Music, News & Commentary

35 YEARS SINCE AC/DC'S 'BACK IN BLACK'

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Music can get pretty complicated. Production techniques and superstar producers can put as much weight on the way an album reaches us as the musicianship of the creators. All the bells, wheezes and whistles can sound great and enhance a sound. But they can also detract. For the purists of popular music, there’s an alternative to all the buttons and noise. It’s the minimalist canvas that is rock music. Plenty of volume but few complications is the mantra, shaped by drums, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and a charismatic vocalist singing simplified, if innuendo-ridden, lyrics. None do it better than AC/DC but they almost fell apart before they recorded their best known album, 1980s Back in Black.
Driven by the brothers, Malcolm and Angus Young, ratbag migrant lads out of Glasgow riffing songs in Sydney’s outer suburbs, AC/DC had sweated buckets playing pubs in Australian and the UK to get a toehold on the international market by 1980. Their 1979 album, Highway to Hell broke them in the US, reaching top 20 on the Billboard charts. Some covered their ears and winced, or looked askance at their smart-arse antics, but many more sat up and took notice at the noise coming out from these kids living the dream.
They all awoke from that dream on the morning of February 19, 1980. In the back seat of a car in suburban London lay what appeared to be the immediate demise of the band: the dying and possibly already dead body of the legendary lead singer Bon Scott. Just 33, Scott, also born in Scotland, had partied enough to kill a herd of elephants in his short life and when his body gave out, right on the eve of the band’s seemingly guaranteed success, AC/DC looked to have terminally shorted out.
But the band’s ambition, and the determination of the Young brothers in particular, ensured that they wouldn’t go down meekly. In fact, they didn’t go down at all and Back in Black, which came out just 6 months after Scott’s demise, dynamited them to nose bleeding heights.
The album is a tribute to Scott, hence the black cover, the title and the Black Sabbathesque church bells on the opening track. But, it’s fair to say the tribute was less musically delivered than arrived at in a kind of never-say-die reach for success. In fact, incoming singer, Brian Johnson, is generally credited with most of the lyrics for Back in Black so it isn’t really a case of the band bleeding through the grooves.
Perhaps because of Johnson’s lyrical influence, or perhaps because of the emotion of the time and the maturity Scott’s death obliged, Back in Black can be considered a more mature sound than previous work. But, to be honest, that’s not saying much and the content is still as pounding, the lyrics still as thematically puerile as always.
You don’t go searching for literature in an AC/DC album. Drinking, sex, partying and wild living are infused in virtually every line. The titles on Back in Black are provocative enough: Shoot To Thrill, Givin’ The Dog A Bone, What Do You Do For Money Honey, You Shook Me All Night Long, Have A Drink On Me and the Spinal Tap-ish Let Me Put My Love Into You pretty much tell you all you need to know about where Acca-Dacca are coming from and where they are heading.
The path between the bedroom and the pub was worn to bare earth by Johnson’s (even his name is an innuendo) radio-ready textual porn.
Poetry it isn’t. Of course, it’s the riffs and the backbeat that are the backbone of AC/DC and this is emphasised as perhaps never before on Back in Black.
The cymbal-heavy skins bashing of Phil Rudd (who’s person has since been deposed from the AC/DC kit, but not his influence), Mark Evans’, then Cliff Williams’, straight up and down rock bass, Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar and Scott’s, then Johnson’s high pitched wailing (and the occasional bagpipe) all assemble to pay homage to the genius that is Angus Young.
An enfant terrible on the local Australian scene for years, back when that now ludicrous school boy uniform actually looked like it could be real, Angus Young fashioned the utter killer riffs that defined AC/DC from day one. On Back in Black, he seems to have gone to a whole other level.
Young’s chords begin every track on Back in Black. His fingers lay the line for the structure of each song, like a brickie’s plumb line. They set your head for what’s to follow in each musical behemoth the band roll out. His Gibson SG never misses a chance to embellish a passage, driving each song from the front, yet not afraid to wander off in jazzy burns and between-note touches. The band rumbles behind him like a troop of tanks. Even Johnson’s vocals bow down to his musical chops.
No better is this noted than on the title track, arguably the best known riff in rock music history.

The track Back in Black powers on a simple, raspy Young riff, interlaced with Rudd’s drum and Johnson’s almost rap vocal. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with every piece just locking into place. Young’s little flourish in between the beat is just what your ears want to hear. The first 30 seconds of Back in Black is as pure a rock sound as was ever constructed.
The fact that Back in Black could pretty much be played by any high school punks with a few hours practice attests to the genius of AC/DC. There is nothing complicated here, nothing taxing on the mind or soul. Nothing beyond the reach of the most mainstream punter out there. You don’t listen to AC/DC as much as give them permission to take you back to the cave, give you a mammoth steak and say “Sit on that rock and cop this.”
There are surely moments in all our lives when we need a piece of Acca Dacca.
The album Back in Black evidences a reach towards something bigger for the band. The earlier pieces were almost too cynically aimed at accessing chart success through Young’s hooks and Bon Scott’s cheeky wink and lewd lyrics. Fashioning themselves as the Aussie Stones made them big at home, but wouldn’t cut it internationally, where the real Stones would blow them away.
The band needed a shift towards something more definitive, more solid and chunkier and less obviously blues/pop-rock oriented. Whether that was the plan with Back in Black is debateable. But the result is undeniable.
The album is generally considered to be the second highest selling album of all time, after Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Its sales are in the range of 50 million, roughly a quarter of the sales of all the band’s albums combined. As a step up to international success, it’s hard to beat. As a piece of work launched just a few months after the very future of the band looked as black the album’s cover, it is utterly remarkable.
Its sales tell us that Back in Black is the world’s favourite rock album. This is simple music for the simple humans that we all are somewhere inside. For all its volume, its naughty-boy themes, its chunk and heft, Back in Black is oddly calming. You might not reach Nirvana* listening to Back in Black but with it hammering through your headphones, you will go on some sort of journey. It’s one we should all take every now and again.
*The band Nirvana could historically be reached through AC/DC, but that’s for another day.
Related stories:
AC/DC Rock or Bust tour review 
Skyhooks Calling: Doing the Lygon Street Limbo with the Carlton Cowboys 
Previously by James Rose:
Madonna’s Immaculate Collection
Bob Marley and the Wailers Live
U2’s Boy  
Silverchair’s Frogstomp
 

4 responses to “35 YEARS SINCE AC/DC'S 'BACK IN BLACK'

  1. There probably is one but I can’t think of another band where all eyes are on the lead guitarist rather than the singer. It’s the rhythm section that drives ACDC but Angus is the magnet.

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