I like AC/DC. I’ve seen them live a few times in my life, they’re responsible for some of the most iconic and enduring songs in hard rock, and it’s possible that they’ll go down in history as the greatest band Australia has ever produced. Having said all that, I couldn’t have been less interesting or excited when I heard a few months ago that a new album was in the works. I don’t think anyone would argue when I say they haven’t made anything interesting or surprising since 1990’s The Razor’s Edge. A lot might even say that drought has been in effect since 1980’s Back in Black. The real old school fans (ie. my Dad), reckon nothing good has come from this band since Bon Scott died in 1979 and the “new bloke” took over.
My “couldn’t have been less interested” attitude has recently changed though, after reading Mick Wall’s AC/DC: Hell Aint a Bad Place to Be. The story of the several rises, falls and current decades long plateau of this band made me more intrigued than ever. It made me want to hear the new album, but more so, it made me want to listen to the old stuff more than I ever have before. Starting where they did, with their debut, High Voltage.
I’ve not irregularly heard references to AC/DC being almost punk rock in their early days. Hearing their take on blues classic Please Don’t Go finally made me see some merit in those claims. Not just the tempo, the punk feel isn’t as superficial as that. There’s a real energy and urgency to the guitars of the Young brothers and Bon Scott’s vocal delivery.
When I looked at the track listing of High Voltage, the first thing to get me a little excited was the complete lack of well known hits, or even anything even remotely familiar. Besides the cover that opens the album, I didn’t recognise a single other title. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say that about an AC/DC album. Even their worst efforts have one or two songs that became radio standards or live show staples. That, and knowing that this was recorded before they settled into any sort of formula, makes High Voltage the most surprising AC/DC album I’ve ever heard.
Combined with the first track, She’s Got Balls (and even more so Little Lover) indicates a much stronger, traditional blues relationship than the harder stuff they’d record in later years would suggest. There’s a little more swing to the guitars here that would soon be replaced Malcolm Young’s piston-like drive. And it doesn’t feel like every song is treading water until it reaches a formulaic, chant-friendly chorus, and inevitable Angus Young solo.
High Voltage is making me realise AC/DC once knew how to work with a less is more approach. Stick Around continues are run of songs that are pretty light compared to what become the bands bread and butter, but none of them lose any impact. There’s an attitude behind these songs that makes them just as in your face, with being so IN YOUR FACE.
An epic scope complete with big brass, Love Song has to be the least AC/DC song AC/DC ever recorded. Even Bon’s voice is almost unrecognisable in its soft, gentle, heartfelt delivery. I have to assume Angus and Malcolm’s older brother George (writer of Love is in the Air and co-producer of High Voltage) had a large part in writing this one.
On the one hand, High Voltage closer Show Business is one of the least necessary songs on the album. It’s lazy 12 bat blues with nothing new added. But on the other hand, it’s a snarky, middle finger raising assault on the bullshit of the world of entertainment. So possibly, it’s a first draft of what would become one of AC/DC’s greatest songs ever, It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock n Roll).
Maybe it was a band still figuring out what they wanted to be and where their strengths lay. Maybe it was a band less concerned with finding the formula for hits and success than they would one day become. Maybe it was a band who just threw everything they had at the wall and hoped some of it would stick. Whatever lead to these results, High Voltage is the most surprising and varied album I’ve ever heard from AC/DC.