CHRIS STROUD | Go Venue Magazine
So, I was asked to do a review on AC/DC‘s ‘Back in Black’ in honor (for want of a better term) of the album’s 40th Anniversary. It’s strange to think that I’m that old (46) or that the album (I still use the term) is that old. To me, and it may just be the age thing, Back in Black is timeless. After four decades, it still stands up against anything produced now. As arrogant a statement as that is, it’s also true. Good art never has an age limit; Back in Black is no exception. AC/DC parlayed a simple love of sex, booze, and rock n’ roll (that scares your parents) into a phenomenon that’s lasted for 46 years and counting and attained heights reached by few other artists. Back in Black showcases all of that in just over 42 minutes.
In the interest of full disclosure, AC/DC is my personal favorite band so I AM biased; this isn’t an objective review, you been told. It’s no small irony that their most successful album is the one album out of the catalog that I generally cannot stand to listen to. I give it a turn once a year, just to say I did. I play it at low volume and do something else, play a video game, then, when it ends, I put it away for another twelve months. The reason, of course, is that it’s played out…sort of. Tens of thousands only know AC/DC (as is the case with many bands) from a tiny handful of ‘hit’ songs. So Back in Black is popularly known because of the title track itself, and (choke) ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. While both are good songs, taking only those two to represent an entire album sells the whole thing short.
So, let’s get the bad out of the way, if there is any bad here at all. ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ is infectious. It’s like aural coronavirus; it gets into you and if it doesn’t kill you, it’s sure gonna leave its mark. Few AC/DC songs have been exploited to such an extent, save perhaps ‘Highway to Hell’, but ‘Shook’ is just about the most accessible, and honestly, has some of the best hook lines there are (“…knockin’ me out with those American thighs…” anyone?), never mind an entertaining and humorous music video (made some six years after the album and featuring Benny Hill Angel Corinne Russell). The song gets you up and moving and just ‘feels’ good…in a really dirty way.
What’s terribly ironic, as many other writers have pointed out over the four decades, is that the album was recorded (at Compass Point in Nassau, Bahamas) a mere two months, less than two months actually, after second vocalist Bon Scott passed away in Paris. From alcohol intoxication (the details of which are easily found elsewhere). And yet Back in Black prominently features a wonderful ode to alcohol-fueled partying of the type Scott was known to love, ‘Have A Drink on Me’. The band refused to wallow in the sadness Bon’s passing brought, knowing it wouldn’t have suited him anymore than it suited them, so they drove on.
Few albums have done more to spawn air guitarists in legions than this one. And from that (my own recording career is living proof) it’s safe to say there are dozens of bands that started because of it. Back in Black, and AC/DC in general, are pure inspiration. There literally isn’t a track on the album that won’t drive someone, somewhere, to start waving their arms like a lunatic (myself included) and it’s honest to say that Back In Black in particular and AC/DC in general have done more to drive the genre of arena rock than any ten bands in their contemporary eras, excluding the likes of other innovators (and I’m not naming all of them) like Van Halen, KISS, or Metallica. There is literally something on this platter for everyone. The bell (custom made for the album and the subsequent tour) that intones thirteen times to usher in ‘Hell’s Bells’ gets right inside you. It’s a hell of a way (pardon the pun) to start an album. The phased and slow entry of each instrument builds a sense of foreboding…and most of the songs on the album are like that, a good, steady buildup to detonation. The main riff, for both Malcom Young‘s guitar and Cliff Williams‘ bass, are deadly simple, there genuinely is not much to either one.
No one would ever accuse a member of AC/DC’s rhythm section of attempting to emulate the geniuses in Yes or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. For over 40 years AC/DC has stuck to a simple formula: Write simple, play simple, and that formula WORKS. No frills, no effects to speak of, just pure Marshall, Gretsch, Gibson, Fender, and Ampeg sound. And all of it driven by a diesel locomotive of a drummer in Phil Rudd, a man that Brendan O’Brien (producer for Black Ice & Rock Or Bust) once described, according to Brian Johnson, as, “…a machine, my friend, you are a machine.” P.S. There is a video on that immensely popular video website that catches even Rudd doing a little air guitar to a live AC/DC concert video he was performing in.
As with most recordings, the best parts of the album are subtle things. You hear them, they’re ‘right there’ but their effects on the songs are difficult to quantify. Without them, however, most listeners might be left with a feeling that things got rushed, or that perhaps something was missing. Two things that always stand out to me: the breakpoints in ‘Shoot to Thrill’ and ‘Have A Drink on Me’. The song is rolling along and then AC/DC gives way to an audible pause. The music doesn’t stop so much as it takes a breath…and then builds into a crescendo that raises the hair on your arms. It’s the kind of thing that makes your foot press the accelerator just a little bit harder on the highway.
Buildup is everything on this album, and AC/DC deliver in spades.
Some things here are tongue in cheek and humorous. ‘Givin’ The Dog A Bone’ isn’t even veiled in single entendre; you know EXACTLY what they’re talking about, and so did your parents, which is why they didn’t want you to listen to that…music. Another light-hearted note on the album, which was intended as Brian Johnson’s introduction and a tribute to Bon Scott and his irreplaceable presence, is one of the greatest anthems to the concept of the genre, ‘Rock N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’. Another song with a wonderful build up and clear roots in the masters of American Blues music, the final track on the plate makes a definitive statement on ‘what’ rock n’ roll is all about. The opening, with Angus Young’s guitar and an exhaled cigarette (one might think), followed by Brian’s “all right” brings you in.
“Hey there all you middlemen,
throw away your fancy clothes.
An’ while yer out there, sittin’ on the fence.
So get off yer ass and come down here,
cos rock n’ roll, ain’t no riddle man.
To me it makes good good sense.
Good sense, let’s go.”
Today it’s a bit different. We’re a more inclusive world, but in the 80’s, anything your parents did NOT like was pretty much a guaranteed good time. Back in Black comes off like a beer bash with your best friends. There’s no angst, no melancholy, just 42 minutes of head bobbing, devil horn raising adrenaline and FUN. When the choruses come in, you might just want to take five steps forward to an imaginary microphone and start singing.
In an era when hard rock has drifted away (or so I feel, remember, bias) from the melodic blues-based rock n’ roll that I grew up with, Back in Black is a nostalgia trip for many. But if you’ve not heard it, or only heard a couple of songs, it’s well worth your time to hit up your local shop, drop a few quid (as they say across the pond) or favorite internet site and give it a listen. Only 86 albums of original material (no live, compilations, greatest hits, or soundtracks) have made RIAA Diamond Certification; in 2019, AC/DC achieved 25x Platinum with Back in Black, cementing again their place in all-time sales certifications behind Eagles Hotel California and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Not only does the album hold up extremely well, it remains a seller after 40 years.
“Rock n’ roll ain’t noise pollution,
rock n’ roll, it’ll never die.
Rock n’ roll ain’t no pollution,
rock n’ roll…is just a rock n’ roll, yeah.”