Review Summary: Are ya deaf, ya wanna hear some more?!
February 19 1980. AC/DC's legendary lead singer Bon Scott chokes to death in the back of his car following a typical all-night drinking spree in London.
The challenge faced in replacing a band member is always problematic. Replacing a lead singer is hardest of all, because a singer embodies the band's attitude, image and music, and few singers have personified their band's music like Bon did.
Angus and Malcolm Young, guitarists and founders of AC/DC, faced a huge task in replacing Bon. It would've been easier to call it a day, but the notoriously dogmatic brothers were not going to back down from a fight.
They were never going to try to find a copy of Bon, because it was too hard and would've been the end of their image. They opted for a man with a husky, gritty voice who wouldn't try to completely fill the void, but partially fill it so that Angus, whose stage act was to act convey a possessed, frenzied imp, could expand his role further.
That man was Brian Johnson. His onstage persona was simple: he wore a flat workman's cap and blue jeans, put punch and rasp into every word and shuffled around with arthritic grace. He was genuinely the perfect choice.
And so they made Back In Black: half a tribute to Bon, half a defiant slam back into the business.
Back In Black opens with a lone, eerie church bell, clanging slowly and murkily. After five tolls, Angus stalks in, carrying his slow, menacing Grim Reaper riff. The drums enter, one at a time and slow, like the footsteps in a horror film.
This is ‘Hells Bells’-AC/DC’s best song with one of the greatest rock intros ever.
The explosive lyrics, Brian says, came to him on a stormy night, and he just didn’t stop or think about him: just wrote them was if he was possessed. He implies that it was Bon, beyond the grave, leaving his legacy to paper by writing some of the best damn lyrics AC/DC would make.
It wouldn’t be an AC/DC album without some risqué, unsubtle, single entendre songs, and ‘Givin’ The Dog A Bone’ takes out the title of dirtiest song on Back In Black, followed by the blatantly self-explanatory ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You.’ Both have some delicious riffs, the later in particular with a sinister intro.
‘Shoot To Thrill’, the second song on the album, has its lyrics drowned by some astonishingly precise work by the Youngs. This is the best example of their immaculately locked, in time guitar work: each responds to the work of each other without missing a beat.
The title track is one of AC/DC’s most well known songs. My defining memory of it is turning it up as loud as I could, then scurrying for cover as Phil Rudd counted off, sounding like the final few seconds of a bomb timer. The iconic riff then exploded out. It is strutting and bad; it is everything that people love about AC/DC: that small, wicked part in everyone that appreciates straight-up, no fuss rock.
‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, one of five songs ‘Back In Black’ that became radio staples, is about as close as AC/DC ever came to a love song, which is another example of their astonishing ability to doggedly stick to their own style for thirty years, ignoring trends, and remaining successful. It’s a magnificent anthem live, with Angus’s famous, phrased solo and the chant of the chorus ringing out loud and long.
The tough bar room ditties ‘Shake A Leg’ and ‘Have A Drink On Me’ are followed by the sneering anthem to AC/DC’s critics, and the critics of all hard music, ‘Rock n Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,’ with the hazy hangover riff and the thudding chorus, the fifth radio hit off the album.
Back In Black is, at the least, one of the most remarkable albums of all time. To recover from the blow that they suffered and deliver their most powerhouse album was an astonishing effort. In doing so, they produce the blueprint for hard rock artists for decades to come: keep it simple and then crank it up.