Back In Black
Atlantic Records, 1980
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/19/1997
Do you remember your first time?
No, no, I'm not talking about that... do you remember the first time you heard one of your favorite albums of all time?
For me, I think it was in 1983 or 1984 - I was at "Duke" Williams' house celebrating some holiday with his family and mine. He popped AC/DC's 1980 classic Back In Black into his tape deck, pushed play... and changed my life forever. (I repaid the favor last year, when I took him to see AC/DC at the United Center.)
You can argue with me all you want about how AC/DC is a three-chord loud boogie band, purveyors of the cock-rock style I've slammed dozens of other bands for on these pages. But I still love Back In Black, no matter how overplayed it's gotten on rock radio.
This album almost never happened. Following Bon Scott's death in February 1980 (choking to death on his own vomit after an all-night bender), Angus Young and company seriously thought about throwing in the towel. The band had just broken through America in a major way with Highway To Hell before losing their charismatic front man - how do you replace someone like him?
The answer: you don't find a carbon copy. Instead, they went back to the bars and found Brian Johnson, lead singer of Geordie (if you can find any of their albums, except for the God-awful enhanced-after-the-fact Keep On Rockin', grab it!). His style was a unique growl/scream which differed from Scott's evilishly pleasing sneer of a vocal.
The fans, of course, ate it up - thanks in part to some of the strongest songwriting AC/DC ever put together and an emotional purge in the studio. (The band, by the way, has denied all rumors that a tape of songs from Back In Black with Scott singing lead exists. I have to believe them - otherwise I would have seen a bootleg of it by now.)
The ominous tolling of a bell on the album's opener, "Hell's Bells," lets you know you're in for a powerful ride. The building of the guitars, the thumping of the skins by drummer Phil Rudd, Johnson's screams, all of it burrows into your brain. Angus Young's solo on this one is especially tasty - proof that the Scottish-born guitarist (and his brother Malcolm on rhythm guitar) is a master of his instrument who doesn't have to play 10,000 notes a minute to be powerful.
This song, the title track, and "You Shook Me All Night Long," are probably three of the most overplayed tracks of AC/DC's career - never mind the fact that they're great songs. I still remember dancing around the room with "Duke" Williams, playing hockey sticks like guitars to "You Shook Me All Night Long." It's a hell of a track that has lost none of its power in 17 years. As for "Back In Black," this is an example of how one guitar riff can become so well-known. A song that later on had Washington wives running for cover (and getting involved with labelling albums - which they had no fucking business getting involved in), this one is definitely a showpiece for Johnson and Angus Young, and is a great song to listen to while driving.
But if you think that Back In Black is only these three songs, you're sorely mistaken. "Shoot To Thrill" has become a live favorite over the years, and is able to shift from balls-out to a more passive riff back to full throttle very easily. "Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution," which they occasionally still whip out in concert, is one that Tipper Gore should have been forced to listen to non-stop. The lyrics are more powerful than Young's guitar solo - no simple feat.
Sure, the sexual imagery may occasionally get overblown, a la "Let Me Put My Love Into You," but c'mon, these guys aren't Kiss or Aerosmith. They're not singing about (and doubtful they expect to be) getting laid by ten different groupies a night. Steven Tyler worships his cock; AC/DC seem to be making light of theirs - and therein lies the difference. But, hey, if you're offended by the song, there's something called the "forward" button on your CD player that you may wish to check out.
The "forgotten" tracks on Back In Black - "Given The Dog A Bone," "Shake A Leg," "What Do You Do For Money Honey" - are all worth checking out as well as the radio-chiseled hits. I for one always like "Given The Dog A Bone," though I'll admit it's not the best guitar performance on the album.
As powerful as Back In Black is, it did not reach number one in America for AC/DC - that honor would come in 1982 with For Those About To Rock We Salute You - but it did reaffirm their power as a heavy metal band. They came back after losing Scott and hit new plateus of success - and I somehow think that Scott would have approved of all of it.
Back In Black is one of the albums I would definitely want with me if I was going to be stranded on a desert island, and is one which belongs in every decent rock library. It will be interesting to see how this album is treated with a box set (I read it was titled Bonfire) due out in just under a month.