B&V’s Favorite B-Sides – Songs That Were Orphans But Found Fame Anyway

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*Photo of actual 45s, and actual B-sides, taken by your intrepid blogger

I think a lot of people, especially the casual music fan, can be put off by the term B-side. The term sounds like something you’d find in the discount aisle of your local retailer next to day old bread. It’s not an “A” it’s a “B” so it must be somehow… less valuable? Oddly, I actually understood what a B-side was before I started really getting into collecting music. My father had an old wire rack full of singles – known as 45s as that was the speed the turntable would have to be turned to in order to spin the smaller vinyl discs. An album is rated at 33 1/3 RPM (revolutions per minute), a single was 45 RPM’s. These old 45s that my father had amassed when he was still cool was a who’s who of 50s popular music: Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles. My little brother commandeered the collection as his own when he was really young and then enhanced it by buying Beatles’ singles…he was always years ahead of me on rock n roll…it’s a wonder he didn’t make my parents get his haircut in that mop top Beatles’ style but I digress. He had the little plastic insert that allowed him to play the 45s – which have a bigger hole in the middle – on the turntable. 45s only had one song per side unlike an album which has a number of songs on each side (well, typically… maybe not if you’re the Allman Brothers and it’s live and you’re really cooking, then it might be say, “Whipping Post” taking up one entire side of the LP). My brother and I shared a room in the early days so occasionally I’d wander in hand he’d be playing tunes. I think it was on one of those occasions that he explained what a B-side was to me before I even cared about music.

In the early days of rock n roll, like my dad’s collection, the music industry was focused on singles. Typically albums were merely a collection of previously released singles. When the artist in question had released enough songs to fill up an album the record company would lump ’em together and pump out the LP as another item to sell to the public. On those singles typically the A-side would be the song they wanted to release as the “hit.” What to do with the other side of the 7″ vinyl disc? Well, slap another song on the B-side! Typically the B-side would be a “lesser” tune, one the record company didn’t have high hopes for. The record company didn’t always get it right. Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” began as a B-side to “Once Upon A Time” a track none us can remember. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” may be that first B-side to break out as a hit, I don’t really know. It was a DJ who decided to turn the record over to play the B-side and the rest, as they say, is history. Since it was left up to the record company, sometimes with input from the artist, B-sides weren’t always the “lesser” of the two tracks released. Record companies are rarely right about anything.

When the Beatles ushered in the “album” era of rock n roll the nature of B-sides changed. It really was the Beatles, especially after they stopped touring, who realized the artistic possibilities of a full length album. You listen to albums like Rubber Soul or Revolver and you realize there is a unity of sound and themes that enhance the listening experience over 12 songs instead of just the “hit” singles and some filler. When artists started releasing full length, thought-out albums the pool of tracks for use on B-sides – because people still bought a ton of singles back then – became a lot deeper. Typically the record company would pick a song to be a single, and then look for a deep album cut that in some cases might be “filler” on the album and slap it on the B-side. However, as usual, the record company didn’t always get it right. Rod Stewart’s signature song “Maggie May” was the B-side to “Reason To Believe.” And, exactly like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” an enterprising DJ in America turned the single over and voila, “Maggie May” is a monster hit and Rod Stewart became a star.

In the pantheon of great, great songs that started out as B-sides the list is long. The Beatles chose to release the epic psychedelic track “I Am The Walrus” (mostly written by John Lennon) as the B-side to “Hello, Goodbye” a McCartney track. Obviously “I Am The Walrus” is a legendary track but they put it on the B-side? Which is too bad because Lennon was quoted later as saying something like, “that was when we all began to get tired of being Paul’s backing band.” That animosity festered… But “I Am The Walrus” is not an isolated case of great tracks ending up as a B-side. So many great tracks ended up as B-sides and went on to become monster hits, legendary in their own right. The Stones released “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the B-side to “Honky Tonk Woman”; Bowie released “Suffragette City” as B-side to “Starman”; and finally the Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” (a Gene Clark penned classic) was B-side for “All I Really Want To Do” a Dylan cover. The list is vast and I could go on and on.

Any of those tracks could have easily made it onto our list of “favorite B-sides,” but the stakes rose. In the 70s as bands became more prolific and often bands would have more music than they needed for an album. Many times they’d have a song that they really liked but it wouldn’t fit the confined space of vinyl or wasn’t the right vibe for that particular album or often they’d record a cover song just for the fun of it. Instead of putting out a deeper album cut as the B-side, the band would put out one of those unreleased tracks that didn’t make the album. For me the prime example of that was “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” a great acoustic driven track that Zeppelin left off Zeppelin III and instead put out as the B-side of “The Immigrant Song.” Suddenly, this opened up the possibility of non-album, previously unreleased gems out in the wild. Hunting for stray B-sides was a fun side project for my old roommate Drew and I as we built our album collections in college. I remember spending weekends on vacation in Chicago hunting for certain songs only found on that B-side single. Finding a cool B-side is frankly the only reason I lament the end of singles being released. I’ve always been an album guy.

While the hunt was fun, in the era of CD-box sets and compilations many of those orphaned B-sides have been released. Often CD releases and “deluxe edition” releases of classic albums contain those old hard to find B-sides. U2 has done two “greatest hits” LPs each with a complimentary disc of B-sides. Springsteen has Tracks that contained a lot of the B-sides that Drew and I were always chasing after back in college. R.E.M. released Dead Letter Office, a collection of strictly B-sides (and what a great title for that LP). Now, it’s bad enough singles are rarely if ever released, but there’s no scurrying around town to all the usual vinyl shops looking to locate that one copy of “Go Your Own Way” paired with “Silver Springs.” The hunt is over. Now if you want to hear Prince do “Irresistible Bitch” you merely have to download it from a box set. For those of us aware of and collecting B-sides it was like being a member of a cool club or subculture. I guess I still have hunting for great used vinyl purchases left to me… sigh.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, Dr. Rock, commented on a post I’d done with a playlist of tracks from 1982. Or it might have been a comment on our post about Robert Plant’s solo debut, Pictures At Eleven. Regardless, he mentioned a track “Far Post” that has always been a favorite B-side of mine and naturally Dr Rock suggested I do a post on my 10 favorite B-sides. And as usual that stretched out to my 25 favorite B-sides. In between cranking up new songs from Billy Idol (“Cage”) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Tippa My Tongue”) this week I’ve been scouring through my old 45s and box sets looking for B-sides. As I indicated above, I chose B-sides that were orphans – songs that were originally left off of albums – songs that could only be found on the second side of a 45 or on the single CD release (from back when they would still put out singles on CD with a few extra tracks). I mostly avoided the “deep album tracks” as B-sides. My list is not meant to exhaustive but merely representative of a) my personal favorites and b) what kind of quality material is out there in the world by artists we all love but you may not have heard or worse, heard of. My list stems from the well known all the way to my usual obscure choices. If you have a favorite B-side that didn’t end up on a record, please post it in the comments section. I’m always looking for a good, unheard tune…

The Bourbon And Vinyl 25 Favorite B-Sides

  • Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog” – Elvis released “Hound Dog,” one of his most famous tunes, a few months after his second LP Elvis was released. It was originally released as the B-side of “Don’t Be Cruel.” The record company quickly changed the printing on the single sleeve to make “Hound Dog” the A-side, and “Don’t Be Cruel” the B-side… it didn’t really matter, both songs hit number 1. Elvis was aware of the original by the legendary Big Mama Thornton but was likely more influenced by a cover done by Freddie Bell and the Bellhops. It’s hard not to include one of the greatest songs ever on a favorite B-sides list. As Dylan said, “I’m standing on a chair proposing a toast to the King.” Surely he meant Elvis?
  • Jimi Hendrix Experience, “51st Anniversary” – I’ve always dug this track about a couple who have been married for well, 51 years. This track didn’t make it on Are You Experienced? but was released as the B side for “Purple Haze.”
  • The Beatles, “Revolution” – Another case where Lennon had his track relegated the B-side in deference to McCartney’s A-side “Hey Jude.” Maybe Paul should have let Lennon win a few of these battles. I get “Hey Jude” is epic but “Revolution” is probably my favorite hard rocking Beatles track. Both tracks were on the unreleased tracks, stop-gap U.S. LP Hey Jude.
  • Neil Young, “Sugar Mountain” – Neil liked this song so much he used it as the B-side for two different songs, “The Loner” from his debut and “Cinnamon Girl” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with Crazy Horse. “You can’t be 20, on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons…” It finally was included on Neil’s three-LP greatest hits package Decade a compilation album truly ahead if it’s time.
  • Paul McCartney, “Oh Woman, Oh Why” – McCartney has a myriad of great B-sides. It was hard to pick just one. I’ve always loved “Oh Woman, Oh Why” the B-side to his first ever solo single “Another Day.” The lyrics are a bit slight but McCartney sings like he’s Little Richard turned up to 11. This track is kind of a bluesy rocker and I’ve just always loved it.
  • George Harrison, “Deep Blue” – This rarity was finally released on the “deluxe edition” of Living In The Material World but began as the B-side for Harrison’s charity track “Bangla Desh.” I don’t think of the Beatles as being especially bluesy but I love this acoustic, blues shuffle. Harrison landed a few blues tracks on our Rockers Playing the Blues playlist… I should have included this quiet little gem. I’m a sucker for the blues. I think my brother may have played this song for me, he was a huge Harrison fan and might have had the “Bangla Desh” single.
  • Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” – This song, for me, was the beginning of my B-side awareness. Finding this song as the B-side on the single for “The Immigrant Song” was like finding the Ark of the Covenant for Indiana Jones. I can’t believe this track never landed on a proper Zeppelin LP.
  • AC/DC, “Carry Me Home” – This great, hysterical drinking song – that only Bon Scott could have written – was the B-side to the track “Dog Eat Dog” from Let There Be Rock. It was an early selection for inclusion on our Drinking Songs playlist and really is a centerpiece there of. We find our hero, the narrator, too drunk to drive home and it’s too late to find a bus or cab. His only solution is to ask a young lady he’s been drinking with to carry him home with her. Reminds me of my 20s. Rakish charm?
  • Fleetwood Mac, “Silver Springs” – Oh man, this is one of my all time favorite Mac songs. The Rock Chick preferred the live version from The Dance, but I’d been a fan of this song, the B-side to “Go Your Own Way,” that had been criminally left off Rumours, since the first time I heard it in the car driving back to Boston from Cape Cod during my summer after college. It just grabbed me from the beginning. When Stevie builds to the climax and sings/shouts “I know I could’ve loved you, but you would not let me, I’ll follow you down ’til the sound of my voice will haunt you…” she means it. The song does haunt me and I’m not even who she’s singing to…
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Casa Dega” – This song was left off Damn The Torpedoes and was originally released as the B-side to “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Petty has so many B-sides that have seen subsequently released on his various box sets it was hard to pick just one (and actually I picked 2) but I’ve always loved this song partially inspired by a Spiritualist camp in Florida.
  • Robert Plant, “Far Post” – As pointed out by the aforementioned Dr. Rock when we posted about Plant’s solo debut Pictures At Eleven, this amazing song was left off the album and released as a B-side to “Burning Down One Side” in the UK and eventually found it’s way to my local radio station. Great piano break in the song… it felt like Plant was already starting to stretch the boundaries of what he could do outside Zeppelin.
  • The Police, “Murder By Numbers” – The Police actually released this song on Synchronicity if you bought the cassette. Well, I’d purchased the vinyl, naturally. But they made up for it by releasing it as the B-side of “Every Breath You Take.” This was such a great song it never made sense to me they didn’t put it on the vinyl. They do include it on the CD version of Synchronicity.
  • R.E.M., “Pale Blue Eyes” – R.E.M., like so many bands who’ve recorded a ton of B-sides released an entire album of B-sides on the collection Dead Letter Office. I love that album as they do a ton of cover songs. Cover songs do have a way of popping up as B-sides. I especially love this song, a Velvet Underground track. Michael Stipe can sing almost any song better than any original singer. This track was a B-side to the great track “South Central Rain.” I really could have picked just about any song from Dead Letter Office… and heavily considered their cover of Aerosmith’s “Toys In The Attic” which has to be heard to be believed.
  • Prince & the Revolution, “17 Days” – This track was a B-side from “When Doves Cry” from Princes’ masterpiece Purple Rain. This was such an incredible album it’s no surprise that there were some incredible B-sides… Prince was so prolific. This is a classic funk, pop song about a break up. I was drawn to this kinda track back in the day. The chorus will drill into your brain… “Let the rain come down, let the rain come down…” I may be the only fan of this track but I had to include it. It just takes me back…
  • The Cars, “Breakaway” – The Cars buried this outtake from the Heartbeat City album as the B-side to the fifth(!) single “Why Can’t I Have You.” I first heard the song, once again, in the car as some friends of mine and I were driving over a high bridge on our way onto Padre Island for Spring Break. Can you think of a better theme song for a Spring Break? “The loud mornin’ in the small town cries…You gotta get away.” Actually the Spring Break was a disaster but I spent years looking for this track which I later found out was about heroin
  • Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, “Pink Cadillac” – The B-side to “Dancing In The Dark.” Oh man, we all bought the 45 with this as the B-side. Clarence Clemons on the sax is epic. I still drive a little faster when this song comes on the stereo.
  • Don Henley, “A Month of Sundays” – This is a little like “Murder By Numbers,” listed above. The track was on the cassette version of Building The Perfect Beast but not the vinyl version I had. It was released as the B-side of “Boys of Summer” and I remember being floored the first time I heard it. I did a tape to tape thing and recorded it so I could listen to it over and over. It’s a sad ballad about the death of the family farm but it just grabbed me.
  • Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, “Shut Out The Lights” – Bruce has so many B-sides it was hard to limit myself to just two… This is another Born In The U.S.A. B-side, to the title track. Both songs are about a Vietnam veteran but are very different vibes. “Born In The U.S.A.” was a huge, arena rocking anthem (that was widely misunderstood). “Shut Out The Lights” delivered the message more directly in my mind as it was a sad song about the mental health struggles our veterans faced when they returned from the war.
  • Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, “Fortunate Son” – Well, I did mention that cover songs do have a way of finding themselves on B-sides. This track was the B-side to “American Storm” from the Like A Rock album. I don’t know if there is a more fitting artist to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival than Bob Seger. Perfect song in the perfect hands. Smokin’ O.P.s indeed.
  • Rod Stewart, “Almost Illegal” – Rod had been doing middling pop for so long it was a big deal when he teamed up with Andy Taylor erstwhile guitarist from Duran Duran and released Out Of Order an album that actually… rocked! This song was the B-side to “Lost In You” and I was so enamored with both the LP and that song, I gave this 45 a chance and brought it home from the record store. And, yes, this song rocked and made me smile at the same time. This is probably the most obscure track on my favorites but I am who I am.
  • The Rolling Stones, “Fancy Man Blues” – When the Stones reunited for Steel Wheels we were all ecstatic. I was living in Arkansas at the time and I jumped a flight to Chicago to see them on that tour out at East Troy where Stevie Ray died… Anyway, I was in a bar the night before the show and whoever was in charge played “Fancy Man Blues” the B-side to “Mixed Emotions” and then I spent years trying to find it. The Stones always return to the blues.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Soul To Squeeze” – As I mentioned in my resent post on the Peppers’ new song “Tippa My Tongue,” the RHCP’s creative process includes a lot of jamming which leads to a plethora of unused material that ends up as a B-side. This haunting ballad – that has to be about Hillel Slovak’s death and Anthony Kiedis’ running away to Mexico and missing the funeral – was used as a B-side twice for both “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge” before finding widespread fame on the Coneheads’ soundtrack. I’ve seen them do it live and man, goosebumps.
  • Pearl Jam, “Yellow Ledbetter” – Well, you knew this track would be on here, it’s only the most famous B-side released in the 90s. It was the B-side to Jeremy and I purchased the CD single just so I could own this track. It sounds like an homage to Stevie Ray Vaughn, at least when you hear them play it live, but that might just be me. I do relate to the lyric “I said I don’t know whether I’m the boxer or the bag.”
  • U2, “The Lady With the Spinning Head (UV1)” – The Rock Chick turned me onto this song. I love it. It was a demo that spawned both “The Fly” and then “Ultraviolet Light.” Eventually it saw release as the B-side to “One.” We put this on one of our party tracks and people always approach me and ask me about this song… and “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” but that’s another song for another day.
  • Tom Petty, “Girl On LSD” – Any long time readers of B&V know that this song was my “white whale” in terms of B-sides for a long time. I did have a bootleg version but I always want an official version if I can get it. It’s the funniest song Petty ever did. It finally saw release (in an alternative version) on Finding Wildflowers. Petty has another bluesy rocker named “Sweet William” that has become my new “white whale” B-side… I will find you “Sweet William,” if it kills me.

Many of these tracks you’ve probably heard before. But if there are ones you haven’t I urge you to seek them out and give them a spin. These sadly orphaned B-sides deserve to be heard. There are so many more B-sides out there that I didn’t list. I look forward to seeing if any of you out there have a favorite B-side to add to this list.

Enjoy the last bit of summer! Cheers!

Review: AC/DC’s Spectacular Return, ‘Power Up’

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Malcolm Young

I am stuck in a state of stupefied, delighted wonderment these days and have been since last Friday when AC/DC returned – against all odds – to deliver what might be the B&V album of the year, Power Up. I must confess I thought these guys were done. I don’t do this often, but I certainly owe lead guitarist Angus Young and the rest of this band an apology. It was during their last tour for Rock Or Bust that I included AC/DC in my BourbonAndVinyl List of Bands Who Sadly, Should Call It Quits. Mea culpa, mea culpa, I am sorry. Never bet against one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

I could be forgiven for thinking this rock and roll juggernaut had finally been halted. Prior to recording Rock Or Bust we had all heard the sad news that rhythm guitarist Malcom Young had succumbed to the effects of dementia. I had a grandmother who went down that way and it was simply awful. Stevie Young, nephew to Malcolm and Angus, was stepping in to replace Malcolm on Rock Or Bust. Stevie had played with AC/DC back when Malcolm had gone to rehab to quit drinking. He realized it was interfering with his playing, and with the band and the fans were too important to him. Malcolm was that kind of man!

Everything seemed to be moving forward and then original drummer Phil Rudd ran into some, um, legal issues. On the ensuing tour for Rock Or Bust he had to be replaced by drummer Chris Slade who had played with AC/DC during a hiatus Rudd had taken in the late 80s/early 90s. Slade had last played with AC/DC on the Razor’s Edge LP. And then, with only about 10 dates left on the tour Brian Johnson developed a severe hearing issue that made it impossible for him to perform live. If he tried to sing live again, he risked losing his hearing completely. He had to retire in the middle of the tour. Friend of the band Axl Rose stepped in and helped Angus and the boys finish the tour, good on Axl. Shortly after that, longtime bassist Cliff Williams announced he was hanging it up. Apparently he used to party on the road with Brian and without him, the road wasn’t going to be as fun. I get it… you’re on the road you need a drinking buddy. Finally, in 2017 Malcolm Young sadly passed away (RIP Malcolm Young, Rhythm Guitarist Extraordinaire of AC/DC).

Toward the end of last year I heard rumblings that Angus and Stevie Young were spotted up in Vancouver. Soon there were rumors that bassist Cliff Williams may have changed his mind and returned. News spread they were working on a new album dedicated to Malcolm. If that doesn’t fill your eyes with a tear you’re not human. Brian Johnson apparently underwent some sort of miracle cure for his hearing and has returned to the fold. The Rock and Roll Gods were clearly smiling on AC/DC. Even more miraculous is that Phil Rudd somehow evaded prosecution. The entire band, save for Malcolm, had returned. And man, have they returned!!

I’ve been a big fan of AC/DC’s since Back In Black (LP Lookback: AC/DC’s Masterpiece, ‘Back In Black’ Turned 40 Yrs Old June 25, 2020) which I purchased shortly after it was released in 1980. While the Rock Chick only digs the Brian Johnson era AC/DC, I’m also a huge fan of Bon Scott’s time with the band (LP Look Back: The Overlooked Gem, AC/DC’s “Powerage”). I don’t think they’ve ever put out a bad album with the possible exception of Fly On The Wall. And I’ll admit Flick The Switch was a bit of a letdown after For Those About To Rock but everything else in this catalog is top shelf. I would even recommend Blow Up  Your Video, an overlooked gem in their catalog.

Since meeting the Rock Chick in 2000 when she turned me back onto AC/DC they’ve put out some great music. Stiff Upper Lip (2000) is a phenomenal late period AC/DC album that everyone should own. Black Ice (2008) was another great record but it felt a bit long to me. It was fifteen tracks and seemed to go on a bit longer than it should have. When they followed up with Rock Or Bust it felt slightly short to me. That album was only eleven songs and only thirty-five minutes long which left me wanting more. Weighing in at 12 tracks Power Up feels, to quote Goldilocks, “just right.” Angus went back through the tapes and found old songs he and Malcolm had written but never recorded or released on a record so every track says “Written by Angus and Malcolm Young,” the way God intended AC/DC songs to be written. The album, as mentioned, is dedicated to Malcolm and one has to believe the group came together to honor their fallen comrade. They certainly brought their best.

The first single, “Shot In The Dark,” is one of the great, classic AC/DC songs, reviewed on B&V earlier, AC/DC Returns With “Shot In The Dark” From The Upcoming LP ‘Power Up’. The opening track “Realize” signals that the band means business on this album. It’s lean, mean and it rocks. I read that “Realize” is a track Angus and Malcolm had tried to get on previous albums but never did. “Demon Fire” is another great potential single, that signals the return of Brian Johnson’s lascivious lead vocals. “Wild Reputation” is a bloozy treat. “Kick You When You’re Down” is a favorite of the Rock Chick’s. When we first listened to the album she looked at me and said, “Damn this is a great album.” “Through the Mists of Time” is an almost wistful rocker that one might think was inspired by memories of Malcolm. There isn’t a bad track on this record. If I have any complaints it’s that I’d like to hear them do a slow, bluesy number…but nobody does that anymore. And, let’s face it, I’m probably the only one asking for that.

Through out this record Stevie Young’s bedrock rhythm guitar picks up where Malcom’s left off. It allows Angus Young’s classic lead guitar to soar above it. When Angus comes in for a solo he has this magical way of creating tension and then releasing it with a clean, beautifully played solo. He’s really one of the greatest guitarists that we’ve got left. Phil Rudd is the only drummer who should play with AC/DC. Having Cliff back on bass helps them keep that solid engine of a rhythm section in place. I can’t say enough about Brian Johnson. The guy still smokes I think. And yet his vocals, after whatever miracle hearing cure he went through, are spot on. He’s gravelly, bluesy and always sounds horny. I just love his singing here. It’s so great to have him back in the fold. The band brings a certain amount of menace to this lean rock set that sets it apart from many of their albums.

It’s hard not to think of this as the swan song for this seminal, iconic band. I hope not, I’ve counted them out before they were done before. This is a must have for rock fans everywhere. It may not cure COVID but it sure feels like it could. At the very least we should acknowledge how great it is to have rock and roll like this released into the world. When AC/DC release an album, it’s a big fucking deal. And when they deliver the goods like they have on this album, it’s an even bigger deal.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say this may be the B&V album of the year… it certainly will be on our “best of 2020” list. Turn this one up loud and for once this year, celebrate the joy, the power and the majesty of rock and roll.

Cheers!

LP Lookback: AC/DC’s Masterpiece, ‘Back In Black’ Turned 40 Yrs Old June 25, 2020

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*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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Album Lookback: AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ Turns 40 – Bon Scott’s Bon Voyage

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Not all heroes wear capes, people… Some don’t even wear shirts or if they do they cut the sleeves off and keep them completely unbuttoned, hairy chest out, gold chains proudly displayed, blues jeans pulled up to their navel to accentuate their…well, this is a family blog. There wasn’t a shirt out there that could contain the magnetism of Bon Scott. And in my case, I prefer my heroes a little sleazier and “bloozier” than Superman. As an aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Rock Chick does a fabulous impression of Bon Scott…

I can’t believe AC/DC’s masterpiece, and sadly Bon Scott’s swan song, Highway To  Hell turns 40 this month. I think it was Bob Dylan who once sang, “time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.” I was in junior high school when this album came out. Although, admittedly, like most people in the United States, I was probably only aware of the title track, which was the only song the local radio station played by AC/DC. We knew “Highway to Hell” was a great song by a band whose name was slang for bisexuality but that was about it. Who were these crazed Vikings? From Australia no less?

It wasn’t until 1980’s Back In Black came out that we all discovered AC/DC for real. I’m frankly embarrassed to admit that it took us all a while to discover that there was a new lead singer in the band, so closely did replacement singer Brian Johnson sound like Bon Scott. Well, at least to our untrained ears. When Back In Black came out, I was old enough to drive but was rarely allowed to do so because of, well, beer. My friends and I were into sneaking out of our houses. We’d be home by curfew, wait an hour and then I’d hear rocks at my window signaling Brewster and Robert (names changed to protect the guilty) were outside ready for some miscreant bullshit. Those guys had sliding glass doors which made it easy to get out. I had to tip toe down creaky stares and unlock and open a back door whose hinges sang like a church choir. I remember one Saturday when some late night show as showing crude, grainy videos of AC/DC doing “You Shook Me All Night Long” and a few other tracks. I had to tell Brewster and Robert there was no way I was coming out. It was Brewster who said, “You know that’s a new lead singer right?” Revelations come in the darkness.

To this day, the Rock Chick prefers Brian Johnson AC/DC to Bon Scott AC/DC. The only album with tracks she likes with Bon on vocals is, not coincidentally, Highway To Hell. Although admittedly, I’m working hard to get her into Powerage, an overlooked gem of an album (LP Look Back: The Overlooked Gem, AC/DC’s “Powerage”). Like me, she loves the song, “Gone Shootin’.” In her defense, there is a real difference between the two singers. Brian comes across as a dirty old man. I always felt that Bon had a better sense of humor. He also brought a certain menace and bluesy vibe that is clearly distinguishable from latter day AC/DC. And let’s admit it, Bon does come across infinitely sleazier which for some reason I find appealing. The fact that the Rock Chick’s favorite Bon tracks are “Shot Down In Flames” and “If You Want Blood (You Got It)” fills me with pride. And she does a wonderful, comic impression of Bon Scott, gleaned from watching old video clips of him that I just love but I’m getting off topic here.

Bon was actually the band’s chauffeur when original singer Dave Evans quit AC/DC. Bon was quickly promoted to lead singer, quite a jump upward in stature. After Bon took over the lead vocals, AC/DC never looked back again. Bon was originally born in Scotland but his family migrated to Australia, exactly like the Young brothers, Angus and Malcolm, which instantly gave them something in common. After their first album, High Voltage, they became popular in Australia. With each succeeding album they got bigger and bigger around the world. The only seeming stumble on the road to superstardom was the aforementioned Powerage, which was a dark, little album. While Bon’s death after Highway To Hell has always imbued that album, and especially the title track with the mystique that Bon was prescient about his own death, I think Powerage was the signal he was in a dark place. The themes are all about desperation, drugs and poverty.

The album and the title track certainly got them a lot more exposure in the U.S. The band had gone to England to record the follow-up, this time with producer Mutt Lange when tragically Bon’s life was cut short. After a night out drinking, he passed out in the backseat of a friends car. His lifeless body was discovered the next day. The police ruled that he died of alcohol poisoning and called it a “death by misadventure,” which if you’re Bon Scott, is really the only way to go… the Rock Star way to go. There have been conspiracy theories about his death and how much of Back In Black he might have written ever since. Some questions, we’ll just never have answers to.

His final album as AC/DC’s lead singer was indeed his crowning achievement. The title track is one of the greatest rock songs of all time. There’s nothing like turning up “Highway to Hell” and driving down the interstate. Perhaps that’s why, inexplicably, I never purchased the album on vinyl. I bought it on cassette because I had to have it in the car. Years later I bought it on CD, remastered with beautiful sound. I have to put this on the list of used vinyl to look for.

We all loved that album, even the deep tracks. “Girls Got Rhythm” was always a favorite, with Bon’s usual flare for lyrics, “she’s got that backseat rhythm.” Which was sadly where most of us had our assignations with women back then…ah, high school. “Shot Down In Flames” could have been my college theme song. “Touch Too Much” has always been my secret favorite on that album. It was almost a pop song and the closest thing you’ll find to a ballad here. Bon didn’t do ballads, he only did blues tunes. Speaking of which, “Night Prowler,” the epic six and half minute track that ends the album, is a bluesy, “Midnight Rambler,” track about a serial killer that only Bon could come up with. “If You Want Blood (You Got It)” should be played in every football locker room before every game. It gets you up and ready for fighting.

This is simply one of the greatest albums ever. Every one should own this record and play it loud. From “Love Hungry Man” to “Get It Hot” there is not a bad track on this album. The fact that AC/DC found another great lead singer, and in a matter of months released the epic Back In Black in honor of Bon Scott is staggering. It’s the only album in their catalog that trumps Highway To Hell. 

This is an album whose fortieth anniversary should be heralded as a major rock and roll milestone. Me, I might put this album on, turn it up, drink a little bourbon and sneak out after curfew for some miscreant bullshit… I wonder what Brewster and Robert are up to these days…”’cause I’m the night prowler, I sleep in the day…”

Cheers!