Back In Black (Epic/Legacy)
by Brian Varney
The first batch in a three-part reissue series of 16 AC/DC albums (part two comes out in March, part three in May), these five come housed in attractive digipaks and include booklets packed with pictures and liner notes, with more information to be had if you insert (huh huh) the CD in your CD-ROM drive and go to the band’s website. No bonus tracks, unfortunately (I was hoping for some of the tracks from the original Aussie versions of the LPs that were omitted from the American releases), but I guess you can’t have everything. And besides, I’d be a right bugger to complain when there is so much finery on these discs.
There is no logic that I can see behind which discs were chosen to be part of this first release, but since it includes the band’s first American LP, High Voltage, we can start there. Though I didn’t know which album the songs came from when I’d hear them on the radio as a tot, songs like “Live Wire,” “T.N.T.,” and “It’s a Long Way to the Top” made a huge impression on my junior high psyche. This was music listened to by the kids with long hair and denim jackets, the kids who used to beat me up for no good reason other than the fact that I was nearby and not big enough to fight back. Hearing this stuff, though, I began to realize that maybe those kids weren’t as stupid as I thought.
However, the more I began to explore metal, my guide being the names written on the jean jackets and notebooks of the afore-mentioned kids, I didn’t really understand what a lot of those kids saw in this stuff. Despite my relative musical ignorance at the time, this stuff just sounded like plain old rock and roll to me, not at all like the tuneless banshee wailing of the other so-called metal stuff those kids listened to (either hair metal or thrash, depending on how big and tough the kid in question was).
What I was trying to verbalize then is something that will get me in all kinds of trouble with my editor now, which is that, contrary to their long-haired, lager-lout image, the boys in AC/DC had a lot more in common with the concept of punk rock (if not necessarily the music that was made under that general heading) than with heavy metal. This is, after all, pure, undiluted rock and roll, stripped of the excess and pomposity of mid-’70s rock and taken down to the barest, most basic elements: Three chords, a bad attitude, and a hard-on. And if you need a more direct connection than that, dig the background chant of “oi! oi!” on “T.N.T.”
Enough of that, though. My aim here is to unite, not to divide. Similarities aside, AC/DC were not punks and did not want to be viewed as such. They were, rather, rock ‘n’ roll in its purist essence, and that’s exactly what they’ve remained for these nearly two decades. They’ve never changed their sound, they’ve never done a love ballad, they’ve never done anything but play rock and fucking roll. When they decide to slow down, it’s a slow blues like “Ride On” or “Night Prowler,” which they do as well as the fast rock stuff.
That said, there’s not much variety from album to album. The four studio efforts represented here are among their finest. The first three, High Voltage, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and Highway to Hell, feature original lead vocalist Bon Scott (yeah, yeah, I know, they did a single with another singer before him, but I’ve never heard it and neither have you, so Bon’s the original vocalist, ‘kay?). Most hardcore fans prefer the Bon albums to those of his successor, Brian Johnson, and I’m one of them. Johnson’s a fine singer, and the fourth studio effort here, Back in Black, his first album as vocalist, is among the band’s finest (and certainly their most popular), but the Brian Johnson albums lack Bon’s unmistakable personality, his sly wit, his undefinable star power. Songs about sex are the band’s bread and butter, and Bon’s vocals exude just the right amount of sleaze. Johnson, on the other hand, comes across as almost lecherous on “Let Me Put My Love Into You.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about these albums?” you ask. Buy ’em all, I say. The only one in this batch that isn’t great is Live, but it’s far from bad. Originally released in 1992, Brian’s voice is clearly shot as his once-powerful scream is reduced at times to an almost painful gurgle. However, the band still rocks as powerfully as ever, and the setlist is nicely chosen. It’s available in a single and double CD version, so take your pick.
The three Bon albums are all great, but the finest of the three and, in my opinion, the finest in their entire catalog is Highway to Hell. One of hard rock’s very few perfect albums, Highway has ten songs and not a single ounce of fat. Besides the well-known classics, the title track and “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It),” there are perennial fan faves like “Walk All Over You,” “Girls Got Rhythm,” and baseball-bat-to-the-head evil slow blues of closer “Night Prowler.” Sounds great too, thanks to Mutt Lange’s ace production and the fine remastering job. If you’re going to only own one AC/DC album, this is the one. It was also, unfortunately, the band’s last album with Scott, who died a true rockstar’s death by choking on his own vomit while in a drunken stupor in the back of someone’s car.
The follow up, Back in Black, the band’s first with quickly-drafted replacement vocalist Brian Johnson, is by far the band’s most popular album, with total sales somewhere near 19 million copies. Most of this popularity is due to the eternal dancefloor groove of “You Shook Me All Night Long,” but there’s more than enough classic AC/DC rock ‘n’ roll here to satisfy the bloodthirsty in the band’s audience. Opener “Hells Bells,” with its ominous tolling-bell intro, is among the band’s finest brain-bashers, and deeper cuts like “Shoot to Thrill,” “Shake a Leg,” and “Have a Drink on Me” (whose lyrical wit adds fuel to the fire that, despite the printed songwriting credits, Scott had a hand in writing a few of these songs before his passing) rock hard enough to silence those who feel that Bon’s loss dealt the band a fatal blow.
There are, of course, other must-own items in the band’s catalogue, but until those have been reissued, busy yourself with these beauties. They look and sound great, and you truly cannot consider yourself a rocker unless you have a sizable AC/DC section in your collection. Live, as I said, can be taken or left, but there’s really no excuse for not having the four studio efforts.