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Hard-rock for blue collar head-bangers, Antipodean combo AC/DC have been at the core of the global metal music scene since they broke through in the late 70s. Initially headed by the legendary larynx juggler Bon Scott (who superseded original singer Dave Evans) until his untimely alcohol-related death in early 1980, the quintet just might’ve called it quits, but for the inspired substitution of similarly shout-y GEORDIE veteran, Brian Johnson. Yes, the group (centred on the schoolboy chic of lead axeman Angus Young) were indeed “Back In Black”.
Formed in Sydney, Australia late 1973, by Scottish ex-pat brothers Malcolm Young (rhythm guitar) and his talented younger brother Angus, they were initially joined by the aforementioned Evans, plus rhythm boys Bob Bailey and Peter Clack for their debut 45, `Can I Sit Next To You’. Produced by older brother George Young and his former EASYBEATS colleague Harry Vanda, it was clear their line-up and sound could do with a bit of polish. The siblings headed for Melbourne where they recruited another Caledonian exile, the aforementioned wild man and subsequent AC/DC roadie Bon Scott, who’d cut his teeth with Aussie outfits The Valentines (in the mid 60s) and Fraternity (in the early 70s). Stabilizing the fresh new line-up with Mark Evans (bass) and Phil Rudd (drums), the band continued to impress a growing army of followers ready and willing to buy up their first two home-grown LPs, HIGH VOLTAGE (1975) {*7} and T.N.T. (1976) {*8}. Their brand of competent tongue-in-cheek boogie-rock established their name on their own domestic scene and generated enough interest for Atlantic (Atco in the US) to come sniffing with cheque book in hand. With major label muscle behind them, AC/DC relocated to London just as punk was rearing its snotty, vomit-encrusted head; their particular brand of no-frills rock and Angus’s school uniform stage gear, the band were initially loosely affiliated to the scene. But with Angus’s bowel-quaking riffs and Bon Scott’s high-pitched bellow (somewhat akin to another cool Scotsman ALEX HARVEY), their eventual status as one of the archetypal heavy metal acts was almost inevitable from the off.
Atlantic/Atco Records introduced the band to UK/US shores with a compilation drawn from the group’s first two Australian releases, confusingly titled HIGH VOLTAGE (1976) {*9}. Defined by opening signature tune (of-sorts), `It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll)’, the title track, the aforesaid early single `T.N.T.’, plus the double-entendre `She’s Got Balls’ and `The Jack’, Messrs Scott, Young & Young (the main songwriters) were dissipating their disorder to anyone willing to catch it.
Not content to unveil just older material, AC/DC’s next album proper was also delivered in 1976. DIRTY DEEDS DONE DIRT CHEAP {*7} embraced Bon’s fermenting malevolence and bawdy rock’n’roll lyrics to the extreme (`Big Balls’ and `Love At First Feel’ primeval examples), although a few parental guidance assurances might’ve been in order; check it out for the title track, `Problem Child’, `Rocker’ and `Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Round To Be A Millionaire)’.
While its follow-up LET THERE BE ROCK (1977) {*8} gave the band their first taste of chart action in Britain, AC/DC were first and foremost a live band. The bare-legged cheek of Angus was eminently entertaining, his body contorting and jerking like a clockwork toy on speed (NEIL YOUNG’s more frenetic noodling bear a striking similarity, long lost brothers perhaps?!). From `Let There Be Rock’ and `Bad Boy Boogie’ to `Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be’ and their classic paean to the larger woman, `Whole Lotta Rosie’, this was grimy, nasty and brutal – all the hallmarks of good old heavy metal.
Notable as Vanda & Young’s last work-out with the band, POWERAGE (1978) {*6} continued the quintet’s surge to the top; Mark Evans was replaced by Englishman Cliff Williams. Leaving out Top 30 hit `Rock’n’Roll Damnation’ on the UK copies was downright mystifying, and taking the slightly better American version, tracks such as `Riff Raff’, `Sin City’, `Down Payment Blues’ and `Up To My Neck In You’ were worthy of return visits.
After a corking live album, IF YOU WANT BLOOD YOU’VE GOT IT (1979) {*8} (featuring raw and bluesy performances by Bon, Angus and Co), the band hit pay-dirt with HIGHWAY TO HELL (1979) {*9}, their first time in the UK Top 10 and US Top 20. Despite a more commercial sheen courtesy of producer “Mutt” Lange, the likes of `Touch Too Much’ and the title track were unforgettable AC/DC moments, utilising the band’s trademark steamrolling rhythm section and their inimitable way with a testosterone-saturated chorus. As ever, the group’s lyrics were, for the most part, positively Neolithic, although their reliably unreconstructed, feminist-baiting songs were never without humour, something of a novelty in the metal scene of that era. `Shot Down In Flames’, `Girls Got Rhythm’ and `If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)’ were typical bone-crunching, blood ’n’ guts AC/DC anthems, but there was tragedy about to unfold.
Being Scottish/Australian, and a rock star to boot, Bon Scott wasn’t exactly a lager-shandy man, the “uisge beath” (“water of life”, or whisky to Sassenach readers) taking away his life after he finally drank himself into an early grave on 19th February 1980. Aged only 33, but looking as if he’d more than his fair share of partying, the Kirriemuir-born rock star had paid the ultimate price of fame and life in the fast lane.
Yet incredibly, by July 1980, AC/DC were back with a No.1 album, BACK IN BLACK {*9}, a record that saw the band break even bigger in America, where it reached the Top 5. Ex-GEORDIE singer Brian Johnson had been recruited on vocal duties and his gravel-y yelp carried on where the great BON SCOTT had left off. The likes of `Hells Bells’, the title track, `Rock’n’Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ and the irrepressible `You Shook Me All Night Long’ were staples of rock discos (remember them?) up and down the land as the band became a top drawer draw in the age of stadium/arena rock, headlining the legendary Castle Donington Festival in its heyday.
Yet from here on in, AC/DC lost their spark somewhat. FOR THOSE ABOUT TO ROCK WE SALUTE YOU (1981) {*5} was a pale imitation of its predecessor, and although topped the American charts (Top 3 in Britain), the lyrical attention to detail from Johnson was lost somewhere in translation. But for the title track, the KISS-like riffs of `Let’s Get It Up’ (both UK Top 20 hits), this was AC/DC-by-numbers. FLICK OF THE SWITCH (1983) {*4} – their last with Rudd who was superseded by Simon Wright – and FLY ON THE WALL (1985) {*4} were stock-in-trade AC/DC, although titles such as `Sink The Pink’ always had pride of place on an AC/DC album.
Once upon a time, AC/DC issued the kind of raging delinquent manifestos which comically recast Hell as the best party in town and the Devil as one of the boys. By the mid-80s, their albums had become the equivalent of a quick fag round the back of the bike shed. Perhaps to remind us of just how sharp their horns had once been, horror writer Stephen King enlisted them for the soundtrack to his directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive. Rather than commissioning an album’s worth of new music, he wisely compiled a proxy greatest hits set with a handful of new tracks as a sweetener. WHO MADE WHO (1986) {*6} was an interesting hotchpotch of new and old. For those still in short trousers themselves in 1980, or not even born, the likes of `Hells Bells’ and the truly seismic `You Shook Me All Night Long’ were history lessons in the lost art of cod-demonic boogie rock. In these strange days of extreme metal and Norwegian church-burning, a band like AC/DC were a throwback to a more innocent time when most fans were savvy enough to take lyrics with a pinch of salt and a few slugs of tequila. The soundtrack-only numbers comprise a couple of decent instrumentals and the title track, a typical 80s rock anthem tailored for the stadium circuit. If the title itself suggests a worrying move into religious philosophy, rest assured that it actually refers to the film’s tongue-in-cheek, man vs machine storyline rather than humanity’s origins. In lieu of a comprehensive AC/DC anthology (we still await the day!), this was the next best thing.
Maybe after watching the Stephen King movie at home, the title of the band’s return set, BLOW UP YOUR VIDEO (1988) {*5} was something of a misnomer; even hits like `Heatseeker’ and the anthemic `That’s The Way I Wanna Rock’n’Roll’ couldn’t switch one back to a time when AC/DC were top of their game; it still managed however to hit No.2 (No.12 in the US). THE RAZORS EDGE (1990) {*6} saw a critical resurgence of sorts, as `Thunderstruck’ (complete with electro intro), `Moneytalks’ and `Are You Ready’ took no prisoners on their ascent into the UK charts; Chris Slade had now replaced DIO-bound Wright.
The band continued to tour for the metal faithful, 1992’s LIVE {*6} documenting the visceral thrill of the AC/DC concert experience. But while their formula was wearing a bit thin, nobody seemed to have informed the band. 1995’s hilariously titled BALLBREAKER {*6} crudely re-tread over familiar ground, although it was produced by Rick Rubin. Still, in the (supposedly) sophisticated PC world of the 90s, you had to hand it to a band who could still get away with titles like `Cover You In Oil’, `Hard As A Rock’ (a minor hit) and `Caught With Your Pants Down’.
Signed to Liberty Records at the turn of the millennium, AC/DC delivered a much improved and even tastier set of numbers via Top 20 set, STIFF UPPER LIP (2000) {*7}. Relieved of his lyric-writing input (the brothers Young were now once again in full control), Johnson could concentrate on crunching out the likes of `Meltdown’, `Can’t Stop Rock’n’Roll’ and the classy opening title track.
Fast forward several years, and with today’s top producer Brendan O’Brien, BLACK ICE (2008) {*6} saw AC/DC finally get around to extended their album CV. A chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, it nevertheless fell short of expectations. A thing all-too ready-made diagnosis for any fan to withstand; `Rock’n’Roll Train’, `Big Jack’ and `Skies On Fire’ were fan faves from the get-go. Time then for another movie cash-in compilation for the blockbuster, IRON MAN 2 (2010) {*6}. We await still a proper representative retrospective double-CD compilation featuring all their biggies. In the meantime, demand was such, that a December-2009 recorded video, LIVE AT RIVER PLATE {*6}, was belatedly dispatched three years on.
Subsequent changes afoot blighted AC/DC’s reclamation to heavy-metal hot spot when Malcolm had to depart in April 2014 in order to receive treatment for dementia. Thankfully, nephew Stevie Young (once a fill-in in 1988) was on hand to fill his vacant berth. But that was the least of the band’s problems. Having been a permanent replacement for Chris Slade since returning in the mid 90s, Phil Rudd was finding his own bit of extracurricular excitement when he was charged (that November) for attempting to assist the murder of two people. As fans and the media geared up for the delivery of their “comeback” set, ROCK OR BUST (2014) {*7}, it was hardly perfect timing, but it was rock’n’roll after all. The transatlantic Top 3 album itself was a simple, straight-edged affair that presented a status quo manifesto by authors Angus and Malcolm that rarely breeched three chords. Cliched, thuggish and lick-tastic, stalwart producer O’Brien stretched AC/DC to its limits on the opening title track, the CCR-esque `Play Ball’ and `Hard Times’.
It was indeed a sad day, when, on 18 November 2017, Malcolm Young died of dementia.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG/GRD+LCS // rev-up MCS Jun2012-Nov2017

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