AC/DC: BACK IN BLACK (1980)
1) Hells Bells; 2) Shoot To Thrill; 3) What Do You Do For Money Honey; 4) Given The Dog A Bone; 5) Let Me Put My Love Into You; 6) Back In Black; 7) You Shook Me All Night Long; 8) Have A Drink On Me; 9) Shake A Leg; 10) Rock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollution.
Bon Scott died in the proper manner for a noble rock'n'roller — choking on his own vomit — and his replacement was certainly different. I do not think Brian Johnson has, or ever had, even a minor part of Scott's charisma. His lyrics show him to be incapable of matching Scott's wit and humour, his stage behaviour is rougher and far less subtle, and, overall, he has rarely contributed towards making the band more interesting and less predictable. He has always blended in with the band very well, but the blending was somewhat bland, and it may have been — partly — his fault that the groove he synthesized with the Young brothers in 1980 has changed less in the last thirty years than Bon Scott's groove had in five.
Yes — but what a groove! For his first three albums at least, he gave AC/DC a vocal sound that was previously unimaginable — neither for AC/DC, nor for his own previous band, Geordie, nor for anyone else. Singing at the top of his range ninety percent of the time — and going over the top the remaining ten percent — giving even mediocre tunes an intensity the band could never have dreamt of in the Scott days — squeezing out the last remaining bits of «intelligence» in exchange for an all-out assault on the senses — this is AC/DC reaching the climax in its message.
Plus, there was a certain element of bravery in their putting out an album as arrogant as Back In Black. I am pretty sure that even some of the toughest fans of the band might have felt a little uneasy upon hearing that the man who, only a few months ago, so defiantly sang 'I'm on a highway to hell!' before arena crowds, was taken away so promptly. To celebrate his death with a grinning, gleeful acknowledgement of the fact that Hell is, indeed, where Scott belongs ('Hells Bells'), and then to imply that the same establishment has speedily issued out a replacement ('Back In Black') — even non-religious people might be shook up with this blatantly «amoral» line of conduct, let alone those who truly believe that Hell is not to be toyed with.
On the other hand, I doubt that even the religious right would be thoroughly immune to the temptations of 'Hells Bells', possibly the greatest song ever in the AC/DC canon. For me, 'Bad Boy Boogie' illustrated the perfection of their early rock'n'roll vibe; 'Hells Bells' is the older, maturated perfection of their heavy metal vibe. Its depiction of hellish images is cartoonish, both lyrics-wise ('if you're into Evil, you're a friend of mine!') and musically — you do not truly intimidate people with simple rock riffs — but, then again, the Devil has a long history of being portrayed in a delightfully cartoonish manner, and 'Hells Bells' is far from the first, and, hopefully, from the last, in the series of these portrayals.
The song is great because it does not have one wasted second — from the opening bells (might those, in a way, be a nod to John Lennon's bells at the opening of 'Mother'?) to the slow, meticulously planned and executed build-up, to Johnson's powerful entry — within three seconds he is able to show that the band did just the right thing — to his climbing higher and higher and higher until the chorus explosion, to the deceitful pause before the storm as Angus takes over the madness, to the maniacal coda as Brian opens up more and more internal channels for the evil presence, to the utterly brilliant «guitar thunderstroke» at 4:45. In fact, cartoonish it may be, but I have caught myself, a couple of times, nervously fidgeting when Johnson goes into the 'they're dragging you down, they're bringing you 'round' part. Come to think of it, can anyone guarantee that this is not what was happening to poor Bon at that exact moment?
The Satanic vibe is then once again recaptured properly, albeit in a slightly more lightweight and playful fashion, on the title track that cleverly opens Side B (cleverly, because, for AC/DC albums, I always get the feeling that critics usually just listen to the first tracks on each side — the only reason, in my opinion, why the vastly inferior For Those About To Rock is commonly rated high and above the exuberantly superior Flick Of The Switch). Combining the uniquely constructed «step-jumping» riff with Johnson's rapid-fire, over-the-top delivery could hardly fail, and it never did, giving the band another signature song and giving Brian his own personal anthem with which he proved, once and for all, that he did belong in the band.
But if someone had the idea that Brian Johnson's arrival symbolized the band's slipping further into mock-Satanism, that someone probably never went beyond the album sleeve and a glimpse of 'Hells Bells'. In reality, Brian Johnson is just a bawdy, fun-lovin' guy from the Scottish highlands, who has always valued the earthly pleasures of a smoke, a drink, and a shag way above the dubious honours of purchasing a piece of property in Lucifer's domain. Accordingly, the rest of the tracks are all about having a smoke, a drink, and a shag. Actually, plenty of shags — the entire Side A after 'Hells Bells' is dedicated to that perennial subject.
It helps that the Young brothers were still on a roll. The riffs for 'Shoot To Thrill' and 'What Do You Do For Money, Honey' are top notch and very well aligned with Johnson's rampant sexism, the madman guitar barrage on the ungrammatically titled 'Given The Dog A Bone' efficiently drown out Brian's inane lyrics about a girl who lives for blowjobs (supposedly old Scotland is just swarming with these), and even 'Let Me Put My Love Into You', the closest AC/DC ever got to writing a stupid power ballad and thus committing a serious blunder, has a chord sequence that stays within the listener for days.
Side B, after the initial two-way punch of 'Back In Black' and the eternal football crowd favourite of 'You Shook Me All Night Long' (a song covered live by Celine Dion, no less — a must-see for any dedicated fan of I Spit On Your Grave!), gives way to more moderate thrills, and sort of fizzles out with the not particularly successful ode to popular music ('Rock'n'Roll Ain't Noise Pollution' — great line, but why the boring mid-tempo?), but then AC/DC were rarely consistent from start to finish, and there is no use scorning Back In Black for something that is innately present in each of the band's LPs.
The big difference is that Back In Black is bigger, denser, darker, and dumber than these guys ever were before. Is it their best? I do not know, but it can very well be argued that it is, indeed, the one particular album that God, or his less respectable colleague in the business, has commissionned from them. And this has very little, if anything, to do with the fact that Robert "Mutt" Lange has produced it in such a subtle commercial manner that even grandmas on wheelchairs were rushing to the stores to order an extra copy, feeling young and strong again as the virile, Dionysian sounds of 'You Shook Me All Night Long' were flooding their senses. It is just that, at this moment, they happened to be writing great riffs, using great tones, handling a great screamer, and pushing the delightful absurdity of rock music to its utmost limits. This is headbanging incarnate, and no headbanger's heart can allow it to get away without a major thumbs up.