Review Summary: Highway to Hell feels like a demonstration of how an artist can take on more commercial elements without sacrificing their core identity.
By the end of the seventies, AC/DC’s break into the mainstream likely seemed inevitable. The band already had knacks for catchy songs and blowing everybody they opened for offstage, and Powerage showed potential for greater ambitions beneath their snotty veneer. Producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange was brought on after a couple false starts and seemed to understand how to redirect their strengths. Back in Black may have proved to be a much bigger juggernaut but such a feat would’ve been impossible without Highway to Hell.
While the production job is the cleanest that the band had ever had thus far, their musicianship retains enough power to keep from feeling too sanitized. The guitars are a long way from their early filth but have a bright thickness that plays well with the boosted rhythm section. The vocals see the most changes as Bon’s singing has a slight echo and the backing vocals are much more tuneful than the grizzled alleycat yowls of before. The verses subsequently come with even more charisma and the layers make for some of their most explosive choruses to date.
An emphasis on trimmed lengths and snappy structures ensures even tighter songwriting. There’s no better demonstration for this than the title track’s iconic first-year guitar student approved main riff, easygoing beat, an infectious chorus, and life-affirming guitar solo. “Girls Got Rhythm” follows it up with a steady drive, the amusing storytelling on “Shot Down in Flames” almost throws back to the High Voltage days, and “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” is a hearty call to arms with an appropriately violent chorus.
There are also a couple tracks that benefit from the greater polish. “Touch Too Much” features a funky rhythm, glossy textures, smoothly flowing verses, and the album’s catchiest hooks. “Love Hungry Man” applies a similar bass-heavy bass to a sinister undercurrent that gets fully exposed on the closing “Night Prowler.” The latter track is unlike anything else the band had done before with its shuffle sustaining a surprisingly dark atmosphere, twisted solos, and genuinely menacing vocals that feel like a far cry from Bon’a usual tongue in cheek tough guy talk. It’s a little funny how the ad-libbed Mork and Mindy quote accidentally makes it feel a little creepier…
Highway to Hell feels like a demonstration of how an artist can take on more commercial elements without sacrificing their core identity. Granted a band like AC/DC is pretty hard to dumb down when their sound is already defined by simple riffs and straightforward structures, but the cleaner production never undermines their energy or boisterous personality. I may prefer Powerage when it comes to the Bon Scott era but this is a very close second. Had they disbanded in light of the tragedy to come, it would’ve been one hell of a swan song.