In July of 1980 AC/DC released an album that topped the charts in the UK and Australia but limped in the US Billboard chart at number four, and spawned only a solitary top twenty hit. It seems inconceivable today, but back in 1980 the biggest selling and most popular album ever to be released by a rock band, achieved only moderate success with the now overlooked “Rock And Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “Hell’s Bells”, “Shoot To Thrill”, “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the imperious title track “Back In Black”, all failed to make an imprint on the singles chart.
Today however, AC/DC’s Back In Black is known as the second best selling album of all time, surpassed only by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It is by far and away the biggest selling album made by any band be they rock, pop or boy. Back In Black has outsold its closest rival, Dark Side Of The Moon, by a whopping 5 million sales, despite the fact that Pink Floyd’s opus had a seven-year head start
Oddly, in spite of the album’s tyrannical success, Black In Black is rarely discussed in a credible critical fashion. Brian Johnson, Angus Young and AC/DC have become such a rock and roll institution that their music is often glossed over with the same tiresome clichés we’ve come to associate with the Australian outfit, and seldom seriously considered.
In July of 1979 AC/DC were riding high, they’d just released the most successful album of their career Highway To Hell, finally cracking the Billboard charts in the US, and were set on world domination as the combination of Bon Scott’s raspy hedonistic cry and Angus Young’s inescapably addictive riffage proved irresistible.
At the dawn of the 1980s AC/DC were readying their next full LP, and looked set to follow the pattern of Highway To Hell, moving toward a more serious sound; abandoning irony and lewd humour in favour of a more hard edged, but no less hedonistic, rock aesthetic.
Progress on what would become Black In Black was halted on the 20th February 1980 when Bon Scott was pronounced dead at King’s College Hospital. The night before Scott had been out partying at the Music Machine club in London. Consuming alcohol at a rate of knots, Scott passed out in the back of Alastair Kinnear’s car. Unable to move the singer, Kinnear left Scott alone overnight and when he couldn’t wake the singer in the morning he rushed the star to hospital where it was announced that pulmonary aspiration of vomit had caused the frontman’s death. As the official coroner’s report tactlessly noted: Scott had “drunk himself to death”.
Scott’s death was a defining moment for AC/DC as they faced the toughest decision of their young careers; call it a day and dissolve the band at the height of their fame, or soldier on and search for a replacement. In retrospect, Back In Black’s July release suggests the band were quick to tough it out and move on, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Young brothers seriously considered calling time on AC/DC but as the wealth of documentary evidence suggests, Angus Young genuinely believed moving on and continuing the AC/DC project was the best way to honour their former front man (“If It Had Been One Of Us, Bon Would Have Done The Same”).
Before his death Bon Scott had already tipped Brian Johnson for big things, and when it came time to audition he beat Slade’s Noddy Holder with an electrifying rendition of Ike and Tina Turner’s “Nut Bush City Limits”. AC/DC had found their man, they had recovered, and they were ready to finish what Scott had started.
AC/DC travelled to The Bahamas to record at Compass Point Studios but rather than escaping to a tropical paradise the band were met by harsh and volatile weather, and were frustratingly forced to sit and wait as their equipment was held up at customs. Brian Johnson, AC/DC’s newest member, and now head songwriter, found the transition most difficult, saying: “it’s a rotten place, it’s a stinkin’ place; I was certainly plucked out of my environment, my working class environment up in Newcastle, and suddenly chopped into the Bahamas with all this sand and sun and palm trees. I just didn’t like it; the lads here they did as well. No one liked it, it was rotten, try[ing] to do a rock n’ roll album there."
Rather than faltering or reconsidering their decision to continue AD/DC turned the frustrations of their surroundings into Back In Black’s ominously monolithic opener “Hell’s Bells”, whose iconic opening verse refers directly to the tropical storms the band endured in the Bahamas.
Behind the lyrical inspiration, however, the band perfected one of the most effective, and frequently copied, formulas in rock history. AC/DC had, throughout the ‘70s and as they entered the ‘80s with Back In Black, rejected the progressive nature of hard rock and metal. Instead of embracing modernism and drowning in the self indulgent experimentation of progressive rock or the ultra-intricate speed orientated assault of stadium trail blazers Van Halen, AC/DC defiantly looked to the past.
Similar to the punk revolution of ‘77 and the garage and blues-rock revivals that had been gathering pace throughout the decade, AC/DC’s sound was all about taking basic minimal strands and stretching them to their maximalist extreme. AC/DC’s music was stark, Angus Young’s riffs were harsh, brutal and short; and through repetition, and an appreciation of space, the band cultivated a series of intoxicating grooves that, while built on minimal instrumentation, felt cavernous and inescapable in scale.
Naturally enough classic tracks “Shoot To Thrill” and “What Do You Do For Money Honey” built to cacophonous crescendos complete with impressive clattering, boogie style solos, but it was those all encompassing grooves that dominated and compelled the audience to almost hypnotically march (or goose step) to AC/DC’s beat.
Listening back to the richly atmospheric riffage of “Let Me Put My Love Into You” there is a Sabbath like deliberacy to be found in the thudding guitar work, but Johnson’s urgent frantic screams, combined with the ragged backing vocals (a carry over from Highway To Hell), shattered that comparison, helping to further distinguish the AC/DC sound.
The frantic screeching outbursts of Johnson give Back In Black the energy, urgency and pace of snarling punk or garage record providing a perfect contrast to the unwieldy, continuous guitar grooves. The effect recalls the way Steven Tyler would dart all over Joe Perry’s jaunty guitar lines, but where Tyler cries and coos, Johnson powers and fist pumps, and where Perry sped, AC/DC patiently groove creating the timeless anthema of “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Back In Black”
AC/DC never looked back after Back In Black riding the albums formula sound to conqueror stadiums across the world and outselling every other rock band in the process. Young, remarkably, has yet to run out of riffs and his, Johnson and Scott’s sound has become one of the most copied archetypes in all of rock music (most notably by successful retro-rockers Airborne).
However, unlike the pioneering stadium techniques of Eno and The Edge, the AC/DC sound has not produced the same kind of success for other younger bands. As a result they stand alone in a category of their own, in terms of stadium headlining acts. In fact, AC/DC have become the antithesis of every trend in music, rather than bending to populism, their sound has endured and the band have never really diverged from the formula they developed in the late ‘70s and perfected in 1980 with Back in Black.
In short, they created a timeless and distinct sound, that even in 1980, harkened back to the days of yore, and yet still in 2011 feels strangely contemporary. So much so that when there’s a blockbuster action movie in need of a soundtrack (like say Iron Man) they turn straight to AC/DC for that big, brazen, all action sound.
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