AC/DC's Back in Black- 30 years later

Back in Black
Recently I received an email from AC/DC announcing the 30th anniversary of Back in Black's release. The best part of the email was a link to where the original band members and Brian Johnson talk about what it was like to go forward in the wake of Bon Scott's death. Now, to be frank, I'm a purist and in my opinion AC/DC has never been the same without Bon. Embarrassingly, I still remember how I felt upon hearing about Bon's death- his is the only "celebrity" death which ever brought a tear to my eye. I loved Bon Scott, and all these years later, he still epitomizes to me what a "Rock and Roll Singer" should sound like more than anyone else- Jagger, Plant, Rose, Mercury, etc. No one compares to Bon Scott. Period. Of course it wasn't the "quality" of the voice, because let's face it, Freddie Mercury was probably the finest singer ever to sing rock and roll, but no one sang rock and roll better than Bon Scott, except maybe Jagger, Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten, and that's a heavily qualified maybe.

In April of 1980 I went to Moby Disc on Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks, Cali and they had a big-ass sign announcing the new AC/DC album had been released and the "singer sounds a lot like Bon Scott" (how is it I remember this stuff?). I was skeptical but willing to give it a listen because it was AC/DC after all, and I basically trusted the people who worked at Moby not to talk out of their ass because at that point it was the best record store in my part of L.A. - and that's saying something.

When I got home, unwrapped the cellophane wrapper and removed the inner sleeve, I expected some mention of Bon but there was none to be found. The solid black cover was going to the sole acknowledgement. Fine, I thought- let the music do the talking.  I put it on the turntable. Looking at the label of record itself  I noticed the song line-up didn't correspond to the outer sleeve. No biggie. What I really wanted to know was what did it sound like?

"Hells Bells" is the lead track and the "bells" themselves rang out as a perfect tribute to Bon. At this point there was really no reason to mention his death at all on the cover or the inner sleeve. I got it (I wonder at this point how many people own this record around the world who have no idea why the cover was solid black or the back story behind it).

Back to the bells: so far so good, and when Malcolm starts off with that slow, churning riff it sounds fantastic.
But it sounds noticeably different. Angus's guitar comes in behind Malcom's and the chugging beat starts and it sounds like AC/DC and yet it doesn't. The guitars sound nothing like those on "Highway to Hell" or any of the records produced by Albert Productions. The crunchy, raunchy, sharp guitar sound is gone, replaced by a muddier, thicker-sounding sludge that would be omnipresent in every subsequent release. It was like listening to something you knew by heart broadcast from an entirely different planet- recognizable yet wholly different because they were using a different medium to speak through.

Brian Johnson then makes his entrance and my mind reeled and I thought to myself "Those dumbshits at Moby Disc have no idea what they're talking about!" Johnson sounded nothing like Bon. Not even close. Bon's voice had character and he delivered the lyrics and double-entendres with wit and a "devil-may-care" wink that let everyone in on the joke and the fun. Johnson sounded like he took all of this way too seriously. There is no fun in his voice at all. It's just a raspy, creaking frog sound that can scream when needed. And the lyrics? Banal. Juvenile. Not clever, not funny. It was immediately obvious that Brian was not Bon Scott and never would be.

And yet I ended up loving this album and can't even begin to count the number of times I've heard it . True, it was never my favorite of theirs, which forever will be If You Want Blood, but I understand why it is one of the best-selling albums of all-time and the single best-selling rock album ever. Why? Because despite it being a very different AC/DC then they were with Bon, the record kicks ass all the way through in a way that transcends language barriers, genres, and whatever else you want to come up with to pigeonhole your particular favorite flavor of rock and roll. AC/DC with Bon was probably too raw to ever achieve the status they got with Brian. The reboot accomplished something different- it removed the threat (sexual and libertine) and replaced it with a party spirit that would prove irresistible worldwide. Bon-era AC/DC was salacious, raunchy, fun and unique. Brian Johnson turned them into the world's hardest-rocking party band. It was never going to be the same, but it was still going to be a very good time.

In the thirty years which  followed, AC/DC released album after album, and each one seemed to be a little less interesting than its predecessor, though they always seemed to be able to come up with at least one great song per album ("Thunderstruck," "Big Gun," "For Those About to Rock," Heatseeker" to name a few). Their sound never really changed again, the lyrics continued to be middle-of-the-road dumb, and AC/DC became the rock equivalent of comfort food. They did their thing, and no one complained because they always delivered exactly what was expected- especially onstage, where the shows continued to have a power that was surprising for guys their age and hasn't really changed that much since 1980.

Last year's "Black Ice" was widely heralded as a "return to form"- their best, tightest album since "Back in Black." I'll admit it's the first one I've listened to all the way through in years. The guitars have more of a "Highway to Hell" sound to them, which to these ears is a welcome return, and though there are some bluesy touches that hearken back to the Albert years, it's probably too late for me to get that excited about it. Yeah, I like it, but it's not going to return me to a fold I left a long time ago.

However, when I put "Back in Black" on my turntable for the first time in many a year I was blown away by how great the album is and how well it stands up after all this time. In fact, I'd have to say that it's a better album than I thought it was. As far as their studio albums go, it's as good as "Highway to Hell," though that's an admission I can only make after all these years. Still, there's nothing like AC/DC with Bon at the helm but "Back in Black" is the next best thing- and it kicks ass.

Track by track:

Hells Bells: the most ominous opening riff since the first Black Sabbath album, a monster by Malcolm. Brian Johnson enters and announces himself with the subtlety of a punch to the face- "I'm rolling thunder, pouring rain I'm coming on like a hurricane." It has a beat you can dance to, and many people did. Catchy, immediate, nothing else of the era sounded quite like it, and besides it had the great line "if you're into evil you're a friend of mine" which guaranteed every teenage boy would be singing along with this song. It's genius, and the solo, while slow, is memorable, as if the riff, which is irresistible. The lyrics actually suck, but who cares?

Shoot to Thrill: more than any other song on the album, this sounds like Bon and I would bet this one, though listed as a Young/Young/Johnson song was actually something the Young brothers had worked out with Bon before his death. It's all there- the double-entendres, the riffs, the break in the middle where the percussion forms a danceable beat that would please strippers all over the world with Brian talking shit over the top of it, with "shoot you" becoming a metaphor for jizzing wherever you want to, this song is the best of the album. It kicks ass and they know it.

What Do You Do For Money Honey: Riff-wise, this is the closest to the old-school AC/DC we get on the album and you know if you've ever seen them live the Young brothers love performing this song. It's nasty, it's fast, it's dirtry. It's Bon without  Bon, but Brian can't sell it in the same way so it's up to the Young brothers and they do it with an almost punk vengeance unique to the record. Musically, it may be the most rocking track on the album. A true classic.

Given the Dog a Bone: musically this song rocks, but the lyrics are lame beyond belief. This is the future, and it ain't pretty. The riff is irresistible, but who wants to sing these lyrics? They suck beyond belief and are only repeatable/singable once you're drunk.

Let Me Put My Love Into You: see above- great music, embarrassingly banal lyrics and vocals. Thank God it's the last song on side one. If my memory serves, we would have to be really shit-faced not to turn this one over at this point, because you have to be seriously drunk to want to be rocking out to "let me cut your cake with my knife" and think it's going to work with any woman except the biggest skank you've ever met. It's probably the single-most ever song responsible for spreading myriad venereal diseases that's ever been recorded.

Side Two:

Back in Black: One of the most instantly recognizable openings ever. Ridiculously simple, devastatingly effective, simply irresistible. Maybe the biggest song they've ever done, the dumb lyrics are almost like a rock and roll nursery rhyme, but when you have a riff so huge that even Shakira ends up covering it, you have one of the most enduring rock songs of all time.

You Shook Me All Night Long: lyrically the best song on the album pants down. It all makes sense, it may be the best song about unbridled lust ever, which is why it's their biggest hit. A contender for the hardest rocking pop song ever made- but it's definitely pop.

Have a Drink On Me: Bon personified, and why you hear this song in San Franicsco's Whiskey Thieves and other hard-drinking bars around the world all the time. 'Nuff said.

Shake A Leg: the fastest song on the album and the closest thing to having the sound of the Australian/ Highway to Hell records. It's reminiscent of the glory of "Whole Lotta Rosie" but falls slightly short. Okay, way short, but still, there's an adrenaline rush built into this one. For that reason alone it may be the album's best track. Okay, so that's the second time I've written that, and in truth the reason this album has endured so long is because it's impossible to decide which song is the best one, since 9 out of 10 are great and 5 of the nine are - what? Classics- that's what.

Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution: another loser as far as lyrics, but irresistible because of the riffs. Again pointing to what the future of the band would come to be- it's fun, it rocks, but isn't as thrilling as the greatest stuff on the record or in the past, and epitomizes the somewhat characterless, working-man, cliche-ridden AC/DC that would go on for another 30+ years and counting. And yet how many times have you sung the stupid chorus?

One final note: if Brian Johnson ever meets his demise and the band wants to rock on, they should hire Amy Ward of AC/DShe to replace him. Hell, they should just go ahead and do it anyway. She sounds just like Bon Scott and how cool would it be for AC/DC to have a hot woman fronting the band at this point?