Music

Doug Powell: The Lost Chord

Gary Glauber

Doug Powell

The Lost Chord

Label: Parasol
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"I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star."
-- Frederich Nietzsche, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part I.

Doug Powell is smart and talented and frustrated and thinks enough to be more than just a bit unhappy, I'd wager. Maybe one or any of those factors leads to the end product, and perhaps his past history in the music business doesn't help matters much either, but from this personal chaos Mr. Powell has indeed given birth to a dancing star. In his first effort on Parasol, Powell has turned his almost one-man show (Prairie Prince plays drums on one track) into an astronomical event. The Lost Chord is a musical supernova, a fascinating and often experimental journey that explodes in your earphones as it captivates throughout.

This is not easy listening, nor is there any real "single" here. Maybe there's a slow dance you can wreak out of a track or two -- but this is music for listening, the kind of stuff that transcends -- atmospheric, moody, expansive and all over the musical realm. Powell's studio prowess is in evidence right from the get-go, magical and heavy and reflecting that inner chaos to the benefit of his listeners.

Just as Nietzsche challenged traditional foundations with his philosophical beliefs, Powell does the same for pop musical expectations in this new millennium. He takes on the philosopher and the figureheads, the magician and the modern world with lyrics smart and obscure enough to escape any easy analysis.

Powell's musical statement is a cumulative philosophy -- these are songs about broken dreams and the search for truth. It's a total "uber-experience" that really proves worthwhile. As such, allow me to take you on a mini-guided tour.

The CD opens with a gong, electronically enhanced laughing, noises, percussion and general electronic cacophony building into the harmonies of the sung title "Merlin Laughed". This is a minor-key song of warning, of predicting evils to come ("the future's a stranger with a familiar laugh / it won't obey, so please don't ask"), as the great magician chuckles at our eventual fate.

This leads into "Nietzsche Is Dead (v.1)", a short bit of music-hall operetta complete with old-fashioned record scratch sounds, celebrating God's last laugh against the philosopher. Powell is clever here, if obscure to most: "He could not find God / the items on his nihilist / He determined did not exist / so at God he swung a mighty fist/ but it's Nietzsche that is dead".

This takes us into "A Roar Boring Alice", the first track that shows off Powell's magnificent voice (he's a natural lead, emotive and reminiscent of many past pop heroes, capable of belting it out or toning it down accordingly). This is wonderful pop territory, great ringing double-tracked guitars and a nice drum/bass line leading us up and down around the vocals that tell the story of this clueless Alice, who manages to ignore her reality and have no regard for the truth.

A "Strawberry Fields Forever"-like organ heads the intro into "Baby Blue", another vocal tour-de-force. Prairie Prince pounds the skins in this slow-paced ballad to frustrated dreamers the world over: "Rome fiddled while Nero burned / and nothing obeyed / and this useless passion yearned / and so with some enchanted loom / you wove beautiful lies you wished were true". The production values are very familiar -- Beatles and Badfinger and Jeff Lynne/ELO and Todd Rundgren and then some.

Powell takes the percussion reins on the beat-driven "Queen of Hurts". This time the clueless one is a bored object of worship, a queen hell-bent on unhappiness and pain. You get fuzz/reverb guitars and enough noise to wake the neighbors.

The title track offers up lovely melodic piano battling the sonic wail of a background guitar and its disturbing feedback. The effect is intentionally unnerving, echoing the lyrics. This is yet another tale of a man broken, dreams remolded and choking.

This leads into the single guitar strum that breaks into the full organ and synth-horn arrangement of "Cul-De-Sac". This is a declamation against routine and comfort, the trap of getting caught up in the familiar, and ultimately a cry to break out from it. Powell does a good job with ambitious lyrics and again beefs up the production in ways that challenge your beliefs that it's only one man playing and singing it all.

"The Palace of a Sigh" is another piano ballad that, in this reviewer's opinion, would work perfectly as a theme to some new James Bond film (really, give it a listen and see). There are the strings and the electronic/synth static and the low tremolo guitar lead, backing up this very pretty song about discovering the truths behind and within.

Strange repetitive percussion sounds (think Pink Floyd's "Money" and then some) lead the lovely "Machina." This infectious melody works like a well-oiled machine, again reflecting the meaning contained within. Powell exposes machines as a destroyer of truth; a poor substitute: "Just another pretty puppet / of pantomime and of shadow / It's a currency of gesture / Nothing bought and nothing sold".

Next up it's back to music hall fun with another near minute of "Nietzsche Is Dead (v.2)" (poor Nietzsche). The CD wraps with the poignant "She Walks on Water", all about a paradox of a woman: "She walks on water / she swims upon the shore."

Powell includes the lyrics (though they remain obscure in meaning at times, necessarily) and also does the graphic design for the CD, including a tasteful montage of eclectic items (he really is a Renaissance man).

The son of a physicist and a flautist, Powell grew up in Oklahoma and made his way to the limelight by impressing Jules Shear with a demo tape. Shear then produced a demo tape that lead to the RCA signing and recording of Ballad of the Tin Men. RCA dropped Powell, but Mercury eventually released the CD (and sent Powell a-touring with Todd Rundgren). Rundgren and Powell forged a friendship, and Rundgren produced the demos for the next album. Mercury dropped Powell, but Not Lame released this material as Curioser and also another set of originals (More).

In 2001, Powell was an integral member of Swag, a group comprised of an all-star line-up from other band members (Sixpence None the Richer, Wilco, Mavericks). After a Japanese EP release Venus de Milo's Arms, Powell has his first release on Parasol.

While this may seem to some an odd collection of music, it's well worth the headphones and the patience. In my own experiment, I shared this CD with a few people in my office. They gave it a spin. One said, "I've never heard anything quite like this before -- it's part Gilbert and Sullivan, part rock opera, part Oingo Boingo, part I don't know what". For those unfamiliar with the musical excesses and abstractions of the prog rock groups of the 1970s, those grand dramatic collections by the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and others, this is strange alien territory.

Yet, to a person, everyone I have played this for has loved it. It is different and grandiose and fresh -- a look backwards while running ahead. As Doug Powell gives up caring about fitting into any mold, he lets loose with the kind of talent we always knew was lurking beneath the surface. The diverse music and heavy production of The Lost Chord may throw some people off-track, but who cares? Powell is one of our great natural resources -- give him time alone in a studio and he'll spin angst into fascinating musical fun. The Renaissance Man delivers the goods with this one, and he leaves you wanting more.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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