Like most people, I owned AC/DC’s Back in Black on vinyl back in the day. Then, at some point, I decided that AC/DC was not cool and sold it. I’m here today to tell you that I made a terrible mistake. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I found a copy of the CD laying around at my dad’s place, and I made a duplicate for my own use, in clear violation of all the relevant laws and statutes. I’ve been listening to it and let me just say: Back in Black, like, rules.
I am embarrassed with myself for saying that. But there’s something about listening to AC/DC that sharply reduces your IQ in a most enjoyable way, like nitrous oxide or a frontal lobotomy. Over the years they perfected a formula that bypasses all the higher brain functions and speaks directly to the reptile brain, awakening the slumbering Sleestak that lurks deep within us all. (Or at least those of us with a Y chromosome. I can’t speak for the species’ better half.)
Generally speaking, I’m more a proponent of the Bon Scott years — “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll)” may be the greatest rock song ever recorded — but there’s simply no denying the Brontosaurean power of this album. It kicks off with the grinding intro to “Hell’s Bells,” a riff of gothic majesty worthy of the Sisters of Mercy. (Right now I am imagining a parallel universe in which Sisters frontman Andrew Eldritch was tapped to replace Mr. Scott when he drank himself into an early grave; but never mind.)
Then, of course, Brian Johnson starts singing. I’ve always found Johnson’s voice problematic. On the one hand, it is so unlike a human singing voice that it almost becomes another instrument, adding some interesting textures to the music. On the other hand, it often falls into the Diamanda Galas/Jon Anderson category of “Sure, it’s amazing that you can sing like that, but why would you want to?”
Johnson’s lyrics are also a problem. It’s hard to defend something like “Givin’ the Dog a Bone,” which is so crude it can only be called single entendre. Bon Scott’s lyrics were equally sexist and vulgar (“Big Balls,” anyone?), but he had an impish quality that made it all work somehow. Johnson sounds like he really means this stuff, and sometimes the results are cringeworthy. Then again, he did add the phrase “Knockin’ me out with those American thighs” to the lexicon, so I have to give him some amount of credit.
In any case, what makes Back in Black such an enduring pillar of Rawk is the music. AC/DC’s precision-jackhammer attack* — with Angus and Malcolm Young on lead and rhythm guitar, ably assisted by underrated rhythm section Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams — is operating at peak efficiency here, stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another. You can’t argue with a song like the title track, or the mighty “Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” There’s just no point. Resistance is useless.
But the real revelation this time around was “You Shook Me All Night Long.” In the 80s I got really sick of this song because I heard it blasting out of one too many pickup trucks owned by one too many unpleasant people. But taken on its own terms, this is a towering piece of rock’n’roll sculpture. It’s so high you can’t get over it, so wide you can’t get around it, and as heavy as an elephant that just quit smoking.
I find that in writing about AC/DC, one finds oneself constantly returning to adjectives such as “powerful” and “heavy.” Partly, again, it’s the brain damage, but also the band’s powerful heaviosity renders all other adjectives unnecessary. When my time comes, I want to listen to an AC/DC mix starting with “Highway to Hell,” including “Noise Pollution,” “You Shook Me,” “Girl’s Got Rhythm,” and a few others, and concluding with the one-two punch of “It’s a Long Way to the Top” and “High Voltage.” Then I want you to throw that fuckin’ radio into the tub with me.
* Sports writers are a kind of rude and brainless sub-culture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize & sell whatever the sports editor sends them out to cover. . . Which is a nice way to make a living, because it keeps a man busy and requires no thought at all. The two keys to success as a sports writer are: (1) A blind willingness to believe anything you’re told by the coaches, flaks, hustlers, and other “official spokesman” for the team-owners who provide the free booze . . . and: (2) A Roget’s Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph. Even a sports editor, for instance, might notice something wrong with a lead that said, “The precision-jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Washington Redskins today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stomps around both ends…
—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72)