Back in Black – AC/DC

Back in Black

AC/DC

1980

Atlantic Records

 In early 1980 (February 19th, to be exact), the intense singer of hard rockers AC/DC, Bon Scott, passed out in his car after a night of heavy drinking.  He was found deceased, choked on his own vomit, and also had alcohol poisoning.  The rest of the band, after considering breaking up, instead insisted that to continue without Scott, believing that this would be what he would’ve wanted.  Of course, the band found Brian Johnson, still with the band today (like you needed me to tell you any of that?).  How Angus and Malcolm Young wound up with two of the most unique voices in classic rock is beyond me (when I was younger, I initially thought the two singers to be the same person – imagine my confusion when looking at the liner notes).

Of course, the album that was quickly recorded in the wake of Scott’s untimely demise is the classic Back in Black (quick note, the album cover is black to signify that the band was in mourning).  This album provides some of the band’s biggest hits (the title track, “Hell’s Bells,” You Shook Me All Night Long”).  And yet, despite it’s inclusion into the rock and roll canon, the songs never grow old.  Actually, that could be the reason that the album is canonized. 

The album opens with ominous ringing bells – “Hell’s Bells” has begun.  After a few of the bells, an awesome guitar riff plays over them.  AC/DC, despite losing their singer, uses this to show that they still rock – even harder than before (and probably ever since then too, but that’s more of my opinion than anything else).  It doesn’t matter that this is a mid-tempo song.  It kicks ass, no matter what.  The drums, refined at first, provide a steady beat, just being awesome.  After the extended intro, the audience is introduced to Johnson as he sings some of the most brilliantly Hellish lyrics ever (“White lightning’s flashing across the sky, you’re only young but you’re gonna die”).  Can you imagine what it would be like if this had happened now?  One of the most popular rock groups loses their singer and brings a new one on board.  Today, we have leaked albums available for anyone to hear months before the album officially comes out – no one would even care about the switch of the singers.

The album continues with another great riff in the form of “Shoot to Thrill.”  In fact, Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar is just as hard as his brother’s lead.  The intro even captures a great drum fill by Phil Rudd.  As the band comes into the bridge, Johnson sounds extremely excited when he sings “I’m gonna pull it, pull it, pull the trigger!”  The band’s execution here is flawless, providing a sense of hesitation before the chorus.  The chorus has a great lyric of excess: “Too many women, too many pills.”  Right before the guitar solo, the band brings the excitement to a new high.  Johnson screams “Pull the trigger!” and a syncopated riff is played, then the great instrumental break.  Again, the rhythm guitar is just as cool as the lead, which doesn’t sound difficult at all, but has so much feeling placed into it.  The ending of the song is also brilliant, bring the pace down low.  Great arrangement.

The third track is the derisive “What Do You Do for Money Honey.”  The intro again shows the band’s affection for hard chords in the form of riffs (which one will notice on every AC/DC album ever – the thing with AC/DC is when you buy one of their albums, you already know what to expect.  Which could be a great thing or a bad thing depending on how you view it).  With the vocals, Johnson’s words drip with malice, “You’re always pushin’, shovin’, satisfied with nothin’, you bitch, you must be gettin’ old.”  The music provides a short, seemless buildup to the chorus, again an old AC/DC trick.  The one thing I don’t particularly like about the song is the background vocals.  They sound detached, bringing an impression of separateness from the music.  With everything else so in-your-face, they don’t fit perfectly in.  But they’re not bad.  At all.

“Given the Dog a Bone” has one the best riffs, which just flows perfectly.  The intro is surprisingly quick, with an awesome buildup.  The entire song features great, pulsating bass lines from Cliff Williams.  Being that this isn’t one of their more famous songs, it is actually one of their best, definitely one of my favorites.  And actually, the answering backup vocals in this song are done well, even though they don’t sound too different from those in the last.  The guitar solo, again not very difficult, is bombastic.  Following the minor pentatonic scale, like most, if not all, of Angus’ solos, he hits the mood perfectly.  This is particularly true at the end of the solo, with scratching fret sounds and feedback when the rest of the music pauses.

“Let Me Put My Love Into You” is a slower (keyword: slower.  Not slow) bluesy song.  Normally, I grow bored with bluesy songs (I have to be in the mood to listen to anything blues, but I particularly like blues with harder tendencies (as shown here), such as Zeppelin, SRV, or even Robben Ford), but AC/DC provides enough bite to keep it genuinely interesting.  Best part of the song:  the interspersed guitar licks between Johnson’s vocals during the bridge, “Don’t you struggle” – winding guitar lick – “Don’t you fight” – answering guitar riff.

The next two songs are two of the most famous songs ever, definitely two that are in the collective conscious of everyone, ever.  “Back in Black” is the first of the two, with one of the most recognized guitar riffs of all time.  Everyone HAS to know this song, and if they don’t, that person should be executed or sent to an insane asylum.  The riff speaks amounts of refinement.  It doesn’t overboard the listener with noise and sound.  Instead it even provides for pauses – even the drums get in on following the walking lines.  The song is amazing, even if the chorus is nothing more than the repetitive “‘Cause I’m bad, yes, I’m bad, Well, I’m ba-a-a-a-ad.”  The guitar solo is especially lyrical, exchanging high notes with low notes, and just flows.  And there’s a breakdown section!  (Well, maybe not a breakdown, per se, but still…) The song is just awesome, no doubt.

Next is “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which is one of the most overplayed songs on classic rock radio, and actually, even normal radio (Quick note to prove my point: I’ve heard this song on modern rock radio stations and even at school dances.).  Again, this is a very important cultural song, as everyone has to have heard it.  I won’t say it’s the weakest song on the album, as there is no song that could be described as weak on Back in Black.  However, I will say this is the least bad-ass song here, being a love song.  It is an AC/DC love song though, and does have the lyrics, “She told me to come, but I was already there,” “Now I’m back in the ring,” and “She kept her motor clean.”  This last line could be the strangest idea of love I’ve ever heard.  It’s a very popular song for a reason, and that reason is that it is quite great.

Track eight, “Have a Drink on Me” brings the album back to its ass-kicking mode.  Again, another AC/DC intro complete with lead guitar lines, a powerful buildup, and awesome drums (in fact, the drums are my favorite part of the opening).  The song is one of the best about drinking ever, and the line “Forget about the tip, we’ll get Hell to pay” deserves an honorary award of being Fuckin’ Awesome.  The guitar solo is amazing, but, actually sounds countryish when you listen closely.  That’s alright, as it’s so hard, no one will ever care where the inspiration is from.

“Shake a Leg,” the penultimate track, tricks the audience.  It starts slowly, almost bluesy, and Johnson even echoes himself (“Of the law, of the law”).  However, a stop / start arrangement comes in, then with a huge, grandiose, drum fill the riff kicks in turning the song into an all-out rocker.  It’s an awesome song, but after the intro it’s pretty straightforward AC/DC.

Lastly is “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.”  Which is kind of an excessive taunt to disco, I believe.  Which is fine, being excessive is what ROCK AND ROLL IS ABOUT, MOTHERFUCKER. Ahem, sorry about that.  Got carried away with how awesome rock and roll is.  Commanding a certain respect is the tone of the song, though.  It doesn’t go all-out, fast-tempo, hard-rock.  Instead it takes a step back, beginning with a slow bluesy riff, with very little distortion.  We hear Johnson exhale in a sigh, a nice touch as we’ve come this far, and this is the first time the album rests a little bit.  The drums snap, and you know a more powerful part is coming soon with that, and the feedback from the guitar.  Of course, the lyrics could be cliché, but the band is so intent on the message that it doesn’t come across like that at all.  It’s a powerful message, and could’ve been the song that killed disco, had not “My Sharona” come out the year before.  Still, it’s a great ending to a great album.

So, after the death of Bon Scott, AC/DC had the decision to make of whether to quit or continue.  It must have been a tough decision, for if they continued on, they would’ve needed to prove themselves.  Back in Black is just that, showing that they can be heavier, more massive, and more popular than before.  Johnson had to have been extremely anxious, for these guys were AC/DC.  But Back in Black has stood since 1980, and is of course, one of the greatest rock albums.  There is not one bad song on the album, and is essential to anyone who listens to music.

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