With many bands of long tenure, opening up the vaults for a boxed set of quote-unquote rarities produces revelations of one sort or another. All manner of one-offs surface on which bands have typically tried out (and then for one reason or another discarded) different approaches and musical guises. If you’re lucky, you get to hear the band experimenting in a variety of ways.
Not so with AC/DC.
AC/DC has one sound. It is the only sound they have ever had; it is the only sound that – surely after 35 years we can all agree – they ever will have. It is their sound, and it has served them well. But in terms of this “rarities” box set producing any real surprises, trust me – it doesn’t.
What it does do, is remind you of two things. First, what a powerful musical unit AC/DC has always been, and second, what they lost when original lead singer Bon Scott died in March 1980. For while there are plenty of high points in this empty-the-vaults rarities collection, the demarcation between eras is sharp. The Bon Scott-fronted group is not just ferocious, but both dangerous and tremendously witty, its sledgehammer riffs topped with lyrics that manage to be aggressively lowbrow and brilliantly funny at the same time. With Scott manning the mike, you always wondered how far they would push it, and the answer was usually “really far,” though his leering, rogue-ish persona always at least implied a wink to let you know it was all in good fun. The post-1980 Brian Johnson-fronted group managed to carry that spirit on for exactly one album, the immortal Back In Black, before sinking into formula that would eventually verge on self-parody. Over the past 25 years, AC/DC has devolved into more of a brand – with all the safe and predictable routines that implies -- than a band.
Editorializing aside, there’s no denying that Backtracks is a cool artifact in its own way – a disc of studio rarities, followed by a disc of unreleased live recordings, followed by a DVD packed with videos. The band – sibling guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, with a rhythm section most often and memorably manned by bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd – has always been a force of nature, regardless of which singer had the mike.
The first half of the studio disc is of a piece with the group’s early work, as you’d expect, since for the most part they represent tracks included on the original Australian LP versions of their first few albums, but left off of the repackaged US editions. The songs are simple, loud and pointed, and Scott sings with an audible smirk in his voice. It’s hard to imagine that many of these songs are truly rarities for the hardcore fan, which is obviously the main audience for a box set like this – but they’re fun regardless.
“R.I.P. (Rock In Peace)” is the highlight of the studio disc, a dirty, dirty boogie that chugs along in classic style. “Carry Me Home” feels perhaps a bit too prescient considering Scott eventually drank himself to death, but it’s in perfect keeping with the dark humor Scott mastered and the band carried on briefly after his death. The later Johnson-era cuts are mostly formulaic; the fire and aggression is still there on stronger cuts like “Borrowed Time,” “On The Borderline” and “Big Gun,” but the laughter died with Scott, and with it, a significant element of their appeal.
As for the second disc, AC/DC is already well-documented in a live setting, and it would therefore be easy to call these cuts unnecessary… easy, and wrong. The first seven tracks of the live disc – the Scott-era 1977-79 “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Dog Eat Dog,” “Live Wire” and “Shot Down In Flames,” followed by the Johnson-voiced 1981 “Back In Black,” “T.N.T.” and “Let There Be Rock” – are nothing short of phenomenal. The energy coming out of the speakers on these cuts could power a city – or at least, a frothing horde of 20,000 or so fans. The rest of the disc is less compelling, but who could really argue with arena-sized singalongs to “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Highway To Hell”? And the 13-minute “Jailbreak,” for all its excesses, offers further proof of Angus Young as one of the most dynamic guitarists in rock history.
The first section of the DVD is labeled as disc three of the two-disc Family Jewels video collection of a couple of years ago, collecting videos from 1993 through last year’s Black Ice album. Supposedly they ran out of space on the first two discs, creating these leftovers, but another perspective would be that they ran out of *good* videos. The latter-day videos are mostly as rote and predictable as the songs, though “Hail Caesar” generates a few easy laughs by inserting Angus in classic movie footage, and the two cuts from Black Ice -- “Rock’n’Roll Train” and “Anything Goes” -- are musically strong.
The bonus videos that fill out FJ Disc Three are more fun. The alternate “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” video with the original quintet playing it before a slightly baffled crowd on a downtown city plaza somewhere in Australia is a great bit – not just to catch the puzzled looks on some of the bystanders’ faces as the then-unknown band plays, but also to see Angus for once looking like an actual schoolboy. He was 20 years old when the video was shot and it’s a chance to see him back before the schoolboy uniform became a joke not just in terms of context, but age as well. (And of course, has there ever been a bad music video that included bagpipers? I don’t think so.)
The “Jailbreak” promo clip presents the original band in all their raw, tattooed, street-thug glory; “Guns For Hire” reminds why it’s among the highlights of the band’s largely barren 80s oeuvre; “Dirty Deeds” mixes clips from throughout the band’s history into a performance from the tour that produced 1991’s Live; and in the middle of the “Highway To Hell” promo clip, the mugging, doomed Scott sums it all up by actually winking right into the camera.
In the final assessment, the word “rarities” feels like a euphemism through much of Backtracks; what these are, is leftovers. Like dinner leftovers, some of them taste great reheated, while some of them were really just taking up space in the fridge. Still, the best material here is undeniably tasty.
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