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AC/DC Buyers Guide

Like a force of nature, it doesn’t matter where you think you stand on AC/DC, they are such an entity unto themselves they are far more likely to be standing on you. For trends may come and fashions may go, but like a mighty oak standing tall in a field of wilting lilies, AC/DC simply are what they are. Hard and heavy, fast and furious, and absolutely not for turning, they are also some of the funniest buggers you could hope to meet – though not down a dark alley late at night, cheers all the same. This being AC/DC month at Planet Rock then, it’s time to take a gander back at the albums that made the band’s hard-won reputation what it is. You may not agree on everything, but when you’ve got two brothers like Angus and Malcolm in the band you’re guaranteed a good few, er, divergences of opinion anyway. Don’t be afraid to let us have yours…

The Essential Album Releases

Highway To Hell (1979)
The hallmarks of a truly classic album are, as follows: songs, history, and lasting influence. AC/DC’s sixth studio album ticks all those boxes in ways few other rock artists have ever managed. Its historic significance lay in the fact that this was vocalist Bon Scott’s last album before his death in February 1980; its influence on subsequent generations of rock bands equally inarguable (there have certainly been enough covers of the title track). Mostly, though, there were simply the songs: 10 tracks of such swaggering power and rugged insouciance they haven’t aged a day since they were first unleashed on an unsuspecting rock world nearly 30 years ago. And not a dud in sight – a unique selling point in itself for most AC/DC albums, both before and since.
Kicking off with the title track and one of the all-time great rock anthems – guitarist Angus Young’s description of the band’s riotous US tour the year before – and finishing up over 40 minutes later with ‘Night Prowler’, a track so chillingly convincing in its sinister execution it was later cited as inspiration for the misdeeds of Richard Ramirez, a multiple rapist and murderer from Los Angeles who became known as the Night Stalker and was wearing an AC/DC T-shirt when he was caught, this was Bon Scott-era AC/DC at its absolute apotheosis. From the pleasingly un-putdown-able pop-rock of tracks like ‘Girl’s Got Rhythm’ and ‘Get It Hot’, to the almost unbearably autobiographical ‘Walk All Over You’ and, in particular, ‘Touch Too Much’, a track which would become Bon’s epitaph, to the all-out war of bones-into-dust rockers like ‘Beating Around The Bush’, ‘Shot Down In Flames’ and, most scorching of all, ‘If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)’, this was more than just the greatest ever AC/DC album, this was simply one of the greatest rock albums by anyone – ever.
Produced by then burgeoning studio svengali, Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, who would go on to turn Def Leppard into superstars, the band bridled at Lange’s tortuous do-it-again-please studio methods, but it was worth every last hair-tearing second – their first worldwide multimillion seller and, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Back In Black (1980)
Released exactly a year after Highway To Hell, and their first album since Bon’s drink-related death in London earlier that year, until they finally heard it no one – not even the band, initially – could see how AC/DC could possibly continue without their tattooed, grinning, wild man singer; certainly not to the same impossibly high standard set by its breakthrough predecessor. And yet, against quite literally death-defying odds, not only did the band successfully carry their work on, they came up with an album every bit as good, if understandably much darker, as anything they had ever achieved with Bon.
Beating off competition from Allan Fryer, an Aussie singer with similarities to Bon who later fronted Heaven, and Londoner Gary Holton of the Heavy Metal Kids, County Durham boyo Brian Johnson was in the process of trying to relaunch his 70s band Geordie when he got the call inviting him to attempt the seemingly impossible and fill Bon’s shoes. The result – Back In Black, so called, said Angus, "as a sign of mourning” for Bon – far exceeded everyone’s expectations. Not only did Johnson’s gravelly voice fit the bill, his penchant for double-entendre lyrics (single-entendre, where possible) matched Bon’s own, and with big-brain producer ‘Mutt’ Lange onboard again another masterpiece was swiftly in the making. Indeed, tracks like album-opener ‘Hell’s Bells’, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, ‘Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ and the epic title track itself instantly became cornerstones of the AC/DC live show, where they remain to this day. There were also lighter moments such as ‘Have A Drink On Me’ and ‘Givin’ The Dog A Bone’, but this was essentially AC/DC flexing its heavyweight muscles, showing it still had what it took despite being so cruelly shorn of its former ringleader.
For once, critics and fans agreed, too, and Back In Black became the band’s first No. 1 album in the UK, as well as selling more than 22 million copies in the US alone. To date, it has now sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, making it the second biggest selling album of all-time after Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Expand Your Collection

High Voltage (1976)
The first AC/DC album released outside Australia, High Voltage was actually an amalgam of the band’s first two Oz-only albums, High Voltage and TNT. As such, what the rest of the world got was one of the most startlingly original-sounding rock debuts since the first Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath albums almost a decade before – a landmark recording that would spawn countless imitators over the years, while kick-starting the career of a truly classic band in its own right. Packed full of songs that would define the AC/DC sound for decades to come – from the bagpipe-wielding frenzy of opener ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’roll)’ to the finger-in-the-face statement of intent that was the album-finale title track, via such relentless rock monsters as ‘Rock’n’roll Singer’ (featuring the rabbit-punch riff The Cult pinched for ‘Wild Flower’), ‘The Jack’ (about a very bad girl), ‘Live Wire’ (a very bad boy) and ‘TNT’ (just bad for the sake of it) – it may not have featured the highly polished production of their later mega-hit albums but High Voltage remains one of the most self-defining and near-perfect AC/DC albums of all. Raw, earthy and catchy as the old jack itself.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976)
More than three decades later, the critical orthodoxy has it that pre-Highway To Hell AC/DC albums tended to feature a handful of gen-u-wine five-star tracks, filled out with some less memorable, sometimes pitiably so, tracks that only a very bad mother indeed could really love. While this may have been true in some cases, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, like High Voltage before it, was a very different proposition. Listening to it now, the thing that really hits home is how almost faultless its nine, gloriously wrongheaded tracks are. From the spit-in-your-eye lawlessness of the lascivious title track to the two-fingered up-yours of ‘Problem Child’ and ‘Rocker’, or the sheer piss-taking joy of ‘Ain’t No Fun (Waiting Around To Be A Millionaire)’ and the sensationally self-explanatory ‘Big Balls’, this was a band clearly doing it not just for the kids but their own endless amusement, and making every choke-on-it second count. It also contained in ‘Ride On’ one of the very few AC/DC ballads and proof that there was far more to Bon than just wine, women and song – there was also pathos and an often painful self-awareness. Just don’t go broadcasting it to everybody, awright, mate?

If You Want Blood…You’ve Got It (1978)
We don’t usually include live albums in these guides but with AC/DC – archetypal rule-breakers – you simply have to make an exception as live onstage has always been where they’ve really shown what they’re made of. The added bonus of owning If You Want Blood… is that it also captures the very best of the band’s previous two half-killer, half-filler studio albums, Let There Be Rock (including the title track, ‘Bad Boy Boogie’, ‘Hell Ain’t No Bad Place To Be’ and ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’) and Powerage (including ‘Riff Raff’ and ‘Rock’n’roll Damnation’), and mixes them up with the best of the even better Dirty Deeds and High Voltage. Thus, not only a greatest hits of sorts for those who don’t want to wade through the early catalogue, but a live souvenir of the days when Bon Scott still led the feistiest, funniest, just plain fucking fantastic bands of them all. In the future there would be other, great live AC/DC albums, but none – not ever never – quite as great as this one. Recorded in Glasgow, hear the crowd roar as the band come on for the encores dressed in Scotland football shirts. Now that’s class…

For Those About To Rock (1981)
The third and last in the trilogy of classic – and hugely successful – AC/DC albums produced by ‘Mutt’ Lange, if it hadn’t followed Back In Black and Highway To Hell, this might have been regarded as the best the band had made since their early, first flush of success, Dirty Deeds-era. As it was, despite giving them their first American No. 1, For Those About To Rock was, at the time, considered something of a disappointment amongst long time fans. A ludicrous state of affairs when one considers how brilliant mammoth tracks like ‘Snowballed’, ‘Spellbound’ and the cannon-firing demi-title track itself, ‘For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)’ still are. But that only underlined the size of the task before them, trying to come up with another musical statement to match what are now, a quarter of a century on, rightly regarded as their all-time classics. Once you get past the comparisons though there is still a monumental AC/DC album waiting to be discovered here, with tracks like ‘Let’s Get It Up’ and ‘Breaking The Rules’ firmly in the nudge-and-a-wink Bon tradition, while others like ‘Evil Walks’ cleverly parody the American church leader who’d denounced them as "immoral, lustful and lewd.” How right he was – thankfully.

The Razor’s Edge (1990)
Following the unprecedented success of the ‘Mutt’ Lange era, AC/DC fell into steady artistic and commercial decline throughout the rest of the 1980s, releasing albums that found the band treading water rather than breaking new ground. Still incredible live, it seemed like their days of making albums that stood the test of time were now over. Then, in 1990, came The Razor’s Edge – not just their best album since their Bon/Brian heyday but also their biggest success, selling more than five million copies and giving them their biggest chart successes (No. 2 in the US; No. 4 in the UK) for nearly a decade.
Somehow, after years of same-old, same-old, the Young brothers had found their writing shoes again. As a result, tracks like the splendid does what-it-says-on-the-tin ‘Thunderstruck’, the almost dementedly catchy ‘Money Talks’ and the epic title track itself not only sounded good pumping out of the radio, they became highlights of the live show – always the real proving ground for AC/DC material, whatever the year.
The band’s reputation was further enhanced on the ensuing world tour when it was reported that US marines were using their new album to flush out General Noriega from his Panamanian hideout, blasting out non-stop AC/DC through giant speakers mounted on tanks round-the-clock. The general soon surrendered.

For Die Hard Fans Only

Black Ice (2008)
The first AC/DC album for eight years sees a return to form on a number of levels. Although the neo-classic, post-Bon line-up of Brian Johnson, guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd have been back together since the Rick Rubin-produced Ballbreaker album in 1995, Black Ice is the first time Brian has written the lyrics since Blow Up Your Video in 1988 – and it shows, tracks like the thumping first single, ‘Rock’n’roll Train’ benefiting from a fresh eye. While others, like the menacing ‘War Machine’ and the haunting title track itself, show a more thoughtful, if no less headbanging side to the band redolent of their Back In Black heyday. Not perhaps an album for those new to the AC/DC catalogue, but for those of us who have been passengers on their rock’n’roll train for what seems a lifetime now the perfect antidote to the manufactured X Factorised fodder that passes these days for ear-candy on less discerning radio networks.

 

by Mick Wall

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