Music

Doug Powell: The Lost Chord

Jason Damas

Doug Powell

The Lost Chord

Label: Parasol
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If Doug Powell is the new Todd Rundgren, then The Lost Chord is his A Wizard, a True Star, the album where he takes his love of pop and fuses it into something artier, darker, and weirder.

Right from the start, it's obvious that this is a different Doug Powell than we're used to. The opener, "Merlin Laughed", begins with almost a minute of throaty cackling and menacing, swirling orchestral noise before dark, Black Sabbath-y power chords crash the enterprise down. Things don't exactly lighten up from there. Despite a bridge and portions of the chorus that recall Powell's smoother work, this is a rough and difficult ride right from the start. Of course it doesn't help that "Merlin Laughed" segues into "Nietzsche is Dead (Verse 1)", a strange, brief singalong that's more circus tent than '70s pop. So what's up?

Powell has been making records since the mid-'90s, starting on a major and then jumping to the pop indie Not Lame and now to Parasol. Each of those records has introduced a level of complexity to Powell's style. While his first certainly borrowed from Todd Rundgren's early, straightforward style, he gradually introduced grandiose melodies, strings, piano, and (notably) more and more complex song structures. Along the way he's recorded a rough, mostly-just-demos album (Curioser) and followed it up with 2000's ornate More, an album that was in many ways his masterwork.

One problem with More, however, came in Powell's lyrical approach. Despite oft-sunny music, Powell's ruminations often came off as downright bitter. Over the course of an album, it wore, and over time it even made great songs like "Empty V" (his spot-on hard rocking slam of MTV) seem tedious.

That's a part of why The Lost Chord feels refreshing. It's not that Powell has choked down some Zoloft and found a new appreciation for life; rather it's that he's managed to wed his sentiment to appropriately difficult and complex instrumentation. The Lost Chord is dressed up in orchestral theatrics, tape loops, synthesized vocal effects, chimes, white noise, heavy percussion, and a variety of keys, creating a sonic mix that is as dense and full as the disc's bizarre cover art. It sounds like the work of a twisted genius, the type of album constructed by a recluse with his band of mechanical toys.

The sheer complexity of the music on The Lost Chord would threaten to turn the whole enterprise into a pretentious, self-absorbed vanity project were it not for the fact that Powell didn't forget to write songs. Good songs. Great, even -- "Queen of Hurts", "A Roar Boring Alice", "Machina", and "Cul-de-sac" are amongst the best he's ever written. "Queen" is driven by a propulsive rhythm track that kicks in well before some processed guitar work that sounds closer to '80s arena rock than art-pop. "Machina" doesn't rely so much on a traditional drum track as it does on a loop of a zipper closing-or it sounds like that, anyway. "Cul-de-sac" collapses halfway through into a pile of strange vocal effects, sounding for all the world like the Lollipop Guild were hired to sing backup through vocoders. It's strange stuff for sure, but each song has a chorus bold enough to rise above the dense, foggy production, gelling together to produce the greatest album that Powell has made yet.

If each of Powell's three successive albums (as well as the one disc he recorded as part of Swag, a sort of supergroup featuring members of Wilco, Sixpence None the Richer, Cheap Trick, and others) was evidence of his ability to successfully mimic his idols (most notably, Todd Rundgren and Andy Partridge), then The Lost Chord is proof that his vision is as expansive as his songwriting is tight. It's true that some fans of his more traditional pop albums might initially feel alienated by The Lost Chord's density. But for the more invested listener, the album's many layers will slowly reveal themselves as part of the main attraction, not as a barrier to appreciation of Powell's fantastic songwriting.

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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