I recently told a friend I’d be fine never hearing “You Shook Me All Night Long” again. He whole-heartedly agreed. Yet, here we are 40 years after its release, and millions still drop their knickers for this mega-hit from AC/DC’s Back in Black. Granted, it’s mostly drunk girls who continue to request it during last call at sports bars across America. Obviously, that shouldn’t be the barometer for great music. Neither should the fact that it’s played 24 times a day on every rock station. Still, there’s no denying the impact this album has had on the world since it first shook us on July 25, 1980.
“Hells Bells” remains the most upbeat tribute to a fallen singer ever. Aside from the initial tolling of the bell, it never produces a mournful vibe. I mean, hell, it’s regularly played at football games (which baffles me). I don’t know about you, but the line, “You’re only young but you’re gonna die” wouldn’t motivate me to score touchdowns. Most people don’t realize it’s about the death of their first singer, Bon Scott. In a way, it shows the power of AC/DC to keep plowing forward. Nothing can derail their train, and that message came across loud and proud on Back in Black.
The four lads honored their mate the best way possible: with a big fat wall of sound. Drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams locked down a groove tighter than Bon’s blue jeans. The band also pulled off the most successful replacement in rock history with the high-energy, raspy-voiced Brian Johnson. He delivered a slightly different sound and attitude, but his playfulness and dedication to the spirit of rock n’ roll fit well with AC/DC’s tried and true approach. He only recently stopped singing with them because he was going deaf and doctors told him to chill, or he’d never hear again. Johnson is a lifer all the way.
Brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young, didn’t exactly pull new tricks out of their hats, but that’s not what they’re about. They stick to their guns, and they do it better than anyone. The back-to-back six-string attack of “What Do You Do for Money Honey” and “Given the Dog a Bone” always knocks me on my ass. They’re the closest to old-school AC/DC. I can picture a shirtless, sweaty Bon belting them out on stage, sandwiched between classics like “Dog Eat Dog” and “Up to My Neck in You.” I get winded just thinking about it. “Shake a Leg” also falls into this category, but the lyrics are cheesier. If I’m told to “shake a leg” one more time, I’m going to grab someone’s fake leg and beat Johnson over the head with it. Thanks for turning my brain into mush with that nasty lead though, Angus. I hear you.
When I heard “Let Me Put My Love into You” as a wee little guy, I thought Johnson said, “Let me cut your cape with my knife” (instead of “cake”). Therefore, I thought he was talking about comic books. I excitedly asked my old man, “Is this song about superheroes falling in love?” “No, son, it’s about . . . yes. Yes, it is.” he replied. Since then, I’ve always thought AC/DC had superpowers. It explained why Angus Young, even in his 60s, could headbang for two hours straight without breaking his neck. Imagine my elation when “Shoot to Thrill” made its explosive big-screen appearance in Iron Man 2. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me want to shake a leg. Dammit, they did it to me again!
I wonder how many people bought a guitar because of the song “Back in Black.” I wonder how many of those were Gibson SGs with the devil horns. Radio (and film) also bludgeoned me over the head with this track, but I’d be a fool to say it doesn’t still bust my nuts. That opening riff, after Rudd carefully counts in the band, will always hit HARD. When those kids on my lawn say, “It’s a banger,” I’m certain this is what they mean. Angus’ solo slaps like a mother and stands as one of his most memorable.
“Have a Drink on Me” is the reigning titleholder of Greatest Bar Song Ever. However, I’ll never understand the line, “Get stoned!” that’s shouted midway through. That’s not how drinking works, Brian.
“Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is the ultimate song about rock and roll. Yes, they’ve written 20, but this is the best. It’s a giant middle finger to anyone who disagrees. Truthfully, I’ve listened to it 800 times and have no clue what Johnson says at the start of the first verse, and I’m fine not knowing. I’ll just continue to laugh every time because it reminds me of Jim Breuer’s impression of him.
Now that Mr. Johnson has a fancy new hearing aid, it would be bloody gnarly if they tour for this anniversary. It has to be him on vocals. It makes “good, good sense” for Stevie Young to step in for Malcolm (rest his soul). But I’m not okay with Axl Rose performing the album from front to back.
Back in Black has sold over 50 million copies and it’s not even AC/DC’s best album (if you’re wondering, that honor goes to Let There Be Rock). Think about how crazy that is. It says a lot about what people gravitate toward, but it also says something about the timelessness of a great hard rock album. As Brian Johnson screamed so eloquently 40 years ago, “It’s never gonna die, never gonna die!”
Listen to AC/DC's Back In Black here.