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Thursday, January 21, 2010

AC/DC: Highway To Hell


AC/DC: HIGHWAY TO HELL (1979)

1) Highway To Hell; 2) Girls Got Rhythm; 3) Walk All Over You; 4) Touch Too Much; 5) Beating Around The Bush; 6) Shot Down In Flames; 7) Get It Hot; 8) If You Want Blood (You've Got It); 9) Love Hungry Man; 10) Night Prowler.

The wild critical and commercial success of this and the next album is often associated with the switch of producers — trying something «different», the Young brothers have turned to Robert «Mutt» Lange, back then, still relatively fresh and unknown, and he did his best to make the record sell well. At least, that is the general idea.

Certainly Lange's production style is different from George Young and Harry Vanda's. Those guys, after all, used to be at the helm of the Easybeats, Australia's garage outfit par excellence, and their idea — a great idea, too — was to make their Young-er brothers sound even more reck­less, rambunctious, and raw than the Easybeats ever were. But that does not help you sell records. Lange, on the other hand, takes the Youngs' guitar sound and does the impossible: preserves the headbang magic, but cuts down on the ear-bleeding side effect. A lesser producer would have pro­bably turned AC/DC into Foreigner: a heavy rock sound, formally, but completely stripped of any traces of primal aggression. Highway To Hell, on the other hand, rocks ferociously — and, at the very same time, raises the band's commercial stakes sky high.

But then a producer is only a producer; it is not Lange that makes the album so enjoyable, simply the fact that the Young brothers happened to reach their creative peak. Perhaps sensing that they started repeating themselves in too obvious a manner on Powerage, they go for a little creative exploring, and end up with a record that, on their respective level, is the epitome of diversity. We got straight-up speedy rock ('Beating Around The Bush'), arena-style anthems (title track), a little power pop ('Girls Got Rhythm'), punk-flavored socially conscious statements ('If You Want Blood'), heavy balladry ('Touch Too Much'), and slow blues ('Night Prowler'). With all that bag­gage, it is no surprise that Malcolm and Angus finally find the time to write some fresh riffs (in fact, some are so fresh that they kept reusing them, guilt-free, for the next thirty years), or that Bon Scott, overall, gives his greatest vocal performance.

'(I'm on a) Highway To Hell' has been, of course, immortalized not so much by the catchy, enti­cing character of the chorus as by the fact that, unknown to anybody but our supernatural overseers, in 1979 Bon Scott was nearing the end of that highway. It is a bit flat in the melody department, and does not so much give the guitarists a chance to shine as it gives the audience a chance to flash their empty beer cans, but it is still awesome in a clucky kind of way.

Generally, though, you judge an AC/DC tune on the strength of its riff. Here, we got a particular­ly seductive riff on 'Girls Got Rhythm', a poppy, almost danceable loop that accompanies Bon as he sings about his lady who is 'enough to stop a freight train or start the Third World War'. Note, of course, the slight fall-off from the lyrical level he had achieved on Powerage — but I guess that if you want to sell records to love-hungry teens, you gotta sing about love-hungry teens. An even simpler, but equally effective six-note sequence drives 'Shot Down In Flames', where Angus actually tries to paint a musical picture of being shot down in flames, and, in the process, invents a new, metallic style of soloing that would become his trademark for the next decade.

However, you do not reach the utmost peak here until the third to last track. 'If You Want Blood', borrowing the title from the freshly issued live album, is truly the closest AC/DC ever came to capturing the punk spirit — the song name would have been perfectly usable for a Dead Ken­nedys or Rage Against The Machine album title, and even if the tempo is a bit too slow and the riff a bit too high-pitched to fit into the basic musical conventions of «punk», Scott's performance is certainly anything but, as he throws the happy public a message that is normally expected to come from the likes of Ray Davies: 'You get money for nothing / Tell me who can you trust / We got what you want / And you got the lust / If you want blood — you've got it!'

Even the slow, brontosaurish blues of 'Night Prowler' that closes the record shows they have come a long, long way from the early days of 'The Jack'. Again, this is Bon's deal all the way, but only a very stupid person — such as the guy who allegedly went on a killing spree after hearing the song, bringing the band lots of unwanted problems — would honestly believe that Mr. Scott is channelling the spirit of a serial murderer, when it is clear as daylight that he is living out a hilarious sexual fantasy. 'I'm the night prowler, when you turn off the light', how more obvious can one get? As far as uncomfortable titillation goes, 'Night Prowler' is certainly no 'Midnight Rambler' — but it is a delightful, powerful theatrical piece, and one hell of a great way to go out with for good. 'Shazbot, na-nu na-nu'.

For sheer metallic power and breathtaking highlights, Back In Black is a better place to go than Highway To Hell, but for a highly balanced mix of consistency, cleverness, and moderate expe­rimentation, it is Highway that takes the cake. I would say that Brian Johnson's initiation into the world of AC/DC rule is an absolute immediate stunner, whereas Bon Scott's final hour is more of a grower, but it grows fast and secure. The heart may be already accustomed to issuing thumbs up judgements to the Aussies; the brain, however, is far more mightily surprised at the witty construction of the record — one might not have expected such a thing from the band at all.

3 comments:

  1. Bon scott's finest moment.

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  2. If you want Blood is just the 13 in a dozen AC/DC song - nothing special. Boring within two minutes.
    Beating around the Bush essentially is a rewrite of Let there be Rock. But as GS correctly points out it's the riff that matters and it's an excellent one. So call me happy.
    I also quite like the title song. I rather have a crowd singing a cathartic "I'm on a Highway to Hell" than say "Radio Gaga" or "I want it all".
    Indeed Girls got Rhythm deserves to be mentioned, probably the most catchy melody the band ever conceived.
    So three songs I like - that's a record, even though I like the two classics of Let there be Rock better.
    As I never gave a d**n or f**k about Brian Johnson the big question is: is there enough Bon Scott material for a compilation on a disk? I'll have to do some calculation.

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    Replies
    1. Are you some sort of hipster? While there's nothing wrong with disliking a band, you seem to be going out of your way to take shots at all the big ones. And what's with the hate for Brian Johnson? Again, you don't have to like him, but he doesn't come across as a jerk so I can't imagine what he did to offend you.

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