“They Gotta Catch Me if They Want Me to Hang”: Back in Black Turns 40

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“I’m a rolling thunder, pouring rain / I’m coming on like a hurricane / My lightning’s flashing across the sky / You’re only young, but you’re gonna die…”

It’s fitting that AC/DC’s magnum opus begins with an apocalyptic line that echoes the self-mythologizing blues lyrics of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. After all, the Australian band had made a name for itself throughout the 1970s by incorporating the American blues with rowdy, raunchy, working-class rock ‘n’ roll. Over the course of six albums the band, led by rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, lead guitarist Angus Young, and singer Bon Scott, had been steadily evolving as songwriters, honing a style that began as raucous, abrasive, and lascivious and gradually worked in enough nuance in the songwriting and production that appealed to an audience larger and broader than the strong following they had already built up.

1970s AC/DC offered a quirky yet utterly powerful dynamic. The visual aspect of their performances left an indelible first impression: Malcolm, bassist Cliff Williams (who joined the band in 1977) and drummer Phil Rudd were resolutely positioned close to the back line as Angus, forever clad in a schoolboy’s uniform, shuffled, marched, spun, and ran around like an unhinged lunatic. Meanwhile, Scott, one of the most charismatic frontmen hard rock has ever seen, stood onstage displaying a confident, confrontational swagger that has never been matched since. For a little guy with a goofy mug and a nasally voice, the bare-chested Scott was larger than life onstage.

On record, AC/DC was even more extraordinary. Angus and especially Malcolm were gifted when it came to hard, wickedly catchy blues riffs, and complemented each other perfectly. All eyes and ears would justifiably be on Angus, because the man could shred. However Malcolm was the true leader of the entire band, and his robust, muscular way of playing rhythm guitar was always a master class in minimalism and discipline. He sounded so tight on his modified 1963 Gretsch Jet Firebird that it afforded Angus the luxury of letting loose, creating a perfect dynamic. It’s all about tension and release, and AC/DC could pull it off that feeling with astonishing power.

Their six albums with Scott cannot be matched; they are in a league of their own. The international release of High Voltage, the Australian version of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, the international version of Let There Be Rock, and the flawless Powerage remain untouchable. When you go back and listen to those records, you can sense that swagger getting bigger and bigger: Dirty Deeds was equal parts murky, menacing, and hilarious, Let There Be Rock has the coolest, most abrasive guitar tone since The Stooges and The MC5, and Powerage had Scott hitting a career peak as far as his lyrics went.

The band was primed to explode in popularity by the end of 1978, and in teaming up with upstart producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange their fortunes would change forever. Meticulously recorded, Highway to Hell achieved a perfect balance of accessibility and abrasiveness. The guitars sounded a little cleaner, the rhythm section pummeled and grooved, and the lead and backing vocals were a lot more refined than ever. It took the ragtag, unhinged sound of Powerage and Let There Be Rock and cleaned things up to be halfway professional, tailor made for the stadiums, and of course, it became their biggest selling album to date.

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At the same time, however, Scott was spiraling into alcohol abuse, and would be found dead in a car in London six months after Highway to Hell‘s release. The fact that AC/DC’s follow-up would be recorded with a new singer two months after Scott’s death speaks volumes. Books written about the band hint at tension between the increasingly unhealthy Scott and the career-driven brothers Young, and although Back in Black can easily be viewed as a tribute to their fallen brother, it’s also a big middle finger to him as well. It would not be easy to replace such a legendary singer, but they clearly did not want to let Scott’s death derail their career, especially when it was on the cusp of unprecedented popularity.

Brian Johnson, interestingly enough, was a singer Scott admired. Newcastle glam rock band Geordie achieved modest regional success playing their bluesy, Slade-esque music, and Scott had told the Youngs about this cool little band from Northern England with a wicked little singer who was great at Little Richard/Chuck Berry style rock ‘n’ roll. Just a few weeks after Scott’s burial, Johnson was on board to record AC/DC’s magnum opus.

What Johnson brought to the band was practically the polar opposite of Scott. Scott could project malevolence like no other, but Johnson, on the other hand, was the life of the party. Scott sang about being a night prowler, while Johnson would tell listeners, “Have a drink on me.” By switching from the outlaw to the people-pleaser, the Youngs had found the one ingredient that would seal AC/DC’s fate as the biggest hard rock band in the world.

Some best-selling albums find their audience by pandering to the lowest common denominator or embracing a budding musical trend at just the perfect time. Others, on the other hand, become massively popular because they are simply perfect and are impossible to dislike. If anyone dislikes Back in Black, it’s begrudgingly. If you don’t like Back in Black because it is played on every classic rock radio station in North America, you at least have to admit that there’s a reason it is so ubiquitous. That many people love it. It’s as simple as that. I can think of no other rock album that is so universally loved.

Like Rumors, like Bat Out of Hell, like The Wall, like Thriller, like Purple Rain, like Hysteria, much of Generation X absorbed Back in Black through cultural osmosis. It has become a part of that generation’s collective consciousness because it was everywhere, and it was everywhere because it was, and is, so great, transcending time to the point now where two more generations of listeners have grown up with it. I saw the band play in hockey arenas in the 1980s, and it was difficult enough to get tickets then. In 2009, trying to see AC/DC at a 42,000 capacity football stadium was a complete gong show. The band’s very presence literally shut down the city’s entire infrastructure for one day. Consequently, for the last 25 years because of consumer demand it is impossible for AC/DC to play in a venue smaller than a football stadium. That many people love their music, and that generational snowball effect started for real with Back in Black.

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Sonically Back in Black continues right where Highway to Hell left off: Lange’s tone is again the perfect balance between aggressive and instantly pleasing to the ear, but there’s enough heaviness to the album’s sound that sets it apart from its predecessor. Of course, that increased emphasis on the heavier side of things adds some valuable gravitas to a record that, despite being a partial tribute to Scott, is nevertheless the definitive party rock album. Sure, Back in Black gives you black sensations up and down your spine, but ultimately this is an Irish wake. Le’s have some drinks, work through some catharsis, but above all else, have a good time because Bon would have wanted it that way.

Like I mentioned earlier, AC/DC, at their best, is all about dynamics, and the way these ten tracks move from gravitas to celebration is masterful. The upbeat songs are revelatory in how they are so immediately memorable. You have to sing along, dance along, drink along. “Have a Drink on Me”, “Shake a Leg”, and especially “Shoot to Thrill” mark the full realization of AC/DC’s formula, Malcolm and Angus hammering out those muscular riffs, Williams in Rudd deep in the pocket, and Johnson howling away, sounding nothing like his work in Geordie. Johnson was given a monumental challenge following a singer as inimitable as Scott, and he rises to the occasion, matching Angus’s high-energy leads step for step. The interplay between Johnson and Angus Young on “Shoot to Thrill” reaches euphoric heights starting with the breakdown at the 3:22 mark, as Angus and Malcolm quieten things down with a three chord riff that repeats and repeats, gaining momentum until it explodes in a fireball of rock ‘n’ roll pyrotechnics. Johnson’s screaming, Angus’s solo is screaming; it is still one of the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written, and it is no wonder that it remains one of the band’s most popular songs.

Of course, this is an AC/DC album after all, so there have to be the requisite songs that focus on more, erm, misogynist subject matter. And “What Do You Do For Money Honey”, “Given the Dog a Bone”, and “Let Me Put My Love Into You” don’t mince words one bit, objectifying, belittling, and dehumanizing the women they’re addressing. It’s typical male braggadocio, but while there was always a sense of menace whenever Scott tackled the subject, Johnson’s charisma as a singer makes him feel more mischievous. Yes, the lyrics are problematic, but Johnson’s playful delivery feels as though he’s letting the listener know his bark is far worse than his bite.

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And there’s no better example of Johnson’s charm as a singer than on “You Shook Me All Night Long”, one of the most sublime moments the band or Lange would ever pull off on record. There have long been rumours that Scott was responsible for the first verse, and the wordplay is so sublime that I believe it: “She was a fast machine / She kept her motor clean / She was the best damn woman I had ever seen / She had the sightless eyes / Telling me no lies / Knockin’ me out with those American thighs.” What a perfect start to such a surprisingly sweet little song, and the Youngs dial down the swagger just enough to allow a little vulnerability to creep in. Lange helps steer the song into pop territory without betraying the band’s aesthetic, focusing on the groovy, danceable backbeat and that wonderful stop/start riff. After all that overtly masculine talk on side one, it all comes to a head on side two, and “You Shook Me All Night Long” does away with the strutting and turns out to be all heart. That vulnerability, that soul, is why the song still makes girls and boys swoon to this day.

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In the end, though, Back in Black was the band’s moment to assert that they weren’t going to let the death of their bandmate derail their mission. Their interplay has always been riveting, and it is perfect here. The way they create such doom and gloom on opening track “Hells Bells” is astounding, channeling everything from the blues masters to Black Sabbath, to the young heavy metal hotshots that were coming out of the woodwork at the end of the 1970s. For a song so powerful, it never shifts gears; forever cruising at that brooding pace, it’s apocalyptic, towering, right down to the constant tolling of the gigantic bronze bell the band had specially forged and tuned for the song. Rudd is in peak form, and is actually the biggest reason the song succeeds so well. He just grooves away, his hi-hat loose, his crash cymbal hitting every single snare beat.

The title track, meanwhile, remains the defining moment on the album, and is to this day, statistically anyway, the most popular AC/DC song of all time. Fittingly, it’s all Angus and Malcolm, hammering out that strutting blues riff, an exercise in economy and hard rock minimalism. Lange allows the song to breathe by creating space between those punches the brothers make. Meanwhile, Johnson howls away some of his most enjoyable lines that assert that he’s here to stay, and damn anyone who says otherwise: “I’ve been looking at the sky ‘Cause it’s gettin’ me high Forget the hearse ’cause I never die.”

“Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” closes the album as the mood turns from celebration to the party winding down. The guests are happy and exhausted, getting ready to head home. Meanwhile, AC/DC know that they have a world to conquer. “We’re just talkin’ about the future / Forget about the past / It’ll always be with us / It’s never gonna die,” Johnson screeches at one point. There were plenty of tough times, but things are about to become massive.

Back in Black would explode out of the gate upon its release, topping the chart in the UK in Canada, and hitting the top five in America. It would go on to sell an astonishing 50 million copies worldwide, and there is still no sign of those numbers stopping any time soon. At any AC/DC show in the last quarter century you would see old baby boomers, middle aged men and women, 20-something partiers, and lots and lots of kids, boys and girls alike. AC/DC made an incredible number of great records, but Back in Black was a big reason, if not the reason, why we were all there. It continues to unite us all, inviting us to let loose, get rowdy, be friendly, and have the time of our lives. That kind of music never, ever becomes dated or old. Back in Black is forever.

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