Author: BD Joyce
- Artist: AC/DC
- Album: High Voltage
- Year of Release: 1976
- Country: Australia
- Label: Columbia
- Format: Digipack CD
- Catalogue Number: 510759 2
Already making waves in their native Australia with their high-octane live shows, High Voltage represents the first step in AC/DC’s international journey to global stardom and the legendary status that they now enjoy. By 1976, the band had already released two albums in their homeland (the first of which also confusingly goes by the title High Voltage), and this version of High Voltage compiles the best tracks from these Australian releases, although it leans more heavily on the second of the two (TNT), from which 7 of the 9 tracks are drawn. The band were clearly enamoured with their chosen title – as well as being utilised for their first national and international albums, High Voltage closes with the song of the same name. Of course, this song is one of the aforementioned 7 lifted from TNT, and did not feature on the original High Voltage.
Despite its release at such an early stage of AC/DC’s career, even at this point, all of the core elements of their formula are in place, together with a hint of the alchemical magic that transforms what could be workaday hard rock into untouchable genius. The blues-derived economic and heavily rhythmic riffing style of the brothers Young is underpinned by the pounding four-on-the-floor drums of Phil Rudd, creating the foundation atop which the high-pitched wailing vocals of the late Bon Scott works his way through a lyrical catalogue of mostly double, but occasionally single entendres.
High Voltage is not a classic album in its own right, but it does open with one of the band’s, and indeed the hard rock genre’s unimpeachably classic songs: ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Want To Rock ‘N’ Roll)’. Not yet blessed with the slightly more produced wall of guitar onslaught that would be a feature of their 1980s output, early AC/DC has a much more live-sounding feel, which is the perfect accompaniment for Scott’s cocky sneer, full of personality and vigour. Critics of AC/DC, who once numbered many, will accuse them of having only one song. This is unfair, as they have at least two. There is the uptempo rocker about playing in a band, and the uptempo rocker about the nocturnal activities that take place after the band have played. This is obviously the former, and showcases a band that knew they were destined for the top that they so presciently wrote about. The star of the show here is a chorus so catchy it has to be heard only once to take up residence in your consciousness for life, and it’s difficult to think of a better way to start a rock ‘n’ roll album.
Outside of the opening track, High Voltage contains two more songs that regularly feature in AC/DC’s live set to this day. The explosive ‘TNT’ is a stone-cold classic, riding on one of Angus Young’s trademark turbo-charged rock ‘n’ roll riffs, echoing a tighter, sharper Rolling Stones, and supplemented by a gloriously bone-headed, but undeniably exciting chorus. Its catchy simplicity means that it has been much-covered, probably never more poorly than Six Feet Under’s hilariously bad death metal version. ‘The Jack’ has aged less well. Quite apart from the crude sexist lyrics relating an encounter with a clap-afflicted lady, which are at least forgivable as a product of their time, the track itself is little more than a standard 12 bar blues, played at a somewhat turgid tempo. While the blues are a huge component part of the AC/DC sound, they are best employed by the band as the foundation of their sound rather than the entire building, and aside from an enjoyable guitar solo, ‘The Jack’ pushes the listener’s tolerance a little too far.
The same can be said of the plodding almost glam-rock of ‘Can I Sit Next To You Girl’ and ‘She’s Got Balls’, although the former contains some remediating features in the form of some proto-metal Thin Lizzy-style riffing that enlivens the track in parts. The latter, however, is devoid of the funk and groove that makes their later work so thrilling and effortlessly magical. This is balanced, however, by the soaring ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer’, the wonderful mid-section of ‘Live Wire’, and the final calling card of the title track itself, with its insistent refrain of “High Voltage Rock ‘N’ Roll”, representing something of a theme song for the rest of the band’s still active career. The former is notable for containing an early example of Young’s sparse riffing style, wherein sinuous grooves leave space for the rhythm section to breathe, and this sees a fuller expression to devastating effect on Highway To Hell and Back In Black in particular.
High Voltage is a fascinating early document of a nascent legend’s inchoate first steps. Frequently excellent, occasionally spectacular, and sometimes irksome, the fact remains that even at this point in their development, the songwriting nous was hugely impressive, and the template for future masterpieces close to completion. Although perhaps not essential for the more casual rock listener, for the more committed there are sparkling diamonds to be mined from the rough.