There are few tasks more seemingly insurmountable for a band than replacing a popular or iconic lead singer. The Doors tried to move on without Jim Morrison and failed miserably. Can you imagine the Stones without Mick? Led Zeppelin has been stymied for almost 40 years by Robert Plant’s refusal to consistently reunite for performances. Van Halen tried in the mid-80s, with very mixed and divided results. Many bands, in the late stage of their careers, have found sound-alikes (i.e. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Journey or Stone Temple Pilots, among others) as they somehow try to continue to make music, and more importantly, money. It just is not an easy thing to do. No matter how much a critical part of a band any instrumental musician is, their role is somehow slightly more replaceable, especially to the uneducated ear, than replacing a singer. When Bon Scott tragically died shortly after the release of “Highway to Hell”, AC/DC’s most successful and best album to date, one had to wonder how they could possibly move on, and in doing so, at what level of success?
Of course, history now tells us they conquered the lead vocalist replacement like no other act I can think of in rock music history. And not only did they move forward with a home run album, they doubled down big-time on the sex, darkness, and rock-and-roll theme, especially the double-entendres, that shaped the legendary album “Back in Black”, with new singer Brian Johnson. This timeless album is rated #84 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. On my own hypothetical list, despite a rough patch I will discuss later, this album would rate much higher. Unprecedented in its success as a rock album, it is the second highest selling album of any genre, in musical history.
Brian Johnson’s voice defies all practical thinking with regard to protecting your voice and caring for it as an instrument. I’m sure the approach and technique are much more sophisticated than they appear, but on the surface, it seems like he screams (in perfect pitch) through every song, album, and nightly concert performance without breaking down. In fact, the only thing that has really slowed him down was his own hearing loss, which isn’t inconceivable either after 40 years of fronting this band.
One other comment I will make before we hit the track list, is the expanded depth of sound that producer Robert “Mutt” Lange found for this and subsequent AC/DC records. Although he also produced “Highway to Hell”, there is just a deeper and more robust wallop with each Malcolm Young power chord on this record, and he and the band deliver a remarkable sound.
As I noted, the band was still emerging from the grief and loss of Bon Scott, but instead of softening their approach in anyway, we hear the dark and ominous bells that open the album, with a slow build erupting into “Hells Bells”. I can only imagine what it felt like as a fan, to put this record on for the first time, not sure what to expect, and being assaulted by the power and intensity of this song. Take the fury and vocal blast from Johnson and combine it with the Young brothers, and you have an amazing comeback (and debut) underway. The pace is escalated on the next track, with the frenzied rocker “Shoot to Thrill”, another phenomenal track.
As much as I love this album, and it is an all-time favorite, I could completely do without the next three songs. Don’t get me wrong, any Young riff sounds good musically, especially the last song on side one, it is a great groove. Where I struggle here is that even for me, and I consider myself a pretty open and tolerant individual, the double-entendres of the next three songs are just a bit too blunt and lowest common denominator for me. After the brilliance of the first two songs, I definitely consider the collective sum of “What Do You Do for Money Honey”, “Givin the Dog a Bone”, and “Let Me Put My Love Into You” as just a few steps too far down the lack of subtlety road. I’m sure there are passionate AC/DC fans who will disagree with me, but I’d gladly cut this album to the remaining seven songs and walk away with a complete classic. OK… enough on that, there is too much good music left to celebrate.
As if the opening of side one wasn’t enough of a hammer, the title track that opens side two has to be one of the single greatest and most legendary rock songs ever created. This song, in my mind at least, is perfect in every way. The rhythmic opening, the assault of Malcolm’s power chord riff, Angus Young’s lead guitar to include a solo that blends and destroys in tandem with his brother, the thundering rhythm section, and of course Brian Johnson’s incomprehensible vocal performance all make this song truly unforgettable. It is on a very short list of songs that no matter how many times I hear it, and of course that total is easily into the thousands, I love it equally with no fatigue or waning interest.
They follow up one masterpiece with another, with their most popular and famous song to the broader fanbase, “You Shook Me All Night Long”. Like the last song, it is perfectly unforgettable, and while certainly clear in its message, it is just a half-notch more subtle in its approach, along with being an unmatched rock song that could double as a pop favorite. Without question, the best of this album is the best this band delivered, which is saying something given their deep catalog of classics with Bon Scott.
Side two loses no momentum all the way through. “Have A Drink on Me” builds off a bluesy intro into another outstanding song, and “Shake A Leg” is even better and more electric, including an Angus solo that makes you shake your head. This song and solo were always a favorite of my friend John back in high school, and to this day I can easily picture his oversized blonde mane of hair in a frenzy as he danced and air-guitared around the room every time he played this song.
A great album usually has a uniquely great closing track, and “Back in Black” is no exception. AC/DC is not here to back down from anyone, and just in case you are doubting that, listen to “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”. I mean, who can argue with that statement, especially when it is this good. Another uniquely written riff, drummer Phil Rudd really drives the rhythm home on this song, in concert with Malcolm Young and bass player Cliff Williams. Brian Johnson’s voice has the perfect blend of venom and sass, and not to be outdone, Angus Young perfectly leads the top-end with a solo that blends seamlessly into the core of the song.
There is a reason why pretty much every rock music fan across the world owned this album at some point in their life. The band’s delivery of this record, particularly in light of the circumstances they encountered, is a real tribute to the enduring greatness of this once under-appreciated act, and it stands today as an album with few, if any, comparable peers.