AC/DC’s Highway To Hell 40th Anniversary

The album that took AC/DC to international super stardom, and an entry point for new fans since its release

A retrospective look at the iconic album from AC/DC. A magnificent album that shot the group from rising credibility to supergroup and into rock legend status.

Highway To Hell

Highway To Hell Original Artwork

BY STEVE WALKER | Go Venue Magazine

As we pass the 40th Anniversary of ‘AC/DC’s’ iconic ‘Highway to Hell’, released on 27 July 1979, it feels appropriate to re-examine the album and explore the content that propped up hard rock mantle. The Australian roots that brought AC/DC to global success gave us rock legends in the iconography that the scene demands along with the urban mythologies and power and influence that the mastery of instrumentation can elicit.

‘Highway to Hell’ was the last album to feature ‘Bon Scott’ as lead singer is secured in the rock vault of the classic. The work has almost everything including the ongoing legend that Scott predicted his own death and personal ‘Highway to Hell’ in defiance and demanding legacy. As an opening lyric set, “Living Easy, Living Free; Season Ticket on a one-way ride”; the mantra of every good night out and as the track is played and the opening chords sequence screams, audiences and club goers still recite the anthem in unison, this is the reason that Highway to Hell is commended as one of the all-time classic rock albums.

As music was developing throughout the seventies and the sound of rock was becoming more intense as the experimental guitar sound was being amplified and the ‘Marshall JCM’ range was being exploited to create harder much more distorted tones. AC/DC found stability in the pitch, the connection between lyric and sound was blues rock at it’s center, the structure was simplified to intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, lead section, bridge, chorus outro a distant cry to the epics of the early seventies ‘Led Zeppelin’ tracks and the themes on this album were localized around lust, sex and blood – the level of misogyny is representative of a time in our history when the party was still live and the focus audience was young men who were still ‘attempting’ to live it up, although they could neither keep it up or pertain to any degree of sexual prowess that Bon Scott suggested he had, it is proven that AC/DC’s Highway to Hell gave the audience and fan base access to the arena at least.

The sound and style of the album defined generations of hard rock outfits for decades to follow such is the significance of the AC/DC contribution. The album laid the groundwork for ‘Motley Crue’, ‘Poison’ but still remains the harder version of the backbone of the scene and the echoes in the genre can still be heard. Recorded the album at the ‘Soundhouse’ in the UK, the place to be recording at this time in the seventies and in particular with production support from ‘Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange’. The support from Lange and the production shift encouraged the band to spend more time than usual in the recording studio on the album, and the three months created one of the most stunning rock albums to have been released on vinyl.

Stand Out Tracks

Girls Got Rhythm
Although lyrically misogynist, the album was focused at an audience of boys to men and was talking of the ‘Penthouse’ or 80’s ‘Electric Blue porn’ world that was untouchable and therefore assisted in the success of the album. The band sourced the boyish adolescent dreams of the time and distorted it through Marshall amps to a generation of young people who were hungry for more and ‘Girls Got Rhythm’ feeds them.

The rhythm guitar in the track is slow and defined, held just a touch longer than other AC/DC chord sequences to change the movement and feel. The technique can be found in every skin touching track that claims to paw it’s way into the sexual heart of a listener or audience. ‘Motley Crue’s’ ‘Dr. Feelgood’ which was released ten years later uses this method. The bassline pushes deeper in the rhythm section creating motion and a pulsing movement that breathes down the neck and the lead guitar is dynamic and uses repeating touches to share rhythmic pulse. The track is spectacular, erotic, explicit and to an extent aggressive.

Highway to Hell
As intro’s go, this opening is both iconic and incredible, as a musician there can be much said in the silences and the simple chord use with tacit pauses create breathing space for the listener. Controlling the heart beat whilst waiting for the next snare beat to beckon the breaks are an incredible feature. The offset drums (that everyone misjudges in the first count), before the fluid vocal appears, is staged brilliantly, this is true composition that scaffolds the track development. In the guitar spaces, Scott’s vocal does not dip and is not affected, matching the band note for note. The leveling inside the assembly of this track is exceptional. Angus Young’s use of his signature ‘67 Gibson SG in the lead section uses blues rock riff sequences around the 3rd to 8th fret to retain some of the bass and mid tones in the lead, this process gravitates to another chorus that he compliments with high fret bends to create squeals through the outro, the track that keeps giving.

If You Want Blood (You’ve Got it)
A true rock opener with reminiscent ‘Creedence Clearwater Revival’ textures in the guitar indicating influences. The addition of the AC/DC three chord stab run in a 4/4 timing to create significance and definition. These accents bleed into verse chorus sections and provides space for Bon Scott to take platform on the vocal. Malcolm Young’s rhythm in this track gives Angus the room for more licks and threads than any other track on the album. As a fade out number, the track never feels long enough and is noted as a track that most people play twice.

Night Prowler
The blues-slide guitar intro and steady blues 8 beat drum intro from Phil Rudd that uses slow narrative vocal to set mood brilliantly, subtle blues pauses from underneath the vocal stagger the blues chords from Malcolm Young. In this track, the longest on the album and closing tune, every artist in the band has a showcase slot, the Cliff Williams bass echoes are prominent under the rhythm and are used to speed up the track on transition from verse to chorus. Scott claims the title of the Night Prowler and the lyrics define the nocturnal activities that in a contemporary track would be frowned upon. This was a time for

Every track on the album has some credibility, although mostly under the shadow of Highway, the pulsing rock heart from tracks such as ‘Walk All Over You’ and the sleazy ‘Love Hungry Man’ as examples are the reason the AC/DC’s consistency through the period retains their place in rock history.

‘Highway to Hell’ remains a hard rock/blues rock standard, one of the greatest albums released during the latter part of the 70’s that catapulted AC/DC throughout the 80’s and 90’s into a super stardom based upon a gritty, genuine take on a then world represented through hard blues rock that carries the texture of purr and growl in equal measure.

Track Listing: Vinyl

Side-A

  1. Highway to Hell
  2. Girls Got Rhythm
  3. Walk All Over You
  4. Touch Too Much
  5. Beating Around the Bush

Side-B

  1. Shot Down in Flames
  2. Get It Hot
  3. If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)
  4. Love Hungry Man
  5. Night Prowler

Run Time: 42 minutes

Band Lineup:
Bon Scott – lead vocals
Angus Young – lead guitar
Malcom Young – Rhythm Guitar, Backing Vocals
Cliff Williams – Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals
Phil Rudd – Drums


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About Steve Walker 7 Articles
Writer with an interest in process, artist vision, intention and composition. Exceptionally normal take on the extra-ordinary :) DM, F, C.