets down most completely on those who can’t afford to be got down on, on those without means. “I got holes in my shoes/and I’m way overdue.” “Get myself a steady job/Some responsibility/Can’t even feed my cat/On social security/Hidin’ from the rent man/Oh, it make me want to cry/Sheriff knockin’ on my door/Ain’t it funny how the time fly?” Throughout, Bon is ironic; he knows the situation in which he, or whomever he’s singing about, has a Cadillac but “can’t afford the gasoline” is ridiculous, but it still isn’t fair it’s played out this way. Here’s a man who isn’t asking for much, not really, a vagabond who wasn’t ever taught fiscal principles thrust into the credit and loan morass, and why does it all have to be such a big deal? This is Bon Scott’s ultimate tribute and his rallying fuck you to a world inhumane, a capitalist shithole, which leads us into Gimme a Bullet, one of the record’s several songs detailing a failed relationship, the record’s first side closing off with perennial fan favourite Riff Raff, which does indeed feature a great riff and details nothing less than Bon’s personal desire to go about his business with a grin on his face, a chuckle and slammed shot in the face of a world going down the tubes. There’s even an allusion to Climate Change in the first verse.
Sin City’s one line in before Bon timelessly declares, “Poor man last, rich man first”. The song, featuring a great, chunky riff, is, as usual with Bon here, about someone out of his depth, someone who hasn’t a “hope in hell”; this could be the same hopeless subject as he of Down Payment Blues. The dice are loaded, the game is rigged, the possibility, the potentiality, the dollars signs nevertheless rake the dummies in, call all the fools home, and why not? In Sin City Bon’s character isn’t necessarily self-aware, but Bon himself is, but what’s communicated is the distinction doesn’t matter one way or another. After all, what else is the world determined by if not money? What else is there? Money begets happiness. That’s life.
What’s striking, among other things, about Bon Scott relative Brian Johnson is Bon’s comparatively astounding capacity to paint a real picture, to tell a story and communicate atmosphere, and, moreover, how he sings about women. In Brian Johnson’s word-salad world women are going to be ‘got’, they’re always in danger of being smacked with ‘his brand’, having their cake ‘cut with his knife’; the violence is revolting, and was a chief feature throughout his stint as lead lyricist. Bon, on the other hand, is a fundamental bluesman, he’s always the loser, he’s never violent – if there’s violence, it’s understood as a bark, not a bite, speaking in metaphors – just heartbroken, rueful, self-effacing, even a romantic, a fool, he knows he’s been a fool, but he can’t help it; like all cynics, he’s inherently hopeful. Songs like Kicked in the Teeth are just straight heartbroken blues lyrics, veritably indistinguishable from something written thirty years earlier, but delivered by a squealing Aussie over distorted powerchords; “Two face woman with your two face lies/I hope your two face livin’ made you satisfied/Ya told me, baby, I was your only one/While you been runnin’ ’round town with every mother’s son”. Up to My Neck In You likewise illustrates the point, “Well, I been up to my neck in whiskey/I been up to my neck in wine/I been up to my neck in wishin’/That this neck wasn’t mine/Oh, I’m a loser”; “And I been up to my neck in pleasure/Up to my neck in pain/I been up to my neck on the railroad track/Waitin’ for the train/To cruise on through”.
I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master
Given this is for the foreseeable future my last Reviews With segment, I wanted to give myself a chance to gush and share two records very dear to me, the first being Electric Six’s ‘I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master’, the first of I think two definitive Electric Six records, and one of the finest rock records ever made, a statement I won’t argue for, but will rather state and leave with my unique Canadian humility at your esteemed feet.
Most know Electric Six due to Danger! High Voltage’s extensive use over twenty years ago, or through Gay Bay, or, if you’re in the UK, the best of Fire’s three singles and an immaculate rock song, Dance Commander, but the band has since that record been producing an album a year, sometimes more, all of them excellent, and everything subsequent their debut far more indicative of what they’re actually about, fleshing out their sound and substance, Fire’s deep irony lost on many, many meatheads the band quickly looked to shed. Anyone who mistook Tyler Spencer’s (aka Dick Valentine) machismo, delivered in a tone which naturally undercut such thing, but some people need clearer indication, for serious on the band’s initial offering would be hard-pressed (I’m giving such people too much credit, but allow me my naiveté) to take a lust-rocker like Senor Smoke’s Be My Dark Angel seriously. ‘You scorcher, you scorcher/fry an egg on your face, girl’ Valentine yelps. This is pure irony.
Which delivers us, an album (the amazing Switzerland, the other side of this record’s coin) later, to I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master, the band’s longest-titled record and the absolute encapsulation of the apex of their initial period. It’s the band’s last record for nearly a decade to include a song the likes of which features the word ‘dance’ in the title, and in nearly that long to (explicitly) mention the devil. It’s a milestone.
It’s Showtime! kicks things eclectically off, anticipatory guitars, slamming powerchords, Valentine screeching for us to Put A Little Mustard On It before asking to Put A Little Mustard on That Mustard, wind instruments tweeting or twertling, spiralling around him before the song slams into the definitive Down at McDonnelzzz, a piano-lead, groove-beated ode to a mystical McDonalds wherein the party never stops, a situation existentially horrific or glorious, where the laws of time and space do not apply, the song collecting many of Valentine’s lyrical preoccupations, fast food, parties, and surprisingly poignant offhand existential reflection, into one absurdly catchy nugget, spilling into Dance Pattern, a reflective, if not ungroovy meditation on some kind of encounter with a woman; what really matters here is the easy groove and Valentine’s capacity to string a story together, delivering metaphors pregnant with far more meaning than the public might want to believe interspersed with certainly personal anecdotal snippets – ‘now you’re stuck in the corner listening to some GUY talk about his screenplay, and the crazy things he did one night in Spain’ – before delivering pure Valentine word-twisting, ‘and this time there are no feelings/and it feels like there’s no time/and it feels like it’s time to let my feelings do some talking’; the tripartite delivering over and over.
Downbeat, ratty Riding on the White Train delivers not one, two, but three utterances of Valentine’s immortal ‘Solo!’ beneath blown-out guitar bends and pull-offs, also home to another awesome lyrical set. ‘Now listen/I see no point in trying to get you to listen/You’re hypnotized by the camera you’re kissing/My dogs are barking/and all your cats are hissing tonight/Nothing gets settled when our animals fight’. Classic.
Other favourites are the pulsing, synth-driven, low-key Broken Machine and Lucifier Airlines, which features an incredibly moving melody, and the killer dark synth-pop, celebrity and celeb-worship-skewering Fabulous People. As usual, Valentine commits time to reflecting on existence and aspects of the United States; When I Get to the Green Building’s fuzz melody and soaring horns eventually gives way to an aching, melancholy melody, indicating, for those who hadn’t been paying attention to what had been hiding in plain sight in albums prior, a truly reflective balladeer pregnant in Valentine. ‘Our fearless leaders say they’re equal to the task/And every point of view on this depends on who you ask/It doesn’t matter any way’.
Zodiac: Twelve Songs, Twelve Signs, Twelve Songs
Zodiac is probably, objectively-speaking, Electric Six’s best record. This keeps me from putting it at the top of the pile, but I can’t deny its quality. Zodiac is a collection of twelve songs, none of them corresponding to the Zodiac itself; it’s not a concept record, it’s just a record which happens to include twelve songs, which might be one of the band’s best jokes.
Dick Valentine’s social, existential, and political commentary shares equally the record’s space with absurd, if focused, songs, and utter nonsense (Clusterfuck). Harrowing, dramatic After Hours leads us into Valentine’s crazed, stern-horn-blasting, fuzz bass-driven America-critique, American Cheese, which, 2/3rds through, bursts into an incredible and moving acoustic section. The word(s) of the day (read: record) is chord transitions. I don’t know what was going on on Zodiac, but the band is very intent on committing this time to musical and chordal transitions the likes of which deserve aural doubletakes. Doom and Gloom and Doom and Gloom is full of these things, Valentine leading us through a number of brave, affecting chord movements (the “The eternal sands of time will run their course/just like a headlesss horseman without a horse” and “I don’t care what any of us thinks” sections) until a Baker Street-quoting saxophone kicks up, and eventually the entire song splits into a take on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky.
Countdown to the Countdown’s fun, honking vamp, these verses indicating nothing if not the angry, human-all-too-human capitalist landscape in which you, me, and he make our sad little lives, breaks into short, existential sections, these astral bars spiraling us toward some realization, some clarity, a calm within the relentless storm of our lives, never enough time, never enough time, Dick Valentine’s obscure if somehow all-too-resonant metaphors and similes communicating a maddened clarity, a man, like all of us, driven by neoliberal horror to our wits’ end and forced to continue. There’s nothing else to do.
Elsewhere, Electric Six delivers easily a contender for their best song period in I Am a Song, a song sung from the perspective of a song, Dick assuming a gloriously silly vocal affectation throughout, horns triumphantly walking up and down scales between line-deliveries, and band synthman Tait Nucleus treats us to a fabulous thrum throughout Love Song for Myself. I want to say more, but I won’t. I’ll spare you. I’ve said too much.