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Back in Black

AC/DC started the Metal 80s with tragedy and triumph. Tragedy in February of 1980, with the shocking loss of their lead singer, Bon Scott, at the far-too-young age of 33, and then triumph in July of the same year, with the release of their legendary “Back in Black” album.

Almost directly after Bon Scott’s death, the band got the blessing of his family to continue on with new singer Brian Johnson. There was very little material written for the follow-up to their 1979 hit, “Highway to Hell,” but in just a few months, they got ten new songs completed. “Back in Black” – – so-named because they were mourning their friend and bandmate – – was recorded over 7 weeks in the beautiful Bahamas, with emerging producer god, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, at the board.

The near-mythic lore around the record is well-known and well-documented. You know all of these anecdotes. I don’t want to go over the background stuff again. This isn’t “VH1;” I’m not writing a goddamn report for a 12th-grade blow-off class. I want to talk about what it felt like in the 80s – – and what it’s like today – – to experience this loud, coarse, crass, brash, fiery, mischievous, angry, flirty, dirty, blistering, leering, playful, rough-and-tumble, absolute masterpiece, within the context of its times, and within AC/DC’s discography.

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I discovered AC/DC in a different idyllic location: a Catskills mountain resort in upstate New York. Being 11 years old, I wasn’t old enough to truly enjoy the natural beauty of the mountains or the woods or the girls who worked there, so I spent most of my time in the onsite bowling alley, dropping quarters in Galaxian, Ghosts n’ Goblins, Pac-Man, pinball machines, and the jukebox, the latter of which which included the “Back in Black” single. None of the other 45s in the machine mattered after hearing that. My world was changed. The song became an obsession, and soon after returning to suburban New Jersey civilization, I had the full-length “Back in Black” cassette in hand. I’d started by rewinding to the start of side 2 for the title track, but I eventually explored the full album, in all of its glory.

Some albums have come and gone from my life, but “Back in Black” has been steadfast with me for nearly four decades. It’s never gonna die, never gonna die.

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It starts with a bell.

Lots of Heavy Metal songs have utilized bells over the years, but none has even been as powerful as the one that opens side 1, song 1: “Hell’s Bells.” The ominous, funereal, deeply resonant gong chimes its own rhythm throughout the entire intro. When the guitar arpeggios open up, they follow a completely different timing. I can’t process the complaints that the song is too slow and plodding. Its tempo is a little slower and more somber than most AC/DC songs, sure, but it moves with purpose. It’s got groove and power and a low-key energy; there’s never a dull moment.

“Hells Bells” alternates between darkness and flashes of lightning, but it just revels in its evil. “If good’s on the left, then I’m stickin’ to the right.”

And we’re only just getting started.

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I’m going to borrow and paraphrase an observation from Sean Kelly’s fantastic “Don’t Call it Hair Metal” book.* “Back in Black” is a loud, hard rocking, building block Metal album, but AC/DC don’t achieve this heaviness through overdriven Marshalls, down-tuned overlaid instruments, chugging palm-muted riffs, or booming vocal growls. There are as many strummed standard chords in their riffs as there are power chords. It’s all the band’s performance, baby – – plus Mutt Lange’s deceptively powerful, straightforward, world-making production. Phil Rudd, Malcolm Young, and Cliff Williams are the perfect Rock n’ Roll rhythm section. These aren’t the fancy chefs in the five-star kitchen serving the sophisticated cuisine from their culinary institutes, these are the greasy spoon line cooks consistently grilling up the tastiest burgers and fries you’ve ever had.

AC/DC are the most blue-collar band to ever ascend the long way to the top. With Bon Scott’s good looks and larger-than-life personality gone, they’d lost their only bona fide Rock Star. It was now just five regular guys, the ones you’d see down at the other end of the bar at Happy Hour after work.

OK, granted – – Angus Young brings some rock n’ roll madness with his schoolboy uniform, his wild nonstop headbanging and dancing, and of course, that sneer, displayed prominently on the “Highway to Hell” album cover, but I don’t know. . . He still conveys “one of the lads,” under all of that. And let’s talk about the things he does with that horned Gibson SG. Angus is possibly the most underappreciated guitar player in all of Rock and Metal (maybe because people can’t get past his persona?). All throughout AC/DC’s discography, and especially on “BiB,” his playing is soulful, bluesy, powerful, and precise, in and out of the lead solos. His left hand works the strings with a vicious ferocity, every bit as punishing as the right. It sure doesn’t hurt that his brother, Malcolm, is delivering such high voltage playing on the rhythm side, equaling him in passion and intensity.

And what about the “new guy?” Brian Johnson was at the peak of his incredible talent in 1980, and he delivered some of the most amazing vocal parts ever recorded on “Back in Black.” When naysayers groused that our beloved music was “all just screaming and yelling,” they were probably thinking of AC/DC. He does perform the majority of his lines in a scream – – no doubt – – but there’s also a ton of nuance, personality, and a metric ton of talent to what he does. And it’s not just a-tonal screeching; that guy in the flat cap is singing in perfect gravelly pitch at octaves most mortals wouldn’t dare. Go ahead and try to do “Back in Black” at your next office karaoke night. You’ll be cleaning out your desk on Monday.

A few more stray observations: 

-It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.**

-Nobody in music history was ever better at song intros than AC/DC. Not the Beatles, not Neil Diamond, not KISS, not Def Leppard, not Beethoven – – no one. They have you hooked in the opening seconds. “Highway to Hell,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You),” “Danger,” “Playing with Girls,” “Flick of the Switch,” “Guns for Hire,” the list goes on and on. . .

The songs on “Back in Black” just cement this fact. The title track, “Hells Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “Back in Black,” “Have a Drink on Me,” “Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.”

-AC/DC always felt like they belonged exclusively to us in the denim n’ t-shirt Metal world. They were just too loud, too rude, and too odd to ever gain mainstream acceptance. Yet, here in the 21st Century, “Back in Black” is platinum x25,*** making it the 4th best selling album in History.**** Celine Dion performed a “You Shook Me All Night Long” cover at some Divas event. . . Megacorporation Walmart cut an exclusive distribution deal on their 2008 “Black Ice” album. . . AC/DC songs have become ubiquitous in pop culture – – go to any pro or semi-pro sporting event, and you’re going to hear songs on the PA. . . Somewhere along the way, without ever compromising the integrity of their sound or themselves, AC/DC became mainstream darlings.

This is all the more amazing for all of the “cancel culture” flags all over the lyrics, including violence, misogyny, cursewords, overt sexuality, female objectification, drunkenness, and Satan. I’m sure this album had Tipper Gore plenty hot and bothered. But you never get the sense of any malicious intent, just playfulness. I think every listener everywhere gets that. I’d never defend any ill treatment of women, but you get the sense that the guys in AC/DC wouldn’t either. I think Brian Johnson explains it perfectly on a later record: “I was just raising hell, I wasn’t doing no harm.”

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“Back in Black” isn’t AC/DC’s only masterpiece album, but it’s their highest achievement, as a band. It’s an absolutely remarkable piece of work that delivers exactly what it promises, and is worthy of the accolades heaped on it by history, in and out of the Heavy Metal community. This is a Hall of Fame-worthy album, if ever there was one. It ain’t no riddle, man. To me, it just makes good, good sense.

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