AC/DC’s Back In Black is celebrating its 40th anniversary. It was the Sydney band’s seventh album, which was no mean feat considering their debut effort had arrived just five years earlier.
Back In Back landed on July 25th, 1980, fewer than six months after the passing of the band’s incumbent lead singer Bon Scott. Most bands would take this as a sign to throw in the towel. After all, Scott’s voice and hysterical streak had been a crucial factor in elevating AC/DC above countless other bands of their ilk.
But the band’s de facto leaders, brothers Angus and Malcolm Young weren’t about to take Scott’s death as a defeat, and after recruiting English singer Brian Johnson, their seventh album was recorded and released as planned. The rest, as they say, is history, with Back In Black becoming an unprecedented global success. It continues to rank in the top ten selling albums of all time – many metrics place it at #2 behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
So what explains the album’s staying power in the hearts of music listeners? Here are five things that define Back In Black.
1. Brian Johnson
Who the bloody heck is Brian Johnson? That’s an easy one: he’s the lead singer of AC/DC, best known for songs like ‘Back in Black’ and ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. Yes, but who was he before AC/DC? Well, Johnson was no spring chicken when he joined the band in 1980. He was 32 years old, making him six and eight years older than Malcolm and Angus respectively.
This meant he had something of crucial significance to the Youngs – oodles of rock’n’roll experience. Johnson hails from Newcastle in the north of England, not too far from the Youngs’ native Glasgow. He co-founded the blues- and glam-rock outfit Geordie in the early 1970s and released four studio albums over the course of the decade. As a live performer, Johnson had previously made an impression on Scott, which the Youngs recalled in inviting him to audition for AC/DC.
“I remember Bon playing me Little Richard and then telling me the story of when he saw Brian singing,” said Angus. “There’s this guy up there screaming at the top of his lungs and then the next thing you know he hits the deck. He’s on the floor, rolling around and screaming. I thought it was great, and then to top it off – you couldn’t get a better encore – they came in and wheeled the guy off.”
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Apparently Johnson was suffering from appendicitis, but it was enough to get him in the door for an AC/DC audition. His voice is a penetrating force across Back In Black, and he also takes a co-writing credit on each of the record’s ten songs.
2. The riffs
You can’t have a discussion about AC/DC without mentioning the riffs. Back in Black has often been compared to Led Zeppelin. In a contemporaneous review, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke described it as “the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the [heavy metal] genre.”
The comparisons aren’t unfounded, but the riffs on Back in Black are leaner, simplified versions of what you might find on a Led Zeppelin record. And this is key to the album’s success. Sure, there are plenty of intemperate guitar solos, but the songs’ core riffs tend to be uncomplicated, to-the-point and repeated ad infinitum. Best of all, every song’s got at least one.
3. Robert “Mutt” Lange
AC/DC first worked with producer Robert “Mutt” Lange on 1979’s Highway to Hell. Thanks in part to its anthemic title track, the album became AC/DC’s first chart success in the USA. This meant Lange was asked back to work on the following year’s Back in Black. Prior to being flown out to Sydney to work on Highway to Hell, Lange had worked most prominently with Bob Geldof’s Boomtown Rats as well as other British rock acts like Graham Parker and Supercharge.
While AC/DC had done most of their previous recording at Albert Studios in Sydney’s Neutral Bay, Lange took the band to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to work on Back in Black. “It was hardly any kind of studio,” recalled Johnson. “We were in these little concrete cells – comfy, mind – you had a bed and a chair.”
Lange is known for being an exacting taskmaster, and he pushed the newly recruited Johnson especially hard. But the results speak for themselves. It’s not just the songs that explain the album’s longevity – Back In Black sounds built for success, and Lange’s production has been hugely influential. “To this day, producers still use it as the de facto paint-by-numbers guidebook for how a hard-rock record should sound,” said rock critic Joe Harrington.
4. The one-liners
At the centre of every song is an easily remembered one-liner, which audiences have been bellowing at the tops of their lungs for 40 years. It begins with track one, ‘Hells Bells’ (“Oh, hells bells”), and continues all the way through to the closing ‘Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ (“Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution/Rock and roll ain’t gonna die”).
In the interim, you get hypnotised by lines like “Honey, what do you do for money?”, “Givin the dog a bone,” “Yes, I’m back,” and “You shook me all night long.” It’s a simple ploy – and one for which AC/DC have been accused of a lack of imagination over the years – but you can’t deny its efficacy.
5. The groundwork of the Bon Scott-era
This goes without saying, but AC/DC could not have made Back In Black were it not for the hard graft of the previous six years. The band got off to a flyer, releasing two LPs in 1975 – High Voltage and T.N.T. High Voltage was repackaged for international release the following year, with a number of T.N.T. tracks thrown into the mix. It wasn’t an immediate international blockbuster, but songs like ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll)’ indicated what lay in store for the bunch of Sydney-based Scottish immigrants.
The next five years brought no shortage of memorable singles, including ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap’, ‘Jailbreak’, ‘Let There Be Rock’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation’ and ‘Highway to Hell’. Along the way, the band were steadily condensing their various strengths – the power of the riffs, the insistence of the choruses, the execution of Angus Young’s guitar solos.
By the time they got to working with Johnson and Lange on Back In Black, AC/DC were primed to make a definitive statement. And that’s precisely what they did.