BACK IN BLACK
Released on July 25, 1980 (Albert Productions / Atlantic Records)
Review by Sam Burgh:
When someone thinks of the most prolific hard rock bands of all time, odds are that AC/DC would be ranked pretty high up there. With their iconic riffs and legendary songs, they are sometimes regarded as THE rock ‘n roll band. After the death of Bon Scott in 1980, the band, now fronted by Brian Johnson, released one of the most iconic rock albums of all time — Back In Black. Johnson’s debut as lead vocalist, along with band members Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, proved to be the start of a new era for AC/DC
Back In Black begins with the chime of “Hells Bells.” As the instruments kick in to high gear and we get the first sound of Johnson’s voice, we know that AC/DC is as powerful as ever. The eerie riff throughout the song along with a simple drum beat carry us in to an Angus Young guitar solo, which never disappoints. Some say this song was written from the point of view of the Grim Reaper or Satan. Some say it was dedicated to Bon Scott. Either way, this classic rock staple is a great opener to an amazing album.
“Shoot to Thrill”, yet another hit, is the next track. Even though the song isn’t very deep lyrically, it is performed in typical AC/DC fashion complete with fiery rhythm guitar and explosive solos. The best part of this song is the breakdown in the middle with the buildup by Phil Rudd on the toms, which booms into a dynamite ending of an excellent song. “What Do You Do for Money Honey” is the third song on the album, which is a bluesy song about gold diggers. Though it is not one of the top tier AC/DC songs when it comes to popularity, the chorus is definitely one of the catchiest ones they conjured up. Definitely underrated, but in an album like Back In Black, it is used for a good filler track.
“Givin’ the Dog a Bone” is a not-so-subtle song about… well, you can figure it out. This track has another catchy chorus, this time with call-in-response. It also features another typical Angus solo, which are always welcomed. The thing about AC/DC is that they make a lot of their songs sound the same. That being said, they still somehow find a way to make each song feel different. It’s hard to pin point how they exactly do that, because most bands fail at it, but that is what makes AC/DC so successful. They stick to a formula, but keep it fresh as they go along. “Let Me Put My Love into You” is another great sounding bluesy song. The lyrics are typical of AC/DC subject material, which is banging. This time, however, it gives off a little more creepy vibe than usual. This track is one I would skip after my first listen since it is kind of underwhelming, but it definitely fits in on the album and flows right.
Now for the one we have all been waiting for. After eight swats of the hi-hat, “Back In Black” opens with possibly the most recognized riff of all time. I am pretty sure every baby comes out of the womb already knowing this song. This is THE rock anthem. You cannot go to a football game, party, or wedding without hearing this song. I do not care how overrated people think this song is, I dare each and every one of you to listen to this and not nod your head. It’s impossible. This track goes to show how simple a song can be, and AC/DC will still knock it out of the park.
Following “Back In Black”, we get yet another staple of the classic rock world, “You Shook Me All Night Long.” As shocking as this may be, Brian is singing another song about getting it on. The guitar intro alone is instantly recognizable, along with a simple 4/4 time drum beat. I would dare to say this chorus is probably AC/DC’s most notable, or at least tied with “Highway To Hell” or maybe “Dirty Deeds.” Angus delivers a satisfying solo, and as quickly as the song started, the drums build up and the song ends. “Have A Drink On Me” is said to be a tribute to the late Bon Scott and his wild lifestyle. This track has a nice melody to it that helps the song chug right along. It is a pretty straight forward and typical AC/DC song with all the signature components, but surprisingly, it’s not a song about sex. Way to keep us on our toes, boys.
The next track, “Shake A Leg”, is probably the most forgettable song on the album, which is unfortunate. This is still a formulaic AC/DC song, but the riff is definitely something that is out of the band’s norm. It reminds me of a hard rock version of a ‘60s surfing riff. In addition to that, the solo is in-your-face and very satisfying to listen to. “Shake A Leg” is definitely an underrated AC/DC song and it is probably one of my favorites on Back In Black. Finishing off the album is “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, which begins with another blues-inspired guitar intro. The lyrics are simple; it is basically a song that champions rock ‘n roll over every other genre. The message here is that AC/DC and rock music are not going anywhere. They definitely stuck to that.
Back in Black is AC/DC’s best album, which is what brought them back from the tragic death of Bon Scott. If you know someone who wants to get into classic rock music, all you have to do is hand them this disk and tell them to give it a listen. It perfectly encapsulates rock, and that is exactly why AC/DC is arguably the essential rock ‘n roll band.
Review by John Stoney Cannon:
Four bells. Four unmistakable bells that ushered in the slow building return from what many thought was the final resting place at the end of the Highway To Hell for one of rock most loved bands. A straightforward start as uncomplicated as the record it arrived on, AC/DC‘s 1980 rise from the ashes rock and roll album, Back In Black. But just as no one could have predicted that the momentum created on the previous year’s Highway To Hell release would come to a screeching stop courtesy of the February 1980 death of frontman Bon Scott, no one in their right mind would have ever even suggested that in five months time, AC/DC would release one of hard rock’s all-time greatest albums. Just the idea that in that short span, a band could even recover emotionally to get started is unfathomable but to not only write and record a ten song classic all while working in new vocalist Brian Johnson? Well that’s just un-freakin’ believable. Even so, it happened. Yeah, oh boy, did it happen.
Most of 1979 for me was spent doing typical American teenage guy stuff only my version of American life involved hanging out in a small US Army family housing area looking for mischief with fellow Army brat pals in between boring fare like school and the super coolness of seeking out and blasting the latest rock and roll records. Yeah, the Army Post Exchange had some OK records but the German mall was like this mecca of rock and roll wonder with just walls and walls of album covers staring back at me. Over time, I’d get sucked in by the early art of bands like Iron Maiden and more but in 1979, my mind was completely blown by killer album covers from Judas Priest and the still hard to keep my eyes off of Highway To Hell by AC/DC. So intense was my hypnotical attraction to albums by both bands that my Dad made a deal with me. If I could artistically recreate albums by both like I had drawn pictures of the members themselves, he would pay me with tickets to go see them live on their tour, which was making a stop close by that December.
To this day I can still vividly remember leaning over the front rail at what essentially was a 3,000 capacity sports venue as AC/DC tore through songs from their previous albums including Highway To Hell. I was so enamored by the sheer rock and roll power of the moment that I floated on air for days while my evenings were spent staring at the front cover of Highway To Hell in the bleak shine of the light of my stereo with the sounds continually pounding on this desire to relive it all over again and again and again… And then, about three months later, numbness set in when an older kid in the housing area told me of Bon Scott‘s passing. I was totally floored. After all here was this great, simple to the point rock and roll band that I had over the past year or so just become attached to and suddenly in my heart, and in the eyes of most, it was over. It was devastating and hard to understand but yeah, what happened after that was beyond imaginable but in many ways, awe-inspiring.
Now in 1979, it wasn’t like you could just push a button and like now get the latest news in the world minutes or even hours after it happens. Heck, if someone wanted to keep anything a secret until the last possible second, well, it really didn’t take much effort if anything, the hard work was actually getting your message out to people. So when a few months later, I found myself staring at the blackness of AC/DC‘s follow up to Highway To Hell as it sat ominously across a display outside of the record store in the Main-Taunus Zentrum German mall, I literally could not feel my legs. Stopping in her tracks, my mother looked back curiously asking if I was OK and all I could do was point at the sight before my eyes. Within moments she was standing next to me swapping glances between myself and the display not exactly sure what was going on. Funny, a friend later said “I’m surprised she didn’t ask if you were high or somethin’” but no, what happened was way better than drugs – Mom walked inside the record store and when she returned, handed me a brand spanking new fresh off the stand copy of AC/DC‘s Back In Black.
What happened next though wasn’t quite as funny. I had to impatiently wait hours holding my new record as Mom conducted her usual slow, methodical shopping tasks. “Oh why me dear Lord, oh why me?” Needless to say, I finally got home, ran in and tore the plastic off, then Mom interrupted me to set the table. Then I ran back in and put the vinyl on the turntable, then Mom told me to get a shower before dinner, then ran soaking wet into my room only to be called to dinner… Yeah, so you just gotta know that by the time those four bells found my ears, I was already pretty much a wreck. At the time, I was ready to explode waiting to get my headphones on and every bit of wait was pure torture and at the time certainly wasn’t funny but looking back now, yeah, I can see why my friends thought it was funny as shit when I told them the next day. But as much as that drove me nuts, few things in my life were more worth the wait than finally getting to hear Back In Black for the first time.
Now there were a ton of cool records for a 13 year old dude to get rocked by in 1980. I was still fully into stuff from the previous year including my all-time fave records from AC/DC (Highway To Hell), Scorpions (Lovedrive), and Rainbow (Down To Earth) and the first half of 1980 was downright killer as far as hard rock record releases was concerned. But as much cool stuff as there was, nothing was more across the board played in my neighborhood and school that year than Back In Black. I mean the soundtrack heading into the summer of ’80 was pretty phenomenal and loaded with tons of incredible tunes but everywhere you went, those bells were there. That count into the title track, the opening guitars of “You Shook Me All Night Long”, all there.
I couldn’t walk out of my apartment building without a kid from the neighborhood blasting “Given The Dog A Bone” on their boombox, or walk past the U.S. Kaserne and not hear a tune like “Have A Drink On Me” blaring out of one of the company barracks windows. Heck, half the songs pumping us up at concerts that summer before the bands started were from Highway To Hell or Back In Black. To this day, if I attend a hard rock concert and the title track from AC/DC‘s 1980 gift to metal doesn’t come up close to the concert starting, I almost feel cheated! That alone speaks to the impact of Back In Black on hard rock history. So massive was that album that over a year and a half later, when I first turned on 96 Rock after moving to Atlanta, Georgia, one of the first songs I heard was “You Shook Me All Night Long” and by the end of the day, those rockin’ airwaves also showed the band love with not only several songs from Back In Black, but older tracks like “TNT”, and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” Earlier I had seen the band go on before Whitesnake in Germany and now, they were one of the biggest bands on the planet!
Over the years, I’ve been privy to multiple discussions regarding the attraction people have to the simple, bare knuckled, blues based hard rock music of AC/DC. Well not being the authority, I can only give my view and that insight comes from an American military dependent sharing a bus with other American kids to and from school while occasionally indulging in whatever cassettes someone happened to be playing on the trip that day. Back then it was everything from Nugent, Van Halen, Skynyrd, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, and Rush, to of course AC/DC and each time, the result was the same, The diverse cultural student body on board found themselves powerless to the beat and power of AC/DC.
My pal Michael, who’s music of choice leaned more towards the Gap Band, Kool And The Gang, and the Brothers Johnson, would shout “play that AC/DC groove!” the second one of us rockers walked on to the bus carrying a boombox. Years later, he would share with me how the drums could catch a person’s “rhythmic attention while the low end of the bass and rhythm guitar kidnapped the soul.” Add in the nearly poetic flow of the lyrics and lead guitar tailor made for song over shred and you have the most stripped down formula to appeal to the average human being’s senses. Yeah I know, some of you are going “bullocks man! It’s just f’n rock and roll” and OK, so you’re right and chances are, AC/DC didn’t plan it this way but think about it, they aren’t just the perfect rock band, when the Rolling Stones do a simple thump beat and stop and go guitars with flowing vocals, it sticks. Tom Petty, same thing. Nothing complicated just keep it from going over the average Joe‘s head rock and roll that no one does it better than AC/DC but even so, the songs still gotta be cool and on Back In Black there’s not a bad one in the bunch.
Now chances are I don’t have to tell anyone hanging out at Sleaze Roxx about this album. Even if you don’t dig Back In Black, you know it and you know it pretty well. If anything, you know “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Back In Black” as they are spiritually pretty much two of the biggest tunes in the hard rock hymnal. The title track is nearly as legendary after all, those bells toll the start of the final farewell to the legendary Bon Scott who they lost merely months before the release of Back In Black. But for some of us rock and rollers, this is part of a youthful soundtrack so deep that it may as well be branded or tattooed on our souls.
As kids we debated the opening lyrics of “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” until we deciphered its intended uplifting message and anchored it as a battle cry for everything from standing up for our music to stepping up to the plate in conquering any and all of life’s obstacles. Tunes like “Shoot To Thrill” and “Have A Drink On Me” only made us dance harder in our efforts to sneak in those little vices we deemed necessary to be part of the gang. Aaah, those early bad attempts to impress the pals while believing in this silly notion that a beer and some bad language would put us right in line to earn the right to sing along to songs like “Let Me Put My Love Into You” or “Givin the Dog a Bone.” Looking back, I think the only thing we earned was getting laughed at by the opposite sex but even so, all ten songs were kick ass and worth listening to whether anyone was watching or not.
Starting with the foreboding vibe of “Hells Bells”, AC/DC usher in the post Bon Scott-era in a way that in sound bridges the bad boy boogie blues of ’70s AC/DC to where the band would take off to from the ’80s going forward. Partly a step forward from Highway To Hell, it shows a band moving from misadventure to methodical hard rock machine. From the beginning, the Young brothers have carried a strong worth ethic into trying to make AC/DC successful and come by it naturally, they’re not the first from the family to earn a dent in music history. Proof of that attention to hard working detail is in their quick response to Scott‘s death and it wouldn’t be surprising if that lit an additional bit of fire under their collective butts, from 1980 on, AC/DC have remained one of the hardest working bands in music. Kind of like the James Brown of heavy metal with Back In Black being their Live At The Apollo – a timeless classic nearly impossible to top. With “Hells Bells”, Malcolm and the gang merely announce loudly that they ain’t dead yet, then they get REAL serious.
If any song on Back In Black could have rocked with Bon at the helm, it’s “Shoot To Thrill”, a pounding rocker loaded with classic AC/DC riffage and snarly vocals. But as much as this might have played well as a Bon tune, it actually stands as Brian Johnson‘s takeover moment especially when he lets that high wail loose just before the solo. Yeah, Bon would have done it in his own raw way but not with as much power. Where “Hells Bells” was the band’s way of saying farewell to their fallen singer, “Shoot To Thrill” is them saying, “It’s OK, check THIS fucker out!” From there the badass songs just keep coming as side one rolls on with the power chord blasts of “What Do You Do for Money Honey” complete with full on Johnson scream from start to finish followed by the slightly more uptempo romp of barroom sing-a-long “Givin the Dog A Bone”, and finally my favorite song on the record, sexy slow bass groover “Let Me Put My Love Into You.” The energy drop into the verse followed by the pick up through the pre-chorus and infectious chorus is in my opinion, one of the best AC/DC moments ever committed to tape. Not just my favorite Back In Black track, but one that lands in my top ten of AC/DC tunes — shoot, maybe even my top five. With so many great songs over the years, it’s tough to eek out a top ten as far as AC/DC are concerned but definitely my tops from this one and man, this is only half way through the album.
I kind of found it funny years ago when I learned that some folks think that side two, with its one-two kick-off punch of “Back In Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long”, is actually the opening side of Back In Black but in some ways, I’m not surprised. From start to finish, side two is filled with more songs that casual fans know. Once you get past those first two classics that everyone including distant cousins know, you then have the slithering groove of anthem “Have A Drink on Me.” Few times in rock history has there been a simpler yet more effective chorus. “C’mon and have a good time!” Well hell’s bells, if you aren’t having a good time this far in, then maybe, just maybe you’re dead?
It would take a few thousand fingers to count the bands that would kill to have at least a couple of great classic songs on their album and to have a handful would almost be worth selling your soul to just about anyone but eight? That’s downright impossible right? But wait, on Back In Black, once AC/DC was done giving a toast, they were ready to “Shake A Leg” and did so with classic stomp and go fashion building up to a steady roll steered by Angus‘ cool riffs and Johnson‘s belting vocals. Think Chuck Berry on a keg of Guinness and attached to a bare electrical wire. The solo is classic Angus and the whole frenzy makes for a perfect rave up to get things ready for closer “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” As if you don’t already love the first nine tracks, now Brian and the boys are gonna tell you that what you have in your ears might be raw and dirty, but it ain’t pollution. And to me, that “makes good, good sense.” Ironic now that Johnson asks “Are you deaf, you wanna hear some more?” and years later, we all wonder if rock and roll was really going to survive while the band circled the globe with Axl Rose in tow. Here’s to hopin’ Johnson gives us a miracle in 2021 with new music and tour but anyway, yes, Back In Black could end up having even more meaning, hmmm.
When I decided to look back at this classic record, I did so for personal reasons more than anything because let’s be honest, you guys know this one. You know the songs, the story, the history and the impact it had on rock and roll and the world at the time. Like myself, this album impacted many of you reading this deeply. For some, this was music for bonding, building, growing, experiencing, and 40 years on, it sounds just as incredible. Come to think of it, I’ve can never recall a time when this one DIDN’T sound incredible. It truly sounds just as fresh and kick ass today as it did in 1980 and like great songs, everyone is a time machine to moments fondly remembered. Yeah, there were first beers, for some first smokes, first kisses, first… Well you know, heck for some of you, Back In Black was your first AC/DC and that doesn’t make you any less than anyone who was already fully vested for a few years come 1980. Feels just the same when you hear ’em when they come on classic rock radio, if you toss on the vinyl, or over the massive PA in the sweaty confines of a venue waiting for that first band to hit the stage and slam into those first notes. And that rock and roll my friends, ain’t noise pollution so before we go, cheers to a great album and to the guys, Angus, Brian, Phil, Cliff, and the very missed Malcolm… Please have a drink on me.
Review by Olivier:
Although there were already two reviews ready to go from Sam and Stoney (see above) for AC/DC‘s monumental album Back In Black, I couldn’t resist adding my two cents in on the record that is anywhere from the second to fifth highest selling album of all-time. According to Wikipedia, in terms of certified copies sold, Back In Black is fourth with 29.4 million only behind Michael Jackson‘s Thriller, The Eagles‘ Their Greatest Hits (1971 – 1975) and Shania Twain‘s Come On Over. In regard to claimed sales, Back In Black is tied for second with 50 million with Meat Loaf‘s Bat Out of Hell and only behind Michael Jackson‘s Thriller. In other words, AC/DC‘s Back In Black is the biggest selling hard rock / heavy metal album of all-time.
Aside from the fact that AC/DC released one of the greatest albums of all-time with Back In Black, what is fascinating to me about the record is that it was the seventh studio album from the Aussie rockers and their first without iconic frontman Bon Scott. Certainly, AC/DC were not “one hit wonders” achieving fame and fortune with their debut album. This is band that had to work at it before hitting the (really) big time. I wasn’t listening to music back in 1980 but I have to think that there was a lot of pressure on AC/DC to follow up Highway To Hell (1979) and forge ahead with new lead vocalist Brian Johnson. Judging from the album’s sales, one has to think that even though Bon Scott may have been dearly missed and has never been forgotten, there were many more people getting introduced to AC/DC for the first time with Back In Black and wondering Bon Scott who?
For many, the name Robert John “Mutt” Lange might be synonymous with Def Leppard and having guided the young UK rockers from their second album to their groundbreaking fourth album Hysteria but Lange was also the producer for not one, but two of the all-time best selling albums of all-time with his now ex-wife Shania Twain‘s 1997 breakthrough album Come On Over in 1997 and you guessed it, AC/DC‘s Back In Black. While Lange doesn’t seem to get the same type of credit for Back In Black as he does for Hysteria, there is no doubt that AC/DC‘s first studio album with Brian Johnson sounded really good sonically and still to this day, is one of the most powerful albums that you can crank on a stereo. Sure, the quality of the songs is certainly there but Lange‘s production work deserves ample credit as well.
Speaking of the tracks on Back In Black, there are so many classics on this album that it’s not even funny. After all, when an album sells about 50 million copies, odds are that it has some songs that can be universally recognized as simply amazing tracks. Take for example Michael Jackson‘s Thriller. Even if you don’t like the King of Pop, there’s no denying that songs such as “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller” are fantastic and groundbreaking tracks. The same thing applies for Back In Black. Is there a better album opener than “Hells Bells”? From the moment you hear those four bells to the time that the song reaches its end, the track builds and builds, and is among one of the most recognizable songs in the world. How many concerts have you been to where “Hells Bells” is played and it seems that the entire audience is singing along to every lyric? Just about every song on Back In Black could be considered a classic in itself from the rocking “Shoot To Thrill” to the easy sing along chorus of “What Do you Do For Money Honey” to the gnarly “Givin’ The Dog A Bone.” The two gems of course are the simple but anthemic “You Shook Me All Night Long” and the very recognizable riff based title track, which have been in AC/DC‘s setlist ever since Back In Black came out.
The only song that really took me a while to semi-appreciate was the bluesy and slow paced “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” At first, I would just skip this song but these days, I can appreciate it for what it is. That being said, even one of the greatest and best selling albums of all-time can have a bit of a clunker and in Back In Black‘s case, that clunker is “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” If the track hadn’t been on Back In Black, odds are that it would be one of the forgotten and “dud” songs from the band but because it’s on this album, which has been the rock n’ roll soundtrack to millions of people, it probably gets way more love than it deserves.
One question that we will never know is what would the songs on Back In Black have sounded like if the gruffier sounding Bon Scott would have handled the lead vocals. Considering that the songs on Back in Black were penned by the Young brothers and Brian Johnson, it could well be that the group would have never been able to come up such great songs with Bon Scott at the helm. Whatever the case, Johnson was the right man at the right time for the band and there’s no question that AC/DC went the next level and beyond with their new singer in the line-up. Perhaps the coolest thing about Back In Black is that it has some of the heaviest and most furious songs that AC/DC have ever penned showing that you really don’t need to sell out, soften and/or commercialize your songs to hit the big time. You simply need some great songs, and Back In Black is quite simply one of the best albums of all-time filled with mostly great tracks that still really rock 40 years after its release.
01. Hells Bells
02. Shoot to Thrill
03. What Do You Do for Money Honey
04. Givin’ The Dog A Bone
05. Let Me Put My Love Into You
06. Back In Black
07. You Shook Me All Night Long
08. Have A Drink On Me
09. Shake A Leg
10. Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution
Brian Johnson – lead vocals
Angus Young – lead guitar
Malcolm Young – rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Cliff Williams – bass guitar, backing vocals
Phil Rudd – drums
Produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange
Mixed by Brad Samuelsohn
Reviewed by Sam Burgh, John Stoney Cannon and Olivier for Sleaze Roxx, July 2020
AC/DC‘s “Back In Black” video:
AC/DC‘s “You Shook Me All Night Long” video: