Just Like A Bomb That’s Ready To Blow: Back In Black Turns 40

Looking back at AC/DC’s meteoric rise from unexpected tragedy

Brian and Angus (Art: Ron Hart)

I bought my first AC/DC album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley.

I’d never heard of AC/DC at the time, but the album cover and the title grabbed me. The record jumped off of the shelf and into my hot little hands, as if it was a living thing. I ran home, slapped it on my turntable and turned up the volume. 

“Dirty Deeds” was a great tune. Full of raunchy humor, great guitar licks and Bon Scott’s lascivious vocals. He had a high, raspy tenor with a reckless edge – a perfect voice for a rocker. 

“Dirty Deeds” was followed by “Love at First Feel,” another lewd tune that appealed to my adolescent sense of humor, likewise “Big Balls.” The forth tune on Side One of this British import was “Rocker,” a two minute and fifty-two second blast of pure rock and roll. It distills everything that’s great about rock ‘n’ roll into a three chord, riff heavy blast, with simple lyrics that stick in your mind after a single listen. “Problem Child” closed the side with another tune lifting a middle finger to adulthood and responsibility. I played side one for the rest of the afternoon. I didn’t want to spoil it by flipping the record over. I doubted the second side could equal the perfect bliss of those five tracks. 

 

VIDEO: AC/DC “Rocker” on Rock & Roll Television 

I memorized the information on the album cover: Angus Young, the boy in the grammar school uniform, on lead guitar; older brother Malcolm Young on power chord heavy rhythm guitar; Mark Evan on bass and drummer Phil Rudd. Production was by George Young (another brother) and Harry Vanda. Vanda and Young fronted The Easybeats and wrote “Friday on My Mind.” 

The next day, I took Dirty Deeds to a friend’s house. We sat around with side one on repeat all afternoon and into the evening – no booze, no joints –  just a pure rock ‘n’ roll high. They were a great band, dominated by the crunchy riffing of the Young brothers and Scott’s magnificent screaming.

I was on the Atlantic Records mailing list, so Let There Be Rock, Powerage and Highway To Hell all arrived at my house before they were officially released. I thought Powerage was weak, but Let There Be Rock and Highway To Hell shot to the top of my playlist. I saw AC/DC live on the Highway to Hell Tour and was impressed again. Simple rock tunes – I used to joke that the band’s name was based on the chord progression they used on most of their songs – played at top volume, with a lead singer who shot off sparks.  People said they were metal, but to me they were just rockers. Then Bon Scott died. 

AC/DC Back In Black, Atlantic 1980

I didn’t think he could be replaced. Scott had a snide humor that was an intricate part of the AC/DC sound. Humor in rock is rare, and humor that works, despite being a bit juvenile, is even more rare. His lyrics traded on male clichés about sex, women, excess and being in a rock ‘n’ roll band. The band almost broke up, but went on with Brian Johnson, a front man Bon Scott once called – “a great rock and roll singer in the style of Little Richard.” The band had been working on the follow up to Highway to Hell for a year, with Scott writing the lyrics as usual. After he died, Johnson took over and the band says he wrote all the words for the album, but the lyrics on Back in Black have all the trademarks of Scott’s best work – snide humor and an obsession with sex and rock ‘n’ roll. The singles from Back In Black, “Hell’s Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” all sound like vintage AC/DC/Bon Scott tunes. 

 

VIDEO: AC/DC “Back In Black”

“Hell’s Bells” opens the album with the tolling of church bells – funeral bells possibly – probably the only somber moment on any AC/DC album. It gives way to the usual metallic riffing, a mid tempo backbeat, Johnson’s vocals and a lyric equating sexual satisfaction with sin and self-destruction. “Shoot to Thrill” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” have the overt, winking, double entendres that Scott made his mark with, driven by Malcolm’s familiar power chords and Rudd’s simple, driving kick drum. “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is another paean to rock ‘n’ roll, in the tradition of “I’m a Rocker,” but taken at a more sedentary pace. 

From its title, you might think “Back in Black” would be a tribute to Scott, but it’s a mid tempo tune that equates sexuality with immorality. It mentions hearses, hanging and bullets, but it’s another song full of the macho braggadocio Scott excelled at, although lacking his usual humor. “Have a Drink on Me” wallows in images of alcoholic excess, with a great sing along chorus that tops off a list of beverages that includes whiskey, gin and cheap wine. 

 

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The lyrics on Back in Black have the feel of Scott’s best songs, although “What Do You Do for Money Honey” is more misogynistic than most of his work and “Let Me Put My Love in You” lacks his usual humor. Maybe Johnson went over the lyrics Scott left behind and tweaked them, or maybe he just crafted lyrics that captured Scott’s obsessions with sex, booze and rock ‘n’ roll. We’ll never know, but most of the albums the band has made since, starting with For Those About to Rock We Salute You, relied more on mid-tempo grooves, with fewer flat out rockers.

Johnson’s lyrics are solid glorifications of rock’s clichés, but without the sarcasm and snide humor that made Scott’s songs crackle with energy, such as the best moments of this most momentous album.

 

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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