As AC/DC’s record breaking Back in Black album nears its 40th anniversary, Getintothis‘ Nedim Hassan reflects on its bittersweet success story.
By 1980 AC/DC’s rise to rock superstardom seemed unstoppable.
Having scratched and bitten their way to the top during the 70s via relentless touring on the Australian pub scene and then establishing a formidable live reputation in Britain and the US, 1979’s Highway to Hell was widely acknowledged as their breakthrough album.
The title track and lead single became a staple on American rock radio and Highway to Hell shot up the US chart, soon becoming the band’s first platinum album.
1979 also saw the band embark on their first headline tour of US arenas and this was quickly followed by a triumphant UK tour of some of the biggest concert venues at the time, including two dates at the Liverpool Empire, two at Manchester Apollo and four nights at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.
With plans for a follow-up album to once again be recorded under the guidance of rising star producer, Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, the start of the new decade was set to see them establish their status as one of the world’s premier rock acts.
Then, a tragedy occurred that threatened the band’s entire existence.
After a night out attending a gig and after show party at Camden venue the Music Machine, charismatic vocalist Bon Scott, who, along with guitarist Angus Young, was the figurehead of the band’s raw, down ‘n’ dirty hard rock style, was found dead in a parked car on the morning of Monday 18 February 1980.
The official coroner’s verdict was “Death By Misadventure” with the cause of death given as “Acute Alcoholic Poisoning,” although as Mick Wall reveals in his absorbing biography of the band, the actual circumstances of Bon’s death still remain something of a mystery.
What was clear, however, was that the tragedy was a bitter blow and one that would be difficult to recover from.
Even the widely acknowledged leader of the band behind the scenes, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, confided to Q magazine that “Bon was the biggest single influence on the band. When Bon came in, it pulled us all together. He had that real stick-it-to-’em attitude.”
Deciding that Bon would have definitely wanted the band to carry on, the Young brothers set about finding a replacement vocalist.
Although a few different names were initially in the running, after a recommendation from ‘Mutt’ Lange the band eventually asked Brian Johnson, vocalist for British glam rockers Geordie, to come and try out for the band.
Johnson’s raw, growled renditions of Whole Lotta Rosie and a cover of Nutbush City Limits quickly convinced the band and their management that they had found the man for the job.
With just two weeks of rehearsals in London, the band whisked their new singer to the Bahamas where Compass Point Studios in Nassau had already been booked to record the follow-up to Highway to Hell.
If the proposition of walking in the footsteps of one of hard rock’s most charismatic frontmen was not already a daunting one, Johnson’s situation was made worse by the fact that as soon as they reached the Bahamas they found that the island was enduring one of its worst ever storms.
In a studio context far less glamorous than they had been led to believe, AC/DC finally began work on what would become Back in Black.
Working closely alongside the reassuring figure of ‘Mutt’ Lange, Johnson went into the studio on his own to cut the vocals, as the producer decided that he did not want the new singer to feel nervous in the presence of other band members.
Nonetheless, as the gravity of his new role began to dawn on him, Johnson has recalled how when writing the lyrics for future hit You Shook Me All Night Long, he suddenly felt a strange sense of calmness.
Speaking to Blender in 2007 Johnson stated that: “I don’t give a f*** if people believe me or not, but something washed through me and went, ‘It’s all right son, it’s all right’. […] I’d like to think it was Bon but I can’t because I’m too cynical.”
Whether it was Bon looking down (or perhaps up) from somewhere else, someone was certainly smiling on Back in Black.
An immediate hit in Europe, the album gradually made an impact in the US, eventually staying in the top ten of the album charts for nearly six months.
Over time, Back in Black became the biggest selling rock album of all time, eclipsing the likes of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with estimates of its sales somewhere in the region of 50 million copies.
Listening back to the record forty years on, the key to its enduring success is all too evident.
Back in Black retains its potency and power through hooks that are as immediate as they are memorable.
Brooding opener Hell’s Bells is a case in point. A tribute to their recently departed hell-raiser of a frontman, the chimes of a church bell resonate throughout the song’s introduction before menacing riffs gradually build in pace prior to the arrival of verses and a chorus that are as fitting an epitaph to Bon Scott as they are an exercise in exemplary rock song-writing.
Shoot to Thrill brings with it an altogether different feel. A driving, heads down, foot-tapping rock number that proves Brian Johnson can be every bit as sleazy as Scott when it comes to delivering lyrics on AC/DC’s favourite theme – chasing women.
The titillating trio of What Do You Do For Money Honey, Given The Dog A Bone and Let Me Put My Love Into You arrive next.
Each of these (to put it mildly) provocative numbers features a chorus so infectious you’ll find yourself singing the words at inappropriate times (and let’s face it outside of an AC/DC gig there aren’t many appropriate occasions to sing them).
The beginning of side B heralds the highest peak of the album.
Title track Back in Black boasts one of the most recognisable and instantly classic rock riffs of all time.
Right up there with Free’s All Right Now, Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water and Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, the riff’s power comes from the space between the notes, which leave the listener poised and waiting for more.
You Shook Me All Night Long may just be the greatest song the band ever wrote.
Johnson’s lyrics meld his love of fast cars with the band’s obsession with fast women and the whole song is a masterclass in how to convey sexual fantasy in the most joyous manner.
Moving away from matters of the crotch, Have a Drink on Me takes us to the bar for perhaps the ultimate drinking anthem.
If there is a better song to sway along to while downing copious amounts of the amber nectar, this writer would love to hear it.
Shake A Leg is a deep album cut that seriously cuts. Starting with the sort of subdued, portentous riff that made earlier Scott era tracks like Sin City so essential, the song then takes us on a riotous journey of the mean streets and bars where AC/DC plied their trade for so long in their native Australia.
Closer Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution is a glorious celebration of the eternal spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, complete with a plodding riff and a chorus that is as contagious as the clap.
Although there have been line-up changes over the ensuing years and the sad loss of Malcolm Young in 2017, the sound he helped create lives on in their immense back catalogue and in the band’s determination to keep rocking.
Back in Black is the jewel in the crown of that back catalogue, a record-breaking album that triumphed against seemingly insurmountable odds, it remains the epitome of their brash, no-holds-barred and unashamedly lewd brand of rock.