*Original ‘Back in Black’ vinyl, purchased in 1980 by your intrepid blogger
I saw that AC/DC’s landmark album Back In Back turned forty last Saturday, June 25th. I can’t believe it’s been 40 years since that LP came out. Its old enough for a mid-life crisis although shows no signs of one. I knew I had to post about my experiences with that album and I couldn’t help but think, we’re talking about the good stuff now! Looking back at this LP feels like putting out the Christmas dishes for a Tuesday dinner.
1980 was a very important year in heavy metal/hard rock. It was the year the genre re-established its foothold and signified that metal was here to stay. Just to put the monumental achievement of AC/DC in perspective, here’s a list of ten momentous hard rock albums that came out in 1980:
- AC/DC, Back In Black
- Black Sabbath, Heaven And Hell – The first album post-Ozzy with Ronnie James Dio on lead vocals.
- Def Leppard, On Through The Night – Their debut LP. I saw them open for the Scorpions and Nugent on the ensuing tour, my first ever concert.
- Judas Priest, British Steel
- Iron Maiden, Iron Maiden – Another great debut LP.
- Motorhead, Ace of Spades
- Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Ozz – Ozzy’s solo debut with the intrepid Randy Rhoads on lead guitar. And they thought Ozzy would wither and die outside of Sabbath.
- Rush, Permanent Waves – Rush is probably hard rock and not heavy metal like most bands on this list but this is a kick ass album. “The Spirit of the Radio,” and “Freewill” are worth the price of admission. I also dig “Jacob’s Ladder.”
- Van Halen, Woman & Children First – A sloppy but great third LP from VH. This was to be my second VH album purchase… I had to circle back later for Van Halen II.
- Metallica, Kill ‘Em All – At the time, an overlooked (at least by me) debut album.
Thats an impressive list of albums and yet Back In Black still stands head and shoulders above the pack. That just shows how amazing Back In Black really is. The Motorhead and Iron Maiden are the only 2 albums on this list I don’t own.
As the 70s came to a close I found myself finishing up junior high school (7th, 8th and Freshman years) and starting high school (sophomore, junior & senior years). In the middle of all that my friends and I had discovered and gotten (what we considered) heavily into rock and roll. While early on we thought we knew all there was to know about rock and roll, in reality we had only scratched the surface. Sure, we were into the big bands – Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. We were also heavily into Bob Seger because we were from the midwest so the “Heartland Rocker” cast a rather wide shadow. Some of the harder rockers amongst us were into Aerosmith, Black Sabbath and especially Van Halen. AC/DC really hadn’t punctured our consciousness as of yet in say, 1979. I remember someone asking if AC/DC was “bi-sexual slang.” Naive as I was, I said something brilliant like, “Huh?”
Although I must admit they’d started to break onto the radio, even in Kansas City. The album and especially the title track to Highway To Hell was a song everybody liked. I’m sure many of us thought Highway To Hell was their debut LP, so little did we know about them. Every once in a while if you stayed up late enough to hear Vonn Mack, the late night KY102 DJ, you’d hear “Whole Lotta Rosie” which was like “Freebird” after a fistful of black beauties. We just didn’t know a lot about AC/DC. Of course after that big breakthrough success of Highway To Hell (Album Lookback: AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ Turns 40 – Bon Scott’s Bon Voyage), tragedy struck AC/DC and original lead singer Bon Scott passed way from “death by misadventure.” He choked on his own vomit, the way the classic rocks stars went out. Looking back I can say that I’m a huge fan of the Bon Scott years of AC/DC (and my favorite LP may be Powerage, LP Look Back: The Overlooked Gem, AC/DC’s “Powerage”). In 1980 I might not have been able to tell you who was singing an AC/DC song, Bon or his replacement, former singer for Geordie, Brian Johnson. The Rock Chick loves the Brian led AC/DC… I’m slowly getting her into the Bon stuff, starting with “Gone Shooting,” but that’s another story. Bon had a better sense of humor… and perhaps was a little more gravelly than Brian. I know the difference but can’t describe it.
After losing iconic, messianic lead singer Bon Scott, AC/DC – lead guitarist extraordinaire Angus Young, his brother rhythm guitarist and Riff Meister Malcolm Young, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd – were at a crossroads. At first they considered breaking up. They held auditions and immediately discovered Brian Johnson, who I once heard Angus say in an interview Bon Scott had heard and liked. Of course Bon liked him… they sounded similar. They decamped to the Bahamas and recorded one of the best selling albums of all time, Back In Black. The entirely black album cover was to supposed to signify their grief over the loss of their comrade at arms, Bon Scott. Back In Black, like Highway To Hell was produced by (soon to be legendary) producer Mutt Lange. He had gotten them away from the blues-based stuff of the early records. Mutt always seems to have an ear for a hook and there are plenty on Back In Black. I don’t know if punk was an influence but the songs were shorter – no more long, long guitar solos, there were more economical solos – and for lack of a better word, the songs seemed punchier. After losing Bon just as they were ascending the world stage, AC/DC seamlessly found a new singer and were poised to break the entire planet wide open…
By the time Back In Black came out, I was in high school and had even gotten my driver’s license. How anybody thought it was a good idea to allow me to drive is a bit of a mystery. One thing that driving allowed me to do was to get a job. I went to Oak Park Mall, the closest shopping center to my house, and got a job at a place called York Steak House. York can only be described as “fast-food steak.” I was a busboy. Awful, filthy, mindless work but an honest wage. The guys who managed the place were all in their 20s. Rather than authority figures, these guys used to party with us. On break we’d all jump in the car and go get a 12 pack of beer and drink in the walk-in cooler. One of the managers, who I’ll call Ron, found a car stalled on the side of the highway and took the license plate and put it on his car. I can still remember the cops walking him out of the restaurant in handcuffs. Things were… loose at York Steak House. One might describe it as a den of thieves.
One warm, late-summer Saturday, one of these miscreant managers threw a keg party out at Lake Quivira, in western Shawnee, Kansas. Back in 1980, this was out in the boondocks. I seem to recall it was a gated-community so I have no idea how this guy got a bunch of drunken high school kids onto the property. I remember someone saying KC Royal George Brett lived out there… it was a wonder he didn’t come out and join us. I was likely one of the first to show up and I know I was one of the last to leave. But that night, out on that ritzy lake… on a little picnic area, someone put the cassette of Back In Black on the stereo and I was transfixed. Well, as transfixed as someone full of keg beers who kept falling down and hitting his head on the picnic table could be. It was not my finest hour. We just kept playing that tape over and over again until the beer ran out. The next day, at work, I remember asking the host of the party if that had been an AC/DC mix-tape or a greatest hits thing. There was no way every song on an ordinary album was that damn good…I heard that album at every single party I attended after that in high school. I remember it was playing when one of my friends vomited into the fire place at a guy named Kurt’s house. I’m sure his parents were thrilled. I went out my first chance and purchased the album pictured above. I’ve since also purchased it on CD. If you love rock and roll, you have to love AC/DC and Back In Black. Its the essence of rock… you don’t absorb the music through your ears, it comes in through your groin.
That first track, “Hells Bells,” with the actual church bell ringing was so ominous. The tolling of the bell… the slow build of sawing guitars. It was really a great way to kick the LP off. It quickly shifts to “Shoot To Thrill,” who some say was about heroin, but I’m not so sure. That track is fast and hard-driving. Which led to the admittedly misogynistic “What You Do For Money.” I shouldn’t extoll that track but I just love it. The hard rock duo of “Givin The Dog A Bone,” and “Let Me Put My Love Into You” round out a perfect side one. Side two is even better. “Back In Black” kicks off side two like a punch from a righteous fist. On any album without “Hells Bells” the title track would have opened the album. The huge hit, “You Shook Me All Night Long” that made “American thighs” famous is next. I never get tired of that song. One has to wonder if it’s still played in strip joints? One of the deep tracks that’s an unofficial theme song of B&V is the great, swinging “Have A Drink On Me,” with the great line, “with a glass I’m pretty handy.” “Shake A Leg” is another “race to the finish line” hard, fast rocker. I love the closer, “Rock N Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” AC/DC fighting for the permanence of rock music and it was 1980. I think it was here to stay.
Phil Rudd’s drumming just swings on this record. He was such an important secret weapon. Angus’ lead guitar tangling with the great riffs coming from Malcolm… they’re just perfect. Like a hyped-up, Australian Keith and Ronnie from the Stones. Cliff Williams’ bass keeping everybody from completely descending into chaos… and Brian Johnson. He took the mantle from Bon Scott and kept the world-conquering momentum of AC/DC going. If they could reach a bunch of drunk high school kids in the boondocks suburbs of Kansas City, where could they not conquer? I think this record has been certified Platinum 25 times. Hearing that record right after it dropped is what people must have felt like in the early 70s when Zeppelin released a new album. I felt like I was a part of something.
Happy Birthday AC/DC’s Back In Black. It sounds just as good to me forty years on as it did that night at Lake Quivira. I guess it proves that you can take the rocker out of high school but you can’t get the high school out of my rock. Or something like that. I think you get what I’m talking about.
“Join me for a drink boys, we’re gonna make a big noise.” Indeed.