The legendary band AC/DC has survived significant upheaval, especially in recent years. Despite releasing some of hard rock’s greatest hits in the 1970s and ’80s, the group has enjoyed only a modicum of success in the first two decades of the 21st century. Numerous events have placed the future of the band in doubt, including the conviction of drummer Phil Rudd on narcotics charges and the departure of vocalist Brian Johnson, attributed to hearing loss. Perhaps the most tragic of these events, however, was the 2017 death of founding member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, who had retired from the band three years earlier while suffering from dementia. And yet, AC/DC has persevered, headlining tours and performing at major festivals almost every year, and even promising the release of a new album in 2019, for which New Musical Express Magazine reports, “All surviving members of the ‘classic’ lineup could be back in the fold” (New Musical Express, “Bassist Cliff Williams might be re-joining AC/DC for their rumoured new album,” 02.11.2019).
The band’s ability to push forward in times of difficulty is indicative of a rigorous work ethic that is hardly seen in the music industry today. Bands like Linkin Park and Soundgarden, both of which recently lost their lead singers, have not yet made any plans to continue releasing new music, while other groups like Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots waited several years after their lead singers’ deaths to reunite. AC/DC is one of very few bands that has endured in the face of tragedy. Thus, as the world anticipates the release of AC/DC’s new album, I have decided to look back at the band’s seminal album, “Back in Black.”
Released in 1980, “Back in Black” was the band’s first album with Brian Johnson singing lead vocals. Several months before, original lead vocalist Bon Scott passed away from alcohol poisoning. As the band’s previous album, “Highway to Hell,” had been a commercial breakthrough for AC/DC, the group decided to continue; they recruited Johnson, who had previously sung lead vocalsfortherelativelyunknowngroupcalled Geordie. Enlisting the services of producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who would go on to make a name for himself as the producer for Def Leppard and Foreigner, the band recorded “Back in Black” in the Bahamas. The combination of Johnson’s powerful vocals and Lange’s maximalist production techniques gave the band the new sound they needed to make their comeback.
The album’s opener, “Hell’s Bells,” is a plodding, head-banging anthem that serves as the perfect launching pad for the following track, “Shoot to Thrill.” The fast rock ’n roll guitars highlight Chuck Berry’s influence on the band, while Johnson’s screeching vocals fill out the mix in the most perfect way possible. The sexual innuendos in “What Do You Do For Money Honey” and “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” are so sophomoric and crude they made me chuckle, and yet the musicianship on these tracks is so tight that their artistry cannot be diminished. Malcolm Young’s greatest asset was his ability to hold down a steady groove as a complement to his brother Angus’ fiery lead guitar playing, and this skill can be readily seen in these two songs. Similarly exhilarating are “You Shook Me All Night Long,” a fun and catchy pop rock tune, and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” which seems to underscore the band’s blues rock influences.
Yet, there is no song that better proves AC/DC’s legendary status as one of the greatest rock bands of all time than the title track. “Back in Black,” with its classic riff, thunderous drumming and fearsome vocals, is one of AC/DC’s finest offerings, and it would not have come about had it not been for Scott’s death. The lyrics, as Johnson has stated in numerous interviews, pay tribute to the group’s original lead singer, while showing the world that the band could move forward and continue to make amazing music. It’s no wonder, with this collection of hits, why “Back in Black” is the third most-sold album of all time, just under the Eagle’s “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Therefore, as we wait for AC/DC’s new record, we can only hope that the band is able to deliver the same stunning results, all while facing the same personal losses and pressures that provided the impetus for the iconic “Back in Black.”