Forty years ago today, the legendary AC/DC album Back in Black was released – and there was a lot riding on it. For one thing, it was the band’s first album with new vocalist Brian Johnson, who had replaced Bon Scott after his untimely death just a few months previously. Doom merchants predicted that the band would never recover from this seemingly mortal blow, but the self-effacing Geordie proved to be an inspired choice. Back in Black was a triumph, the starting point for much that was to come in hard rock and heavy metal.
Often typecast as smutty schoolboys, but often lyrically brilliant, AC/DC haven’t tinkered too much with their winning formula before or since Back in Black. Masterminded by the group’s beating heart, Malcolm Young, and anchored by Scott and Johnson’s yelping vocals, AC/DC’s huge rhythm section allowed Angus Young full rein to bludgeon listeners with his finger-shredding solos, resulting in raw, primal, testosterone-fuelled rock’n’roll that found its true metier in a live setting. But everything is done with panache, humour and a love of their art, and as Alice Cooper has said, if they were any more sophisticated, they would lose their edge. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Back in Black, this is my pick of AC/DC’s greatest songs.
10) “Hells Bells” – Back in Black, 1980
A 2000lb bell tolls for Bon Scott as “Hells Bells” opens the most important album of AC/DC’s career, and it’s a full minute and a half until the Brian Johnson shriek is heard for the first time on an AC/DC record. Unfazed by one of Angus Young’s greatest riffs, Johnson immediately sets out a marker (“I’m comin’ on like a hurricane”), and any doubts that he couldn’t cut it are dispelled long before the song's epic conclusion.
9) “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” – T.N.T., 1975
Many acts have chronicled the indignities they have endured traversing the rocky path of the music business – but this is the only example I can think of which boasts the uplifting skirl of bagpipes. And this nod to the AC/DC’s Scottish roots meshes brilliantly with the Young brothers’ twin guitars on a minor hit single that was many UK fans' first introduction to the band.
8) “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” – For Those About to Rock, 1981
“For Those About to Rock” literally adds cannons to the band’s arsenal, but it’s no gimmick. This thunderous rocker was a deliberate and highly successful attempt to write a live showstopper. It long ago earned final encore status and the title has become a catch-all for the entire hard rock genre.
7) “You Shook Me All Night Long” – Back in Black, 1980
Brian Johnson, having effortlessly passed the audition as the band’s new vocalist in his own inimitable manner (he couldn’t be found at the appointed time as he was downstairs playing pool with the roadies), was tasked by the Young brothers to come up with some lyrics for their impending album. So he wrote “You Shook Me All Night Long”, destined to become the quintessential AC/DC stadium anthem and as sexually brazen as anything that Bon Scott himself had penned.
6) “Ride On” – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, 1976
This magnificent slow blues song is reminiscent of early Free, mellow by AC/DC’s ear-bleeding standards, and as close to a ballad as they ever came. “Ride On” finds Bon Scott reflecting on the loneliness of his alcohol-soaked, rock’n’roll lifestyle on a soul-bearing, grimly perceptive deep cut, full of regret for a life not always well lived.
5) “Thunderstruck” – The Razor’s Edge, 1990
The glories of Back in Black notwithstanding, the Eighties wasn’t the best of decades for AC/DC, but they opened the Nineties with a new intent. “Thunderstruck”, based on an incident when a plane with Angus Young onboard was caught in a thunderstorm, turned the clock back with consummate ease, with Angus’s omnipotent arpeggios, the thumping groove and the football terrace chant proving irresistible.
4) “Whole Lotta Rosie” – Let There Be Rock, 1977
As unrepentantly non-PC as they come, Bon Scott’s ode to a plus-sized groupie with whom he had a one-night stand remains high on the list of AC/DC fans’ favourites. Like so many AC/DC songs, it was composed with one eye on making it a live staple and, accordingly, the Glasgow Apollo version from 1978’s If You Want Blood You’ve Got It is even better than the original.
3) “Let There Be Rock” – Let There Be Rock, 1977
Never afraid to challenge sacred cows and demonstrating that their lyrics could be so much more than sexual innuendo, Bon Scott adapted the story of the Creation for the boys’ very own take on how the holy spirit of rock’n’roll came about. “Let there be drums/ Let there be guitar/ Let there be rock,” rasps Scott. Amen to that.
2) “Highway to Hell” – Highway to Hell, 1979
Bon Scott’s last album proved to be AC/DC’s international breakthrough with Mutt Lange’s production smoothing out many of the rough edges of earlier records. The group’s raw, primal power remained, however, and the album brimmed with monstrous riffs. The legendary title track remains the definitive life on the road anthem, with its opening riff one of the most recognisable and greatest in rock history.
1) “Back in Black” – Back in Black, 1980
The title track of the band’s greatest album is both a fitting tribute to Bon Scott (“Forget the hearse ‘cause I never die”) and a resounding statement of intent. An iconic opening riff and a wonderfully unhurried groove drive “Back in Black” and it’s the song on which Brian Johnson, who penned the emotional lyrics, really takes possession of the torch that once belonged to Bon Scott.
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