Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)

There are a lot of amazing things about this total definition of heavy metal as we know it, but one of the most amazing things about this album is that it was released only five months after Bon Scott died. And no, he didn’t die when the album was in the can, only to have it released by greedy record execs looking to make a buck. I mean the band actually had the balls, momentum, and determination to hire Brian Johnson to take the front slot, and then record one of the best heavy metal albums ever. In five fucking months. Most bands these days take five months to buy the outfits they wear on the pictures in the liner notes. It just took me five months to move a one-bedroom
apartment full of stuff across town. These guys laid town probably the most solid guitar-oriented 41:31 to be recorded ever in the same amount of time.

These ten tracks follow pretty close to the formula of the band’s previous release, Highway to Hell, with a mix of bluesy guitar played through sweet feedback and crunchy power chords, and a minimalist rhythm section, supporting the powerful wailing of the lead vocals. What’s different about this album is that the tracks are all a bit closer in consistency, while HtH had a few outstanding hits (“Highway to Hell,” “Girls Got Rhythm”), with tracks that dragged on a bit (“If You Want Blood”) and those that were simply lethargic (pretty much everything else.) I don’t know if the band had a lot of better ideas going into the studio, or if there was some kind of meeting, or if they observed this stuff after years of playing live, but this was the one album where they really got their shit together.

Let’s face it: you don’t listen to AC/DC because you want a history lesson, or because you want to see how many scales Angus Young can play in three seconds. AC/DC is a party band; they’re a lifestyle band. They drink Jack Daniel’s like you drink water, they close down bars every night, they have women in every port of the world, and just the sound of any one note on this album will instantly conjure the image of rough bars, rougher men, and even rougher women. And anywhere you go in America, or Australia, or anywhere else in the world, and you see someone in an AC/DC shirt working on their car, you know that guy is cool. You know when someone puts one of these tracks into a jukebox, it’s time to order another pitcher a beer and say “hell, yeah.” AC/DC is an instant summary of a whole unsummarizable lifestyle, and this album is the apex of that functionality. Every song here was written as a testament, in the same sense that the bible was written as a testament to God. It’s a work that spreads its message to all who are willing to receive it.

The album starts with the slow and sinister “Hells Bells,” a first-person tale of the guy who brings in the dead. I don’t know whether or not this was some conceptual thought having to do with Bon Scott’s death, or whether it’s just a cool way to draw people into a good album, but the song keeps slow and steady. It’s our first chance to hear Johnson’s pipes in action, and he’s got some volume and clear tone, although he shares that same bluesy, bottle-of-Jack-a-day tone that his predecessor had. On “Shoot to Thrill,” the band slowly brings it up a notch, to a nice idle-speed rumble, with Brian hitting some higher notes, and singing the infamous “too many women/ and too many pills,” as the song clicks along. It’s showing AC/DC in its normal state, like a Mercedes engine that always jumps to life on the first turn of the key and then smoothly chugs at 650 RPMs all day long. Part of the charm of the band is that over the years, they’ve written hundreds of songs, but most of them are the same song. It’s got the same drum beat, the same solos in the same places, and even more amazingly, they’re all good. The consistency of the band is its truly lovable quality, and a lot of the base for their future success is on the style and structure of the songs on this album.

There are a couple more songs that are similar yet still thoroughly enjoyable, like “What Do You Do For Money Honey,” “Givin the Dog a Bone,” and “Shake a Leg.” In the ultimate tribute to Bon Scott and his alcohol-related death, they wrote “Have a Drink on Me,” the ultimate drinking song. It’s also interesting, because it goes into a final repeat verse that’s faster and more powerful, showing the band can seriously hit the nitrous and add some boost to their power-chord formula when they need to get it to eleven at the end of a tune.

The title cut is also a big testament that the band’s still alive and here to stay. It’s a classic rock anthem, strutting through the music and screaming out the lyrics, with some absolutely classic soloing in between. They also got a lot of mileage out of the song “You Shook Me All Night Long”, which is forever associated with this album and used in commercials and movie trailers to this day. And the last song, “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is a great salute to all of us who listen to loud stereos, starting with a slow guitar riff and continuing at a mid-speed march. It’s like a power ballad, except the lyrics aren’t syrupy, and it’s about more than just some anonymous woman, it’s about rock and roll itself.

There’s only one minor flaw with the album, being the slow-paced “Let Me Put My Love Into You.” It’s not a horrible song, but it breaks up the pace of the album. Without it, the other nine songs fit together perfectly. If you listen to it out of context and by itself, it’s got a decent melody during the verse, but the chorus is a little goofy. Aside from that, the album is pretty much flawless. It’s a big step above their earlier bluesy work, and everything after this point is just imitating the classic. This album is a must-have, and when I rent a car and I have to stop at a K-Mart or a Wal-Mart to pick up a handful of CDs for the trip because I didn’t pack music, this is always the first thing I buy.

Rating: 9.5